Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part X): Tales from the Crypt (1972) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's fifth anthology, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: Before I advance any further in my estimation of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), I feel it only fair to mention that, if my shady memory serves me right, this week’s film marked the first time that I was ever exposed to an Amicus picture in the days of my youth; after fervently tracing the whispers I had heard of a feature-length film based on those gory yarns from Entertaining Comics—one that was British (!) and whose scintillating pictures of shambling corpses and posters shouting “Death Lives!” I had spied in the pages of Alan G. Franks’ HORROR MOVIES—I finally saw in the TV Guide that the source of my obsession was airing on that week’s installment AMC’s “Fear Fridays.” With beating heart and sweating palms, I faced my 10 to midnight vigil with a fresh tape in the VCR to diligently record the movie (even as a kid I knew how precious those little black spools were and would fanatically stop and restart the recording to cut out any of those wasteful commercials). And I was, to say the least, in horror heaven.

So I thought it only honorable that I admit from the start that this particular write-up is going to be very biased. It will in fact contain certain criticisms against some facets of the film, but even after re-viewing TALES FROM THE CRYPT this weekend it was still clearly evident that this is a work of art that’s still very close to my heart (so long as any vengeful cadavers don’t rip it out). It is in my opinion the best and most accomplished work that Freddie Francis turned in to Shepperton Studios as director, and the varying moods that each of the stories call for are perfectly embodied with the filmmaker’s characteristic flair and verve. Milton Subotsky’s adaptations of the vignettes originally scripted by Al Feldstein are faithful and, somewhat conversely to what one might think, full of life; these are not dry carbon copies of storyboarded panels but adaptations dripping with sweat and blood that you can feel running through your grubby little paws. It should then come as no surprise that both Feldstein and William M. Gaines, the inherent son of E. C. Comics and fellow spear-header of the terrifying “New Trend,” professed great admiration for Amicus’ take on their pulpy and putrescent spook stories and TALES FROM THE CRYPT so successful itself that it was the only feature from the company to warrant a direct and true sequel, 1973’s THE VAULT OF HORROR.

The lead-in to this film has to rate as the tops of any other Amicus picture (and ranks as one of my favorites in any genre film period). It is simplicity personified: a sinister stroll through an historic cemetery set to Sebastian Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” It’s so very predictable and cliché and yet it is wholly comforting in its familiarity. The shots of the graves and sculptures, all weathered and covered with windblown ivies, with the sun shining in the sky only bringing more definition to the shadows that lurk by the creaking iron gates bestows a feeling upon me that is something like what home feels like. In cruder terms, it gives me one raging Gothic boner. 

The framing device used here is somewhat paler in comparison to this and the other inventive wraparounds we’ve seen thus far: five tourists enter a crypt on a tour only to lose their way and then, trapped in a cavernous room that boasts a wonderful skull-faced throne, are accosted by a weird old man who appears to be monk but is, as the faithful will know, the one and only Cryptkeeper (played by *Sir* Ralph Richardson). Anyone expecting John Kassir’s noseless, wisecracking skeleton from the HBO television show might be a bit chafed at seeing Richardson’s wrinkled but refined face peering out from under the hood, the grave witticisms we’re used to hearing traded in for wavering, old time radio-styled precipitations of doom (Subotsky for whatever bizarre reason equates eeriness with Richardson repeating things either he or the other characters have said). 

This plus the overall lack of any rib-tickling morbidity might be the only major complaint that could be lobbied against TALES FROM THE CRYPT as it was such an integral part of the EC formula and one that other Amicus efforts (TORTURE GARDEN and even THE VAULT OF HORROR) pulled off with more determinedness. I personally prefer the touch of sardonicism used here over the out-and-out whackiness that the television show would strive for at times. It has a mordant quality more akin to Edward Gorey than Gahan Wilson, if you catch my drift, and it sits well with the frosty British attitude that this production would indelibly possess.

I’ll continue my lover-of-all-things-equally-good-and-terrible trend by stating that all of the tales within this crypt are winners (okay, with the exception of one) that successfully capture vibes of pathos, suspense, and terror like we have yet to see. Hey, I did tell you I was going to be biased. But before I pour out my noxious love for this film any further like so much brightly-colored blood, I’d would like to hear what you plan to say about this creepy confection stirred up from the Old Witch’s bubbling cauldron.

Yes. Plans…


Ah, yes, plans. My plan for our discussion of TALES FROM THE CRYPT is to compliment it with only a few reservations. Sure, it’s not my favorite Amicus anthology (that title would belong to either TORTURE GARDEN [1967] or THE MONSTER CLUB [1980]), but it’s pointless to deny the film’s legacy. TALES FROM THE CRYPT looms large in the canon as a classic horror anthology film, and its striking, comic book-sourced iconography is perhaps the most memorable and enduring in Amicus’s filmography. This is the Amicus film people tend to remember, in no small part because it was one of their most popular. Made for less than $200k, it raked in over $3 million at the box office, with most of its success in America, where it opened over half a year before it premiered in England. (A dubious piece of IMDb trivia states that TALES FROM THE CRYPT was the second most successful U.S. release of 1972, behind only THE GODFATHER, and while this is obviously suspect it remains undeniable that the film was a major financial success for Amicus—as you note, they even dared to make a sequel for it!) 

That American audiences swooned for the film’s varied horrors was inevitable: TALES FROM THE CRYPT expertly adapts those lurid, banned American comic book thrills while encasing them within the façade of British respectability. This is gory, fiendish material made up to seem classy, and—in the era of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE EXORCIST (1973), before the trashiest and nastiest of horrors began to dominate the box office—horror with a touch of class was in. Certainly, TALES FROM THE CRYPT lacks the artistic polish and auteur-driven sensibilities of those aforementioned films, but Amicus didn’t cast Sir Ralph Richardson for nothing. While previous Amicus advertising campaigns played up their films’ B-movie aesthetics, the promotional material for TALES chose a more reserved path, its iconic cobwebbed skull one-sheet managing to toe the line between respectable horror and Amicus’s usual tricks only with the inclusion of a single living eyeball. Consequently, the film at least in part resembled the sort of horror film that people could trick their hesitant significant others into attending with promises of a sophisticated viewing experience. And tricked they clearly were.

For me, the film errs on the side of solemnity. Though its seriousness is tempered by the ironic humor of the five segments’ conclusions (it’s no ASYLUM [1972], thankfully), its strivings towards respectability make it occasionally stuffy. As you note, I think this is most noticeable in its frame narrative, which comes up shoddy in comparison with that of any previous Amicus anthology. Unlike you, my first exposure to the EC comic oeuvre was through the HBO TV series and its cartoonish formulation of the Crypt Keeper (who was in fact so cartoonish that the series was further spun off into a cartoon for children, which I was also a fan of). Having exposed myself to the original comics since then, I’m now certain that even at its cloying, pun-smattered worst, the HBO series and its cackling host were a better approximation of the source material’s charm than the film’s wraparound and its Keeper’s laughable parrot routine. And yet as cornily humorous as the introductions and conclusions of the EC tales were, the stories themselves (especially those adapted for this feature) play out relatively straight, and so in this way the film appears more perceptive of the comics’ original intent than the sometimes-too-funny-for-its-own-good series. The EC horror comics often strove to scare their young readers, though never too much, as evinced by the fact that their panels would always cut back to the quips of the Crypt-Keeper, the Old Witch, or the Vault-Keeper before events became too gruesome. My ideal version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT probably exists somewhere between the two approaches to adaptation: a balance of humor and horror, a metafictional self-awareness coupled with a genuine affection for spine-tingling storytelling. 

But in and of itself, Amicus’s effort is as appetizing as the meal Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick) became for his starving dog in the film’s final segment (read: very). Now, let’s pick the meat off these segments till naught but the bones remain. First you, and then me.


GR: Ahh, and what a gruesome spread we have here. It’s a meal fit for a creep, with enough heaping helpings of horror to scare the palate out of any fright-fiend. So, like the hungry maggot said to his fellow, “Let’s dig in!” Hee-hee-hee-hee! 

I couldn’t resist.

The first story is a sugary Yuletide treat that gives a nod to C. Clement Moore’s famous tale in its title, “And All Through the House…” before beating that nod in with a poker! (I think it’s catching.) More accurately, it’s Joan Collins’ frosty housewife that does the beating, delivering a deadly blow to her hubby’s cranium as radio carolers sing in heavenly harmony. This very naughty girl has decided to sleigh her spouse in order to gift herself with his hefty insurance policy, but her plans are fudged by an escaped maniac patrolling the quiet neighborhood adorned in a Father Christmas costume. Nothing to worry about though, so long as he stays outside…

“And All Through the House…” tends to be a favorite tale amongst fans, within the original comics as well as without in both this adaptation and the Richard Donner-directed installment of the television series. The tale does hit that certain sweet spot that lovers of Christmas-themed horror crave in similar fare: that enticing combination of the merry and the macabre. When I covered this film for Richard’s Hello! This is the Doomed Show, both he and I were musing if this story might have been the first of its kind, that of a psychotic killer dressing up as the jolly old elf himself. The original tale penned and illustrated by Johnny Craig appeared in the February 1954 issue of THE VAULT OF HORROR (boasting a great front cover that had no resemblance to the story whatsoever save for the shared holiday), so it marks “And All Through the House…” as an innovative twist on the old murder-and-marriage trope, not to mention perhaps being the virtual progenitor of all the various “killer Claus” movies that we seem to see almost every year. 

Subotsky sticks true to Craig’s original stripped-down narrative in his adaptation, Francis expertly weaving his camera all about the gaily-decorated living room as Collins crouches and slinks about under the ever-watchful gaze of Kris Kringle. I particularly love the subtlety at work when we see Joan, hands-only, prod the logs in the crackling fireplace with the golden poker and then pull away as her husband enters the room. It is only after the killing blow has been dealt while her husband reads the evening paper—inspiring the most active and fun amount of splatter that we’ve seen thus far as his head wound gushes all over the print—that we see the poker gripped in Joan’s hands as his body slumps forward, only now fully realizing the extent of its use. I can’t help but wonder if Subotsky, in light of our previous estimations of his “talent,” had the artistic mind to detail this in his script or if it was the cinematographic eye of Francis that dreamt that little sequence up. Either way you slice it, it’s great.

In some ways I actually prefer the version from the television series to this, mainly because that iteration had the opportunity to explore more interesting and suspenseful avenues (which it did indeed do, quite successfully). Mainly how the villainous wife realizes that she can’t phone for the police without indicting herself as her husband’s murderer; in the TV version, the wife finally gets the bright idea to blame Larry Drake’s hatchet-happy crazy for the deed but this, sadly, doesn’t work out so well for her. I was actually surprised by how short this segment felt upon rewatching it. It feels like it doesn’t have enough time to completely explore the cat-and-mouse game between the murderess and the maniac. We get one good jump-scare when the loony grasps for Joan’s pretty throat through a back gate and the way that Santa rings his little bell as he strolls about the house is a good chill-raiser. But this segment could have been more fully realized had we seen Joan sweat just a little more. 

I’m sure that there are plenty of people who would say that this time could (and perhaps should) have been taken from the movie’s next segment, “Reflection of Death,” as this one for all its good intent can’t help but fall on the “blah” side amongst the mostly excellent company it keeps with the rest. Ian Hendry’s criminal act is abandoning his wife and children to abscond with a dark-eyed beauty. But en route to his new life, he dies, in a horrible car accident to be precise. Awaking from the crash, he attempts to find his way back home… but for some reason everyone he meets reacts with absolute horror.

The payoff here can be seen a mile off (unfortunately not like the truck that ran the couple off the highway), especially if you grew up with books like SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK that included variations of this old legend (I believe it appeared in Volume 3 under the title “Better Late than Never”). But that’s not so important so long as the journey’s engaging, right? Sadly “Reflection” suffers from a slogging two-thirds that feels a bit bereft of any real menace or dread. It also has some rather funny lapses in logic that leaves one scratching their skulls; how can Hendry awaken to the sight of his burning vehicle when he is told what seems like mere hours later by his now-blind, former mistress that the accident took place two years prior? This would imply that A). Hendry has seen the longest-raging fire known to humankind; B). the emergency personnel in this part of Britain is grossly negligent of their duties; or C). it took Hendry two years exactly to walk from the accident site to the mistress’ flat. Some might say it certainly felt like that. 

I do greatly enjoy the “train horn” musical stylings of Douglas Gamley, his compositions heard here for the first time after the silent night of our previous tale. But even these horror horns can’t quite drum up any tension and Hendry’s final realization of his sorry state and the twist finale can only conjure up an oh-so-slightly bemused reaction of “Oh, so that’s how it ended” from me.

At the beating center of this anthology is “Poetic Justice” which is, without a shred of doubt, the best piece. It concerns the snobbish son of a local landowner (Robin Phillips, looking sublime in his black leather coat and rose brooch in the film’s wraparound) who takes on the task of evicting his impoverished neighbor Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) from his shabby house. And from life, if necessary. But as we all know, bad things come to bad people, as evidenced by the rotting corpse that shows up in Phillips’ study on the anniversary of its death, Valentine’s Day…

“Poetic Justice” is, if you’ll pardon me, a genuine heartbreaker, most of its pathos stemming from the genius portrayal by Cushing. The veteran actor has shown us before that he was more than capable of eliciting sympathy with his portrayals of tragic characters and here he is yet again in the role of a mourner, sitting with a framed photo of his late wife at dinner and even using a Ouija board to contact her spirit when his situation is at its direst. The parallels to Cushing’s own life are unmistakable, and perhaps it is cruel that he was made to play this kind of character so many times when his own spouse had passed on only a year earlier. It makes the pain we see him suffer onscreen only more real and raw and by God does it work. The plot that Phillips forms against Cushing is even worse than Gran’s gaslighting from WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? (1972). There the aim was to introduce a fabricated threat upon the shuttered life of a little old lady. Here the goal is crueler, as Phillips’ Elliot slowly but methodically takes away every scrap of happiness that Grimsdyke has left: his beloved pet dogs, the presence of the neighborhood children, and finally his sense of belonging. When all that is left is the very life that Elliot has made so miserable, Grimsdyke offers it up to his tormentor at the end of a noose. I can watch this segment, especially the utterly evil sequence when Grimsdyke reads the horrible Valentine’s Day cards that Elliot has written under the guise of the town’s citizens, and feel a lump growing in my throat every single time. 

Oh, but what sweet vengeance is wreaked upon that most deserving fiend! In retribution for Elliot crushing his spirit and convincing him that he was ever unloved, Grimsdyke shambles forth from his weedy grave and, in a bravura set-up, slinks through the shadows of Elliot’s parlor unnoticed before resting his own grimy claw on the tabletop directly in front of the sinner next to a single brass hand (perhaps a nod to “Method to Murder”?). And it is in this spot that Elliot’s father finds him the next morning, spattered with hot-red blood and a crazily-scrawled, handmade Valentine’s on top of him wrapping up his wicked, still-beating heart like butcher paper. The catharsis is boundless here, as we can’t help but delight in seeing the scales righted so perfectly in favor of the oppressed and terrorized Grimsdyke. Cushing’s passion and pathos is matched tit for tat by Phillips’ snooty sociopath, reviling his hated neighbor so much that he nearly spits anytime he mentions him (“A dustman!” he memorably sneers of the old man). It’s as ghoulish and delicious as anything Amicus has offered so far, and it fills me with much, much joy. 

“Wish You Were Here” is the next parable, and I will be the first to admit that it’s an exercise in silliness. For me, this vignette is more in tune with the risible qualities you saw in ASYLUM (1972) than anything from that actual film, because “Wish You Were Here” takes the seed of W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and goes all the way out there with it. The middle class, old couple of Jacobs’ version are morphed here into middle-aged and wealthy Ralph Jason (Richard Greene) and wife Enid (Barbara Murray), the token of their ill luck coming in the form of small Chinese statuette purported to have the power to grant three wishes to its owners. The usual pleas for money and the return of loved ones are met with the expected grim results but here they are decidedly… kookier. 

Greene’s auto accident is depicted with a real Eurohorror flair, as the smug businessman looks in his rearview mirror at the persistent motorcyclist that’s been following him only to see that it’s a grinning skeleton on his tail! The Grim-Reaper-as-biker image is hard to erase from the memory and one that works oddly and incredibly well, the patented hood and cloak turned in for tough leather and a helmet and his pale steed replaced with a set of roaring wheels. There are other equally neat and confounding touches made to the story, such as the ghostly pallbearers that bring the entombed Ralph right into his living room for display. Why, you ask? Well it’s because Enid had wished for Ralph to come back in the exact condition he was in before the accident… except that her hubby had actually suffered a heart attack at the wheel, thus explaining his very inanimate remains at present. So when she wishes him back, alive and forever, Ralph protests mightily now that there’s embalming fluid coursing through his veins.

You don’t have to squint too hard at “Wish You Were Here” to see the absurd farce that it truly is under its horror clothes. The laughter can hardly be stifled when the revived Jason, squirming in his casket, begs “Enid, do something!” like the harried husband in a TV sitcom and she reacts by grabbing a samurai sword and chopping him to pieces. Stretching credulity along with everything else is the fact that both Jason and his associate Charles (Roy Dotrice) are both familiar with Jacobs’ story, a metafictional touch that loses its charm every time one of the men chastises Enid for making a wish because of her unfamiliarity with the story. I was really hoping that she’d respond to Dotrice’s incredibly dramatic closing lines of (paraphrased) “Don’t you see what’s going to happen? It’s just like in the story!” with “No, dammit, I didn’t read the fucking thing!” 

Restoring considerable gravitas to the proceeding is the closer, “Blind Alleys.” Nigel Patrick plays a retired army major who assumes leadership of a home for the blind. His stern demeanor and harsh budget cuts force the disgruntled throng to devise a vengeance most befitting of the miser. For whatever reason, I don’t tend to come across a lot of praise for “Blind Alleys” which kind of astounds me. Many comment on the vignette’s length compared to the others, but this is a necessary component to the building of its tension as we see each succeeding trial that the residents of the home go through under Rogers’ iron hand—eating watered-down soup and having the heat turned off on bitingly cold nights, Patrick Magee’s wild-haired resident memorably spitting out “Dishwater!” and “Stone cold” at these indignities—and how they contribute to their final decision to take justice into their own hands. There’s no defying act of the supernatural to make Rogers pay for his crimes, only the desperation of a group of men who have been pushed to the brink and whose only natural response is to push back.

And they don’t settle for just tearing out Rogers’ innards and serving them on a silver platter like a mindless ghoul. They are men after all, and only man can devise means of mental and physical torture to prey upon his victim’s sense of safety and sanity. The punishment used in this contes cruel is one of the more ingenious to come forth from the genre, something akin to the delicious savagery you see displayed in fiction like Gustav Meyrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” or Poe’s “Hop-Frog.” They imprison Rogers and his faithful German Shepard Shane in the home’s cellar, finally revealing to him that they have constructed a veritable maze that he must escape from, groping through the darkness as the blind would. The piece de resistance is a section of the maze where the close-built walls are studded with razors, so Majors must ease himself gently along or be cut to ribbons. Gamley goes full force with the score here, the close shots of the blades and Rogers’ sweat-lined eyes augmented by chilling instrumental stirrings and tinkling pianos that greatly bump up the unease of the scene. And then we see the latch on the door keeping the now-starving Shane in slowly pulled back and then out comes the hungry hound, chasing Rogers back to the bladed corridor where the music pumps louder as he lurches forward before the lights go out and he stumbles and falls screaming, screaming. The breathless quality of those final few seconds are pure adrenaline and I can’t think of any other Amicus segment that stirs my blood and makes my pulse beat quite like that one.

The fate of our listeners in the crypt shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been keeping track of the company’s filmography so far: it turns out that they are all in fact dead and have entered the Gates of Hell, the Cryptkeeper’s narrations not glimpses into the future but rather recollections of his guests’ bloody pasts. Greene’s plunge into the fiery pit will either make you shit your pants or make you love the movie more, and I fall solidly into the latter camp. For all its imperfections, the things that make me come back again and again to TALES FROM THE CRYPT always win out in the end. The minute that Richardson sits in his throne, the skull eyes all ablaze and the organ cueing up once again, and asks the immortal “Perhaps… you?” I want to take the journey all over again. In fact, I think I may go watch it now… 

Heh, heh, heh!

NT: Way to go scarfing down all the juiciest servings from this horrific buffet and leaving me with scraps. Suffice it to say, we're in agreement about the major points here (though I will admit to enjoying the "Wish You Were Here" segment more than you appear to). Thus, there's little left for me to scrape off my plate in terms of straight-up analysis and evaluation.

However: luckily for me, I prepared a dessert. In the following paragraphs, I'm going to embark on a reading that compares the segments of TALES FROM THE CRYPT with the short comics that inspired them. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky's script for the film doesn't make all the right moves when adapting the original stories but it certainly makes enough of them, and it feels appropriate to finally give some faint laudatory praise to a man whose work we've been blathering on about for two months straight.

"...And All Through the House" (originally published in THE VAULT OF HORROR #35, 1954): In a way, this Killer Santa slay ride is the most emblematic EC horror tale. It's the only comic that both Amicus and HBO independently adapted, and (as you note) its ushering in of the homicidal Kringle figure has proved extremely influential, as indicated by its countless cinematic permutations in the decades since. When I think of EC horror, in any form of media, I tend to think of this tale first. Yet, it’s far from being one of the print version's most thrilling entries. As the unnamed murderess goes about her business of hiding her husband's body while also boarding up her doors and windows from the killer outside, the tale takes on the frenzied repetition of a 1950s homemaker's daily chores. Her attempts to juggle her domestic responsibilities (giving the terms "tidying up" and "preparing for guests" a macabre twist) repeatedly result in the harried shuffling of her priorities (eg. in paraphrase, "Oh no, I can't call the cops before I hide my husband's corpse, but, oh no, I can't hide his corpse until I board up the house, but, oh no, what if my daughter wakes up and sees her father's corpse while I'm making all that racket?"). These complexities create a form of paralysis in the wife's thoughts and actions, in which she half-enacts much but completes nothing. Suspenseful, maybe, but as her problems pile up, as her actions recur incessantly in her dialogue with herself and edge her ever closer to inaction, the prevailing tone of the piece is more humorous than anything. 

Perhaps the comic is acting in part as a light satire of some 1950s housewives' desire for independence: even after violently extricating herself from the control of her allegedly domineering husband (if we're to take her word for it), the wife is still saddled with the unending and impossible-to-complete demands of motherhood and housekeeping. It's telling that this killer Claus only attacks unaccompanied women, and leaves men and children be. Wouldn't things be so much easier if she had a husband around to board up the windows for her? Humorous, maybe, but also callously conservative.

The film adaptation, though much the same in content, doesn't communicate quite the same things. That sense of indecision and half-completed action, though present, gets lost under Joan Collins's sleepwalk of a performance (she's nearly unfazed when the killer reaches at her through a gate with greedy mitts, and that's about the most emotion we get out of her). Also lost is any sense of the heroine's persecution by a crappy husband. A brief opening passage-- replacing the "WHOMP!" in the first panel of the comic (a form of visual onomatopoeia only possible in the comics medium)-- briefly introduces us to Collins's loving husband before he dies, as he proudly places a gift for her beneath the Christmas tree and settles down to read his newspaper and be murdered. Here, he seems a benevolent figure, and ultimately the wronged party. In the context of the film's wraparound, this better justifies Collins's fate as an evildoer, but it also serves to highlight the comic's more complex and ambiguous message. The notion that the life of a housewife might be difficult doesn't cross the film's mind. Instead, Collins's murderess is pampered femininity run amok, scooping up incriminating blood with a champagne flute and scheming for her hardworking husband's insurance money. Her fate is just desserts. 

Even if this episode jettisons the comic's thematic weight in the interest of streamlining character motivation, it's a still an attention-grabbing opening. The segment's only real flaw comes in its final moments, when it decides to expand beyond the comic's closing tableau of the drooling killer being led inside the house by the daughter. The film continues by briefly depicting the yuletide madman's attack and strangulation of Joan Collins's character, which sorta just belabors and deflates the impact of the ironic twist, right?

"Reflection of Death" (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #21, 1951): This segment is indeed a vaguely disappointing one. I'd hazard that this feeling arises because the film hews too closely to its source material, which is easily the most unsuccessfully realized of those chosen for inclusion in the film. It's easy to see why "Reflection of Death" was selected, though: with its panels on the inked and colored page largely exploring a first person perspective, the tale is rife with cinematic potential. Its use of second person in its exposition attempts to place the reader into this first person point-of-view, but this is at odds with the fact that the story's true protagonist is a more-or-less clearly defined guy named Carl. Unless you're a Carl too, you're going to have trouble seeing the world through his eyes, like the story would prefer. I wish that the comic had made its protagonist nondescript so that the reader could easily maintain participation in the story. The film was given a great opportunity to amend this error but, alas, it neglected to. Imagine with me, for a moment, an alternate version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT in which "Reflections of Death" is the last tale, beginning immediately after Richardson's Crypt Keeper softly intones "Perhaps you?" before the credits roll. In this position, we the viewers could actually live out our own tale from the crypt through the camera eye. (Amicus, why you didn't hire me to write your movie I'll never understand.) For this switch-up to be successful we'd also of course have to eliminate any trace of Carl as an actual character, but would that be such a loss? The best the film does with him in its regrettable final iteration is give him a mistress instead of a pal to drive around with. Not all of us have mistresses, movie.

"Poetic Justice" (originally published in THE HAUNT OF FEAR #12, 1952): Of course, I agree that "Poetic Justice" is the film's finest moment, for all of the reasons you've listed above. It's also a faithful adaptation, though its few divergences from the original text are of some interest. The comic features the laughably villainous Henry and Harold Burgundy working together to run poor Abner Elliot out of town. This father and son team share equal blame for the kindly old man’s downfall, and artist Graham Ingels’s pencils always makes certain to capture the duo in the most unflattering poses, with mouths ajar in wide swine smiles. To fit its wraparound and make sense of the comic’s ending (in which only the son is punished), the film emphasizes that the younger Edward Elliot is the wicked schemer, with his father James depicted as often busy reading the newspaper and only vaguely annoyed by the continued presence of their lower class neighbor (named Grimsdyke in the film). These are sensible alterations, but they cause the unfortunate side effect of the film losing out on most of the comic’s social consciousness. The original comic takes pains to dramatize a sort of baseless mob mentality forming within the community as the Burgundys (as the wealthiest members of the community, and thus the most respected members of the community) rally the townsfolk against Elliot simply because he’s poor. Important to note is that the insulting Valentine’s Day cards sent in the film by Edward Elliot to Grimsdyke pretending to be from all of the townsfolk are actually from the townsfolk in the original comic, those folk having spent the few days prior to the holiday yukking it up with each other over who has the funniest put-down about the garbage man. Sure, the town's disapproval of the old man is still in the film, but it’s far less pronounced and carries little of the comic’s condemnation of class warfare and neighborly suburban cruelty. 

One other small change of note is that the film gives us an explanation for Grimsdyke’s return from the grave. That which simply happens due to the supernatural forces of karma in the comic is in the film explained by Grimsdyke’s interest in the occult, brought upon by his poignant desire to communicate with his deceased wife through a Ouija board. This desire influenced Grimsdyke’s bedside reading, and there’s the implication that Grimsdyke’s new knowledge of the supernatural world enables his anniversary jaunt out from the cemetery. It's comforting to know that becoming a vengeful zombie takes study.

"Wish You Were Here" (originally published in THE HAUNT OF FEAR #22, 1953): So, yeah, I definitely like this one more than you do. I find the cheeky metafictional stingers in the film more amusing than patience-trying. If anything, it takes the critique of imprecise language use from "The Monkey's Paw" to new and goofier extremes. As a writing instructor, I can appreciate this, despite the creaky misogyny that blames all the trouble on a poorly cultured and spoken woman. As an adaptation, it's nearly identical to its source. The cinematic version does invent the skeletal motorcyclist, which I think we can agree is a worthy addition, and one of the film's most iconic images (it's the most prominent image on my VHS copy of the film). The only unfortunate omission in the film is the absolute mess Enid has made of her husband, as depicted in the comic's final panel. Surely, the film's Enid chops him up into bits and pieces, but those bits and pieces aren't as grotesquely oozy as those suggested (though not exactly shown) in the comic. In this case, the implication was all the more queasy. 

"Blind Alleys" (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #46, 1955): Here, Subotsky pulls off a perfect adaptation by both amplifying the tension of and lending thematic heft to the original comic while remaining true to the source's intentions of sweet, sweet revenge. Gunner, the director of the home for the blind in the comic, is a sadistic dilettante who uses the home's funds to supply himself with lavish comforts and entertain young women. (The most absurd moment comes when we're presented with a panel of the portly, smiling Gunner standing in his underwear and wiggling his rump above a space heater in his office while, we're informed, the blind residents shiver in their cold rooms.) When we're shown that Gunner plays juvenile and mean-spirited tricks on his residents-- like removing the banisters from staircases-- we realize he's a standard issue cackling fiend, and that's as deep as it goes. This shallowness of his character actually makes the residents deadly revenge plot seem like overkill: he's horrible, certainly, but did he really deserve that?

With the film's home director, Major William Rogers, the case for revenge becomes more compelling. Major Rogers's military background leads to him treating his residents not with the outright disdain of Gunner, but with the lack of concern those at the top of the military totem pole feel for those nameless and faceless troops at their command. Rogers structures the home for the blind as if it were an actual military compound, and as if the harsh, rationed conditions he forces the sickly residents under (so as to pamper himself) is simply the chosen lot of the common soldier. This blatant critique of the military hierarchy and lifestyle is much more pointed than the cartoonish villainy employed by the comic, especially as seen in an added scene in which one of the inmates dies because of Rogers's inattention and he treats this occurrence as if it were yet another unavoidable casualty of the conflict, not worth lamenting. One hopes that the Major's punishment-- a plunge into a deadly trench battlefield that he has clearly forgotten the feel for-- teaches him a little humility.

(To note: "Blind Alleys" was partially adapted by HBO during the sixth season of their TALES FROM THE CRYPT, under the title "Revenge is the Nuts" and combined with plot elements from that eponymous comic tale.)

In conclusion, I would like to give a brief farewell to director Freddie Francis, our longtime friend. This is the last film he would helm for Amicus Productions, closing out their long and storied collaboration together. And what a finish it is. He would go on to direct one more portmanteau horror film, the oft-mistaken-for-Amicus World Film Services' production of TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973). It's worth noting that this is a delightful film and a worthy successor to his work for Amicus. In fact, its asylum-set tales of horror far outclass Amicus's own in ASYLUM (1972) (alas, we've already waged that war of words). I think I speak for both of us when I say that you'll be missed, Freddie.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part IX): What Became of Jack & Jill? (1972) dir. Bill Bain

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? (1972). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: And now for something (almost) completely different. In the same year that they spent some time convalescing in the ASYLUM (1972), the producers at Amicus Productions decided to knock out another one of their varied standalone horror films. In doing so, they opted for a fresh take by allotting the principal roles in the cast and crew largely to Amicus newcomers, who were unencumbered by the company’s established history, expectations, and in-house style. The resulting picture, WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? (1972), speeds us from the period-specific Victorian cityscapes of Amicus’s prior standalone, I, MONSTER (1971), to a very contemporary urban English setting. So contemporary, in fact, that with the arrival of JACK & JILL we bear witness to an Amicus first: a film about young people. Though Amicus’s films had been skewed towards a younger audience from the beginning, this film marks the company’s first blatant foray into capturing the pocket change of the youth market. They accomplish this grab for a younger audience’s piggy banks by casting the titular leads as two of that younger generation’s ilk. But there’s a problem here. See, Jack (Paul Nicholas) and Jill (Vanessa Howard) are two vile, shallow, and annoyingly childish cretins.

WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? is a wolf of a conservative social critique in a youth picture’s sheep clothing. The film’s title (a riff on the “Whatever Happened to…?” trend launched by similarly named horror-melodramas by the likes of Robert Aldrich and Curtis Harrington) signals its intent to demonstrate to us what might have become of those archetypal, innocent, hill-climbing water-fetchers if they had grown up to be groovy, countercultural young adults in the tumultuous early 1970s. Yet, director Bill Bain and screenwriter Roger Marshall, both in their middle-age at the time of production, tap into the countercultural youth movement in their film only to attempt to expose how selfish, misguided, and without firm conviction the so-called “social revolution” is. With its emphasis on the argument that the younger generation’s rebellion against the status quo will result only in needless death and ironic retribution, JACK & JILL becomes essentially a morality tale, trumpeting the message “wait your turn, kids.” Our titular youths are lazy and unmotivated sociopaths who simply want to inherit all of Jack’s granny's money rather than work for their own, and their use of countercultural rhetoric to justify their covetousness is intended as a critique of the rabble-rousing younger generation as a whole. The film acts as a reaffirmation of the order of a social hierarchy based upon seniority: the youth are simply too stupid and jealous and selfish to run things, and, moreover, they don’t even want to run things, they just want the keys to the car without asking permission first. 

Contrast the message of this English production to that of roughly contemporaneous U.S. films like WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) or EASY RIDER (1969), and it's pretty obvious that JACK & JILL is the product of a reactionary studio system. Those in power in England-- always a group to cower in a puffed-up moral panic over the threat of any drastic social change-- were obviously unnerved by the youth movement on the rise in the U.S. and on their own shores. Thus, a popular cultural production like JACK & JILL served as a sort of psychological sedative, telling its true audience of worried middle-class parents and their right-wing children that all would be okay in the end, that those frighteningly boarish hippies would do away with themselves eventually, so true citizens needn’t fret for much longer. Bizarrely, JACK & JILL was co-produced and funded by the U.S. production company Palomar Pictures International and first released by 20th Century Fox in New York City in 1972, which signals that those involved thought the film might strike a chord with hippie-fatigued American audiences as well. The film’s financial failure, subsequent wide unavailability on home video, and the resultant near total obscurity it now possesses should give one a clue as to how it was received by both countries’ moviegoing audiences.

However, perhaps some of JACK & JILL’s failure can be chalked up to issues of genre rather than issues of being culturally out-of-step. The trailer for the film paints it as a rollicking thriller in which a pair of sexy young radicals conspire to scare their square old granny to death. This is more or less the plot of the film, but the trailer’s joyous, rock-music punctuated presentation of these basic facts was certain to alienate a large contingent of the film’s intended audience of cultural squares. Furthermore, those genuinely sexy young radicals who might have been tricked into the theater by such advertising were sure to be miffed by their philosophy and lifestyle being lambasted by the filmmakers. What results from this confusion of intention and presentation is a quaint quasi-horror film that appeals intrinsically to no one (perhaps excepting genre nerds like us, of course). JACK & JILL is a succulent gaslight thriller, with those harebrained social and political undertones stuffed inside like dried-up imitation crabmeat. My adoration for gaslight flicks has yet to meet its bounds, and this gaslight scenario is particularly wicked and inventive, playing on the precise unease of the older generations while making an ironic joke out of it. Progressive in its beliefs? Certainly not. Fun to watch regardless? Certainly for a little while.

I’d like to dig a little deeper into all of the above topics and the particulars of the film itself, but first we’ll flip this radical rock-n-roll LP to hear your recorded rendition.

GR: Nothing is quite as surreal as taking in the all the spooky and kooky fare that we’ve been watching so far and then coming to WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL?, which features the credits “An Amicus Production” set to the blare of a wailing guitar and angsty vocals as a hip teenager combs his long hair in his grungy bedroom. I think we were listening too intently to Dr. Schreck’s predictions and missed our stop. Clearly we’re outside the boundaries of the charming horrors from Shepperton Studios and have arrived in a land full of loud music and car posters. I want to go home! What we have here is certainly the stuff of eyebrow-raising. Adolescents cavorting about in jeans and getting high on Granny’s pills in the cemetery. Footage of police riots and social unrest playing in the periphery like a Romero flick. Sexual promiscuousness in dark attics. And the narrative glue that holds all this together and that’s sniffed by the two leads is perhaps one of the hoariest generators of thrills and suspense, the gaslight tale. 

But what strange clothes it wears! As you said, this was clearly Amicus’ more conscious way of tapping the vibrant vein of youth (and their wallets) by making an entertainment that, while lacking some of the “kiddie stuff” like vampires and werewolves that we’ve seen before, concerned them and their pimply little lives more directly. Or at least on the surface. If we have learned anything from our venture, it’s that Amicus was a studio that produced stories that more often than not strove for a balanced morality, one that put all the agitators and general sinners in their place, whether it was the callous-hearted guests of Dr. Diablo’s torture garden or the greedy antiquarians who sought to possess the Marquis de Sade’s skull. 

The films have made it clear that anyone who seeks to harm others in their pursuit for personal glory or riches is certain to fail and be punished by supernatural and/or human agents. In this sense I wonder if director Bill Bain and scripter Roger Marshall (adapting from the novel by Laurence Moody) consciously set out to apply a stern slap on the universal keester of the rebellious youth with their depiction of Jack and Jill’s tumble down the moral hill or if they were solely adhering to the hallmarks of the gaslight tale in seeing that the villains received their just desserts in full by the final reel’s end. Did the creative team really mean to examine the meaninglessness and emptiness of the youth revolt by showing us the plight of these two avaricious, doomed fools or was it simply a case of the bad guys paying for their crimes just like in any other melodrama? Of course one can view the proceedings through either (or countless other) of these lenses; I tend to be of the mind that it’s more of the latter than the former, but the implications of this being a dramatic statement on the futility and vacuity of the movement are undeniably strong.

No matter the interpretation, it’s easy to see how WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? ultimately flopped in its attempt to hitch itself to the closest and most successful bandwagons that it could find in the cinematic prairie. Amicus tries to appeal to the young adult market by giving us a thriller that paints its two representative characters as selfish and petty children devoid of any sense of reality who die in the end? The couples’ constant cries of “Youth power!” can’t help but taste a little more bitter each time they’re stated, almost becoming a mimicking playground taunt from the filmmakers to all of the young people in the audience because, as we are soon to find out, the youth have no power at all. The film slyly shows us how Jack and Jill are two babes utterly lost in the wilderness; even a seemingly mundane exchange between the two after Gran’s funeral  (Jill: Did you tip the vicar? Jack: No. Was I supposed to? Jill: I don’t know.) is given emphasis to show us that the couple is much too caught up in their dream-world to even know how to function on a day-to-day basis, their idle hours spent with visions of sleek automobiles and silky nightwear dancing in their heads like visions from a music video. The graffiti that Jill sees with her last, dying glance, “Out with the Oldies,” might as well be Gran returning from the grave to stick her worm-chewed tongue out at the conniving little wench. Had this been a different Amicus movie that probably would have been the case. JACK & JILL ultimately tells us that all of the fighting and plotting and outraging that the kids in the street can muster will only land their silly dreams right where Jill’s blood pools all around her at the film’s climax: in the gutter.

For all of its subtext and ill-fitting political clothes, there is an effective story of suspense and sweaty tension lying at the heart of the film, and it’s this I’d like to turn the discussion over to to find out just what Bain was able to do with the material that succeeded now that we’ve covered JACK & JILL’s broken crowns fairly well. It’s your turn to take the bucket.  

NT: It’s true that most Amicus horrors place karmic retribution against sinners at the center of their narratives. These films strive to demonstrate a restoration of morality, in which wrongdoing and injustice is set right by supernatural means. This presence of a moral supernatural force in the bulk of the Amicus universe evacuates any specific real world politics from the tales’ teachings, rendering them into general platitudes rather than pointed barbs of critique. Don’t be a heel, we learn, or the spookier elements of existence will get you. But, as you note, there are no ghosts, vampires, or possessed pianos in WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? The comeuppance our loathsome heroes receive is wrought solely from their own loathsome doings. The film sees Jack and Jill’s thinking as so diseased, so puerile, and so reckless in its dumb and blind destructiveness that the supernatural universe need not intervene in their fates by sending Gran back as a flesh-chewing fiend; it knows they’ll take care of themselves. Because of this supernatural absence and the fact that the particular politics of the decade fuel the action on screen, it feels wrong to ignore the wider implications of the film’s message. JACK & JILL refuses to present us with a positive example of a young radical (the protesters seen on television look as barbaric as our heroes), and so we’re stuck with the eponymous hill-tumblers as our emissaries for the whole of the youth movement. This deliberately limited perspective alone ensures that we’ll read the film as condemning the entire generation. If that’s not convincing enough, recall the uproarious scene that visualizes Jack’s fantasy of leading a Nazi youth firing squad against a group of assembled octogenarians. The filmmakers aren’t exactly being subtle here.

Of course, the film’s chiding of the young is incredibly reductive. As you note, it views our protagonists (and so by extension, all young adults) as no more than helpless children with the unfortunate addition of raging sex drives. As clever as they might be in their efforts to obtain power, once they possess it they immediately squander it and can do little but stand around and wait for adults to wipe up the mess. Jack’s whimpering, childish cries for his deceased Gran’s assistance in the film’s final moments is a little on the nose in this regard. The film also presents an entirely shallow reading of the youth movement’s aims, summarized succinctly by Jack in his conversation with Gran about the elder generations in power being like those who have sat at a table in a restaurant too long and are unwilling to give up their seats for the starving youth out in the cold. The film assumes the youth movement exists as a premature grab for power from those who are underserving. It believes the youth aim to replace the current power structure with an identical (albeit younger and hipper) version of their own, rather than eliminate that oppressive power structure altogether. It’s as if the filmmakers based their interpretation of the youth movement solely off newspaper headlines.

Ironically, the use of phony newspaper headline hysteria is precisely how Jack & Jill go about their gaslighting business, and this is where lies most of the film’s joys. Gran (Mona Washbourne) is an elderly shut-in, so her understanding of the world outside her front door is colored exclusively by distorted media images on television and her grandchild’s even more distorted (and often untrue) yarns about a violent, militant youth movement. She’s told by Jack, and believes without question or tangible evidence, that the youth have mobilized and begun stripping the elderly of their homes. Her gaslighting progresses slowly over the film’s first half (sometimes bizarrely: this may be the first and only time an overheated electric blanket and blown bubbles have been used to gaslight someone), but it climaxes with Jack’s assertion that the youth are now coming for Gran, too. Jack and Jill stage a wonderfully thrilling ruse, banging on the walls of Gran’s house to the pre-recorded sounds of a riot until she dies of a heart attack. It’s both the film’s most suspenseful scene and the lynchpin of its critique: the youth movement is nothing but smoke and mirrors. And a lot of noise.

There isn’t much in JACK & JILL for the standard issue horror fan to glom onto, but those with more eccentric sensibilities will find moments of it irresistible. For instance, the Nazi firing squad fantasy, which transitions, incredibly, to another fake-out dream fantasy in which Jack machine-gun’s Gran in her bed. There’s also cemetery lipstick defacement, Juicy Fruit kisses, demented piggybacking, and the aforementioned snorting of Gran’s heart pills to keep us weirdoes entertained. The film, like its nursery rhyme source material, tumbles down in the last third, post Gran’s coronary, but this is an undeniably fascinating curio that we’ve dredged up from the bottom of the Amicus well.

GR: I share the same amount of enthusiasm as you for JACK AND JILL’s spirited attempts at Grand Guignolery and suspense and your view that the filmmakers offered an incredibly unfair depiction of the youth movement. Whether it was their goal to bitingly critique the opinions of contemporaneous young people or simply ignore the greater implications of the so-called “revolt” through sheer negligence, the end product carries a social message that is completely one-sided and that seems ignorant in its sheer earnestness. 

But enough of all that political yammering. How does WHAT BECAME OF JACK & JILL? stand up as an entertainment? You’ve already detailed some of the juiciest moments, the pinnacle of course being the final offing of Gran through the use of the staged riot. It’s an ingeniously new and clever variation on the typical gaslighting process that we’ve seen before. The gaslighting of an unfortunate soul is usually a more intimate matter between two parties, and the bits of stage magic that the perpetrator uses are of a more quiet variety, at least at first, like dribbles of blood, disappearing/reappearing objects, or maybe even some makeup and a fright wig if they’re feeling adventurous (refer back to “Method for Murder”). JACK & JILL is the first time to my recollection that the perpetrator(s) have used a kind of global scare to torment their victim into cardiac arrest. Gran can only clutch at her heart and beat upon the walls as the sound of the fabricated extermination squad’s marching boots advance ever closer, terrified that they have come to snatch her away and put a bullet through her wrinkled head. Jack and Jill go all out in their charade, and the constant uproar of shouting and clattering builds to a wonderful crescendo where Gran, finally overwhelmed with utter terror, collapses to the floor. It’s the movie’s best, grandest set piece and, had I been in Gran’s slippers, I would’ve been just as overcome. 

Those visions of the slaughter by Nazis are rather surprising and colorful given the film’s overall gritty and glum aesthetic, like a fantasy sequence from an entirely different movie. Interestingly enough, I was immediately put in mind of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) after seeing the maniacal S.S. troops and their blasting machine guns. In that film, David Naughton has a dream where he sees his entire family slaughtered by a fleet of demonic soldiers. He “awakens” from this vision in his hospital room only to discover he’s in another dream when one of the troops jumps out and knifes a nurse to death. The similarities between these scenes are amazing and one can’t help but wonder if Landis caught a showing of JACK & JILL and this particular sequence sat stewing in his brain during the production of his own film. 

There’s also a small but effective dose of droll humor fueling some of the picture’s other moments, such as the duo’s scoping of a seedy rock and roll club for a potential lady meant for Jack to woo and wed in order to sidestep a stipulation in Gran’s will; Jack’s general enthusiasm for picking a girl is met with deadpan disapprovals from Jill who merely shakes her head at her partner’s selections. She also gets to speak some of the film’s most colorful dialogue when she flashes with anger and jealousy at Jack’s willingness to go through with this particular phase of their plan: “Smoke pouring out of your pants. Horn on you like a rhino!” She gets another chance to show her flippant attitude when, in an outburst fitting of Mr. Torrance, Jack lays siege to the dining room with a fireplace poker, smashing wood and china with reckless abandon to which his lady offers: “Feeling better?” Not only that, but Jill proves that she can give as good as she gets when she returns a slap to Jack that is just as vigorous as the one he delivered to her pretty little face. 

Along with this humor is a stinging cruelty that’s doled out by our two naughty kiddies. It ranges from the heartless (Jack stops to pop a zit in the bathroom while Gran suffers an attack and begs for medication) to the heartbreaking (Jack constantly interrogates Gran about a phone call she received from Jill posing as a type of census taker until the woman finally breaks down and cries “You would think it’s a crime being old!”). There’s no doubt that out of the cast of ne’er-do-wells that we’ve seen thus far in the Amicus films, Jack and Jill fully deserve the fate that finally comes to claim them for so brutally hounding the gentle grandmother right into her grave. But, as you say, it’s no otherly, monstrous force that does the duo in but rather their own devilish natures. Like the scheming couple from many a film noir, Jack and Jill find out the hard way that when push comes to shove they’ll eagerly send one another crashing down the hill. They don’t deserve any better. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

PODCAST: Amok Train (1989) dir. Jeff Kwitny

a.k.a. Beyond the Door III

Great news: Richard invited me back to his podcast, Hello! This is the Doomed Show, for a discussion of American director Jeff Kwitny's Greek-produced, Yugoslavian-set late '80s Italian horror epic Beyond the Door III, also known by the much more honest title Amok Train. What does Beyond the Door III have in common with Beyond the Door I and Beyond the Door II? (Nothing!) Do the film's evil Eastern European villagers worship Satan or a lightning bolt-shooting black monolith? (Both?) Does our heroine Beverly's birthmark look like a vagina? (Yes.) Is the train's mysterious monk/flautist/Legend of Zelda cosplayer really named Bosco? (Maybe.) Can the terms Serbo-Croatia [sic] and Yugoslavia be used interchangeably to describe the region? (No, they certainly cannot, despite what our mouths would have you believe.) Discover the answers to more pulse-pounding queries like these by listening to Richard and I be befuddled, amused, and astonished by the late-period masterstroke that is Amok Train.

If you'd care to repeatedly fly off the rails with us in comforting audio form, you can check out the episode by visiting the show's Podomatic page or examining the show archives.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part VIII): Asylum (1972) dir. Roy Ward Baker

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's fourth anthology, ASYLUM (1972). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: As the lights go up and we see a car roaring up to the graveled drive of the dusky, imposing insane asylum, the rousing strings of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” blaring overhead, it seems like Amicus is revving up that great big Gothic engine that ran so many of their other horror vehicles. But a curious thing happens at the onset of the company’s fourth anthology film, the straightforwardly titled ASYLUM (1972), when Dr. Martin (Robert Powell) walks through the mist-shrouded, wrought-iron gates and steps into the main foyer of the madhouse. Director Roy Ward Baker (helmer of such Hammer fare as SCARS OF DRACULA [1970], THE VAMPIRE LOVERS [1970], and DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE [1971]) eschews the mad horror fever vibe for a more muted approach. The feeling that I received upon watching the film is that everything became very crisp and antiseptic, the usual gaudy colors and gallows humor almost completely disposed of in favor of a more clinical approach to terror. Some might see this as a detriment, a sign that everything is going to become as bland and tasteless as hospital cuisine. But if you ask me it’s a nicely revitalizing take that signals the new direction that’s being taken in the film, where even Robert Bloch’s adaptations of his own stories subtract any of the tongue-in-maggoty-cheek humor that was such a staple of his work.

I guess I just have a thing for quiet horror, and as much as I adore the high melodramatics of black-hearted Bedlam-keepers and savage forms of patient therapy, I find the sun-dappled, whispery quality of the insanity on display here to be much more unnerving than babbling insect-munchers in straitjackets. In my original review of the film, I made a comment that the inmates (more directly Baker, Bloch, and company) feel no need to play up the craziness of the surroundings just because there’s a newcomer taking the tour. All the patients go about their day doing exactly what they normally do; sewing invisible clothes; giggling in the mirror; playing with dolls. Even these moments are played with such casualness that one might not be entirely sure that these people are mad but rather the victims of some horrible universe that has seen it fit to punish them and lock them away. Whatever the case is, the patients are never fazed that an outsider is amongst them. They have far greater things weighing on their minds, for whatever is left of them.

For my money there really isn’t a sour note in the whole show. Each of the stories is icily framed and composed, moving along towards their inevitable climaxes where the main effect that seems to be striven for is not so much shock or disgust like other tales from the Amicus oeuvre as a spidery sense of dread that nestles at the base of the heart. There are still some of the “whacky” plot hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from the house of Rosenberg and Subotsky: phantom limbs that crawl about to enact justice for their dismemberment; a craggy-faced mannequin that comes to life thanks to a magical suit; robotic automatons that strut around like wind-up playthings. 

But all of these items are never given the flourish you see in other films like TORTURE GARDEN (I’m thinking especially of how Freddie Francis framed the diabolical piano Euterpe with his leering fish-eye lens and purple lighting). This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with those methods (for the record there isn’t and I freaking love them), it’s just that Baker’s tactics are different here. I don’t find myself grinning when the chopped-up body parts stir to life like I do when ol’ Euterpe gives Barbara Ewing the heave out the parlor window. I feel unsettled. I don’t mean to imply that Baker is making the supernatural occurrences in ASYLUM seem real, just that his downplaying of the humor and the seriousness with which he approaches the various ghastly apparitions suffered by the patients reminds us that these things are very real to them and thus helps to remind us that though their stories may be fabrications their damaged minds certainly are not. And that’s the real point at the end of the day for Dr. Martin, isn’t it? To find the mad wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Were you game for the search of Dr. Starr, or did you find that ASYLUM drove you past the breaking point?

NT: A "muted approach" is certainly one way of putting it. A glum, humorless film, ASYLUM is-- in my estimation-- the worst anthology Amicus would produce. I call it humorless, but it's worth noting that the film nonetheless sends me into fits of laughter with its wriggling, butcher-paper wrapped limbs, animated mannequin in a technicolor dream coat, and murderous, mind-controlled, pint-sized silver Lego "mannikins." I know you see an unsettling dread in these objects, but I simply cannot. I think ASYLUM features some of the dumbest horror set pieces that Amicus would adapt from author Robert Bloch's particular literary madness. Yet, the film never acknowledges-- even in passing-- the absurdity of its sundry stories. Backpedaling furiously from the outright comedy of their last anthology's final segment, the divisive vampire chuckle-fest "The Cloak" from THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, the Amicus brain trust now appears to believe that the injection of any intentional humor or irony into their films would be taking the low road. Rather, they allow each of the film's segments to play out as if it were a mini-masterpiece of genuinely terrifying cinematic horror. This is an egregious error, again demonstrating Amicus's regrettable mid-life crisis of tone and direction. It's a simple equation, really: Ludicrous horror stories + Totally earnest presentations = Unintentional comedy. 

And the laughs come echoing off the walls of the asylum. I'd charge that ASYLUM, in its attempts to establish itself as a legitimate horror film, instead stumbles into the overwrought, the needlessly bombastic... for lack of a better term, let's call it the horror equivalent of melodrama. Remember when TORTURE GARDEN, the Amicus anthology with the most successfully balanced tone that we've watched thus far, used Chopin's "Funeral March" to put an ironic wink into its ridiculous yet sincere murder of Barbara Ewing by a grand piano? Here, we have "Night on Bald Mountain" opening the film in austere, Old Dark House pretentiousness. Seriously? (Even THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) is a deliberately funnier film than ASYLUM.) Case in point, examine the goofy, overlong scene in which Robert Powell stares in concentration at the pencil-sketched histories of psychiatric medicine adorning the asylum's front staircase. The rather poorly drawn figures and scenes are lingered upon as if they were depictions of genuine fright, while the pilfered classical score pumps away audaciously in the background. When the camera goes so far as to dramatically spin around and zoom in on one of the silly drawings, you might sense the over-seriousness I've diagnosed.

I'm not certain who to blame for all this. Director Roy Ward Baker is certainly no talentless hack (I don't think we'll see Freddie Francis enter The Criterion Collection anytime soon, unlike Mr. Baker), and he would in fact embrace the Amicus house style with his later, much more successful anthologies for the company (THE VAULT OF HORROR [1973] and THE MONSTER CLUB [1980]), but this initial showing is rough-going. The massive cast of esteemed actors (Robert Powell, Patrick Magee, Peter Cushing, Charlotte Rampling, Britt Ekland, and Herbert Lom) perform the material admirably, but the material does them few favors. Bloch is easier to blame, and producers Subotsky and Rosenberg easier still: these folks have been in this horror business long enough to have a sense of what works and what doesn't. Or at least you'd think so.

Believe it or not, I do actually admire some things about the film, though more in theory than in practice. Before I rant about all that, perhaps it’s better to turn it back over to you, so you can temper the taste of my bitter medicine with some sweets.

GR: Good God man, are you trying to spoon me lye?

Obviously, everyone has their own tastes and I can even agree with you on certain points, but I just can’t seem to see the “glum and humorless” aspects in ASYLUM that you do, besides the fact that it doesn’t ever really play for laughs which is something that’s not necessarily uncommon in a horror film. It does diverge from the typical Amicus style, but I don’t have any qualms about that whatsoever either. The creative forces attempted to take a more stoic (but not suspense-less) approach to horror and, if you ask me, they mostly succeeded in that task. I understand that my opinions may be taken into question after the dubious affection I showed for THE DEADLY BEES (1966), but I think ASYLUM proves itself to be worthy of its brethren and quite dark and disquieting during its best moments.

Again we have another spin on the “investigative wraparound,” here involving the aforementioned Powell being posed an unconventional task by the wheelchair-bound Magee in order to gain employment within the eponymous facility: he must interview a series of patients in order to determine which is the fallen Dr. Starr, former co-head of the institution who is now mentally lost due to some traumatic event. It’s these interviews that serve as the lead-ins to the quartet of terror tales.

The first, “Frozen Fear,” is the one that involves those infamous ambulatory parcels that feature so prominently in the film’s advertising. This is Bloch at perhaps his most comic book-esque, the story so short, sweet, and stingy that it’s quite easy to envision it under the artistic pen of Jack Kamen or “Ghastly” Graham Ingels from any one of William M. Gaines’ suspensbooks. Walter (Richard Todd) is the devious, cravat-wearing husband who loathes his voodoo-worshipping wife Ruth (Sylvia Syms) enough to murder her so that he may run off with perky brunette Bonnie (Barbara Perkins). But alas, that pesky magical amulet Ruth always wore makes it tough to stow her neatly chopped and wrapped body parts away in the new freezer… they just won’t stay still! Now, that description would lead one to suspect something indelibly silly is going to occur, but this segment is truly and honestly eerie, in no small part due to the sturdy conviction demonstrated in front of and behind the camera.

One specific element that surprised me was how bloodless the killing of Ruth was. The rest of ASYLUM is similarly free of splatter, but the death by hatchet could have easily been shot to its full exploitative level to satisfy the sanguine-thirsty audience, but Baker and Bloch appropriately opt to have the messy aftermath take place all in our minds, suggesting the gruesome aftermath only with the presence of some plastic tarpaulin, a mop, and of course those little parcels wrapped in brown butcher paper. If one is willing to suspend their disbelief and take the events that occur next as the visions of a mind crumbling under trauma, then the sight of the segmented Ruth moving in her crinkling wake towards the conniving Bonnie might not seem so ludicrous, but I find it all incredibly creepy no matter the context. How can you not suppress a little shudder when you see those twitching fingers tear from the paper to grab the air vent grating as they reach closer and closer to the screaming Bonnie? The only thing our little homewrecker can do is try to ward the grasping and gasping appendages away like so many hungry ants and just chop and chop and chop…

“The Weird Tailor” concerns the forces of black magic and the supernatural a little more directly than the incidental tag of “Frozen Fear.” An impoverished clothesmaker, Bruno (Barry Morse), is requested by the mysterious Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) to stitch together a suit from a peculiar, glowing cloth following explicit directions outlined in a little black book riddled with pentagrams. The need for rent money overrides his sense of foreboding, but upon making the delivery to Mr. Smith’s abode, Bruno discover that clothes really do make the man—rise! 

As much as I do like this story, the only time that it really seems to sing is when Cushing is on the scene as the morose Smith. The pall of depression that no doubt still hung over the actor from the passing of his dearly beloved wife is so perfectly and poignantly captured in his performance. Only a man who has lost someone so beloved to him could so accurately embody the anguish that follows death. The entire segment is worthy for inclusion for Cushing’s final scene alone. Bruno enters Smith’s shadow-choked home to discover, propped in a casket and illuminated by the glow of black candles, Smith’s deceased son whom the suit was made for in order to bring him back to life (information which, by the way, is cleverly communicated to the viewer by a series of macabre illustrations from the little black book sans commentary). 

When Bruno first inquires Smith about what lies in the locked room, Cushing has this beautiful moment where you see it almost pains him to mention it. It’s only there for a second before he very calmly pushes past it and gently answers “Never mind.” Then of course when Bruno tries to flee the coop Smith holds him at the point of a gun, but Cushing’s attitude is more pleading than predatory and not for one instant becomes melodramatic. His red-rimmed eyes, the desperate tremor in his voice; it’s all painfully beautiful and Cushing truly elevates the material to poignancy in his brief moments onscreen. The closer with the living mannequin seems like a non-sequiter in comparison, an unnecessary twist that Bloch has to furnish his tale with because that’s his thing. What do we get for all the heartache and tragedy that Cushing brings to his role? A mustached dummy with an oatmeal face strangling Barry Morse. Not the classiest way to end things, but I do admit I’m an animated automaton/doll/ventriloquist dummy apologist.

I’m very interested to know what your thoughts are on the third tale, “Lucy Comes to Stay.” “Homicidal split personalities” was one trope that eluded the cutting edge of your scalpel upon your initial estimation of ASYLUM, so I couldn’t help but wonder if it holds any kind of clout with you. In it, young Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) comes back home after having a little nervous breakdown, one kickstarted by her best friend and (we will find out) alternate persona, Lucy (Britt Ekland). We only get a feel for Lucy’s tendencies in degrees, as she coaxes Barbara to stop taking her medicine and live a little on the wild side. 

There’s some more nice understatement implemented by Baker here that gently scores the ascent to Bloch’s admittedly foreseeable climax. Look for instance when Ekland sits in front of a mirror during one of their little talks; Rampling is framed in the foreground of the mirror’s reflection so that the effect becomes a sly nod that when Barbara looks into the glass she sees Lucy. This also neatly ties in with the concluding wraparound of Barbara’s tale. When Dr. Martin asks the lady where her friend Lucy is, Barbara acknowledges the mirror in her room (possible safety issue there?), laughing. “Lucy Comes to Stay” is the most subdued entry here, with hardly an absurd bogey to be found. That is, besides the gentle Swiss features of Miss Ekland. The uneasiness is nicely bumped up as the story goes on as Lucy cuts the phone lines in the house and gives poor George (James Villiers) an impromptu coronary operation during his evening paper. I think that at the very least you would agree that “Lucy Comes to Stay” is the most inoffensive, harmless yarn that’s also free of any unintended humor. For me, it’s a modest enough time; Lucy never overstays her welcome.

As if this film weren’t atypical enough of what we’ve seen from the folks at Shepperton Studios, ASYLUM introduces its fourth story, “Mannikins of Horror,” as not an isolated narrative but one that is directly integrated in the wraparound with Powell and Magee. This may very well be the first (and only that I can think of) instance of something of this nature occurring in a portmanteau horror film (WAXWORKS, the silent German picture from 1926, incorporated a somewhat similar idea when the poet character who created that film’s vignettes found himself face-to-face with Jack the Ripper in the “final story,” but this was found out to be a nightmare so one wonders if that truly counts). Anyway, Herbert Lom is the patient here, Dr. Byron, who spends his idle hours making miniature, robotic figures that possess molded clay facial features and steel bodies (a cheaper route than fully clothed humanoids, no doubt). Byron claims that these figures are completely anatomically correct (besides the, you know, robot bodies) and that through the incredible power of his mental will, he is able to inspire animation and control in their cold little heads.

As defensive of ASYLUM’s rights as I am willing to be, I will concede to you that of all the stories “Mannikins of Horror” is the one that is the easiest target of giggle fits. I can sympathize with your sentiments of the film’s over-seriousness as it shows especially in this segment. Lom gives it everything he’s got, commanding in his booming voice even as he shows us his cabinet full of toys. Seeing Little Lom make its sloooow approach to Magee’s parlor (even using a dumbwaiter as a means of transportation!) extinguishes much of the terror that could be generated from the premise; compare the automaton here to the quick-as-lightning and ferocious He Who Kills from Dan Curtis’ contemporaneous TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975). The dolly used here is much more patient in its attack, inching that long, sharp pin closer and closer to Magee’s neck. As gripping as Olga Karlatos’ meeting with a huge splinter? Probably not. But it does give you a slightly queasy feeling for what’s to come, and the smashing of the automaton to reveal its very real and very red insides complemented by Lom’s agonized screams briefly brings us back to the old Amicus world (not to mention showing you how fond Bloch was of recycling; see “Sweets to the Sweet”). It’s a bit of a downer too because the original “Mannikins of Horror” is a legitimately original and creepy story that gets sadly shoehorned into ASYLUM, skimping out on the loving details that Bloch gives to the anti-hero’s careful construction of his prized figurines and how he fancies himself a Frankenstein. Now there would’ve been a story!

Somewhat surprising (and silly) too is that, despite the great terror that Powell depicts at seeing the brutal remains of Dr. Byron, he seems relatively okay by the next morning, not at all the kind of composure one might have upon discovering that dolls can kill, an odd note that would have been eradicated had “Mannikins of Horror” been a standalone yarn that just ended right at the discovery of the mutilated doctor. That one aspect is sloppily handled, but we forget (or are made to forget) this once Powell finds out another of the asylum’s dirty secrets and here the story does end. For him. By the time the final stinger comes, we already have a good idea of what’s going to happen next, in order: New victim arrives, sinister figure acknowledges the audience, cue creepy music. So yes, ASYLUM is by no means a perfect film, but I don’t think it deserves to be committed for reasons of inanity. It might lack the color and gusto of Amicus’ other notable films, but if the spirit is willing there is enjoyment to be had. 

Call me crazy. 

NT: You’re crazy.

I don’t really mean that. Maybe what I mean is that I’m the crazy one. See, my problem is that I’m psychologically incapable of seeing an Amicus portmanteau film as “dark” or “disquieting.” My doctor tells me it’s a problem of expectations. I’ve seen all the other Amicus portmanteau films, so I know that they’re brightly hued, wickedly humorous testaments to the fact that horror cinema can be messy fun when it wants to be. This is a good thing; this is what I watch Amicus films for. But then I see ASYLUM, and what I glimpse are the same pulpy, over-the-top components that those other films possess, but here they’re employed without the slightest whiff of irony. The jolly good time that could be had with them is perverted and diminished by the truly frightful grasps the film makes at horrific legitimacy. 

Try as you might, neither you nor the filmmakers will ever convince me that a motorized mannequin leg wrapped in butcher paper and wriggling towards its bug-eyed victim is an object of disquiet. I sense through our conversations so far that you’re more forgiving of ludicrous concepts when they’re carried out with conviction. (The entirety of THE DEADLY BEES notwithstanding, I think we see in your much-loved “Creeping Vine” segment from DR. TERROR a problem similar to that which I see in ASYLUM’s tales.) I don’t fault you for this appreciation, but I can’t agree with it. I think filmmakers should be aware of their limitations and work around them. With a script this hackneyed and effects this goofy, those involved in the making of ASYLUM should have known better than to shoot for 1960s Hammer levels of grandiosity and sincerity. Can so many people on set have taken a look at the finished “mannikin” sporting Herbert Lom’s pint-sized head and all at once thought to themselves, “There, we’ve done it: we’ve created terror incarnate”? The mind boggles.

Considering that you’ve already covered the film’s four tales in great detail, I’ll dispense my pills of wisdom succinctly:

As much as I’ve already poked fun at it, “Frozen Fear” is easily the most enjoyable of the lot. As you note, it features the same sort of exaggerated domestic violence and supernatural karmic revenge that would make it a perfect fit in Baker’s next Amicus film, the EC horror comics adaptation THE VAULT OF HORROR. Alas, a certain devilish spark that would bring this episode fully in line with those later adaptations is absent: it simply doesn’t know that it’s funny. How can a character, after chopping his wife into bits and shoving her into the freezer, say to himself, with seemingly no self-awareness at all, “Rest in pieces”? The humor is obvious in the material, but the presentation appears blind to it. The above line does not inspire a giggle from his audience, but a groan. Later, I laughed when those “chilling” bits of reanimated frozen meat would have had me scream. The moment when a lady started chopping herself in the face with an axe serves as an appropriate metaphor for my frustration with this segment.

Similarly, any potential “The Weird Tailor” could have had is foiled by a bizarre concept and crummy execution. The notion of an astrologically powered technicolor dream coat isn’t unsalvageable, but this tale has no idea how to end in a way that pays off the established emotional poignancy. The impoverished tailor (Barry Morse) is sympathetic in his desire for the collection of money owed for services rendered, and his accidental murder of the crazed but equally sympathetic Cushing (as a grieving father) makes this resolution a tricky one. Rather than exploring this moral quandary, the filmmakers shove in that (as you so aptly put) oatmeal-faced living mannequin to lead us out. Ugh. What if, instead, the tailor had used the magical suit to cover up the murdered Cushing’s body, and what if this resulted in Cushing rising from the dead and being horrified to discover that the astrological power had been wasted upon him rather than his beloved corpse of a son? The tailor, in dumbstruck silence, watches this all in horror and regret. There. I wrote in two lines and two minutes a better ending than our filmmakers could muster.

You noticed the omission of “Lucy Comes to Stay” from my previous lambasting of the film, but rest assured this wasn’t because of any affection. I agree that it’s inoffensive and free of unintentional laughs, but that actually makes it more difficult to sit through than the silly ones. This segment, in its generic slog, is almost totally unremarkable. Thus, I will spare myself the effort of remarking upon it any further. A waste of Rampling and Ekland’s considerable talents.

Lastly, there’s “Mannikins of Horror.” Ah, “Mannikins of Horror.” What can I say about the segment that can’t be made immediately apparent to any viewer who lays eyes on the miniature Herbert Lom doll? It’s an extremely lightweight segment, but its central idea isn’t a terrible one (astral projection and the transference of consciousness in the hope of committing nefarious murder by proxy!) While I haven’t read Bloch’s original story, it’s not difficult to see that much has been omitted in order to fit it into the confines of the frame narrative.

And that frame narrative is what really interests me about ASYLUM. This is as complex as their wraparounds will ever become, and I think it’s incredibly effective, at least conceptually. If you recall, one of my beefs with THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD is that its frame story, though similarly ambitious (and also integrated with the final tale), was given little screen time to develop. Conversely, ASYLUM nearly forgoes a fourth story entirely in favor of further exploring Powell’s search for the insane Dr. Starr. There are easy gripes to pick with this wraparound, as you note, and these problems significantly devalue it. (The revelation of a cackling, just short of drooling Dr. Starr also harms the “casual insanity” aspect you argued early on.) However, I quite like the implication provided by the intertwining of the frame story with the “Mannikins of Horror” segment: supernatural occurrences are a reality. The fact that Lom really can project his mind into a killer Lego man is proof of this. Thus, we’re encouraged to re-examine the three tales that Powell’s character has already heard and casually dismissed through psychological diagnosis. Were these patients perhaps telling the truth about their supernatural experiences? Wisely (or perhaps by sheer accident), the film doesn’t provide us an answer, and we’re left to consider it on our own as the credits roll.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to consider the possibilities, as I was preoccupied by the happiness that overcame me at seeing those credits begin. I had (and have) checked out of the ASYLUM for good.