Tales from the Crypt (1972, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) is the first of two anthologies directly adapted from Amicus’ spiritual inspiration, EC Comics.
A group of five explorers encounter a crypt keeper (no, not that one, but rather Ralph Richardson as a hammy monk) in an underground cavern. Each are shown the fate that awaits them.
“And All Through the House” taps into Francis’ best qualities, making for an excellent opening segment. While her daughter is sleeping fitfully upstairs waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive on Christmas Eve, Joan Collins is smashing a poker over her husband’s skull so she can collect his insurance money.
Meanwhile, an inmate has escaped from a nearby asylum, dressed as Santa Claus, and someone is going to open the door. Collins is, naturally, perfectly cast as a bitch from hell in the guise of a sex bomb.
The dialogue is pared down to bare minimum, making this a visual segment, alight in Christmas colors and blood, and choreographed to holiday music. It’s the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.
“Reflection Of Death” is the weakest link here, about an adulterer (Ian Hendry) who leaves his wife and kids and suffers the consequences when his car crashes. Its twist ending is disappointingly inevitable, but Francis (barely) holds our attention with some innovative POV perspectives.
“Poetic Justice” features a superb, moving performance from Peter Cushing as Grimsdyke. He’s one of those despicable poor people: you know the ones who are always looking for free stuff, health insurance, and government handouts, just like the ones Jesus used to kick in the ass. Although a little senile, he’s kindhearted, loved by the neighborhood children, and communicates with his deceased wife (who is poignantly represented by a portrait of Cushing’s actual late wife). He’s also hated by his neighbors, especially the greedy, uptight James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who drives Grimsdyke to suicide and… this may be the first and only film of a zombie with an elegiac heart, forced to rip out the heartless. Cushing channels his grief to craft what may be his finest character acting.
“Wish You Were Here” is a pallid reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and delivers a “moral lesson” about being careful what you ask the genie for and how you ask it. Neither Richard Greene (as a zombie) nor Barbara Murray can salvage it.
“Blind Alleys” features Patrick Magee delivering a strong performance as a blind nursing home resident revolting against dictatorial director Nigel Patrick, who is so adept at patriarchal evil that we can’t wait for his comeuppance, which comes in a wham bang finale.
Although all of the Amicus anthologies had been profitable, Tales from the Crypt was their biggest box office hit (no doubt in part due to the built-in fanbase of EC Comics), so much so that instead of waiting a few years, the studio immediately went into production of…
The Vault of Horror (1973, directed by Roy Ward Baker and written by Al Feldstein), the second anthology adapted directly from EC Comics. It’s also the only Amicus anthology not to star Peter Cushing, and is usually listed as the weaker of the two EC adaptations for a simple, good reason: it is. In rushing to produce another anthology, Amicus was less selective in picking the original stories. The result was a substantially diminished box office and critical pans, which cancelled plans for a third film in the series. For a number of years, only a truncated version of Vault of Horror was available. For the 2014 Blu-ray (paired in a double feature with Tales from the Crypt), it was finally released in its original edit. The uncut version slightly ups the quota of blood and violence, although it’s still tame by today’s standards. It only verifies that Baker’s strength is not in subtlety. The extra red sauce hardly improves the flimsy narratives.
“Midnight Mess”: Siblings Daniel and Anna Massey play siblings. He wants her inheritance and slaughters her for it, but there’s a diner of vampires to contend with, and they have concocted their own bloody Mary recipe. It’s a mediocre affair, but the title is apt.
OCD Terry-Thomas drives wife Glynis Johns to murder in “The Neat Job.” Despite questionable casting and paper-thin plot, its theme of domestic terrorism at least captures the EC spirit.
In “This Trick’ll Kill You,” Curd Jurgens (best remembered as the villain in Roger Moore’s only good Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me) and Dawn Addams are hypocritical magicians out to learn the secret behind a rope trick in India—even if they have to murder for it. The rope seeks revenge. It clearly needed a better budget. Clumsy and hopelessly silly, it is probably the single worst episode in the entire Amicus anthology catalogue.
“Bargain in Death” features Michael Craig as a horror writer who gets double-crossed in an insurance scam and is buried alive by a wasted Edward Judd. With the aid of grave robbers, he survives and seeks revenge in this narratively-muddled, bargain-basement plot.
“Drawn and Quartered” is another revenge yarn with voodoo thrown in for good measure. Tom Baker (“Dr. Who”) is a starving artist who discovers that his paintings have been sold for a fortune, which he of course did not reap. Seeking revenge, he goes to a voodoo priestess who grants him a dash of Dorian Gray powers—which backfire, just as Oscar Wilde predicted. Baker’s impressive performance is full of surprises and saves the entire film. Unfortunately,the plot is less surprising, with a predictable finale.
From Beyond the Grave (1974, directed by Kevin Connor, written by Raymond Christodolou and Robin Clarke) makes a fitting coda to the Amicus anthologies. Although the four stories are superior to the ones Vault had to offer, the wraparound, about a proprietor (Cushing) selling antiques with bit of history is surprisingly underdeveloped. Cushing gives a character performance, allowing him to improvise with props, but he is underused. Still, woe to those who steal or cheat this shop owner.
David Warner haggles with Cushing over a mirror and unknowingly purchases “The Gate Crasher”—a demon hidden inside the mirror who possess Warner and brings out the bloody ripper in him.
“An Act of Kindness”: When Cushing won’t sell a purple heart to Ian Bannen, the patron swipes it. Big mistake. Bannen wants it to impress a street vendor ( Donald Pleasance) and his daughter (Angela Pleasance) whom Bannen has the hots for, especially since he is unhappily married to Diana Dors. The object of his affections has a special “talent,” puts it to use, and happily makes her suitor a widower. Of course, that’s hardly the end of the story.
Margaret Leighton is a hammy psychic whom Ian Carmichael visits in “The Elemental.” She informs him that he has an elemental (an invisible parasite) on his shoulder. Soon, he and wife Nyree Dawn Porter discover just how harmful the elemental is, and call in the ghostbuster madame. Laden with humor and a marvelous performance from Leighton, this is easily the plum of the four.
Ian Oglivy purchase an antique in “The Door.” It’s actually a gateway to an expansive blue room, housing 17th century Satanist Jack Warner, who has his eye on Oglivy’s wife Lesley-Anne Down. Naturally, it goes downhill from there, climaxing with an axe-welding Down.
In 1978 producers Rosenberg and Subotsky ended their Amicus partnership. Subotsky went on to form his own production company and produced one genre anthology, The Monster Club (1980, directed by Roy Ward Baker, written by Edward and Valerie Abraham), which was a critical and box office failure. It has since struggled for cult status, with a considerable effort mounted to reevaluate it as an underrated classic. Good luck with that, because period critics were correct. Baker is the wrong director for this kind of hammy, overloaded, feeble parody starring Vincent Price, John Carradine, and Donald Pleasance. It’s an example of not knowing when to quit.
Still, the Amicus anthologies remain delightful products of their time, best served up on a Saturday night with your pick of poison.