Tales From the Crypt (1972)
Dir. Freddie Francis
Written by Milton Subotsky (based on stories by Johnny Craig, Al Feldstien, William M. Gaines)
Starring Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Roy Dotrice, Richard Greene, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee, Barbara Murray, Nigel Patrick, Robin Phillips, Geoffrey Bayldon, David Markham, Robert Hutton, Angela Grant
What we got here is a real top-tier example of that most common of beasts, the mid-70s British horror anthology film. In this case we got expert cinematographer and intermittently competent director Freddie Francis at the helm, working from a script by Amicus founder Milton Subotsky which adapts tales from the beloved horror pulp series Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror (and, according to some sources, The Haunt of Fear). That’s all well and good, but plenty of movies have credentials like that. And this one isn’t too different from those, either; it’s not a work of particular artistry, not particularly clever either. Most of these stories are simple and obvious ironic punishments, and most are highly derivative of other and better known stories. The thing that makes TALES FROM THE CRYPT different is that it works. It strikes exactly the right tone and rides it all the way to glory, nevermind the odds. Sometimes these things just work, and this is one of them that does, so just enjoy it, ok?
The framing story here involves five interchangeable upper-crusty Brits, who wander into a graveyard crypt and encounter a gentleman who keeps the crypt, a “Cryptkeeper” to indulge in the vernacular of the time. He’s a bit stuffier than you remember him from the classic TV series,* though; for one thing he’s played by Ralph Richardson in a monk robe, for another thing he’s real serious and never makes any puns or calls people “boils and ghouls!” or anything. He commands the gathered Brits to tell the stories of how they came to be here, and gets a little judgy about it all if I may say so. Come on Cryptkeeper, this is supposed to be a safe space.
First up, we have arguably the best story of a the bunch, a cleverly executed bit of nearly wordless pure cinema, as a murderous wife (Joan Collins) gets her comeuppance from a psychotic Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Director Francis, unencumbered by dialogue, is free to let the story complications play out at a leisurely pace, accompanied only by ironic Christmas tunes. I know, juxtaposing violence with Christmas is cheap irony at its laziest, but you gotta imagine that in 1972 this kind of cynical juxtaposition was a little more shocking. Besides, the story’s strength doesn’t come from its setting, but rather from the meticulous way it turns the screws on its highly deserving protagonist with one unexpected complication after another. This one is a clear influence on a slew of lesser movies, from CHRISTMAS EVIL to SANTA’S SLAY to SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, but we won’t hold that against it -- it’s rather perfectly done, concise and to the point while still unfolding at exactly the confident pace it needs, and mining plenty of iconic images for its simple premise.
|There's literally no pun I can make here that isn't played out.|
Then we move on to nicely made little mindfuck, about a philandering husband who gets caught in a car wreck with his mistress, only to survive but find his world decidedly different than he remembered upon his return home. Well, it doesn’t take a person who watched literally dozens of horror movies this month to figure out what’s going on here, but that’s OK because the whole segment has a wonderful dreamy vibe to it; like the first segment it’s largely driven by images rather than dialogue, and particularly makes splendid use of long point-of-view shots (found footage fans: take note. This is how the concept could be done properly, and somehow it doesn’t look like incomprehensible dogshit either).
Next, we’re on to the film’s most memorable segment, where a stuck-up father/son duo decide to hatch a conspiracy to ruin their neighbor, the working-class old widower played by Peter Cushing. The segment doesn’t offer anything particularly clever, but it's enormously memorable thanks to the surprising sadism of the neighbors' plot and an immensely endearing performance from Cushing as their well-meaning victim who can’t for the life of him understand why the world is suddenly turning on him so cruelly. Cushing --so great at playing the amoral, aristocratic Frankenstein-- would have been great as the cruel father, and in fact was reportedly originally approached about the role of the haughty stockbroker who features in the next segment. But, perhaps looking for something a little different, he asked for this role instead, and it’s an absolutely tremendous performance, utterly vulnerable and heartbreaking, which makes the random viciousness of the attacks against him sting all the more. Cushing’s wife Helen had died the previous year, and he had plunged into a depression which so drastically altered his appearance that he had to be recast as grandfather --instead of father-- to Stephanie Beacham’s character in the same year’s DRACULA: AD 1972. So seeing him play a kindly old man who misses his wife so badly that he communicates with her via a Ouija board is a genuinely powerful moment; I’d not be at all surprised to find that the picture of his wife he keeps talking to is actually Helen (though I can find no specific confirmation of this). It’s such a deeply felt portrait of this kindly old skeleton you could honestly imagine simply watching a whole movie about it -- but that’s not what TALES FROM THE CRYPT has in mind. Instead, it has in mind to sadistically torture him to the brink of suicide. But he’ll have his revenge, yes sir. The particulars of the revenge are nothing too special,** but the emotional catharsis of seeing these hateful fuckers get what’s coming to them is something to savor.
|Cushing looking unusually scruffy.|
That’s a tough act to follow, and as anyone knows the second-to-last segment is where filler goes to die, more or less the case here. We get a stockbroker and his wife, who, having fallen on hard times, discover a mysterious statue which allows you to make three wishes… only…. mwa ha ha, you should be careful what you wish for. Actually that sounds kind of like The Monkey’s Paw come to think of it, and indeed, that fact is not lost on the characters here. “This is just like that story The Monkey’s Paw!” they say. And then it is. And they keep commenting on how much this is exactly like The Monkey’s Paw and they keep doing the same things anyway. “Wow, this is like that story The Monkey’s Paw. Oh no, it’s STILL like The Monkey’s Paw! Oh no, the same ironic twist that happened in The Monkey’s Paw is still happening to us!” I don’t think it counts as meta to just keep pointing out exactly what you’re ripping off, so I’m a little confused at what they were going for here. I guess there’s a few fun details, but not really enough to make it worth the effort, one would think. Oh well, they can’t all be zingers.
|This is ridiculous, but I like it. The killer motorcyclist from WELCOME TO SPRING BREAK should be jealous.|
Finally, we get a nice little tale of craftily executed ironic revenge, so single-minded in its conviction and so imaginative in its vindictive execution that is has the laudable feel of one of Poe’s revenge tales. A selfish bureaucrat takes over a home for blind old men, and decides to enrich himself by cutting services. The blind residents don’t take too kindly to that sort of behavior, and express their displeasure by building an elaborate deathtrap with a particularly cruel final flourish. There’s not a ton to say about this one, except that it comports itself very much like its angry protagonists: meticulously but with grim focus. There’s a cold-bloodedness here which makes it way more effective than it would ever have been with a bunch of anger and shouting. If the setup is a little dull, it goes about the business of its revenge with a laser-like focus and a clear eye for detail which avoids the usual coyness of this sort of tale. It might work better with a little more visual poetry to it (as, of course, all those great Poe stories had) but on the other hand, it’s also kind of nice to see this species of sadism simply related in the most matter-of-fact possible way. Either way, the impact is pretty great and it’s a fitting ending.
|The revenge is simple enough, but I like the expressionistic angles and shadows here.|
The framing story ends suitably well with exactly the twist you figured out from my opening paragraph, but you know, sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s hard to make a case for any of these segments on their own as indispensable horror classics, but somehow together they become more than a sum of their parts. If they’re familiar, it’s in a comforting, festive sort of way, like seeing an old friend who seldom comes around but never quite leaves your mind. They’re exactly the right amount of spooky; just barely violent and perverse enough to not seem toothless, and just barely serious enough to avid campy resignation. It sounds on paper like that would add up to something middling, and probably for any other genre it would, but here it somehow manages to hit that sweet spot of perfect Halloween tone -- fun, a little scary, a little comforting, the perfect blend of trick and treat. Certified hood classic.
*Plus DEMON KNIGHT and BORDELLO OF BLOOD.
**Though to my knowledge it contains the most elaborate monster makeup I’ve ever seen on Cushing -- its not usually his thing, so that’s another nice treat.