Vault of Horror (1973)
Dir. Roy Ward Baker
Written by Milton Subotsky
Starring Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens, Tom Baker, Dawn Addams, Denholm Elliott, Michael Craig
This amiable Amicus anthology is the lesser of the two similar films both based on Tales from the Crypt and similar horror comics from the 1950s (weirdly, VAULT OF HORROR contains almost exclusively stories from Tales from the Crypt, whereas the movie TALES FROM THE CRYPT actually contained more stories from Vault of Horror.) There’s about a million 60’s and 70’s British horror anthologies like both of them; Amicus alone put out DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR, TORTURE GARDEN, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, ASYLUM, and FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, in addition to VAULT OF TERROR and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, all between 1965 and 1973 (hell, 1973 had two of them!). This one is the weaker of the two specifically adapted from the EC horror comics created by Al Feldstein, but it’s not a disaster, either. Director Roy Ward Baker is not the visualist Freddie Francis from TALES was, but he does alright; the mid-shots are very reminiscent of the comic framings he’s adapting, and he’s competent enough to make the transition to cinema feel effortless and natural. It’s a decent enough meat-and-potatoes anthology, and at 83 minutes for five tales plus a framing narrative, it never overstays its welcome.
On that subject, the framing story is actually better than TALES FROM THE CRYPT, a little sleeker and more evocative. The Crypt Keepers sits this one out (maybe he held out for more money? If so that was a bad move, because between the time we see him played by Ralph Richardson in TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) and the time he shows up again in TALES FROM THE CRYPT the series in 1989, he looks like he’s had some hard years) and instead we simply get five mostly indistinguishable British guys (one guy has a yellow shirt and beard, though, so you know he’s a rebel) who board an elevator in a gleaming skyscraper and take it down to the basement. When the get off, they find they’re in an odd octagonal room with no door and no button to recall the elevator.* They actually take this better than you might imagine, calmly settling in and chit-chatting about dreams and stuff, like you inevitably do in this sort of situation instead of panicking and using your own head to batter a hole in the wall. One by one they each tell the story of a particular dream they’ve had. The first TALES FROM THE CRYPT uses almost the exact same framing device, but here there’s less overt scary stuff right off the bat, everything seems normal and then out of the blue there’s this surreal twist, no crypts or robed ghouls required. It feels dreamy and ominous, even metaphorical. I like it.
The first story is pretty good, too. It’s about this total asshole (Daniel Massey) who arrives in this sleepy isolated town to look for his estranged sister (Anna Massey, PEEPING TOM, FRENZY and Daniel Massey's real-life sister). Everyone in town is acting pretty shifty, though, they say there’s been a lot of unexplained deaths recently and you should avoid the streets at night. Good advice, as it turns out, but it’s ignored by our protagonist, who has some murderous plans of his own. Fortunately, things are not what they seem and the killer becomes the kill-ee in short order. Also there are (Spoiler) vampires, in fact it seems like all or most of the town is inhabited by vampires, seems like it’s just sort of a thing here, a quaint local custom. There’s a fun moment when he wanders unaware into a vampires-only restaurant and gradually figures out what’s going on. Only downside? The vamps look ridiculous, their teeth are like four inches long so they protrude out of their mouths and make them look like rubes, or at least juvenile walruses. Man, Michael Parks from TUSK would be right at home. Or maybe they’re some kind of throwback saber-toothed vampires? Anyway, it’s a goofy story but it has a few nice twists to it and it’s executed pretty well. Not a bad opening.
|Cheers tooth that.*|
*I'm pretty sure I got that joke from a popsicle stick, dear god what have I become
The next two segments are pretty worthless, though; the first involves a neat freak (Terry-Thomas, HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE) who pesters his new wife (Glynis Johns, MARY POPPINS) until she has no choice but to murder him, the other involves a husband-and-wife magician duo (Curd Jürgens** THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Dawn Adams, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, ZETA ONE) who steal an Indian fakir’s trick, only to have it backfire on them. Both stores are dull and padded with a bunch of useless repetition which overwhelms any mild pleasure to be got from the violent ends. They’re not aggressively bad or anything, just fatty and meandering without enough payoff to justify it (though both husband-wife duos acquit themselves nicely).
|This is what you get when no one is around to say, "don't hurt him, Hammer!"|
Next, though, we move on to a segment that has the opposite problem. Two dastardly friends (Michael Craig, TURKEY SHOOT and Edward Judd, ISLAND OF TERROR) have concocted a devious plan to commit insurance fraud which they definitely thought all the way through and is totally logical and sensical, wink wink, which involves one of them faking his own death and getting buried, only to be dug up by the other guy later on. How exactly this was supposed to work we’ll never know, because they run afoul of two grave-robbing medical students and a crotchety groundskeeper (Arthur Mullard, GONKS GO BEAT***), and then everyone double-crosses everyone and shit gets crazy. This actually has kind of a good Hitchcockian plot to it, and a nice mix of mordant humor and genuine terror (especially if you’re claustrophobic -- talk about you vault of horror!) but there’s a lot of plot to squeeze into one segment of a five-part anthology here. Where the last two segments felt padded and draggy, this one feels rushed and manic, struggling to explain the plot as quickly as it moves along. It would be a lot more effective at a slow pace, allowing the panic to build a little -- in fact, this one might even work as a feature-length stand-alone. Get on that, Michael Bay.
Finally, the last segment is kind of a clever twist on The Picture of Dorian Gray -- a British painter living in Haiti (Tom Baker, the fourth Doctor Who) uses voodoo to give him the power to punish the asshole art dealers who fucked him over. Soon, he finds that he can paint an image of anything he wants, and when he destroys the painting its real-life counterpart is equally ruined. Well, it doesn’t take him long to head back to London for some good old-fashioned stone cold picture-painting revenge. But is there any way this could ironically backfire? Absolutely not, everything works out nicely for him and he feels happy and satisfied with what he’s accomplished, the end, I bet. Baker is a standout as the intense, fiery young artist, and even though he’s a murderous nut the people he kills are immensely hateable so we can well enjoy their imaginative comeuppance (one of them, by the way, is Denholm Elliott, who gets third billing here but probably has less than 5 minutes of screentime).
|This is a nice painting, but would you really trust the artistic sense of a guy who chose that suit and tie combo?|
None of these segments are exactly unmissable classics, but they do have one real selling point, at least to me: they do an uncannily spot-on job of re-creating the tone, the cadence, and even the look of those old EC comics they’re based on. Even more than TALES FROM THE CRYPT, watching this brought me right back to a misspent childhood reading horror comics late at night when the parents had turned in, holding the lamp under the covers to keep the light from showing and scarcely daring to breath for fear of waking someone up who might put an end to the clandestine impropriety. There’s an unmistakably evocative vibe those old stories had, somehow they felt mysterious and sinister and dangerous in ways which didn’t have a lot to due with their actual content or artistry. VAULT OF HORROR exactly captures that ineffable experience, in fact, one guy is actually seen reading the movie novelization of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and the camera zooms right up to the cover so there’s no danger of you missing how clever they’re being. That’s totally something they’d do in the comics! Unfortunately, as that reminds me, the original books weren’t exactly a home run every time either, so these stories are mostly only moderately clever, but what the heck, they have their moments. This is nothin’ to write home about, but it’s a fun nostalgic romp for those who fondly remember horror comics.
*Never saw that Chuck Norris one about THE OCTAGON, but was it like this? Maybe I unfairly assumed it was some kind of fighting Octagon, but really it’s Chuck and four other British guys sitting around a table talking about the symbolism of their dreams.
**Jürgens sounds like a pretty cool guy, he was highly critical of the National Socialists during his youth in Germany, and was actually sent to an internment camp for his troubles. So it figures that when the war ended and he became an American actor, he played mostly villainous Germans and Nazis.
*** I frankly have no idea what that one is but it has a wonderful ring to it, don’t you think?
|Not quite as good as TALES, but call it a C+|