Skip to content

Frank's Movie Log

My life at the movies.

Chamber of Horrors

1966 | United States | 80 min | More...
A still from Chamber of Horrors (1966)
D+: 2 stars (out of 5)
on Sun Jun 23, 2024

Warner Bros. shot Chamber of Horrors as a television movie, intended as a series pilot. When the network deemed the finished product too violent for television, the studio added some gimmicks and released it as a theatrical feature1. The result looks good but underwhelms.

The added gimmicks include the “Fear Flasher” where the screen flashes red before scenes of violence, and the “Horror Horn” that sees said flashes accompanied by a trumpet blare. These throwbacks feel like the afterthought they were, not distracting, but far from William Castle’s classic gimmicks like the “Percepto” buzzers in 1959’s The Tingler.

The story, a mystery-thriller set in Edgar Allan Poe’s Baltimore, follows the proprietors of a wax museum who aid the local inspector in catching a murderer. We learn little about our heroes—a Holmes and Watson-esque pair played by Cesare Danova and Wilfrid Hyde-White, but this makes sense given the film’s origins. Later episodes would flesh out their backstories. One might reveal Hyde-White was a widower, or that Danova has an evil twin (raised in America to explain his differing accent)—the usual television drama tropes. But for audiences of this film, the lack of characterization renders the protagonists interchangeable.

Contrasting the underwritten leads, the production shines. From the wax museum and its lurid exhibits, to the cobblestone city streets, the train cars flush with opulence or packing livestock, the mansions, the seedy bars, brothels, and bustling police station—the film abounds with sets. This helps, as the talky script sees the characters spout reams of exposition. Having them do so in a variety of settings adds flavor.

Pouring so much money into the sets makes sense if you’re planning a series where you could redress and reuse them week-to-week. It’s a one-time cost.

Unlike the performers. Danova and Hyde-White may be fine enough for an episodic series, but they can’t carry a feature. Danova suffers the most, as he’s given nothing to work with—no backstory or motivation. It’s not even clear what his role is at the wax museum. As the villain, Patrick O’Neal turns in a poor-man’s Vincent Price performance. No knock on O’Neal, who delivers what’s asked of him, just that his appearance and performance echo Price.

But again, realizing this was a pilot, it makes sense. The studio could amortize the sets over the series’ lifetime, but actors are an immediate money-sink. Thus, the dichotomy of a high-cost production featuring low-cost performers.

To overcome the script, you need performers capable of manufacturing characterization, either through sheer charisma or typecasting, or both. A dream cast would see Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as the wax museum proprietors facing off against Vincent Price as the murderer. Cushing’s ability to imbue characterization via props would transform his character into something more memorable, while Lee’s ability to command attention through his presence alone would lend his character the innate authority required to compel our interest. To that end, even someone like James Coburn or Stanley Baker would bring more to bear than Danova. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Tony Curtis as a brothel patron only reinforces Danova’s deficiency in this area.

So what to make of Chamber of Horrors? As a visual endeavor, it charms, thanks to the immersive production and “Fear Flasher” gimmick. But the underwhelming leads and episodic script make for an unsatisfying narrative. It pales next to the Hammer Films productions or Roger Corman-directed Poe adaptations dominating the genre at the time. That said, for fans of technicolor gothic horror, it’s ideal for playing in the background at Halloween parties. Great ambience, an eye-catching gimmick, and—by modern standards—tame enough horror for general audiences.

  1. Diffrient, David Scott, Body Genre: Anatomy of the Horror Film, United States: University Press of Mississippi, 2023.

Viewing History

    Watched on
    Sun Jun 23, 2024 via DVD (Horror Double Feature, Warner Bros., 2008)