Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tales from the Vault

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1971)
THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973)

In a rare appearance under heavy make-up, Peter Cushing is Grimsdyke, an avenging zombie, in TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

ONCE targeted as agents of juvenile delinquency by righteous politicians - and tossed into bonfires by outraged parents across North America - the banned in Britain EC Comics provided the drive behind two of Amicus’ seemingly endless stream of portmanteau: Freddie Francis’ TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and Roy Ward Baker’s THE VAULT OF HORROR. Essentially McCarthy-era morality tales, the publications were obsessively consistent in punishing corruption in the sickest way possible. Yet while Amicus provided some entertaining thrills, you need only look at a handful of the original work to realise that the literary source were more cinematic than cost-conscious filmmakers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky would care or cater for.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT was the biggest commercial success of all Amicus’ multi-taled terrors. Francis’ visuals mix bright, basic colours with grey to approach the look of a comic book panel, but the masterstroke is how well the EC style of divine retribution fits into the festering middle-class resentment of the working classes in Edward Heath-era Britain. Opening to the ominous chords of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, the framing story sees five visitors losing their way in a labyrinthine set of catacombs, who are shown glimpses of their pasts - or futures? - by the cowled Crypt Keeper (Sir Ralph Richardson). Best remembered for its lively opening story And All Through the House - pitting a murderous wife (Joan Collins) against a killer Santa - the other four segments are split equally between the cumbersome and the classic. Reflections of Death and Wish You Were Here are both weak fillers, the former featuring a philandering husband (Ian Hendry) and the latter a wife (Barbara Murray) using an Oriental idol to bring back the dead. The remaining two episodes are so superior they seem to be from a different production altogether.

Everything in its right place. THE VAULT OF HORROR’s The Neat Job is the highlight in an otherwise bland production.

Poetic Justice sees kindly old Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) driven to suicide by loathsome neighbours covetous of his land, who send him malicious Valentine rhymes. A simple tale of walking-corpse vengeance in the tried and tested EC tradition, the story is given extra resonance by Cushing’s delicate performance, which has a quality rarely seen within the usually character-restraining portmanteau film. The actor was newly widowed at the time, and used a photograph of his late wife Helen, which he addresses by name on screen. Blind Alleys also has wonderful performances at its core, with Rogers (Nigel Patrick) - a retired army officer taking charge of a home for the blind - and Carter (Patrick Magee) - a spokesman for the unsighted. A slow-burning tale of redemption, Rogers’ new rules for efficiency (food rationing, no heating) ultimately has him forced to choose between confronting his hunger-crazed Alsatian or hurtling to safety down a narrow corridor bristling with razor blades, set up by the spectrally-portrayed blind.

In comparison, THE VAULT OF HORROR is formulaic at best and signalled the end of any EC endorsement for Amicus. Five men inexplicably find themselves locked in the basement of a skyscraper, and pass the time by recounting their nightmares. Bargain In Death is a weak insurance scam story, while Midnight Mess is an allegedly humorous tale of small-town vampirism starring Daniel and Anna Massey. This Trick'll Kill You is a none-too-subtle allegory about a married pair of magicians murdering fakirs in India, but the other two stories fare better because they subscribe more to the twisted EC mythos. Drawn and Quartered features a struggling artist (Tom Baker) in a voodoo-laced variation on The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), but the only story that really seems in its element is The Neat Job, in which a disorderly housewife (Glynis Johns) tries to cope with her fussy, perfectionist husband (Terry-Thomas); it’s a delicious presentation of domestic EC-style terror.