Monday, 7 May 2012

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Country: UK

Like most horror anthologies the Amicus production Tales from the Crypt is a patchy and uneven affair; at times sublime and highly entertaining, at others rushed, predictable, and unsatisfying. This hasn’t stopped it becoming the most immediately recognised of their numerous portmanteau movies, a situation no doubt aided by the films tremendous commercial success. My personal favourite will forever remain The House that Dripped Blood (1971) for its blend of comedy, self-referential satire, effective scares, and the stylish and intelligent direction of Peter Duffell. Duffell clearly impressed Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg for he was offered the job of directing Tales from the Crypt, but he chose to turn it down. So they turned to Freddie Francis, a safe but dull pair of hands, a man capable of churning out serviceable genre movies, but ones almost entirely lacking in inspiration. Fortunately the decision to turn to the gore soaked pages of EC Comics offset this somewhat. Writers such as Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, and William M. Gaines excelled at creating short sharp morality plays overflowing with poetic irony, black humour, and disreputable characters. EC Comics still had a whiff of scandal attached to them, and one must credit Subotsky for toning down the savagery, without compromising the overall message of each story.

The film opens to the evocative and resonant strains of Bach’s Tocatta & Fugue in D Minor, and a series of earthy establishing shots of overgrown tombstones, gnarled tree branches, and desolate but well trod pathways. The location was Highgate Cemetery in London and it is the most effective setting in the film, a space both symbolic and metaphoric, and an early clue to the fate of five unwitting human beings. The crypt itself is a suitably labyrinthine space, but when your tour guide happens to be Geoffrey Bayldon, you might be better off spending your afternoon in the pub. Instead of a quick witted skeleton our crypt keeper on this occasion is the monkish Ralph Richardson, who is resplendent in his habit, and shot all of his scenes in a single day. The prescence of such an esteemed actor helps to elevate the framing narrative, and his sombre delivery of comic book dialogue adds a doom laden gravitas to the proceedings.

The opening story And All Through the Night which utilises the fun and revelry of Christmas as a backdrop to murder has justifiably become the most famous segment. The story unfolds over a mere twelve minutes and has virtually no dialogue, yet every facet of this shocker is communicated effectively. Joan Collins’ motivation is money, and her need for it has led her to kill her husband on Christmas Eve (poker to the head) while her daughter excitedly awaits Santa Claus upstairs. Her wishes this Christmas will be fulfilled, though the fact that Santa also happens to be a homicidal maniac who has only recently fled a nearby asylum may temper her joy somewhat! With a constant babble of Christmas Carols accompanying Collins’ attempts to erase the evidence of her misdeed, and the constant threat of a lurking maniacal presence outside desperate to gain entry to the house this effortlessly becomes one of the best stories to feature in an Amicus anthology. Of particular note is the casual cruelty that Collins brings to her character; opening the present her husband intended for her, and snorting with derision at the gift within, before booting his corpse down the cellar steps!

The second story Reflection of Death illustrates to perfection the inconsistency that blighted Amicus’ anthology films. After such a fine opening parlay, this effort is pure drudgery. It is lightened somewhat by the ever watchable presence of Ian Hendry, who plays an adulterous husband who leaves his family high and dry to be with his mistress. Naturally he is punished, but the moment that director Francis adopts a POV shot following a car crash, and shows us the disgusted and terrified reactions of not one, but three individuals, we know where this one is going. The cyclical nature of Hendry’s waking nightmare leaves a subtle chill, but a weak story undoes the good work of the first. However Tales from the Crypt offers a surprise with a third story Poetic Justice that rivals the first for the mantle of best tale. In this wonderfully cruel and dark story Peter Cushing plays garbage collecting widower Arthur Grimsdyke, a man loved by the local children, but despised by his wealthy neighbours. Cushing brings a tremendous amount of emotional pathos to a role which offered a sombre echo to his own life. The campaign of cruelty and hatred against him is punctuated with moments of heartbreak, such as when his pet dogs are taken away, and when he receives a hatful of valentines cards filled with sick messages. But Grimsdyke’s suicide opens the doorway of retribution, and when he returns a year later, a mouldering and rotting zombie courtesy of Roy Ashton’s excellent makeup, he is able to quench his thirst for vengeance in typical EC Comics fashion.

The pattern of following an excellent story with rubbish is maintained by Wish You Were Here, which is easily the most insubstantial of the lot. It tries to be clever in its attempt to satirise The Monkey’s Paw, but ultimately comes across as feeble and half-hearted. Richard Greene and Barbara Murray try their best with pallid and idiotic material as they play a husband and wife punished for their avarice. The final story Blind Alleys doesn’t quite reach the heights of And All Through the House and Poetic Justice, but it’s the films longest segment and pits a retired army major played by Nigel Patrick and his well trained Alsatian Shane against blind Patrick Magee and the aged patrons of a home for the visually impaired. This is possibly the most intriguing and thematically interesting story, the nature of blindness is given plenty of screen time, and equal weighting is given to the inhumanity of the military approach. Although the Major is determined to save money and put the home back onto a paying basis, the sight of him decorating his office with expensive paintings and eating hearty meals in front of a roaring log fire, while the inmates eat gruel and freeze to death suggests his sadism goes far beyond anything he might have learned in the army. The punishment meted out to the Major is particularly cruel and inventive and makes the story one of the darkest and bleakest to yet feature in an Amicus anthology. By the standards of the portmanteau format two excellent stories, one good story, and two dreadful stories constitutes a success overall, and Tales from the Crypt emerges as one of the better examples from Amicus’ canon.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Asylum is the only one of Amicus's portmanteau films that I really like

  2. Freddie Francis might have been "safe but dull" but its very important to remember that he did direct what i genuinely believe to be THE greatest film ever produced by the British film industry (in the last 123 years ! ! !) "THE CREEPING FLESH" (1972), that film is a supreme masterwork of the highest calibre.

  3. I like THE CREEPING FLESH, and I do rate it as one of his better films, but personally I think his best film was either THE SKULL or MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY. So with regard to you saying it's the greatest film ever produced in the history of the British film industry, I have to respectfully disagree. But instead of just stating your belief, I'd be interested to read your reasons as to why you believe THE CREEPING FLESH holds that position in your estimations.

  4. Its just a magical film with an astonishing re-watchability factor. The atmosphere, the characters, the story, its just total perfection. Its also the exact polar-opposite of the laughable, pathetic, out-moded, unwatchable, unimaginative garbage thats unfortunately produced in Britain today. The days of Cushing and Lee (from the late 50`s up till the early 70`s) were pure magic.

  5. I can't say THE CREEPING FLESH ever interested me much, but the concept was intriguing, only the movie did little to hold my attention. That's been years ago, though. TALES I quite like and enjoy all the stories for different reasons. I think the second is the weakest, but I still found the REAL capper of "just desserts" to be satisfying.

    The Monkey's Paw variant I liked, too, and it was this story that first brought TALES the movie to my attention as a child; it was in Famous Monsters of Filmland with a shot of that skeletal motorcycle rider that embedded itself in my mind for years.

    My favorite actor Peter Cushing truly excels in his segment, no doubt aided by the recent passing of his wife; not that he would need it, but the pain in his face is unmistakable and as he loses his friends one by one, his facial twitches, subtle quivering of his lips all add to a masterful performance that I must say brought a tear or two to my eyes the first time I saw this.

    The last tale is just brilliant revenge cinema at its finest made all the powerful and terrifying in that it's a group of fed up blind senior citizens. I have most of the EC reprints of these stories and they make for fun reading and especially shocking for what they got away back then... well, at least until they were finally shut down, lol.

    Brilliantly composed review as usual, Shaun!

  6. @ Monsieur Anonymous - Thanks for outlining your reasons for your obvious love of THE CREEPING FLESH. I'm nowhere near as negative as you about the current state of British cinema, indeed Hammer's THE WOMAN IN BLACK and last years remake of LET ME IN have certainly revived interest in British horror. I would actually say that over the last 5-10 years British cinema has enjoyed some really interesting additions to the pantheon of British horror. I'm not really sure as to what you are precisely referring to with your swathe of negative adjectives.

    @ Brian - The Monkey's Paw variant is a lousy failure in my opinion. It makes an effort to be satirical but just ends up in farce. But I did like that skeleton masked biker, I very nearly gave him a sentence in the review. Yes Cushing delivers a masterclass, the best performance, by some margin, in the entire film. What did you think of Ralph Richardson's monastic crypt keeper? And no comments about the festive opener? - cheers Brian!

  7. Sir Ralph was suitably devilish as the omnipotent gatekeeper to the hot place. I liked the little nuances in his performance as if he were beckoning at least one of the ner do wells to hone up to their crimes before unraveling them before our eyes.

    Ha! I can't believe I forgot to make a mention of it. The first episode is ghoulish fun and I think surpasses the remake of it for the award winning HBO series from the late 80s-90s. The encroaching maniac is handled much better in the Amicus film, I think. The focus is more on Collins evading him and in the later one, the camera probes elsewhere away from the lady killer and takes some of the terror away from the outside threat.

  8. Shaun, in the last 35 years the American film industry has produced literally thousands of truly memorable horror movies, in the same period the British film industry has produced maybe 10 ! ? ! ?, my "swathe of negative adjectives" refers specifically to the way the British film industry has become a ludicrous joke and a worldwide laughing stock during those last 35 years.

  9. Hi could Anyone tell me the location of the Flyover in Reflection of Death

  10. @ Brian - I was asked to write a piece some years back about Christmas themed horror, and I chose the opening segement of TALES FROM THE CRYPT. I still think it's probably the best, perhaps only BLACK CHRISTMAS challenges it, though its a film I'm not all that keen on.

    @ Anonymous - I wouldn't know if the British film industry is a 'worldwide laughing stock' because I live in England, and would need to travel to every country on the planet to confirm your ludicrous assertion.

    @ Anonymous - I personally don't know the locations used in REFLECTION OF DEATH, but hopefully a passing scholar will tell us.


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