After Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), in which it’s difficult to fathom precisely what some of the damned commuters had done to merit their respective gristly fates, Amicus portmanteau horror epics increasingly focussed on bad people getting their just desserts, a tendency that would only be consolidated in their adaptations of EC’s notoriously moralising comic strips… the Peter Cushing segment in Francis’s Tales From The Crypt (1972) is entitled “Poetic Justice”, fer Chrissakes! Taking their cue from those comics, the aforementioned bad people would, furthermore, be increasingly identified with rapacious capitalism, making you wonder if the suppression of EC’s wares 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.
Similar subversive tendencies are apparent in the title sequence of Roy Ward Baker’s companion piece to Tales, Vault Of Horror (1973), which locates the epicentre of evil as the Palace Of Westminster, alongside other Thames-side pillars of the establishment. Another mismatched bunch of geezers find themselves marooned in the basement of a Canary Wharf-type sky-scraper. There’s no sign of the hitherto mandatory malevolent Master of Ceremonies, but while they take advantage of the champagne, cigars and canapés that somebody has thoughtfully laid on, our boys settle down with great alacrity to a discussion of their recurring nightmares, all adapted from original strips in EC’s Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror comics. In the opener Midnight Mess, Daniel Massey stabs his sister (real life sibling Anna) to secure an inheritance but makes the unfortunate decision to celebrate in what turns out to be a vampire restaurant… the penny drops when his waiter ask how he’d like his clots, Massey spits out his starter in disgust and curtains are hastily withdrawn from the mirrors to reveal that he’s the only one in the joint with a reflection. His sibling turns up to savour the irony while her vampire mates savour his blood (“Good vintage!”), freshly drawn from a tap inserted in his neck.
In The Neat Job, the comic episode that has been mandatory in these things since Dead Of Night (1945), neat freak Terry-Thomas makes wife Glynis Johns’ life a misery with his fussy ways until she cracks and dismembers him, neatly bottling his various constituent organs on a shelf in the workroom to comply with his mantra “Everything in its place and a place for everything”. This is the one episode of VOH in which the punishment seems to be significantly disproportionate to the crime, although to axe it on such pernickety grounds and lose its leads’ comedy master class would have seriously hurt the picture.
It’s a lot more entertaining than This Trick’ll Kill You, wherein Curt Jurgens and Dawn Addams casually do away with the daughter of an Indian street magician to learn the secret of his rope trick but end up discovering terror at the end of their tether. This one is rather flatly rendered and compromises its own moral message, in which imperialism is condemned alongside capitalism with a depiction of India and Indians, the laziness of which borders on mild racism. The penultimate tale, Bargain In Death, has its own comedic overtones. Edward Judd and failed writer Michael Craig (“There’s no money in horror!”… tell me about it, dude!) concoct an insurance scam that involve faking the latter’s death and temporarily burying him but matters are complicated by the participants’ mutual intention to double cross each other, not to mention the interference of penurious medical students Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davis. Cleverly and economically scripted by Milton Subotsky, this segment also benefits from some characteristically opportunistic Amicus casting. Although the company never went down the TV adaptation route so frequently exploited by rivals Hammer, here they drag in Nedwell and Davis from ITV’s then successful and long running small screen adaptations of Richard Gordon’s “Doctor” novels, with Arthur Mullard (remember him? Yuss, my dear…) as their brutish grave digging / grave robbing sidekick. Just in case you still haven’t twigged the humorous flavour of this episode, Baker even has Craig reading a novelisation of Tales From The Crypt while waiting for his death-mimicking medication to kick in.
Drawn And Quartered is the closing, longest and arguably best vignette from The Vault. Echoing not one but two episodes from Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors (not to mention Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray), this one opens with painter Tom Baker, whose been enjoying the Gaugin life out in the West Indies, discovering that an unholy alliance of his agent, a prominent critic and an unscrupulous art dealer have been conspiring to rip him off. Enlisting the aid of a voodoo priest, he acquires the ability to paint portraits of his tormentors and add wounds that are promptly visited upon them in real life… thus the crooked critic is blinded when his wronged wife throws acid in his face, the dealer who mishandled his work loses his hands when clumsily operating an office guillotine and agent Denholm Elliott attempts to shoot the avenging artist, only to turn his gun on himself after a bullet wound has been added to his picture. So far, so good… but hang on, how safely has Tom stashed his self-portrait?
“That’s how it is…” Jurgens advises the viewer, in the absence of a Vault Keeper (they must have blown all the dough for that on Ralph Richardson in Tales From The Crypt): “Every night we must retell the evil things we did while were alive… night after night for eternity”, before the participants schlepp off to their respective graves. Must make those long winter evenings in Hell just fly by…
Baker, trouper that he was, does a predictably solid job taking over from Freddie Francis, if not evincing quite the same feel for his material. Although Final Cut’s previous Blu-ray release of Tales From The Crypt included a 36 minute documentary on Amicus, this one is a bare bones release, depriving me of the opportunity to bug Kevin Lyons for the return of my copy of Martin Barker’s book The Video Nasties… ooh hang on, I just did that! The good news is that, like its predecessor (which brought us the full predicament of Richard Greene… throbbing intestines, dismembered limbs, et al, for eternity) this one is fully uncut. Previous MPAA approved, TV broadcast friendly releases freeze-framed three scenes before their violent pay-offs, enhancing their comic book ambience at the expense of horror (Daniel Massey twitching away as he is converted into a human optic, that art dealer losing his hands) and humour (Terry-Thomas’s response to having his hair parted with a claw hammer…
Great stuff. Dunno about you, but I feel another classy horror portmanteau movie is long overdue… Jeremy Kyle as the Horror Host… just saying.