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September 2010

Tales From The Crypt

cast: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Roy Dotrice, Richard Greene, and Ian Hendry

director: Freddie Francis

88 minutes (15) 1972
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Final Cut DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Tales From The Crypt

It was an unlikely coalition of killjoy forces that rammed the fatal stake through the beating heart of EC Comics. In the 'States it was Fredric Wertham's Seduction Of The Innocent which accused William M. Gaines' playful grotesquery of corrupting the minds of children. In the UK, The Picture Post led a high-profile campaign aimed at banning the vile imported comic-books that were perverting the minds of the flower of British childhood.

The result was the imposition of the industry's voluntary 'Comics Code' which neutered the more extreme examples of graphic portrayal, and in the UK left the juvie-market clear for squeaky-clean positive role models such as Dan Dare. So, no more zombies lurching from diseased tombs, no more axes cleaving heads, no more picture-strip severed limbs and decapitated corpses. But 'horror comics' lived on in the memory of devotees. And 20 years after the self-styled 'moral majority' drove EC Comics into extinction; Amicus Films was putting out its tentacular feelers questing for cheap shock storylines.

The result was to be an uncivil-partnership forged in Hades. Amicus operated on a no-budget overnight-turnaround basis, yet succeeded in producing a string of shockers that stay highly watchable. Tales From The Crypt is one of a series of anthology films, following Dr Terror's House Of Horrors (1964), and Torture Garden (1967). And in its own way, Tales From The Crypt is even something of a celebrity vehicle. Joan Collins at her pre-Dynasty best, a wonderful portrayal by Peter Cushing, Richard Greene the former (and greatest) TV Robin Hood, not to mention Nigel Patrick and Ian Hendry.

Cinematographer Freddie Francis is best-known for his work with Hammer studios, but has straight high-profile classics to his camera-work credit, too, including Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (1960), and Sons And Lovers (1960), as well as The Elephant Man (1980). Here, restricted to 30 days shooting time, and star names available only sporadically, with maverick producer Milton Subotsky adapting the distinctive comicbook format, he acquits himself admirably.

To a soundtrack of Bach's Toccata & Fugue In D Minor, a tourist guide leads five strangers through the catacombs of religious martyrs in an ancient monastery. Joan Collins (Joanne Clayton) drops her broach, Ian Hendry stoops to pick it up, and they find they've lost their way. Trapped in a sanctum sanctorum chamber they are faced by Ralph Richardson in the guise of a more dignified version of Gaines' mad-monk Crypt-Keeper.

As the narrator who strings the movies' five separate tales together, he proceeds to reveal their destinies, one by one. And each of the short sharp scripts lifted intact from their original form, carry a precise moral punch-line of retribution. Unlike the random atrocity afflicted on the victims of, say, the Saw torture-porn franchise, each protagonist here gets the comeuppance they deserve as the direct result of their own skulduggery, with clues to each 'twist' seeded throughout the film.

In the first tale, ..And All Through the House, the brooch Joanne dropped is seen to be the Xmas gift given her by husband Richard, just before she kills him for his life-insurance as he reads the 'Burley Observer'. As if murder isn't bad enough, she then lights up a cigarette! Hey, this was the early 1970s. Things were different. As she prepares to hide the body, the soothing radio background of carols is interrupted by an alert that a psychopathic suited-up Santa (Oliver MacGreevy) is on the loose. With her trapped in the house unable to summon help without betraying her husband's body, the Santa-costumed stalker is let into the house by her excited little daughter Carol. The errant Santa proceeds to strangle Joanne to death.

In the second segment, Reflection Of Death, Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry) leaves his wife and children, supposedly on business, but in reality for a secret tryst with girlfriend Susan Blake (Angela Grant) in the Hillside Hotel. She drives, they crash, and he lurches away into the night scaring a bum and a passing motorist. Back home, he finds his wife (Susan Denny) with another man. When he knocks, she screams and slams the door. Retreating back to the Hillside, room four, he finds Susan is blind. She tells him two years have passed since the accident that blinded her and killed him. He is dead. In a neat twist he jerks awake in the car with Susan, phew! It was all a dream - only he's speeding towards the fatal car-crash again as the cycle starts all over...

The rigid five or six graphic-page restrictions of the original stories determine the form. No space for filler. Abrupt turn-around climaxes. Yet, within those limitations, there's surprising variation, and even room for pathos. In Poetic Justice, kindly Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) performs puppet-shows and recycles garbage into gifts for local kids. His toffee-nosed neighbours Edward Elliott (David Markham) and son James (Robin Phillips) disapprove. James has the elderly bin-man's dogs impounded, gets him fired, and launches a smear campaign alleging there are paedophile motives behind his innocent friendship with the children. In a touching sequence Cushing - recently-widowed himself, attempts to contact his dead wife. She spells out 'danger'. After James sends Grimsdyke insulting valentines, they enter the old man's house to find he's hanged himself. A year later a hand emerges from the burial plot and ghastly zombie-Grimsdyke returns from the dead to exact vengeance. James is found dead with a bloody valentine wrapped around his still-beating heart, the card reads "You were mean and cruel right from the start, but now you really have no..."

If Reflection Of Death derives its narrative shock from Ambrose Bierce, Wish You Were Here is a variation of W.W. Jacobs' folkloric 'three wishes' short story The Monkey's Paw. Ruthless businessman Ralph Jason (Richard Greene) is facing bankruptcy when wife Enid (Barbara Murray) uses a mystical Hong Kong statuette to wish for a fortune. As a result, he's killed, leaving her a wealthy widow. Alerted by the 'monkey's paw' tale she uses her second wish to bring him back as he was immediately before the fatal car-wreck - only to discover he'd died of a heart-attack seconds before impact, pursued by a devil-masked biker. Carefully rephrasing her third and last wish she asks for "him alive now, alive forever," but his innards are already corroding with embalming fluid, and because she's unable to end his agony by killing him he must endure his reanimated torment forever...

For the final segment, Blind Alleys, arrogant Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick) becomes the new superintendent of the Dickensian 'Elmridge home for the blind'. With Alsatian Brutus (played by 'Shane') enforcing his authority, he makes changes. Cuts heating and food budgets for the residents - one of them, Greenwood, even dies of neglect, while he sits beside a blazing log-fire enjoying steak with wine in an office hung with expensive paintings. When blind George Carter's protests are brushed aside, with grim intensity he leads the other inmates in their grisly revolt. In the basement they use touch-feel skills to construct a connecting maze of narrow corridors lined with razor blades. They lure Brutus into the basement and starve him, then place Rogers at the maze's centre. Abandoned to a Saw-style dilemma as they release the dog and turn off the basement lights, the Major faces the prospect of either being ripped apart by escaping into the blade-maze, or being dismembered by hunger-maddened canine.

Finally, the Crypt-Keeper links his narration by revealing that what they've seen is not the future, they're already dead. He releases them into a pit of fiery fame. "And now... who is next?" he asks to camera, "perhaps you?", as the hellish flames leap higher. So, does all that outraged 1950s' shock travel the decades well? Yes, up to a point. A New York Magazine review considered the film fit only for "those with cast-iron stomachs and short memories." And following Tales From The Crypt, a year later, Amicus produced The Vault Of Horror (1973), with Terry Thomas, Glynis Johns, Denholm Elliot, Daniel and Anna Massey, a more light-hearted follow-up portmanteau more reminiscent of the short Tales Of The Unexpected TV episodes. And later still, there was to be a TV series. But that's another review.



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