Tales from the Crypt (1972)
"Death lives...in the vault of horror"
Five strangers visiting some old catacombs find themselves separated from the rest of the group and end up in a chamber with a mysterious man who details how each of the strangers will die.
No doubt you’ll have heard of Hammer (and if not, why not?) and their contribution to the horror genre. The studio ruled the horror land in the late 50s and 60s, single-handedly reinventing the genre with such timeless classics as The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. Less known were their British rivals Amicus, who found fame in the 60s and 70s with a series of horror films based in the present day rather than the period gothic settings of Hammer. It’s easy to mix up who made what between Hammer and Amicus during their peak periods as they used many of the same actors (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) and directors (Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker). Amicus found success in their anthology horror films – films featuring four or five short stories which were linked together by an overarching plot, usually with a narrator or central figure. More spooky than scary, the films were inspired by the old EC Comics which featured macabre stories where people would suffer an ironic fate/mishap as a result of something they had done. Given how many of these anthology films have used the comics either as direct source material or as an inspiration to devise fresh stories, it’s always been my mission to check some of them out for real.
Tales from the Crypt was Amicus’ fifth anthology horror film and arguably their most famous, no doubt due to the heavyweight cast full of big names. All of the stories here are directly lifted from EC Comics rather than original ideas and like all of these anthology films, it’s a veritable pick ‘n’ mix selection. Some people will prefer one story, other people will prefer another. There’s something for everyone and with the stories only being about ten minutes long at best, they’re snappy enough for you not to get too saddled with something you don’t like.
The link segments involving the five main characters coming across a mysterious stranger in the cave is rather silly and legendary thespian Ralph Richardson looks like he’d rather be anywhere else except the daft set that he’s stuck on. Once you’ve seen one Amicus anthology film, you’ve seen them all as far as the final twist goes so it’s little surprise to find out why they’re all gathered in this place.
… And All Through the House stars Joan Collins as a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve and then attempts to hide his body. Unfortunately for her, a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa is on the loose outside the house but she is unable to call the police without exposing her own crimes. This is the most remembered story, no doubt in part to the sight of a murderous Santa Claus long before Silent Night, Deadly Night came along to upset parents. Also no doubt in part to the glamorous appearance of Joan Collins as the equally-murderous wife. There’s a decent bit of tension in this episode as the Santa peers through the windows and the Christmas theme gives it that extra edge. There is very little dialogue and so Collins has to act with her eyes and body language, which she does so very well. Despite the crime she has committed, you do feel like rooting for her. Sadly, it ends quite abruptly but there was nowhere else for the segment to go at the time.
Reflection of Death stars Ian Hendry as a man who leaves his wife and children for his mistress. However on his way to meeting her, he’s involved in a horrific car accident. When he emerges from the wreck, everyone he sees runs off in horror and he is not quite sure why. This is arguably the weakest of the stories because it all builds until the final payoff. The clever use of POV and lack of dialogue from the main character keeps the big twist of this story hidden until the end – we know that something has happened to Ian Hendry’s character, we’re just not quite sure what – but the results are underwhelming to say the least. Thankfully, the story isn’t drawn out too long as the nature of the entire segment means that once one or two people have reacted to Hendy’s character, it gets tiresome to see others do the same thing. Hendry is always good value for money though.
Poetic Justice sees a father and son take a disliking to an elderly neighbour and conduct a hate campaign against him to get him to leave their street. He hangs himself instead. A year later on Valentine’s Day, the old man returns from the grave to get his revenge. This is my favourite of the five stories and this is down to Peter Cushing’s memorably poignant turn as Grimsdyke, the old man. Known for frequently playing strong, knowledgeable figures, it’s interesting to see Cushing’s weaker and more fragile side as he plays against type somewhat, but this was made shortly after his wife died and it was well-known that this affected him greatly. The hate campaign that the characters stir up against him is a little far-fetched and the pair of David Markhan and Robin Phillips are given horrible one-note characters with no redeeming characteristics – the sooner they get a bit of karma, the better. The zombie make-up on Cushing looks particularly effective for 1972.
Wish You Were Here sees businessman Ralph Jason struggling to make ends meet until his wife uses a Chinese figurine that offers its owner three wishes. They ask for a fortune and receive it but Jason is killed on his way to collect it. She then wishes him back to life, only to find that he has since been embalmed. This is arguably the weakest segment out of the lot and that’s purely because there’s no real purpose to it – we never find out just what the man has done to deserve his punishment and so seeing him suffer isn’t as powerful as it could have been. The story is a nice alternative to The Monkey’s Paw tale and the final twist to the tale is nice, even if it looks like an innocent man is going to suffer eternal pain!
Blind Alley is the final story and sees a former army major become the new director for a home for the blind. However rather than looking after the residents, he introduces rationing and heating cuts to fund his own luxury lifestyle. Ignoring the ongoing suffering of the residents, it isn’t long before they decide to turn the tables on him. The segment goes on for a bit too long but most of the time is needed to pad out the character of Rogers and make you hate him for what he’s done to the blind residents. If you can ignore the fact that the blind residents are able to use some fantastic DIY skills to make their instrument of revenge (Jigsaw would have been proud of it!), then the segment at least finishes strongly. Patrick Magee, as the leader of the rebellious blind residents, has his usual intensity and imposing presence. The film then finishes with the not-so-subtle plot twist that you’ve seen a mile coming with regards to the Crypt Keeper.
Tales from the Crypt is another solid Amicus anthology film which delivers more stronger stories than weaker ones, has a fantastic cast of British talent and enough macabre twists and turns to keep you interested. The seriousness with which the stories play out certainly adds a nice sense of menace to go along with the mild chills.
Tales from the Crypt
Director(s): Freddie Francis
Writer(s): Milton Subotsky (screenplay), Al Feldstein (stories), Johnny Craig (stories), Bill Gaines (stories)
Actor(s): Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ralph Richardson, Roy Dotrice, Richard Greene, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee
Duration: 92 mins