Friday, 8 October 2010

The Vault of Horror (1973)

Country: UK/USA

After the commercial success of Tales from the Crypt (1972) there was a certain inevitability about Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg’s decision to once again return to the black humour and irony of EC Comics’ gore soaked pages. The stories of Al Feldstein and William M. Gaines were particularly suited to Amicus’ method of production, even if Amicus were never able to fully realise the viscera. Unfortunately The Vault of Horror is too light and inconsequential a follow up to Tales from the Crypt, and in all honesty is probably the companies weakest anthology. In the space of just a year what seemed exciting and interesting had degenerated into tiredness and datedness. The names on the marquee which included Tom Baker, Terry Thomas, Daniel Massey, Curt Jurgens, and Edward Judd represent the weakest casting to date for an Amicus anthology. Though scraping below the surface we do get dependable turns from Denholm Elliot, Anna Massey, Glynis Johns and Dawn Addams. The film opens with a series of establishing shots of Westminster, The Thames, and The Houses of Parliament as if too emphasis the films British credentials.. The only surprise in the film is that the ‘Vault’ itself is situated in the sub-basement of a non-descript tower block. Once our exclusively male incumbents have seated themselves they began to tell each other about the recurring dreams they have been experiencing. The only successful aspect of this extremely weak bridging narrative is the occasional inspirational shot from Roy Ward Baker.

The opening tale ‘Midnight Mess’ is probably the films most famous for a shock finale that sees Harold Rogers (Daniel Massey) drained of blood by a restaurant’s vampire clientele with a spigot in his jugular vein. Aside from this arresting image this is a predictable tale of a man out to kill his sister in order to gain an inheritance. There are one or two nice touches though, the best being the moment the bald waiter pulls back a curtain to reveal a mirror, and Harold discovers only he is reflected in it. But this simple tale of familial revenge is never less than ludicrous, and due to self regulating restraint never reaches the apex it would have in EC comics. The second tale ‘The Neat Job’ is equally insubstantial, but it is a lot of fun due to enjoyable performances from Terry Thomas and Glynis Johns. Thomas plays the absurdly fussy and fastidious Arthur Critchiit, who marries in order to have a someone to keep his house neat and tidy. I always relish the opportunity to discuss the art direction of Amicus, and the interior decoration of Critchit’s house reaches an all time low. This is blandness personified and if this represents the fruits of Critchit’s labours, then he can consider himself a failure. Inevitably Critchit’s fetish for tidiness ends in a suitably ironic and grim fashion, but not before we are afforded the unforgettable sight of Thomas wearing a pair of pink knickers!

The third story ‘This Trick’ll Kill You’ sees the filmmakers attempt to recreate an Indian marketplace with mixed results. The taciturn Curt Jurgens plays a particularly unconvincing magician, though when he murders a young girl for a rope trick, this does seem more in line with the sense of ruthlessness we come to expect from the actor. The fourth story ‘Bargain in Death’ is so slight as to be utterly pointless. It involves one of the most nonsensical insurance scams to date, and is only saved by the fact that Edward Judd can be seen reading a battered copy of the Tales from the Crypt novelisation. The fifth and final ’tale of terror’ is also the best, entitled ’Drawn and Quartered’ it features the brilliantly bearded pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker playing a down on his luck artist who utilises the power of Haitian voodoo to enact terrible revenge on three men who have conned him. The method is novel, anything he paints come to pass, which also includes his own demise after a clumsy painter spills white spirits all over his self portrait. A wise idea would be to lock the painting away, but Moore finds himself asphyxiating after locking his portrait away in a safe. There is a lot of time spent watching Baker paint, but Baker is such a magnetic presence on screen that I didn’t mind this at all, the result is a tale which is up there with the best of Amicus.

On the evidence of The Vault of Horror you would think that Amicus would have chosen to make this their last anthology film. But in fact the company produced another a year later, and against the run of play From Beyond the Grave (1974) turned out to be one of their best. This would be the last time Amicus would adapt stories from the EC Comics canon, and the problems here in all likelihood stem from a weak screenplay by Subotsky. A failed attempt to shoehorn five stories in 90 minutes leads to an imbalance throughout. Aside from illustrating the blackness of men’s hearts and a psychotic desire for material gain the modern settings of Amicus resolutely avoided any kind of social or political discourse. This was especially retrograde and old fashioned in the 1970’s which saw the horror genre take an unprecedented interest in world affairs, there is little of value here, aside from a few mild distractions.

In memoriam to Roy Ward Baker - 19/12/1916 - 05/10/2010

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Another concise review, Shaun! I must say I do like this movie, but agree it's a lesser affair when compared to TALES. The 'Midnight Mess' story is really faithful to the source, but the 'This Trick'll Kill Ya' is a bit different in execution. When the wife climbs the rope, she disappears, but then reappears completely dismembered with her body parts falling down around her husband. The police then bust in and find the husband dangling from the rope, but it isn't tied to anything. There's slight differences to 'The Neat Job' if I remember right.

    I was a bit pissed when it got released here on a double feature with an uncut version of TALES, only VAULT was still the same television version available here for years particularly on the Nostalgia Merchant VHS label. The pic quality is much better, though.

  2. I agree it's a fairly weak film. To be honest I'm not the biggest fan of Amicus's anthology movies, apart from Asylum.

  3. Thanks for the comments! - I dont think this was the best way to remember director Roy Ward Baker, but coincidence had it that I re-watched it at the start of the week. I'm not overly familiar with the source material Venom, so thanks for the information. I also have the Midnite Movies double feature DVD release, with the clumsy freeze frame/cut at the end of 'Midnight Mess'. There has yet to be a really decent DVD release of this film, and its long overdue.

  4. I found all five of the tales to be fun little distractions, and while TALES is always the preferable of the two, I never grow tired of watching VAULT! I have ASYLUM coming in a couple of weeks, cant wait, havent seen it before and just added FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE to the wishlist on your rec Shaun!

  5. I hate that freeze frame thing they did in the vampire story, it felt so cheap! Problem is, that scene is right on the first story, so right of the bat, I got a bad feeling about this one.

    Simply put, everything is "less" on this film, the horror factor went all the way down, as opposed to the first one which had some truly creepy stories in it...

    I need to see Graveyard...

  6. The freeze frame wasn't in the original movie. The version widely available on DVD is a cut television print. The same one was also on the old Nostalgia Merchant VHS tape. The OOP Vipco DVD is complete, but has lesser picture quality from what I've seen. The only stories I recall being heavily edited are the first story and 'The Neat Job'. Perhaps Shaun can add more regarding the more complete Vipco DVD.

  7. Yeah that particular shot can be laid at the door of the censors rather than Amicus. The OOP Vipco disc is totally uncut, but contrary to the promise on the cover that the film has been digitally remastered, the picture quality is awful. A subsequent reissue by Blackhorse Entertainment in late 2008 did little to address this problem, but again this disc is uncut. Both the Vipco and Blackhorse discs are full screen as well. I still think the Midnite Movies double bill is the one to go for, simply for the value and the decent presentation of 'Tales from the Crypt'

  8. Oh well, thats the one I got, the Midnite Movies one, from MGM. That freeze frame cut gave me goose bumps, I knew something was not right! Thanks for the info.


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