Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Milton Subotsky
Starring: Ralph Richardson, Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, Ian Hendry, and Patrick Magee
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“Who's next? Perhaps... you!”
With the release of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula in 1958, Britain had its new voice in the horror film world. It would be a voice that would influence horror films for decades to come. But it wouldn’t be long until Hammer was joined by an eager group of rivals, whose output took a mostly different turn. Amicus Productions was a company that I hesitate to even call a rival of Hammer’s, since both studios often utilized many of the same actors and actresses. While Hammer focused most of its energy on remaking and re-interpreting many of the films from Universal’s classic monsters catalog, Amicus focused on anthologies based on horror short stories written by everyone from Robert Bloch to E.C. Comics. It is their first forray into the comic book world of the 1950s (and perhaps their best film, period) that I will focus on today; Tales from the Crypt.
A group of five complete strangers stop by an old British crypt for a brief tour. Wandering off from the rest of the group, the five happen upon an old man dressed in a monk's robes. One-by-one, the man tells a story relating to each of the strangers... one is terrorized by an escaped mental patient dressed as Santa Claus, another dies in a car accident while leaving his wife for another woman, another causes the suicide of a lonely trash collecting neighbor, another is the victim of a strange wish-giving statue (not unlike "The Monkey's Paw"), and the last is the cruel, penny-pinching owner of a home for the blind. Are the cryptkeeper's grim stories mere yarns to be spun for the strangers' (and our) entertainment... or is there something much more sinister at work in the crypt?
This is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. British horror anthologies simply don't get much better than this. If you enjoy anthologies like Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, and Black Sabbath, but have never been exposed to the works of Amicus, this film is where you start. The horror genre easily lends itself to the short story format probably moreso than any other genre of literature. To get bogged down in a long narrative can take away from the effect of a simple setup and payoff associated with a lot of horror story concepts. The strength of a horror short story as a vehicle for film are why TV shows like "The Twilight Zone", "The Hitchhiker", and "Tales from the Darkside" flourished during their respective time periods. Of course, not all series hit a home run with each episode. Some episodes/stories are good, some not so good. Thus, most anthology films usually have a weak link or two. I can honestly say, though, that each tale in this batch is just as strong as the one preceeding it. If there is a "weak link" at all in the bunch, it's probably story number two. It's not that it's particularly weak, it just doesn't have the rich imagery or payoff that the other stories feature.
The cast of the film reads like a true who's who of British horror stars: Joan Collins (TV's "Dynasty"), Peter Cushing (numerous Hammer and Amicus productions), Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange), Ian Hendry (Theater of Blood), Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu), Ralph Richardson (Who Slew Auntie Roo?) and more. Each delivers the kind of fine performance you'd more likely associate with a Shakespearian work, rather than a horror film. The film doesn't have much in the way of a musical score. Many sequences are played out in silence, except for dialogue. The opening of the film makes a great use of Bach's menacing pipe organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It may not be as recognized as Danny Elfman's opening titles theme from the HBO "Tales from the Crypt" TV series of the 80s and 90s, but it is quite imposing and sets an appropriately dark tone for the film that follows.
When Amicus came calling, director Freddie Francis had already cut his directing teeth on a number of Hammer classics, including Nightmare, Paranoiac, and The Evil of Frankenstein. Through the remainder of the 60s and 70s, his body of work would grow to include notable films from both studios, including The Skull, The Deadly Bees, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Torture Garden, The Creeping Flesh, and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. Aside from Sir Alfred Hitchcock, I would venture to call Francis the most accomplished horror director ever to come out of Britain. His work in Tales is particularly memorable, giving each story a lurid, comic book feel without ever being completely campy or silly. In fact, it's the straight-laced (sometimes even mean) streak that permiates each story that makes them much more effective than they would be otherwise. For instance, compare the remake of the "And All Through The House" segment that would come years later during the "Tales from the Crypt" TV series to the one in this film. Shot-for-shot, it's nearly identical. However, the TV series took a much campier approach with the material, choosing to emphasise fun over fright. During the latter part of his career, Francis folded up his director's chair in favor of cinematography. It's truly stunning to think that the director of so many classic British horror films would later go on to provide cinematography on films like the Oscar-nominated Civil War drama Glory, the David Lynch drama The Straight Story, and the Martin Scorsese thriller Cape Fear.
The film and the stories within are devoid of nudity and sexual themes. Blood and gore is also at a minimum, but we do get plenty of interesting horror imagery. Among my favorites, the razor blade covered walls, Peter Cushing's crusty, rotted zombie, and arguably, one of the scariest killer Santas ever to grace the silver screen. The film has such clear and memorable imagery, that it's not hard at all to imagine its director later going into a cinematography career. Choosing inspiration from E.C. Comics' stories instead of those by well-known horror authors was a risky one, but it pays off. The stories themselves are fairly typical of 50s pulp horror. All deal with irony and vengeance in one form or another for a sin or other transgression and justice being served. Each of the strangers that the cryptkeeper tells a story about all committed some kind of act or acts for which the stories "punish" them. Though, the stories deal with simple subjects and familiar themes (axe-wielding psychos, zombies, curses), the manner in which they are told and presented is engaging and suspenseful, all the while being fun. In true comic book fashion, the blood in the film is bright red, looking more like paint than anything.
Tales from the Crypt is a perfectly realized entry in (and perhaps, the best example of) the British anthology sub-genre. In a way, I guess you could also view it as one of the earliest (and best) comic book/graphic novel film adaptations. The Midnite Movies double feature DVD by Fox has the film paired with another Amicus anthology based on an E.C. comic series, The Vault of Horror. Though, Vault is lacking in many of the areas in which Tales excels, getting two Amicus anthologies together on DVD for around ten bucks is a fantastic deal. The picture quality on the Tales DVD is easily the best the film has ever looked. The audio suffices, being neither extraordinary nor bothersome. I wish that Amicus had gotten around to finishing up their E.C. trilogy with a film based on "The Haunt of Fear" comic series. Perhaps now that Hammer Films is back on the scene, maybe someday soon Amicus will be reborn as well. The world of horror can only hope. While Tales from the Crypt's stories are often dark, they are fairly kid friendly as well. If a kid is mature enough to read, understand, and enjoy the stories from the original comics, they should be old enough to enjoy this movie (or any of Amicus' stuff). I myself was first introduced to this great film while staying up late one night watching TBS. I'll never forget the first experience watching it. It truly frightened me at times, but not in a severe way. More in the way I suppose a good monster movie would've frightened a young kid back in the 1950s. All said, Tales from the Crypt is most definitely a purchase which I consider to be Essential!
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