I for one will never tire of them: those assorted candy boxes with always one or two disagreeable sorts to spit out, but overall filled with enjoyable treats. And so it goes in the movies as well; call them horror portmanteaus, omnibuses, or lotsashortstogether, they offer outrageous highs littered with occasional lows that offer a sugar rush once the box is done. Tales from the Crypt (1972) is one of my favorite examples of a horrific sampler.
This Amicus production was given a release by Twentieth Century Fox in its native UK, and by Cinerama Releasing Corporation in the US, and did quite well on both sides of the pond. Cinerama got the jump in March, with the UK afforded spookier seasonal vibes that September. Critics were kind to this latest from the studio that gave us Torture Garden and The House That Dripped Blood, and spotlit Peter Cushing in perhaps his most poignant role. There’s a lot of good stuff in this box.
As forever in omniland, we start with our wraparound. In this case, an old British museum (that also houses a mausoleum beneath) is hosting yet another bone dry tour, when five disparate guests get lost and end up in the “catacomb” section of the grounds -- suspiciously left out of the pamphlet, and noted. Our gaggle is greeted by an elder man in a crimson cloak, who looks and acts quite a bit like Sir Ralph Richardson (Dragonslayer). When someone asks why they are there, Richardson tells them one at a time to look at the blue screen embedded in the rock:
AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE
A well-to-do wife (Joan Collins -- Dynasty) decides to give herself a present and offs her husband with a fireplace poker on Christmas Eve, while their son dreams of gifts and Saint Nick. And what luck! A mass murderer dressed as Santa is on the loose and coming directly for a visit!
REFLECTION OF DEATH
A businessman (Ian Hendry -- Repulsion) takes a work trip with his secretary/mistress and ends up in a horrifying crash… but is he alive or dead? Did I really just ask that?
There’s a kindly old widower (Cushing) who lives in the dilapidated house down the street; he plays with the neighborhood kids who come by to play with his many dogs. Then one day, a bad rich man who lives across the street conducts a smear campaign against the kindly man with tragic results. Uh oh! Very bad things are going to happen to the bad rich man!
WISH YOU WERE HERE
A financially strapped couple (Barbara Murray and Richard Greene) make a wish on their inscribed Chinese statue -- which they’ve just noticed in fact, grants them three. Is this the smartest move, or are they broke for good reasons?
When British military bigwig Major Rogers (Nigel Patrick -- The MacKintosh Man) takes over administrative duties at a home for the blind, he tries to “toughen up” his “troop” -- which consists of a group of older men, some more capable than others. As Rogers streamlines the budget (less heat, cheaper food) eventually leading to the death of one of the men, he is confronted by the unofficial leader, Carter (Patrick Magee -- Asylum). Unwilling to concede to even the most basic needs of the men, Rogers discovers that his troop is far more resourceful than he could have possibly dreamed…
Tales from the Crypt has always felt to me like the central light in an ever-expanding universe; there had already been several previous anthologies, some from Amicus themselves -- Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood -- but Tales takes from the old EC Comics themselves, adding dark gallows humor and comeuppance in equal measures. It’s not that these traits are missing from earlier entries, but as a burgeoning horror buff, comics were a perfect portal into that world with Creepy, Eerie, The House of Mystery, and The Witching Hour all filling my little peepers and adding more devilish debris where probably school learning should have gone. Whoops.
This doesn’t mean that the tales presented here are immune from any criticism; the same built-in malady affects as it does in every effort: not every story will resonate, but hopefully the movie deities shake things up enough that the good basket is weighed heavier in its favor.
Now, I don’t know from ranking or rating, but professional standards are sometimes fun and useful to employ, so I will grade each accordingly:
AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE: B
This is a straightforward mission statement, and I’m pretty sure why it leads off the film: you reap what you sow. Now the turnaround here from the time she murders her husband to the time psycho Santa appears is practically nil, not leaving any time for character beats and boiling it down to a quick home invasion. It’s fine! Collins is good; the TV series just fleshed it out in a more creative manner.
REFLECTION OF DEATH: D+
Okay, I like using this format, because it’s easier to corral the not so good and let it have its say. But I also control that, so I’ll just say that while well enough crafted, this is a small sliver of nothingness. The story is so slight, it’s one you would put in between real ones as a buffer. In addition to being slight, it’s also a bad story. Double threat!
POETIC JUSTICE: A
The whiplash is palpable as you will believe a film can go from “oh yeesh” to “wow” in the space of seconds; while the first yarn hammers home the EC motto, this one slows down to show the effects of malice on the soul. And the heart, of course. This is a showpiece for Mr. Cushing, who can’t help but bring true poignancy to the role, but it is also an ensemble; the two other actors convey the hatred heaped upon Cushing with a curt heartlessness. (There’s that word again. Hmm.) Simple, yet has heft; probably the greatest course correction in horror history. Or at least in this piece.
WISH YOU WERE HERE: B+
This is the comic relief one: peppy, mod, fast, and yet another retelling of The Monkey’s Paw. But it works, thanks to fun performances and the lighter tone.
BLIND ALLEYS: A+
The final story is also the best; it shows -- in as economically way as possible -- that a complete tale can be conveyed with the same efficiency as a few well placed comic panels and a quiet, yet growing sense of dread.
I think there are two main reasons why Tales from the Crypt is my favorite of all the omnibuses; the first being the assured direction and screenplay by Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein) and Amicus’ own Milton Subotsky, respectively, and the second being: it sticks the landing. Oh, I don’t mean the wraparound, no, that ends precisely as you think it would; but rather the final story is so strong that it leaves one wanting more. And as the film’s rousing success would indicate, audiences still desperately needed that horror sugar high.
Tales from the Crypt is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: KISS OF THE TARANTULA (1976)