Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part XI): The Vault of Horror (1973) 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 THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

NT: The success of TALES FROM THE CRYPT at the international box office and the abundance of remaining comic book source material licensed from EC Comics encouraged Amicus to speedily put a follow-up film into production. Surprising, then, that the resulting anthology, THE VAULT OF HORROR (known in some territories at release as TALES FROM THE CRYPT II), wound up as different from its progenitor as it is. While THE VAULT OF HORROR follows the structure established in the prior film (a skimpy, graveyard-set wraparound supporting four short segments and one longer episode all adapted from EC horror comics), it diverges in its approach to tone. For better or worse, VAULT OF HORROR is a “funny” film. In our last discussion, I discussed the peculiar tonal balancing act TALES FROM THE CRYPT performed with its simultaneous dark, ironic humor and deathly sincerity. THE VAULT OF HORROR, on the other hand, sees its predecessor’s dark, ironic humor and raises it a handful of visual sight gags and punchlines.

I don’t particularly mind this alteration (the film ranks only slightly lower in my estimation than TALES), but it’s easy to imagine that it might rankle a few. For instance, it might rankle you, my friend. Having already heard your preliminary consideration of this film on the Hello! This is the Doomed Show podcast, I know you’re not too fond of the various jars of pickled cinematic goodies the film places on its cluttered shelves. I can’t exactly disagree with you: when comparing Amicus’s two EC anthologies to one another, VAULT OF HORROR is unquestionably the inferior product. It feels rushed, it feels cheaper, and it feels broader. Worst of all, it feels less inspired: up until this point, every Amicus anthology has sought to complicate the established formula in one way or another, but this one is content to lay dormant, to simply cash-in.

Fortunately, the problems listed above have never stopped me from enjoying a film. I recognize THE VAULT OF HORROR’s flaws, but I embrace it all the same. The wry, bloody charm of the comic originals emerges intact, I think, and the emphasis on overt, exaggerated humor in the film (without sacrificing the grislier aspects) is a valid method of representing the comics’ cornier qualities. (Its exaggerated humor also helps us horror historians discern a clearer bridge between the Amicus anthologies and the later HBO television series in terms of their approaches to adaptation.) In a prior discussion, I criticized director Roy Ward Baker for making ASYLUM (1972) too grim and humorless, and—if nothing else—I could never accuse him of doing the same in this one. Additionally, there are some striking moments and images to be found in THE VAULT OF HORROR (both of the comedic and the horrific variety) that could rival those populating TALES FROM THE CRYPT. It even manages to best TALES at a key moment: the conclusion of VAULT’s frame narrative hits a curiously melancholy (and, dare I say it, poignant) note that we haven’t seen in an Amicus production since the conclusion of DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), and I’d go so far as to argue that this melancholy note is the better of the two. It also beats tumbling like lemmings into a white hot hell pit.

However, it must be noted: to (a white hot) hell (pit) with the censored version of THE VAULT OF HORROR. To achieve a PG rating from the MPAA for its American theatrical release, Amicus cut out the closing darkly comic visual punchlines from the first two segments. This censored version then became the version most widely distributed on home video, and thus the uncensored version exists today only in shoddy-looking composite bootlegs and open matte overseas releases. This is an unfortunate state of affairs. The cuts don’t amount to much of the running length (certainly less than a minute), but the effect of their absence on the film as a whole is devastating.

We’ve taken an elevator to hell with this one, pal. Do you still despise the ride?

GR: The inferno-like rage I might have previously held against THE VAULT OF HORROR has certainly cooled in the intervening years, but as I found out in watching it for this assignment there’s still a small but very present part of my brain that wails “This is no TALES!”, usually right around the start of “Midnight Mess.” But you’re certainly right. VAULT has its moments, and perhaps it’s my general disinclination towards it that helps to make them shine all the brighter. I can see this film slowly inching itself a little closer to my heart upon subsequent viewings, but there are aspects of it that taste like bitter, bloody broth in my mouth that I may never be able to get over.

Roy Ward Baker establishes a very different mood (as does Subotsky with his script) than the arch melodramatics that Francis had tinkered with so wonderfully in the prequel. The establishing shots of modern England—the House of Parliament on the Thames to be exact—are worlds away from the Gothic cemetery of TALES and the robustness of the previous film is traded in for a more dreary sense of foreboding, despite the footage itself looking like it could have been ripped from the reels of any old travelogue. This is the same sensation that, for me, carries on into the rest of the film with a few brief exceptions. Where TALES seemed vivacious, VAULT is on the whole pictorially lackluster; indeed, at one point I actually wrote “This movie looks like it has a cold.”

The cinematography doesn’t have the same pop as Norman Warwick’s compositions. The muddy browns and faded greys of DOP Denys N. Coop can’t help but rub off on me and bestow an overall sense of “blah.” This look isn’t a bad thing in of itself, but supplanted in the bigger-than-life world of garish comic book horror, it can’t help but look, as you say, cheap and run of the mill. Composer Douglas Gamley is one of the few hangers-on from TALES, but even his score can’t help but feel like a bittersweet reminder of the completely bonkers and one-of-a-kind orchestrations he made under Francis’ direction. It even becomes a bit unintentionally funny in the beginning when we see the gentlemen boarding the elevator as naturally as anything else, but then there are those intense horns of his blowing away in the background like we’re seeing the destruction of Pompeii.

The wraparound segment may seem to be uninspired and a bit far-fetched, but I actually have soft spot for it, recalling as it does the type of “gentlemen’s club” story that was quite popular in Britain, where gruesome subjects were discussed in between drinks and cigars to the nameless narrators willing to hear the accounts to their black finales. It also acts as a kind of bridge to the earlier DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) which also shared a host of tale-tellers provoked by the strange dream of one of their number into sharing accounts of the uncanny. Its patented weirdness (people calmly sitting down to tell each other scary stories while never *once* looking for a damn way out) is given a quietly mournful punctuation by the film’s climax as we see that the characters who were never in search of an exit have been in the eponymous vault the whole time, for those who might have been wondering when that shoe was going to drop.

We skip out on the sardonic tones of the Cryptkeeper in order to hear the solemn realization of Curd Jürgens that he and his fellows are doomed to an eternity of telling each other of their horrid lives. It’s a quieter version of Hell than that of TALES FROM THE CRYPT for sure, and in some ways it seems much more terrifying and sad that instead of being forced into the fiery cauldron kicking and screaming like Ralph Greene these men realize in their hearts where they are and what they have done and walk out amongst the mist-shrouded graves to accept their fate. There was actually ghoulish makeup done by Roy Ashton for this scene that would’ve shown the cast as shrivel-faced corpses. That might have taken away some of the tragic sting, and its deletion from the final film due either to an editorial decision or the further bastardization of the censored version (it really is the worst) is perhaps for the better. It’s a strangely affecting ending to cap off a film that has given us such sights as vampires with snake fangs and grown men in ladies’ underwear. Such is the perplexing picture that is THE VAULT OF HORROR.

My glass is getting empty. Tell me about the strange visions (dreams, phobias, obsessions, fears…) that you had while listening to the gents recount their ghastly phantasms while I fill my decanter.

NT: You’ve perfectly summarized my feelings about the film’s denouement.  And, I agree, it’s an odd choice to infect the film with a strain of somber and restless sorrow after five straight tales of awkward chuckles. I’d argue that the choice was rooted in a desire to reflect (in reverse) the occasional abrupt tonal shifts the original EC comics audience experienced when moving between the humorous frame stories and ghastly narratives proper, but such an argument would seem somehow off. Despite the sly intelligence and subversive wit of the EC brand, such subtle pathos as that which the film’s ending creates for its audience was beyond the ken of those horrific funny books. Rather, understated pathos is Amicus’s game, and I think this ending is a product of the Amicus of DR. TERROR, THE PSYCHOPATH (1966), I, MONSTER (1971), and nearly every Peter Cushing performance creeping on set and making its presence known. It’s a curious marriage, but a fascinating one.

But on to a discussion of these tales from the… vault:

“Midnight Mess” (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #35, 1953): As with TALES FROM THE CRYPT, we open with a surprise murder. That film’s fire poker whack to the head is a good deal more shocking and visually arresting than the strangulation we witness in “Midnight Mess,” but the moment nonetheless stands as another deliberate call-back from this film to its successful predecessor. (As the Crypt-Keeper might say, “If it ain’t broke, beat it to death.”) The forced connection between the two films is especially obvious considering that this scene doesn’t exist in the original comic. This is because the film’s version sends Harold Rodgers (Daniel Massey) on an elaborate, sister-murdering inheritance scheme, while the original comic has its hero stopping by his sister’s place merely because he was passing through town. Yes, the film ramps up the stakes appreciably, but in truth Subotsky’s script works to improve upon its source in most every way. While us dedicated horror fiends can likely sniff out the town’s vampire menace before it’s revealed, the film at least tries to conceal this surprise through vague references to a shadowy “them” being those fiends responsible for all the blood-draining. Al Feldstein’s script for the comic, with its constant warnings to the protagonist from the townsfolk to “watch out for those darned vampires,” lacks this subtle grace. The addition of the inheritance plot—and Harold’s presumed murder of his sister, Donna (Anna Massey, his real life sister)—also adds a wonderfully ironic karmic twist to the ending revelation, which fails to connect on the four-color page. Yes, the fangs in this tale are quite ostentatious, and the jugular tap might be a step too far into comedy for some, but I relish these aspects. The tap, for instance, is lifted straight from the comic’s final panel. For me, this macabre and comical elevation of a standard horror premise is precisely what EC Comics excels at, and in this segment the film translates that sensibility to the screen with wicked skill.

“The Neat Job” (originally published in SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES #1, 1952): My favorite episode of the film, “The Neat Job,” is derived from the inaugural issue of one of EC’s pulp crime comics, yet its horrific twist ending (present in the original comic) makes it a fine fit for this gathering. Both the comic and the film act as wonderful exaggerations of the resentment that erupts from time to time when trying to please your significant other in a domestic setting, despite you and your partner’s wildly different conceptions of what “neatness” and “order” look like. Arthur (Terry-Thomas) places an undue amount of pressure on his new wife, Eleanor (Glynis Johns), to conform to his ideas of those concepts, and his constant berating of her when she fails to live up to his standards cause her to go a little mad in her attempts to do right by him. Unlike “…And All Through the House,” this tale is slightly more sympathetic to the plight of the housewife with a demanding husband, demonstrating the absurdity of his arguments and the helplessness of her situation until she empowers herself through violence. The fact that she screws up one final time by reversing the word order of Arthur’s catchphrase (“A place for everything, and everything in its place!”) is a delightfully quaint stinger that’s an invention of Subotsky’s own. To give our screenwriter/producer extraordinaire more credit, the film version elevates the silliness (the sight of Terry-Thomas wearing women’s underwear will not soon leave my mind’s eye) but also the grotesqueness of the source material (the lovingly long pan across the many jars or Arthur’s pickled parts was one of those grotesque moments trimmed from the American theatrical release). The episode’s best (because least explicable) joke of all is the casting of the fifty-year-old Glynis Johns as a young trophy wife of the sixty-year-old Terry-Thomas. Oh, how times have changed.

“This Trick’ll Kill You” (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #33, 1952): This episode is one of those standard-issue “supernatural revenge against evildoer” tales that EC (and Amicus) were so fond of. I like the segment, though I find in it scant material worth remark save for one particular scene that demonstrates Baker and Subotsky’s filmmaking intelligence when crafting their source for the screen. The scene I’m referring to is the one in which the magician, Sebastian (Curd Jurgens), and his wife, Inez (Dawn Addams), are testing out their new charmed rope magic trick back in their hotel room, shortly after murdering a young Indian girl for it. What the pair discovers is that the rope is not an illusion, of course, and after Inez climbs to the top of the rope she looks up above her, screams, and vanishes into the ceiling. Up until this point, the comic and film remain identical in their presentation of this scene. But then Amicus does it better: on the ceiling, at the exact spot where Inez vanished, blood begins to spread from above, bleeding through the paint. It’s a tremendously creepy moment, adding a touch of genuine fright that the comic original sacrifices for bombast (in the comic, Inez’s bloodless, dismembered doll limbs tumble down from the ceiling onto Sebastian). All of the THE VAULT OF HORROR’s previous visual scares have been deliberately laughable and extravagant, so this moment stands apart for its preference for chilling suggestion over outright gore, adding some surprising and very welcome variety to the proceedings. I appreciate the restraint.

“Bargain in Death” (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #28, 1952): Well, you can’t win them all. “Bargain in Death” is adapted almost precisely from its source comic, and yet it ends up so much sillier on the silver screen. From the blast of wind emanating from the scream of the casketed Maitland (Michael Craig) that sends the hair of the medical students blowing wildly back, to the cloyingly metafictional, intertextual reading one character is seen making of the novelization of Amicus’s own TALES FROM THE CRYPT, this is some goofy tripe. The implausibility of the central insurance scam—which, in its clumsiness, unintentionally implies that its two schemers are financially dependent homosexual lovers—ensures that we won’t discover much to take away from these events, except that perhaps medical school fees are much too high. If this were a longer segment, it would significantly mar the film. As it is, it’s a brief wisp of post-burial bad breath in the larger sensation.

“Drawn and Quartered” (originally published in TALES FROM THE CRYPT #26, 1951): Before he donned a scarf he wore a ginger beard. This segment stars Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who, and the second Doctor, after Jon Pertwee, to pop up in an Amicus anthology) as a poor and downtrodden painter living in Haiti who discovers that various critics and art dealers back in the homeland scammed him by telling him his art was worthless and then selling it for exorbitant prices for their sole profit. Pissed, Baker’s artist, Moore, employs the aid of voodoo to bestow his art with magical properties of revenge. Don’t worry, it doesn’t all blow up in his face or anything. Oh, never mind, yes it does. Of course it does. There’s a fine premise supporting “Drawn and Quartered,” but it’s not one chock full of bombshells. As soon as Moore realizes his powers, our minds flash back to the self-portrait he painted in the opening scene and we know precisely what’s about to occur. Like “Blind Alleys” from TALES, this final segment is given a much longer running time in which to weave its yarn. Unlike “Blind Alleys,” “Drawn and Quartered” doesn’t benefit nearly as much from the expansion. Subotsky and Roy Ward Baker aren’t certain what to do with the extra time, so they throw in another revenge murder for kicks (which enables them to bring in Denholm Elliott for a glorified cameo). Tellingly, the art dealer who becomes the victim of this final attack in the film only appears in the source comic by name: Moore is stomping off to take care of him when the neglectful workman’s turpentine makes goopy work of his self-portrait’s face. The comic realizes that by this point the conceit was worn out and needed its grim ending posthaste; the film, in contrast, attempts to squeeze the last glob of ruddy pigment out of the tube. A misstep.

Now, I daresay I haven’t yet squeezed the last glob out of this conversation, so take it away.

GR: I’ll try to keep it brief and splatter my last few impressions of the film onto the canvas of discussion without making too much of a mess. I’ve been drinking.

“Midnight Mess”: As I stated earlier, this one kind of sours my view of the film right from the get-go and leaves me hungering for more. It reminds me of stories I used to write in middle school where the characters would lay their motivations right out before doing that very same thing. I’m talking about those fleeting five seconds where Jonathan goes to his sister’s place, tells her he’s there because of their late father’s inheritance, establishes his goal to get it no matter what, and then knifes said sister before leaving her to rot. Oh, and then he goes to a restaurant that’s directly across the street to grab a bite before returning home to claim his riches. And look, I understand that the very presence of vampiric diners demands at least a little suspension of disbelief from us but a murderer hanging around the exact neighborhood where he just committed his crime and going into a crowded eatery just to grab a glass of tah-mahto juice strains one’s patience. Subotsky’s rewriting of the main character’s motives for passing through the strange town hampers the narrative rather than beefing it up, and all of Feldstein’s fun set-pieces (the revealing mirror, the blood tap) lose some of their punch, especially if you have the horrid misfortune of seeing the edited version of the film which just shows the latter as a still shot with a big ol’ ink blot covering up Massey’s jugular faucet. It’s as if Baker felt the material unworthy of his time and passed over this appetizer in a rush to get on to the entrees. The only thing that THE VAULT OF HORROR does right is show us a switchblade-swinging Anna Massey, an element which was sadly lacking from the original comic book.

“The Neat Job”: It seems we have similar tastes in E. C. tales, as this is also my favorite entry from the film. I had been surprised when watching it in preparation for Richard’s podcast how much I ended up enjoying it, as my spotty memory of my initial viewing of the film on muddy VHS years before had not conjured up any fondness I might have attributed to it. Glynis Johns is cute as a button as the soft-voiced Eleanor trying to maintain her household and her sanity under the fastidious hand of Terry-Thomas. Seeing him with ascot and wine glass, all of the contents of his cabinets diligently marked, speaks to the prissy obsessive-compulsive within me, and it’s somewhat interesting that for all his demands Thomas never quite comes off as the abrasive brute one might imagine an abusive spouse as. He just happens to be very particular, and the comeuppance he receives is one perfectly matching his foibles which all of the best E. C. paybacks accomplished. Johns’ frantic last minute cleaning of the house, the messes only escalating in her hurry, is like something from a sitcom with the laugh track taken away, as tragic as it is funny because we know from Johns’ sensitive portrayal how much she truly wants to make her husband happy. I think Thomas would have approved of her tidiness in cataloguing his remains. As a matter of fact, they do share a laugh together at the end, even though his smile happens to be pickled.

“This Trick’ll Kill You”: It seems appropriate that this journey into magic and morbidity is the third entry of five in THE VAULT OF HORROR as it strikes me as middle-of-the-road. It doesn’t quite devolve into perfect inanity (we’ll be seeing that soon), but it’s really nothing to stand up and cheer for either. Curd Jürgens does have a nicely sinister air as the imposing Sebastian trying to find the secrets of an Indian girl’s fantastic dancing rope, while Dawn Addams appears to be caught in an attempt to literally act her face off as his wife Inez. When she climbed onto the magically suspended rope and proclaimed “It HOLDS me!” I imagined a vein tearing itself through her forehead. (There’s an equally unintentional hilarious bit where, after briefly examining the girl’s basket and feeling the rope for any sources of suspension, Sebastian angrily tells Inez “If I couldn’t figure out how it worked, no one can!” He’s a trained professional; no one can feel a rope like he can.) Thankfully that did not happen, and the slowly pooling plasma on the ceiling is an even better fate and the one truly chilling moment from the film as we’re left to ponder just what the greater cosmic forces have done to Inez. The feminine link that the Indian girl’s powers seem to have (her blessed rope was in the possession of only the mothers in her family) is an interesting twist that seems reminiscent of the world from Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE in which magic was solely practiced by the hands of women. The enchanted rope used to mete out punishment is rendered somewhat convincingly as it comes to full malevolent life to viciously whip at Sebastian as he tries to escape, and the final few seconds with the girl’s slightly smiling corpse tumbling from its hiding place to gaze up at her killer adds a nice stinger on this little sleight of hand act.

“Bargain in Death”: Oh, boy. I don’t know what kind of bargain the boys at Shepperton Studios thought they were making with this one, but I want my money back. Overall, this story has the same graveyard comic-vibe that informed many of E. C.’s stories, but something is just lost in translation in adapting “Bargain in Death” for the British screen. The art by Jack Davis from the original source (whose exaggerated style adorned everything from MAD Magazine to TV Guide) adds a lot to the corny aesthetic, but on camera with flesh-and-blood actors the whole affair is pretty lame and generally mind-boggling. “Bargain in Death” makes “Midnight Mess” feel like BRAVEHEART, if for no other reason than the fact that this vignette leaves one with the uncertain feeling of whether or not they really did see it or if it was just a crazy dream they suffered through during a two minute power nap they took while watching the movie. The utterly painful pandering (I could have sworn Michael Craig looked at the camera after his line “There’s no money in horror” as if to say “Wah-wah-wah!”) and the further need for characters to say exactly what’s on their mind (“I wonder how long it will take him to realize his friend Alex isn’t coming?” Craig’s partner in crime Alex said while driving, to no one in particular) is particularly irksome. When the bulldog groundskeeper of the cemetery tells the two medical students “Sorry bout the ‘ead,” I think he was talking about us.

“Drawn and Quartered”: The final fatal vision that is offered to us from the vault dwellers is this, a fanciful reworking of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and just about every voodoo story you might have encountered. Tom Baker has an intense power as the suffering artist Moore (with his red hair and beard, perhaps his first name is Alan), whose path of vengeance is marked in blood and vibrant pastels. I admit that I find the overall concept neat and actually like the various brands of death and mutilation that Moore enacts upon his enemies, though the solemn lead-ins with Moore confronting the paintings with their crimes and marking them for destruction are pretty much blown up when we see the actual, hysterical scenes of the characters getting what’s theirs. One, an art critic, is rightfully accused by his wife for sleeping around, so she decides to fix his lascivious eyes by grabbing what we can assume is a bottle of acid from a bureau in their bedroom and tossing it into his face. The other, a curator, tries to show his simple assistant how to properly use a paper cutter only to lose his precious hands in the process, said appendages seeming to fly off the table like a pair of mittens in a gust of wind. The final standoff between Baker and the oily Elliot does actually manage to generate some tension; I do love Baker’s preamble of setting the wristwatch on the table and saying “You have two minutes to live.” Between this, Elliot’s forced suicide, and Baker’s race back to the office to reclaim his watch a nice sense of urgency is worked up towards the end, but it can’t hold a candle to the sweaty climax of “Blind Alleys.” It along with the funereal wraparound end things on a fine enough note, but holding THE VAULT OF HORROR up to its predecessor can’t help but make on remiss for what could’ve been.

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