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Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Memory is a funny thing. I remember distinctly my viewings of the Amicus horror anthology Tales from the Crypt as a teenager, back when all films were on VHS and cropped. Up until today, I would’ve bet hard money that it was Roddy McDowall portraying the heartless real estate prospector in Peter Cushing’s segment. McDowall is nowhere to be seen, of course – the actor in his place is Robin Phillips. Memories of the segments featuring Joan Collins and Patrick Magee have held up better, but there’s still a certain haziness to them. One thing I do remember with absolute clarity is my overall impression of Tales, and that stands against the reality without any digression: it is an uneven film with uneven direction, uneven writing, and uneven acting, but a bumpy road is sometimes more fun than a smooth one.
Five strangers, lost on a tour of old English catacombs, wander into a meeting with a strange man in a hooded cloak who proceeds to tell each of them their unpleasant fates:
- “All Through the House”: A woman (Collins) murders her husband on Christmas Eve, only to be confronted with a homicidal maniac dressed as Santa Claus.
- “Reflection of Death”: A husband (Ian Hendry) who is running away with his mistress becomes caught in a cycle of terror when his car crashes.
- “Poetic Justice”: A real estate prospector (Phillips) uses cruelty to drive a kindly old widower (Peter Cushing) out of his home, but goes a little too far.
- “Wish You Were Here”: A businessman (Richard Greene) at the brink of bankruptcy discovers an idol that can grant three wishes, if the wisher is willing to suffer the consequences.
- “Blind Alleys”: An old Army major (Nigel Patrick) who runs a home for the blind like a military base incurs the wrath of his residents (including Magee).
With five stories to tell, Tales from the Crypt’s 90-minute runtime may seem ridiculously short at first glance. However, the stories are adaptations of horror comics written by Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines in the 1950s; these were gruesome little morality plays that worked best when they had a protagonist who was particularly reprehensible, committing criminal or ill-mannered acts that demanded retribution. With this foundation of unlikability set, a reader would be fully engaged for the quick-march pace to the character’s eventual death (or fate worse than death), which was usually quite succinct and always appropriate. So, in considering the Owing to the specific nature of the source material, it turns out that 90 minutes is, in fact, too long.
Would that all of the segments utilized the lessons learned from the comics like “All Through the House.” In 12 minutes, we get two murders – one at the beginning to establish Joan Collins as a no-good husband killer and the other at the end to give Joan what’s coming to her. Even better, this segment is almost entirely without dialogue. There are a few brief exchanges between Collins’s character and her daughter, as well as a broadcast news bulletin, but sound for the most part is limited to the Christmas carols that waft in through the radio as Collins rearranges the scene of her crime to look like an accident. The context makes these familiar holiday tunes more than a little eerie, especially when the psycho-Santa enters the picture. Director Freddie Francis keeps this segment tightly paced and suspenseful, throwing in a few good shocks early on to keep us on our toes. Brimming with ghastly fun, “All Through the House” is a nasty little morsel.
From treat, we go to trick in “Reflection of Death”, which drives the momentum of Tales into the ground before the film has had a chance to get going properly. This segment is extremely trying to the patience, even though it’s the shortest at ten-and-a-half minutes. After Ian Hendry’s character has walked out on his wife and kids, he gets into a car accident. From here on out, Francis shows the action from Hendry’s point-of-view. Nothing we’ve seen so far in the film suggests that Francis is the kind of director to choose this technique for artistic reasons, so it must serve the plot. Sure enough, everyone Hendry comes across runs away from him, terrified. By the time the whole horrible truth is revealed, we’re already figured out the inevitable twist. The segment ends with a shock and then a cute gimmick that I won’t reveal. Suffice to say, it is, in fact, cute rather than horrific.
The next segment, “Poetic Justice,” is a vast improvement; while it does not have Roddy McDowall, it does feature what may be the finest performance of Peter Cushing’s career. Playing Arthur Grimsdyke, the widowed garbage collector who Robin Phillips tries to drive out of house and home, Cushing exudes a kind of doddering grace, a sweet senility that calls forth memories of hugs from favored grandparents. Cushing drew from his own life to play Grimsdyke – he had lost his beloved wife Helen shortly before filming began and used his grief to fuel his performance. As Phillips mounts his campaign of cruelty against Grimsdyke – having his dogs taken away, getting him fired, sending him cruel Valentines – Cushing’s performance reflects the slow diminishing of his character’s already pained heart. When Grimsdyke commits suicide, it is a dismal moment because we’ve grown fond of the old man. When Grimsdyke returns to wreak a bloody comeuppance, it is an utter delight, because no character in Tales deserves a violent end more than Phillips’s.
Once again, however, Tales moves us from a high point to another low one. “Wish You Were Here” is pointless drivel, a half-hearted rejiggering of W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw”. Screenwriter Milton Subotsky actually portrays the characters as aware of the Jacobs story, but this addition comes off as silly post-modernism without purpose. Even had that ploy worked, it wouldn’t have overcome the segment’s lazy logic. At one point, Richard Greene’s wife wishes for her husband back after he dies in a traffic incident, but is careful to specify that she wants him the way he was before his car crashed, so she won’t get a mangled zombie. Greene’s corpse is wheeled in and it’s revealed that Greene actually died of a heart attack moments before the collision. Fine, whatever. However, just a minute later we’re asked to accept that he’s been embalmed. So, logically (cursed logic), the mortician got to Greene sometime in between his heart attack and the car accident caused by having that heart attack while at the wheel of a moving car. Does anyone else see the problem here?
At 25 minutes, the final story, “Blind Alleys”, is over double the length of all the other segments, save for the third. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any justification for the added time – the plot is no more complex than the 16-minute “Poetic Justice” and the characters are less interesting. Patrick Magee does his very best as a blind man who leads a revolt against the negligent rest home director played by Nigel Patrick, but even he can’t overcome the enthusiasm corrosion created by Francis’s plodding pace. Thankfully, “Blind Alleys” provides a real humdinger of an ending that, in the tradition of the EC horror comics from which the story was taken, makes the entire segment worth the trouble.
Wrapping around the segments are scenes with Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper. As linking material goes, this is pretty dry, adding little flavor to the film. Richardson, wide-eyed and enigmatic, keeps repeating the same snippets of dialogue, insisting that each of the five people in his crypt must hear his tales. It all leads to an ending that is fitting and unnecessary all at once. To be honest, the Crypt Keeper segments are twelve minutes that could’ve been snipped and replaced with simple intertitles for a leaner, meaner anthology.
Despite a director who hinders more segments than he helps and a screenwriter who sends logic careening off a cliff on a whim, Tales from the Crypt does occasionally work, and when it does, it does so beautifully. The first and third segments are first-rate stories, and the ending of the fifth is a classic revenge scenario that plants the cinematic seeds that would someday sprout into the Saw series. I remember thinking, all those years ago when I watched the movie on VHS, that the three good segments made sitting through the two bad ones worthwhile. Now that we are in the age of DVDs, this particular memory no longer holds true. With a few judicious applications of the “chapter skip” button, a film like Tales from the Crypt can become an utter masterpiece.