Blu-ray. Region B. Final Cut. 15.
Although Amicus got their series of portmanteau horror epics off to a barnstorming start with Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), its immediate successors – Torture Garden (1967) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971) – were patchy affairs. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg subsequently cemented their place in the Horror Hall Of Fame though with the holy trinity of Asylum, Tales From The Crypt (both 1972) and Vault Of Horror (1973.) TFTC is a perennial personal favourite here at The House Of Freudstein, so just imagine the scene of jubilation on Christmas morning when it transpired that, among the copious goodies Santa had deposited from his bulging sack, was the new Final Cut BD of this seminal effort (sorry, I just interviewed Julian Clary’s gag writer and I think something has, er, rubbed off.)
For this one the Amicus boys recalled Francis as director but, having exhausted the prolific pen of Robert Bloch in their previous efforts, turned to the blood drenched pages of EC’s notorious, suppressed comics for inspiration, adapted its five vignettes from stories by Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig that had featured in EC’s Tales From The Crypt and its sister publication The Vault Of Horror. The cod moralising of these comics was perfectly suited to the evolving ethos of Amicus…whereas Dr Terror had dished out terror, horror and ultimately death in indiscriminate style (Christopher Lee’s vindictive art critic deserved all he got, arguably Roy Castle’s voodoo profaning trumpeter too, but it’s difficult to see what Neil McCallum, Alan “Fluff” Freeman and Donald Sutherland had done to merit their respective fates, apart from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time), there had been an accelerating trend in subsequent cycle entries towards poetic justice, allowing viewers to revel in the grisly demise of a screen character, with the comfort of clear consciences because the bastard had it coming!
Despite the warnings of tour guide (Amicus regular Geoffrey Bayldon) against “losing their way”, the usual motley crew of misfits wander off while checking out some underground catacombs, seemingly bored by his tales of religious intolerance and persecution. The stories they share, when confronted by a sinister robed figure (the casting of Sir Ralph Richardson as The Crypt Keeper stands as a coup that would only be topped when Bob Guccione signed up his mate John Gielgud for Tinto Brass’s big budget wankfest biopic of Caligula, 1979) reveal them as rather more petty exemplars of man’s eternal inhumanity to man, though admittedly each gets paid out in boffo style. Joan Collins celebrates Christmas Eve by bashing out her boring husband’s brains with a poker (maybe he didn’t get her the horror Blu-ray she asked for), warning her daughter not to come downstairs because Santa’s on his way… and he obligingly arrives in the shape of an escaped homicidal maniac, whom the kid (Chloe Franks, Christopher Lee’s witchy daughter in The House That Dripped Blood) gleefully lets in at the patio door; Ian Hendry bails on his wife and kid to do a runner with sexy mistress Angie Grant, only to end up in one of those endlessly looping “phew, it was all a dream / oh shit, no it wasn’t” nightmares of RTAs and walking death; a pair of property value-obsessed proto-yuppies drive kindly old bin man Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing) to suicide on Valentine’s day, which improves the tone of the neighbourhood but leads to a vengeful visit from his shambling corpse on February 14th the following year; Barbara Murray wishes for a financial upturn on a magic jade stature (“It’s just like that old story, The Monkey’s Paw” observes another character, helpfully) and inadvertently condemns her husband, ruthless industrialist Richard Greene, to an eternity of agony (cineastes might care to play “Spot the Cocteau quote” during this story); finally, in the longest episode, retired military man Nigel Patrick becomes the governor of an institution for blind men and systematically raids its budget so that he can lead the high life while they freeze and starve. Patrick Magee, riveting as ever, leads an improbable but satisfying insurrection involving a razor-lined rat run (difficult to imagine the old blind boys constructing this without inflicting some nasty injuries on themselves and each other), the Major’s Alsation, starved into a feral state and… lights out! The moral of this story? Never say: “Can’t you see I’m having my lunch?” to a blind dude… Predictably, The Crypt Keeper reveals that all of them have actually perpetrated the respective desperate deeds described above, before consigning them to a fiery abyss and admonishing us not to end up like them. Sure thing, Sir John.
At this point in the Amicus portmanteau cycle, things were getting distinctly gory, in fact the more visceral details of Greene’s never ending death throes (twitching intestines, severed hand wandering around his coffin…) were cut from versions broadcast on TV until very recently. It’s notable that the accelerating emphasis in these films on dishing out just desserts (the Cushing segment is even entitled “Poetic Justice”, fer Chrissakes) arrives, in this EC adaptation, at an increasing identification of the bad guys with rapacious capitalism, making you wonder if the banning of the original comics in the States during the mid-50s had more to do with this critique of The American Way than with any alleged tendency to inspire juvenile delinquency or whatever. Developing this theme further, the following year’s Vault Of Horror would trap its story tellers in the basement of a shi shi city office block, after its titles have played out over footage of the palace of Westminster. There’s no crypt keeper (or vault… bloke) in that one, but it’s even easier in 2016 than it was in the early ’70s to work out who the real bad guys are.
Final Cut have effected a top transfer of this mini classic, allowing the viewer (this one, certainly) to relish the curves of Barbara Murray’s magnificent bosom in all their HD glory… just don’t rely on her to come up with any good wishes next time you’re rubbing your monkey paw, OK? And while we’re pondering the Jason family’s little predicament, why exactly were Richard Greene’s veins full of enbalming fluid the instant before he died of a heart attack? Maybe M. Night Shyamalan’s threatened TFTC TV reboot will clear that one up? Or maybe not…
Bonus materials comprise a stills gallery and Tales From The Amicus Crypt, a watchable 36 minute appreciation from talking heads such as Jonathan Rigby, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Chibnall and Kevin Lyons. I haven’t seen Kevin for years… nor, indeed my copy of Martin Barker’s Video Nasties book.