|Tales from the Crypt, 1972. Directed by Freddie Francis.
Ralph Richardson, Peter Cushing, Ian Hendry, Joan Collins, Nigel Patrick,
Roy Dotrice, Barbara Murray, Richard Greene, Patrick Magee, Robin Phillips.
Synopsis: Five strangers on a tour of medieval
catacombs lose there way and encounter a strange robed figure who tells
each of them a story. The first story involves a woman who murders her
husband on a Christmas eve on which a maniac dressed as Santa has escaped
from the asylum for the criminally insane.In the second, an absconding
husband survives a horrifying car crash only to find the world--and his
place in it--greatly changed. In the third, a young man who thinks his
kindly old neighbor and his dogs are driving down his property values
contrives to torment him as a way of convincing him to leave the neighborhood;
the old man dies instead, but wreaks a ghastly revenge from beyond the
grave. In the fourth, a businessman on the brink of financial ruin and
his wife make three wishes on a magical chinese statue; it's not a monkey's
paw, they note, so if they are careful....And in the fifth story, the
new head of a home for the blind pinches pennies and abuses his position,
only to find that his charges are not so helpless as he had surmised;
they contrive a horrifying comeupance for him....
It would be easy to blame this on director Freddie Francis, though I suspect the source for most of the film's stick in the mud tone is actually Ralph Richardson. Richardson is one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 20th century, gifted with a voice filled with gravitas and high purpose. He's woefully miscast as The Crypt Keeper. Not once does he even attempt The Crypt Keeper's signature chuckle, nor does he ever string more than three or four sentences together. Mainly he glares at our quintet of...victims...and says things like "you'll see" when pressed on who he is. This is the first project in which The Crypt Keeper himself is upstaged by the stories he tells.
Mix and Match: There are two traditions in anthologies: the first holds that you put your best stories at the beginning and the end. This is the Sam Arkoff school of filmmaking, in which the first reel and the last reel have to be good and the middle doesn't matter. The second frontloads all the weakest material at the start so that the anthology builds to a climax of sorts. This is the path taken by Tales from the Crypt. The opening story, "...And All Through the House" can claim to be the founder of the killer Santa sub-genre, though it's not very good. Joan Collins is game as the woman who kills her husband, but Santa is barely on screen. And, as I have said, the segment voids the source material's punch line. The second story, "Reflection on Death" is moderately better, but suffers for its over-familiarity. The point of view of the story gives it away too early and the attempt at a twist at the end doesn't work at all. The third story, "Poetic Justice," is where the movie hits its stride...
I should pause here for a word about Amicus and British horror in the late Sixties in general. Amicus was a tag-along studio, dedicated to picking up the leavings of the better known Hammer Studios. To this end, they often employed Hammer's talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Hence, this film employs ace-cinematographer turned plodding director Freddie Francis and Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing. Where Amicus differs from Hammer is in its use of modern location (Amicus made films on the cheap, avoiding expensive sets like the ones Hammer used) and in its choice of source material. In a way, one fed the other. Amicus, like The Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show and The Twilight Zone before it, discovered the treasure trove of mid-century American pulp fiction. While Hammer contented itself with recycling the Universal gothics ad nauseum. Amicus employed pulp fiction masters like Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson. And E.C. Comics. One can see the influence of Night of the Living Dead on Amicus's anthology movies. The results were a more muscular type of horror movie. A more...full blooded horror movie, if you'll pardon the pun.
Which brings me back to "Poetic Justice," which turns the Hammer film on its head. It employs Peter Cushing, arguably Hammer's biggest star, cast way against type as a kindly old man who loves dogs and children (this is, by all accounts, the closest to the man himself of all his roles). And it employs a level of graphic violence that was anathematic to Hammer. In death, Cushing's character is a terrifying eyeless zombie, and the way he delivers the final "Poetic Justice," as it were, shows not just blood, but viscera as well. This is new to the English horror film. This is the only segment that indulges in E.C's gleeful word play, though it seems less funny in the context of the movie itself.
Then the fourth segment ups the ante. This segement is "Wish You Were Here," a story that plagiarizes "The Monkey's Paw," tells you that it's plagiarizing "The Monkey's Paw," then TRUMPS "The Monkey's Paw" with a fate that is infinitely worse than death. When our hero is wished back to life (forever and ever), he's already been embalmed, and then his widow chops him up in his casket and he STILL can't die...man...Hammer never did ANYTHING like this segment. As a side note, the end of this segment tends to moot the framing device, since this story's victim cannot die and, thus, cannot meet The Crypt Keeper for the reasons the movie provides. Details, details...
The last segment goes in an almost entirely opposite direction. It's a variation on that old schoolyard grotesquerie in which one kid asks another to envision sliding down a bannister only to have it turn into a razor blade halfway down. This segment, "Blind Alleys" shows us the set-up, but lets the viewer fill in the payoff. In the context of the story, it works perfectly. It's the segment that is closest to the text of the story on which it is based. It omits only Al Feldstein's cruelest piece of narration at the end, but in this case it's not necessarily missed. The set-up: having abused his post at the head of a home for the blind, our heroe's charges imprison him and build a narrow passage to escape. This passage is lined with razor blades. Throw in a dog that has been starved for days and you can let your imagination do the rest, much as the filmmakers do.
Having provided a particularly nasty ending, the filmmakers then botch it by overlayering a moralistic rationale behind the movie and The Crypt Keeper's stories. This doesn't work at all, and fumbles all the good things one finds in the rest of the movie. Ah, well...anthologies are like that, sometimes.