1953’s House of Wax with Vincent Price cast a long shadow fairly early in the horror world; creepy Grand Guignol (in 3D no less) with a strong thread of vengeance gave us further goodies such as Tourist Trap (1979) and a recently reappraised remake in 2005. It’s not surprising then that TV would take a crack at molding its own vicious visage; what they came up with is a pilot film that executives deemed too shocking for the small screen – Chamber of Horrors (1966), a decidedly ghoulish take on necrophilia and murder mixed with breezy banter and chopped up body parts. I think the brass may have been right to send this one to the big screen.
Before you get too excited, we’re not talking Blood Feast here; it’s incredibly tame by today’s standards. No, it’s the subject matter itself which would send mom and dad into epileptic fits, their Swanson TV dinners splatting against the wallpaper by the opening scene alone. Chamber of Horrors was padded out with extra footage and a nod to William Castle, King of the Hucksters, by adding The Fear Flasher and Horror Horn, a red strobe and screeching siren respectively, before each of the Four Supreme Fright Points. (Their words, not mine: the film starts with a pronouncement from TV legend William Conrad and his cavernous voice.) Chamber sat well with audiences, and I have a suspicion it was merely ten years too early for TV; if developed this could have been a show to snuggle nicely beside Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Alas, what we’re left with is this: Jason Cravatte (Patrick O’Neal – The Stuff) stands in his Baltimore manor at the turn of the 20th century with his bride to be at his side, waiting for the reverend to get on with the ceremony. His holiness is a little gun shy however, because our host isn’t: holding a pistol on the reverend, he commands him to proceed with the ceremony, even though the bride to be is quite deceased. After some quick words, the ceremony is complete and Cravatte pays the reverend and thanks him for his services. Naturally, he runs straight to the police station, where we find the local police chatting with local amateur sleuths and wax museum owners, Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova – Tentacles)and Harold Blount (Wilfred Hyde-White – Skullduggery), who head to the crime scene with the police.
Of course, Cravatte is long gone but our heroes track him down to a local brothel where he hires girls to recreate his wedding night. Sentenced to hang, Cravatte dives in to a river during a train ride transport by cutting off his own hand from the train latch it was attached to. Thought to be dead, Draco and Blount put up a display of him in their museum, as it caters specifically to gruesome killers throughout history. (Plus it’s nice to have some local color, you know?) Plotting his revenge, Cravatte assumes a different identity and acquires some new implements to aid in his vengeance – namely, various pointy attachments for his newly nubbed hand (attachments sold separately). As Cravatte starts to work his way through those responsible for his botched death sentence – police, judges, lawyers – Draco realizes that he will be paying him a visit at the wax museum sooner than later…
Betraying its television roots, Chamber of Horrors is quite lush looking (the psychedelic courtroom scene is a standout), or at least on par with Corman gothics of the time; while it can never fully immerse itself in the more lurid optics of the day due to its original medium, writer Stephen Kandel (Batman) and director Hy Averback (M*A*S*H, Quark) manage to squeeze in every grisly implication of corpse bopping and limb lopping without actually showing anything. Which is kind of a thrill, truth be told; you sit and watch as they dance around the luridness of it all while simultaneously trying to set up a charming buddy-buddy action show.
And charming it is, thanks to sly work from Danova, Hyde-White (not to mention solid turns by Wayne Rogers, Laura Devon, and Suzy Perker) and aided by their third partner, little person Tun Tun, who turns in a delightful performance as Senor Pepe; their interplay is witty and seemingly at odds with the events taking place. Again, this is part of what makes Chamber of Horrors such a curiosity; how would this play in between episodes of The Rat Patrol and The Big Valley? I suspect not very well at all, which gives it a hint of the subversive that would surely dissipate if it were broadcast in subsequent decades.
But this came out in theatres, where thematically it sits somewhere between the original Wax and well, any number of ‘70s grindhouse flicks, or even ‘80s slashers; true hate means never having to use the same weapon twice, and Cravatte’s arsenal ranges from hook to cleaver and points in between. But a tool is only as effective as its yielder, and O’Neal has as much fun with Cravatte as Price ever did in any of his iconic roles; his piercing blue eyes and steely demeanor offset a sardonic sense of humor perfectly in step with the material, and the other performers.
When all is said and done, the film ends with Draco, Blount, and Pepe off on another case, presumably with special guest stars Buddy Ebsen and Carol Channing – if it was a series. Alas, Chamber of Horrors is a one and done; but between Kolchak, The X-Files, and further investigators of the unknown, it’s molded more than enough figures to keep the chamber well lit.
Chamber of Horrors is available on DVD as part of a Warner Home Video Double Feature with The Brides of Fu Manchu.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE OMEN (1976)