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…


NT: “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.

“AND THEN?”


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.

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