Movies: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I love horror anthologies of all kinds, and I have a particular soft spot in my black heart for the British “portmanteau” films released by Amicus Productions in the 1960s and 1970s. And because it’s Christmas, I decided to write about a film that actually isn’t entirely based around the holiday per se, but does have a segment that’s set on Christmas Eve and features a killer Santa. I’m speaking, of course, of 1972’s Tales from the Crypt.

The five-segment film was directed by Freddie Francis, who also helmed a couple of other Amicus anthologies, 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and 1967’s Torture Garden. Freddie Francis, incidentally, was best known as a cinematographer, and he worked on some absolutely classic films, including 1961’s The Innocents (based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw), and three of David Lynch’s movies (The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story). He directed a couple Hammer films too, including 1964’s The Evil of Frankenstein and 1968’s Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.

Amicus Productions, despite being based in London and being heavily associated with the UK, was actually founded by two Americans, producers and screenwriters Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Subotsky in particular was a big fan of William Gaines’s old EC Comics, and was able to sell his partner on purchasing the rights to the various horror comics series—Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear—with a view to adapting some of the stories into an anthology film. While I’m sure younger people nowadays are probably more familiar with the iconic HBO Tales from the Crypt series from the 1990s, this 1972 film was actually the first time that any of the stories from the comics had been adapted to the big (or small) screen, as far as I’m aware. And although the finished film was titled Tales from the Crypt, only two of the featured stories were taken from that particular comic; two of the other ones were from The Haunt of Fear, and the remaining one was sourced from The Vault of Horror.

In the wraparound story, we’re following a tour group that’s exploring some creepy catacombs. Even though the guide specifically tells everyone to stay together and not lag behind, five inattentive motherfuckers wander off on their own anyway, and soon find themselves in a spooky little grotto with a stone seat topped by a massive skull. Once they’re sealed inside, a man in a monk-like getup suddenly appears (this is the Crypt Keeper, played by legendary stage actor Sir Ralph Richardson, who was also in another movie I discussed recently, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) and tells them to sit down and zip their lips while he lays some knowledge on them. We then delve into the stories proper.

The first segment, titled “…And All Through the House,” was taken from a story in The Vault of Horror #35, from 1954, and is set on Christmas Eve. A woman named Joanne (played by Joan Collins) coldly sneaks up behind her husband while he’s reading the paper and shanks the dude, killing him instantly and getting red tempera paint all over the white shag rug. Turns out she bumped off the old man for his life insurance policy, so she’s going to have to make the whole thing look like an accident.

She probably should have planned better, though, because not only is her daughter Carol (played by Chloe Franks, another Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? alum) upstairs and still awake because she’s excited about Santa’s impending visit, but apparently Joanne’s whole plan was to make it look as though her husband fell down the basement stairs and busted his skull open. Which makes me wonder why she didn’t just lure him to the basement steps and shove him down, rather than killing him in the living room, getting blood all over the carpet and the fireplace poker, and then having to haul his big ass over to the basement stairs anyway. It’s not like I’m an expert in spouse-killing or anything, I’m just throwing out some constructive criticism.

Anyway, while Joanne starts to clean up the scene, the eerie Christmas music she’s been listening to on the radio is interrupted by a news bulletin. Turns out that a dangerous lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum and is now running around loose in the area, clad in a Santa suit. To her credit, Joanne does immediately take this threat seriously, locking all the doors and windows and pulling the curtains closed. Which, again, she probably should have done before, if she was going to be killing her husband that evening and all.

And wouldn’t you know it, but the crazy, murderous Santa does actually show up at their house, leering in through the windows and trying to get in. Joanne starts to call the cops, but then remembers that she hasn’t quite finished setting up the murder scene to look accidental yet, so she refrains.

After she’s done cleaning everything up, dumping her husband’s body down the basement stairs and artfully dripping blood on the side of his head, she looks around, satisfied at her handiwork. She then goes upstairs to check on her daughter, but her daughter isn’t in bed. Frantic, Joanne runs downstairs, only to find that Carol has let the maniac inside, believing he’s the real Santa. The lunatic then proceeds to strangle Joanne to death as Christmas music plays spookily in the background.

This was a very brief but effective story, told with very little dialogue, but still creepy and compelling. The seasonal carols gave it a really unsettling vibe as you watched Joanne dispassionately cleaning up the murder scene, and the tension was really ramped up by the looming presence of the killer Santa outside. The blood looks fake as fuck, but that’s par for the course for movies from this era, so it didn’t really bother me.

This same story was adapted again for the HBO series in 1989, and it follows pretty much the same plot beats, although it actually only implied that the killer Santa was going to murder the main character, ending while she was still standing on the staircase screaming, whereas the version from the 1972 film actually showed Santa strangling Joanne in front of the fireplace.

The second tale was another fairly short one, “Reflection of Death,” taken from Tales from the Crypt #23, from 1951. In this story, we’re introduced to a kinda shitty dude named Carl (played by Ian Hendry), who tells his wife and kids that he’s going on a “business trip,” but is actually running off with his mistress Susan (Angela Grant), never to return.

While the lovebirds are driving along a road that night, excited about starting their new life together, they get into an accident after swerving to avoid a truck. It seems as though Carl is alive and was thrown clear of the vehicle, but we’re not entirely sure what happened to Susan or how bad Carl’s injuries are, because we’re suddenly seeing everything from Carl’s point of view. As he lumbers around, presumably looking for help, a few people see him and flee in terror, so you can probably guess where this story is going.

Carl makes his way back to the home of his wife and family and peeks in the window, only to observe that his wife is being consoled by another man. Damn, she moved on quick, didn’t she? Carl knocks on the door, but when his wife answers, she freaks the hell out at the sight of him and slams the door in his face.

Confused, Carl next goes to Susan’s apartment. Susan herself answers the door and looks like she got through the accident mostly unscathed; she also doesn’t react to Carl with horror, as everyone else has, but we soon realize that’s because she’s actually blind. Yep, you guessed it; she was blinded in the accident, but Carl was killed, and not only that, but it happened two goddamn years ago. Carl looks down, sees his zombie-esque visage reflected in the mirror-topped coffee table, and has a meltdown, at which point he snaps awake in the passenger seat of the car, driving with Susan toward their new life, back at the beginning of the story. He tells her he was having a horrible dream, and then the accident apparently happens for real, as though the previous story had all been a premonition.

This was a good yarn as well, even though it’s pretty obvious as soon as the accident happens what the outcome is going to be. It’s still entertaining, though, and the fact that it’s so short means that it gets in and out without dawdling, giving it much more impact.

The third story, “Poetic Justice,” is notable for featuring the awesome Peter Cushing in an emotionally wrenching role as a lovable widower who becomes the target of a couple of snotty assholes. The tale originally appeared in The Haunt of Fear #12, from 1952.

Two status-conscious, upper-class twats, James Elliot and his dad Edward (played by Robin Phillips and David Markham, respectively) live in a sort of swanky neighborhood, and spend their days doing swanky things. There’s something about the neighborhood that sticks in their craw, though, and that’s the shabbily dressed person of Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing), an elderly garbageman who lives across the street. Although Mr. Grimsdyke is a delightful man who is adored by all the neighborhood children and has a particular fondness for caring for stray dogs, the snobby dickheads across the street think his slightly down-at-heel appearance and run-down house are lowering everyone’s property values. Mr. Grimsdyke doesn’t want to move, even though the neighborhood has gentrified around him, because he shared the home with his wife for many years, and still feels her presence and cherishes the memories in the house. A believer in Spiritualism, Grimsdyke also talks to his dead wife regularly, asking for her advice, and these scenes are actually pretty heartbreaking to watch, because Peter Cushing himself had a very hard time dealing with the loss of his own wife in real life, and you can really tell he put a lot of his own experience into this role.

So because the two snobby neighbors (especially the son) are petty little bitches, they decide to conduct a campaign of terror against the poor old man in order to drive him out of the neighborhood. They tear up another neighbor’s prize roses and blame Grimsdyke’s dogs, thus summoning animal control to confiscate the animals. They engineer it so that he loses his job, and because he was only two years from retiring, that means he’ll lose his pension as well. They then start a whisper campaign that he’s basically a pedophile (this isn’t explicitly stated, but heavily implied), which causes all the parents to forbid their children from visiting him. It’s pretty diabolical all around.

Grimsdyke isn’t really sure why life is shitting on him so copiously all of a sudden, but he tries to maintain his positive attitude, talking to his deceased wife to make himself feel better. Neighbor James is angry that all of his machinations haven’t resulted in Grimsdyke moving away, however, so he decides on another scheme. Since Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, James writes a shit-ton of V-Day cards containing hateful verses about how much everyone wishes Grimsdyke would go away, and then he fakes it so it looks like the cards came from everyone in the neighborhood. This is apparently the last straw for Grimsdyke, who can’t stand the thought of everyone despising him, and sadly, he hangs himself.

We then jump ahead a year. It’s Valentine’s Day again, and James seems to be feeling a tad bit guilty about that whole driving-a-harmless-old-man-to-suicide thing. But guilt or no, since this is an EC Comics story, you just know this douchebag is going to get his deserved comeuppance, and in due course, Grimsdyke digs his way out of his own grave and shuffles on over to James’s house, where he tears out the fucker’s heart and leaves it wrapped in a Valentine poem that was written in his blood. I think the makers of My Bloody Valentine saw this movie for sure, because the closing scene is very much like one from that 1981 slasher.

This was another solid story; Peter Cushing is really affecting in it, and you just feel so bad for him, because he seems like such a sweet old man and this chode across the street is being the literal worst for the most pointless of reasons. This was also the goriest of the segments, what with the torn-out heart and all, which while not graphic by modern standards, was still pretty rough for a PG movie. The undead Peter Cushing makeup was also pretty great, especially because you rarely get to see Peter Cushing as a zombie.

The fourth story, “Wish You Were Here,” is a riff on the classic W.W. Jacobs tale “The Monkey’s Paw,” and appeared in The Haunt of Fear #22 from 1953. It centers on a businessman named Ralph (Richard Greene) who is going bankrupt because of some nefarious dealings. His lawyer/financial advisor tells him he’d better start selling off some shit because he’s broke, though from the looks of it, I think he’ll be just fine: he’s got a mansion stuffed with expensive antiques, and a sweet sports car that looks like it would bring in a pretty penny. I guess rich people bankruptcy isn’t the same as poor people bankruptcy, y’know, the kind where you actually have zero dollars and zero assets. But I digress.

So while Ralph and his wife Enid (Barbara Murray) are at home, mooning over all the beautiful possessions they now have to sell, Enid suddenly sees a previously unnoticed inscription on the base of a Chinese statue they own. It’s basically a similar setup to “The Monkey’s Paw,” where the thing grants three wishes, but also warns you to be careful what you wish for and how you go about wishing for it. Not really believing it but figuring what the hell, Enid wishes for a lot of money, even though in the universe of this story, both Ralph and Enid have read “The Monkey’s Paw” and remember what happened in it. Despite this, they go ahead anyway, because they’re desperate and also kind of idiots.

Much like in the original story, the money does appear as promised, but in the form of a life insurance payout after Ralph is killed in a car crash (in the original story, the couple received the money after their son was killed in an industrial accident at work). Said car crash occurred because Ralph was speeding as he tried to get away from a skull-faced motorcycle rider bearing down on him on the highway.

A distraught Enid is now a rich woman, but instead of just shrugging her shoulders and accepting the win, she makes the very stupid wish that Ralph could be back to the way he was just before the accident. She tries to be careful with her wording, mindful of what occurred in “The Monkey’s Paw,” but the Chinese figurine is still cleverer than she is. A bunch of pallbearers bring in Ralph’s body in a coffin. There’s not a scratch on him, but that’s because the accident didn’t actually kill him; he had a heart attack from fright before his car wrecked, thus the magical statue did as Enid asked and restored him to the state he was just before the accident: stone cold dead.

At this point, the family lawyer, Charles (Roy Dotrice) wisely tells Enid to quit with the wishing while she’s ahead, but Enid is beside herself and makes the absolutely stupidest wish of all: that Ralph be restored to life and further, that he’ll live forever. Ralph comes back to life, all right, but the poor bastard has been embalmed, and the embalming fluid in his veins is causing him unendurable agony. Horrified, Enid attempts to put him out of his misery, chopping off some limbs in the process, but because she wished for him to live forever, he can’t die and will spend the rest of eternity in excruciating pain. Good one, Enid.

This story too was sort of adapted again on the HBO series, but it was called “Last Respects,” actually went back to using the actual monkey’s paw rather than the Chinese statue, and made the wishing protagonists three feuding sisters rather than a married couple. So not all that similar, now that I think about it.

The final story, “Blind Alleys,” is also the longest, and was taken from Tales from the Crypt #46, from 1955. In it, an authoritarian military man, Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick) gets a new job as the director of a home for the blind. Right from the start, he’s a hard-ass, trying to save money by turning off the heat in the dorms at night, rationing blankets, and giving the mostly elderly residents watery gruel to eat instead of real food. While the blind residents suffer, though, the Major himself is living high on the hog, decorating his office with expensive paintings, drinking pricey wine, and eating fancy meals served on china dishes.

One of the residents, George Carter (Patrick Magee from A Clockwork Orange, among many other things), tries to reason with the Major, but the dictatorial director isn’t sympathetic, even threatening to sic his trained German shepherd Shane on the men if they complain too much.

After one of the blind men freezes to death one night in the dorm, George and the others band together to take a very elaborate revenge on the Major, which involves them luring his dog away and locking it in a chamber in the basement, then subduing the Major himself and securing him in a separate cell. Meanwhile, the blind men systematically construct a sort of ersatz hallway/trap, complete with razor blades sticking out of the walls.

After a couple of days, they let the Major out, but he finds himself herded along this hallway, narrowly avoiding being sliced to ribbons with the blades. Unbeknownst to him, at the other end of the hallway, his dog has been trapped in a small cell without any food for several days, and when the blind men release the dog and then turn out the lights, well… suffice it to say that the Major is gonna get sliced up by razors and eaten by his own dog no matter what he does. And good riddance, really.

This was also a damn good story, though it went on a bit too long for my taste (especially in contrast to the other stories, which were all really short), but I actually didn’t mind too much because the Major’s fate was so delicious, and the fact that it was prolonged made the payoff much more effective. Additionally, it’s always nice to see Patrick Magee in anything, and he’s really at his Patrick Magee-iest here, which is a big plus.

“Blind Alleys” was also adapted again for the later HBO series, though the title was changed to “Revenge is the Nuts,” and the main protagonist was changed to a blind woman who is raped by the director. The story is similar to the original in other respects, though.

After all five stories have played out—and in case I didn’t mention it, the five people in the crypt at the beginning of the movie were all the main characters in the subsequent segments—it’s revealed to no one’s surprise that the Crypt Keeper is actually just showing these assholes their past misdeeds before sending them off to Hell, which is conveniently right outside the stone door of the crypt. While it’s easy to see this twist coming, it’s still fun, although I have to admit that I did wonder why it was the character of Ralph in “Wish You Were Here” that ended up in the Hell-crypt; for one thing, it seemed like he didn’t do anything all that terrible (other than the hint that some shady business dealings had been the cause of his bankruptcy), and for another thing, in the context of his story, he actually couldn’t die, because his wife had wished for him to live forever. But I’m overthinking the whole thing, I guess, which is kinda what I do. Sorry.

Though Tales from the Crypt is pretty restrained, especially in comparison to the original comic books and the more flamboyant, much gorier HBO series (not to mention the amazing, EC Comics-adjacent Creepshow from 1984, which wasn’t specifically based on any of the EC stories but was just done in the spirit of them), it’s still an enjoyable flick if you like British horror from the 1970s, and a damn good anthology from this era. It also sort of counts as a Christmas movie, and as a Valentine’s Day movie if you want to get technical, so it also has that going for it. Whatever holiday you watch it for, though, give it a look if you’ve never seen it.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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