Playback: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Hello kiddies and welcome to another ghoulish review from your old friend Super Hubs. Today we’ll be taking a look at an atrocious anthology of terrifying tales based on EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt. Well, two of the stories are based on Tales from the Crypt stories, the other three are based on stories from The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear. Anthology horror movies were big in the 70s (the production company responsible for this one, Amicus Productions, produced 8 such films between 1965 and 1974) and they were often based off the works of popular horror writers. Horror comics remained a relatively untapped resource, however, considering how massively popular they were. This film and 1973’s Vault of Horror were two of the few based on these comics and they were a passion project of producer and writer Milton Subotsky.

There are still fans of the iconic HBO show that don’t realize Tales from the Crypt is based off of comics and I’m sure many more don’t realize the show isn’t the first screen incarnation of Tales. Anyone expecting the cheeky humor of the TV show (and even the comic book) will be disappointed to find that what little humor there is is of the decidedly, dry and British kind. But are the scares enough to make up for that? Well, let’s find out shall we? 

We begin with a beautifully 70s shot of the outside of a catacomb as Toccata and Fugue plays. If you don’t know that song trust me, you know that song. Imagine a spooky castle in the middle of a stormy night and it’s the song that’s playing in the background. It was a cliché before movies became talkies and it’s one of the greatest songs ever composed. I’ll fight you about this.

The catacomb is a tourist attraction and, inside, a group of people is being led by an old man. He warns everyone not to get separated from the group as the catacombs are deep and it’s easy to become lost. Five people immediately allow themselves to be separated from the group and subsequently get lost. They take a side passage and wind up at a dead end but before they can turn back a door opens in the stone wall and they all wander inside and become trapped. And then they are greeted by one of the most iconic figures in horror: The Crypt Keeper.

cryptkeeper

Okay so this Crypt Keeper is a bit more…subdued than most Tales from the Crypt fans are probably used to but he is played with subtle, malignant glee by the incomparable Ralph Richardson and manages to steal the movie with what amounts to maybe 500 words of dialogue. Interestingly, the look of the Crypt Keeper in season 1 of the show is heavily influenced by this portrayal, despite the fact that the Crypt Keeper in the movie has much more in common with the other EC Comics horror host the Vault Keeper. Anyway, Joan Collins asks him what they’re doing there and he spouts some vague lines about them finding out in due time and Joan gets a dreamy look on her face and we’re presented with our first story.

…And All Through the House

Fans of the TV show will immediately recognize this story about a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, the same night that a homicidal maniac is on the loose. The movie says that exact phrase too, “homicidal maniac.” There are very few horror movies these days that would dare use the phrase “homicidal maniac” without trying to bury it beneath 8 layers of cynicism and at least 3 knowing winks. I miss horror that’s willing to have that level of straight-forward seriousness.

Anyway the maniac shows up at Joan Collins’ house dressed as Santa and she doesn’t call the cops because she needs to hide her husband’s body first. She locks up the house and makes it look like her husband fell down the basements stairs. And this is the only story that has any blood in it and it’s that wonderful horror-movie blood that’s day-glo red and very clearly paint.

The story ends with Joan Collins pulling off the perfect crime only to find that her young daughter found the keys to all the house’s locks (keys which Joan Collins had taken out of her husband’s pocket earlier in order to open a safe) and opened the door for the maniac thinking that he’s the real Santa. He proceeds to strangle Joan to death despite the fact that she manages to run into another room and get the fireplace poker she had used to kill her husband earlier. She drops it immediately after Santa touches her. It’s…dubious. But overall the story is well done and there’s a reason they chose to adapt it into an episode.

6/10

Reflection of Death

Next up is Carl, a kind of mousey, nervous dude who has been pacing the room. He asks what the Crypt Keeper wants and, once again, is told it will all be clear in time. Sensing a pattern?

Carl is getting ready to leave for a business trip and when he says goodbye to his wife and children they ask when he’ll be back. He says he’s not sure as it depends on how everything goes. Turns out he’s leaving them to run away with a younger woman. They’ve packed up their apartment and are going to move somewhere far away. They leave in her car and Carl falls asleep. He wakes up from a terrible nightmare and they get into a car accident.

He wakes up sometime later and finds the car smoking and in ruins. He wanders down the highway and attempts to hitch-hike home but everyone he meets runs away in terror. Eventually he finds his wife but there’s another man in the house with her and when she answers the door she screams. He makes his way back to the other woman’s apartment and finds it furnished and the woman living there again. She reveals that she went blind from the crash and that Carl died. He finally sees his reflection only to find that he’s a rotting corpse. Then he wakes up in the car realizing it was all a dream only for them to crash again.

This one is a real classically spooky type of horror story and bears a lot in common with the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Outsider.” It’s good stuff and there’s some decent characterization. When zombie Carl gets back to his mistress’s apartment we see that she still has a picture of Carl on her table so we know she actually loved him and wasn’t the stock “homewrecker” character that’s so common in these kinds of things.

7/10

Poetic Justice

Next up is a young, douchey looking bro named James in what is the most mean-spirited story in the movie. James and his father are rich guys who hate their neighbor the kindly garbageman Arthur Grimsdyke. Grimsdyke is played with great pathos by a very against-type Peter Cushing. He’s a happy old man who makes toys for the neighborhood children and has a group of dogs. James and his father are mad at him for…vague reasons about wanting to by his property/because he’s poor. Grimsdyke refuses to sell because he and his wife lived in the house their whole lives and he wants to die there. So James decides to ruin his life.

First he makes it look like Grimsdyke’s dogs ruin another neighbors lawn and so the dogs get taken away. Then they persuade a member of the city-council to fire him from his job and lose his pension. Meanwhile Grimsdyke is shown to have an interest in the occult as he is speaking with his wife through a Ouija board and she warns him of danger. Soon after, James convinces the neighborhood parents that Grimsdyke is pedophile. And last, they send him a bunch of valentines purportedly from all his neighbors saying how much they hate him and that he should kill himself. So he does. Yeah. Dark shit.

One year later, Grimsdyke rises from the grave and murders the shit outta James. He rips out his heart and leaves it as a valentine for his father. For some reason when the father finds it it’s still beating. Makes no sense, but it’s actually some pretty good effects work.

Peter Cushing is, unsurprisingly, the best part of the movie. His optimistic, friendly Grimsdyke is a great dude and it’s hard to watch him be ruined so viciously. It’s real sad and it bums me out!

9/10 – Extra points for Peter Cushing

petercushing

Wish You Were Here

Nothing to see here. It’s just the Monkey’s Paw but instead of a Monkey’s Paw it’s a Chinese statue with English writing in that really stereotypical “Asian style” lettering. You know the kind I mean. This one doesn’t even fit the theme of sinners being punished and they have shoehorn in some dialogue about the man being ruthless and cruel in his business pursuits. Anyway there are only two things that make this one interesting. First is the fabulously 70’s depiction of Death who rides a motorcycle and wears a skull helmet like a less cool Ghost Rider.

deathcycle

Second, when she wishes her husband back to life his body is brought into her apartment by a group of creepy undertaker types who materialize from some darkness and fog. It’s pretty stylish.

3/10 – Extra points because Roy Dotrice is in it

Blind Alleys

This one is the closest to the type of stories you’d see on the TV show so it’s no surprise that this is another one that would be adapted for it. The TV show had a very nihilistic ethos. The protagonists of the stories would often be as bad as the antagonists and by the end everyone would come out looking bad. The humor was there to drive home the point that everyone is selfish and ugly deep down and it takes shockingly little to bring that out in us. There’s no humor to be found in this story, but nor is their any hope. It’s the tale of two cruel men; one who’s cruel from the start, and the other who is driven to it.

Major William Rogers is the new superintendent of a home for the blind. He was in the army for 20 years (and never shuts up about it) and tries to run the home like he would a platoon. In this case that means not paying for heat or food or extra blankets despite keeping himself in luxury. When his penny pinching causes the death of one of the residents, another resident named George comes up with a plan to get revenge. They lure William’s dog into the basement and lock it in a room and then do the same to William. They starve them for days and build an obstacle course in the basement. They let William out and trap him using a narrow corridor full of razor blades. The story ends with his dog being let out as they throw the basement into darkness.

This is easily the best story in the movie. The acting is great across the board, George in particular is played with chilly determination by Patrick Magee, the worldview is bleak, and the ending is horrifying.

9/10

When all the stories are concluded the Crypt Keeper reveals that, despite what he had been saying, he wasn’t warning them about what could happen but telling them what has already come to pass. They are all sinners and he is the gatekeeper to Hell. They all silently accept their fate and walk through the door into Hell. The Crypt Keeper breaks the 4th wall and suggest that we might be next as the tomb is enveloped in fire.

When I first saw this movie I was young and much dumber and I thought it was boring. Now I think it’s almost a masterpiece. It’s well-paced, well acted, beautifully shot, and all but one of the stories are really good. It’s rare for an anthology movie to have that level of consistency. If you’re a fan of the TV show you should really give this one a watch. It may not have the humor, but it more than makes up for it in spookiness.

See you soon!

grimsdyke

One thought on “Playback: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

  1. Pingback: Playback: Tales from the Crypt (1972) — Married with Bookshelves – neweraofhorror

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