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Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible – a Retrospective

“Good evening. I’m Doctor Terrible. Welcome to my House of Horrible.”

(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in August 2021)

The late nineties/early 2000s were a fantastic time to be a fan of horror on Britiish Television; from Channel 4’s gritty Vampire-series-that-never-mentions-the-V-Word “Ultraviolet”, Channel 5’s Horror anthology “Urban Gothic” (discussed on these very pages at length by the awesome John McNee) through to the superlative Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Creeping in in the year 2001 was a series that arrived with little fanfare and achieved so few viewers that it was never recommissioned for a second series. This was despite a stellar cast, lead actor Steve Coogan’s star still being (mostly) in the ascendance, and the already proven track record of relatively newly formed production company Baby Cow Productions.

That series was Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible, and it was truly diabolical (and not to be confused with the similarly named Doctor Horrible of Sing-along-blog fame).

Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible was a satirical, yet affectionate spoof (and tribute) to the 1970s British horror films of Amicus and Hammer, consisting of a total of six episodes. Each episode was a spoof of a style of horror film, rather than a direct snipe at any film in particular.

Steve Coogan portrayed the eponymous host beneath several layers of prosthetics, a creepy bald white-suited individual sat in his study, open fire blazing. He opens and closes each episode like a slightly less sinister and anti-Semitic Roald Dahl with choice words of wisdom. The concept of a horror host is more familiar to American audiences (for instance, Cassandra Peterson as Elvira) but the framing mechanism here provides a familiar continuity, much as the same technique used in the earlier series of Tales of the Unexpected – the old tradition of being read a ghost story before bedtime. He’d star in each episode as well, mostly as the lead. Well, it was half his production company, after all.

Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust (Originally shown on BBC2 on November 12th, 2001)

“Sappachu Vampiricism; the love that dare not spell its name. But surely, you say, there’s no such thing as vampires, or lesbians. But what’s that under the bed? And who’s that in the closet?”

Setting its stall from the outset (and if that title isn’t going to attract viewers to a new and unproven series, nothing will) Lesbian Vampires of Lust is a gentle piss-take of Hammer’s late sixties and nineteen-seventies obsession with acres of pale-skinned cleavage (“The Vampire Lovers”, “Twins of Evil”, etc). It was no longer sufficient to have the star power of Christopher Lee glaring menacingly off camera – sex was needed to sell your movie as well; a perfect storm of boobs, bodices and blood.

In the tale, Coogan plays the dashing Hans Brocken, a perfectly coiffured dashing Military captain whose hand is, erm, broken (That’s the level of satire, folks – and it’s all the better for it). It’s 1877 and Brocken, and his new wife, are travelling to a remote castle in (Upper) Carpathia for their honeymoon. Little does he suspect that he and his virgin bride are heading into Vampire Territory ruled by Ronni Ancona’s Countess Kronsteen. Honor Blackman (as Transeet Van Eyre) gently lampoons the type of roles she was playing in the seventies, and the episode also features a never-camper Ben Miller. It’s one of the stronger episodes in the series, and is a great introduction to the style of humour that will continue over the short-lived series.

It’s of interest that this is the first transmitted episode, but it’s the fourth episode on the DVD.

Frenzy of Tongs (Originally shown on BBC2 on November 19th, 2001)

“The last time I saw you, Chang, you were dead.”

“It takes more than death to kill me.”

It’s easy to forget that, interspersed with his Hammer Work, Christopher Lee made six Fu Manchu films, the last of two which – “The Blood of Fu Manchu” and “The Castle of Fu Manchu” - with Jesús Franco. Fu Manchu was a villain created by the English author Sax Rohmer, featuring in fourteen of his novels between 1913 and 1959. Fu Manchu even ended up with a moustache named after him, which is no small feat.

Well, Steve Coogan never forgot. “Frenzy of Tongs” is a shrewd – yet slightly offensive – look at that character, a villain created to stoke up anti-Chinese sentiment. A make-up plastered Mark Gaitiss plays Hang Man Chang, a Chinese villain attempting to get the population of London hooked on his drugs. Plastered in make-up that slants his eyes and yellows his skin, it’s not a good modern look. Coogan plays Nathan Blaze, the Peter Wyngarde-esque dashing hero (and I’m beginning to notice a theme here…)

It’s one of the more forgettable episodes in the series, only really memorable for spoofing something from an era that was best left forgotten.

Curse Of the Blood of the Lizard of Doom (Originally shown on BBC2 on November 26th, 2001)

“Tell me, have you ever had the opportunity of working with those unfortunate flame-haired Celts with low skin pigmentation? Let me be frank, Miss Latimer. I’m talking about Gingers, Ginger-nuts, carrot-tops, d’ye ken? This is what I’m presenting to the board. The ultimate challenge. If I can restore the scorched skin of a ginger to its pre-singed freckled majesty, then man will be able to say – I am non-flammable.”

Doctor Donald Baxter (Coogan) is trying to find a cure for skin regeneration in order to cure burns victims. Eventually, frustrated with his lack of progress, he injects himself with an experiment lizard serum and finds himself transformed himself into a giant reptile. Part “Jekyll and Hyde”, part “The Reptile” (a Hammer film starring a young Jacqueline Pierce, 12 years before she’d portray Servalan in “Blake’s 7”), it’s a loving pastiche of the “Good scientist going to evil extremes” trope. (Warning: Contains Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg doing thick Scottish accents)

And Now the Fearing (Originally shown on BBC2 on December 3rd, 2001)

“We all have dreams from time to time. The other night, I found myself back at my old school, in the headmaster’s study. I was thwacking his naked buttocks with a triple-pronged bamboo-backed leather tawse, whilst his wife peed into a Ming vase. Later that night, I had a dream. I wish I could remember what it was.”

This is the first episode on the DVD, but was transmitted as the fourth episode on the original broadcast. It’s my personal favourite of the six, containing three short stories – an anthology within an anthology. It’s a clear spoof of the portmanteau The Vault of Horror in which three people in a new high rise development (Amicus(!) Towers) end up trapped in a lift. TO pass the time until their rescue, they get chatting and end up discussing recent nightmares they’ve all been having, each segueing into one of the three tales.

Coogan plays Denham Denham, the owner of the Amicus building, Julia Davis plays Stephanie Wise and Pointless Lead singer Alexander Armstrong plays Michael Masters. It’s the strongest narrative out of all six episodes, and of course ends up as one of the morality tales that all such portmanteau horror tales ended up being. Evil – be it selfishness, envy or greed - is punished, seemingly for all time.

Voodoo Feet of Death (Originally shown on BBC2 on December 10th, 2001)

“The operation?”

“It was a complete success. See for yourself.”

“They’re… on the wrong way around!”

“No, Darling., You’ve got your legs crossed.”

In the sixties and seventies, you couldn’t move for limb transplants being carried out by unethical doctors. Legs, arms, even little fingers, the denizens of Harley Street were all at it – defying their peers to prove that their old science was dated. Little were they to know that, inevitably, and for reasons not ever fully understood, some vestige of the previous owner would remain in the transplanted part. And, invariably, the part would always have come from a psychopath (“Hands of Orlac”, etc)

Voodoo Feet of Death sees Coogan play Lester Crown, a 1930s World Champion Ballroom dancer whose career is cut short when he loses both of his feet in an accident involving a freakishly large pair of scissors. Doctor Lorimer Maitland - Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes specialist and Europe’s pioneer in Foot Transplantation – arranges for a foot replacement, but at a terrible cost.

It’s a tale of bitter jealousy that can only ever end one way. Coogan and Sarah Alexander are clearly having their time of his lives playing Crown and his ever patient girlfriend, plummy upper-class English accents and all.

Scream, Satan, Scream (Originally shown on BBC2 on December 17th, 2001)

“The last recorded burning of a witch in this country was one Molly McTiernan who weas torched at Walmsley Manor House in Suffolk last Thursday. I can still hear the screams ringing in my ears. Tonight’s tale, however, does not have such a happy ending.”

No series such as this would be complete without spoofing witches, a common trope amongst Hammer and its ilk. In “Scream, Satan, Scream”, Coogan plays Captain Tobias Slater, Witch Locator - clearly based on Matthew Hopkins (as portrayed by Vincent Price in the excellent “Witchfinder General”). Warwick Davies plays Tygon, his assistant (named after the production company behind that same movie).

Tobias Slater is as corrupt as they come, using his position as an excuse to defile as many attractive young virgins as he can. It’s another cleavage-heavy episode, and – of course – Slater gets his just desserts.

The humour feels a little more forced than the other episodes – it certainly has the feel of “Carry on” meets “Witchfinder General” - but it’s still a worthy conclusion to a series which is a loving tribute to the horror genre. If you’re a fan of the double (or in many cases, single) entendre, you’re in for a hoot.

“That was truly diabolical.” – Doctor Terrible

“Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible” is an absolute steal on DVD from Amazon UK, and well worth picking up. So often it’s the case that our memories of a series are better than the actual rewatch, so it was good to see it hold up. I’d argue it’s only the Fu Manchu episode that remains the weakest, feeling somewhat like a spoof so far – the humour in it has aged badly. Generous extras too; an interesting “Making of” documentary and full audio-commentary with the cowriters and the director.

Further reading/viewing:

As mentioned earlier, John McNee did an excellent series of articles on the TV series Urban Gothic, the first part of which can be found here

The BBC details on “Doctor Terribles House of Horrible” are limited, but can be found here – there are a few clips.

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