Late night Bank Holiday Monday, and rather than enjoying the delights of the Notting Hill Carnival the hard working writer of Weird Fiction finds himself enjoying a glass of whisky and the Amicus portmanteau semi-classic ‘Vault of Horror’. Terry Thomas, Tom Baker (in possibly the maddest ginger false beard and wig combo in cinema), Anna Massey, various others in the same film; the opening music an enjoyable melodramatic rip-off of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’; the whole thing set in Millbank Tower, foreshadowing the horror that was to be New Labour; what’s not to like? Not much, but alas even with the best will in the world it’s well worth watching, but it’s not a classic.
For true portmanteau brilliance, I always go back to ‘Dead of Night’; authentically haunted black and white chills. It’s best known segment is the Michael Redgrave / ventriloquist’s dummy tale, but the story that always spooked me was the ‘Christmas Party’ section. An English country mansion; jolly chaps and chapesses playing hide and seek; a lovely young gel comes upon a mysterious child in a tucked away bedroom; talks to him, returns to the party, realises he’s in fact a ghost; and says, ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared’, and then sits down, rather too quickly.
Such a subtle moment; horror registered not through gore or mayhem, but rather through the silencing of an otherwise irrepressible county girl, the kind of woman that John Betjeman would have romanced shocked into inactivity through an encounter with something absolutely outside her frame of reference. In a way, it can be read as a brilliant shorthand summary of the whole English ghost story tradition; the safe, dreaming idyll of the country house, the golf course, the bachelor apartment, the coastal path, shattered instantly and absolutely by the intrusion of the other. ‘I’m not scared. I’m not scared.’ – all the response that repression allows, but absolutely a lie in the face of a broken certain world.