Freddie Francis, 1972
Starring: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ralph Richardson
This marks director Freddie Francis’s return to Amicus after a couple of films off and it’s known as one of their classics for a reason. Tales from the Crypt is the studio’s fourth anthology film and it’s an improvement in almost every way over their earlier portmanteau efforts like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Torture Garden. Genuinely scary at times, with a bleak and downright nasty tone throughout, much of the source material is pulled from EC Comics series like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, a title they would borrow for their fifth anthology film, which can be seen as a loose sequel. For those of you who only know the title Tales from the Crypt from the US TV show, this is an obvious precursor and is similar in tone.
In the framing story, five tourists find themselves separated from their group while in a series of catacomb tunnels. A man known as the Crypt Keeper offers to tell all of them their fortunes, which generally end with grisly horrors. The first story, “And All Through the House,” is by far the best and is still genuinely terrifying. On Christmas Eve, a woman (Joan Collins at her bitchiest) murders her husband while her daughters is upstairs, in bed, waiting for Santa to arrive. Unfortunately the woman learns that a homicidal maniac has escaped in a Santa costume and may be heading right for her house. I absolutely love Christmas horror (and just Christmas in general) and, perhaps thanks to its brevity, this is one of the best examples. Collins is great as a murderous spouse who whacks her husband with obvious relief, but her just desserts are, if anything, even more spectacular.
The second story, “Reflection of Death,” has the same mean spirited tone and also follows another unhappy spouse, but sadly does not measure up to the first episode. Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry of Theatre of Blood) is leaving his wife for his girlfriend, but when they are on the road, he has a horrifying dream. In it, they crash the car and have a terrible accident. Months later, he returns from the dead disfigured and deformed and seeks out his wife and then his girlfriend, who recoil in horror. He wakes whole and alive, but his screams alarm his girlfriend, who is behind the wheel… This one is probably my least favorite of the whole film and I think Hendry is wasted. He’s great at being a smug horse’s ass, which he is a little bit here, but he really should be given a bit more scenery to chew.
“Poetic Justice,” the third episode, is one of the best, though it’s really going to tug at your heartstrings. Peter Cushing stars as Arthur Grimsdyke, a lonely old man who lives in a ragged house, much to the chagrin of his uppity neighbors, who want to purchase his valuable property. Grimsdyke repairs old toys and gives them to the neighborhood children, who are his only friends since his wife passed away. (Sadly, Cushing’s beloved wife Helen passed away the year before and Grumsdyke refers to deceased wife by the same name in what is either completely heart-wrenching or a touching, brief tribute.) His neighbor (Robin Philips) decides to drive Grimsdyke out. He has his beloved dogs taken away, convinces the neighborhood that he’s a pedophile, and drives the poor man to suicide, on Valentine’s Day no less, with a series of nasty (rhyming) greeting cards. But Grimsdyke will of course get the last laugh…
The fourth tale, “Wish You Were Here,” is a demented twist on the classic horror tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” A businessman (Richard Greene) goes bankrupt, but he and his wife (Barbara Murray) realize they have a strange statue in their home that promises to grant them wishes. Suffice to say that they are not careful enough for what they wish for and the sequence ends with the wife bringing her husband back from the dead, having cursed him to living eternally while suffering the horrific pain of being embalmed alive. The last tale, “Blind Alleys,” is another one of the best and features the horrible Major Rogers (Nigel Patrick) stingily running a home for the blind. When he scrimps on their food, bedding, medical care, and heat during the winter, they rise up against him (led by the always terrifying Patrick Magee).
Like all of these Amicus portmanteau films, the characters learn that they are already dead and are destined to suffer an eternity of torment to pay for their misdeeds. I’ve heard other people describe the film as schlocky or heavy-handed, which I can’t really say is wrong, but this is the type of movie that you’re either really going to enjoy or that’s going to make you groan and roll your eyes. There are some decent performances, particularly from Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper, who borrows a bit from Burgess Meredith’s ringmaster in Torture Garden and isn’t the desiccated skeleton of the ‘90s Tales from the Crypt television series, but is a sardonic man wearing a cloak who gives each character a pert, “I told you so” look as they inevitably learn of their fates. There’s some nice make-up from Hammer’s Roy Ashton, though anyone only interested in explicit sex or gore will want to pass this up. But if you found the earlier anthology films too silly, there is some humor here, but it’s not the campy, tongue-in-cheek tone of their earlier films and is much grimmer and more adult-themed. Pick it up on Blu-ray as a double feature with Vault of Horror!