It’s kind of amazing that the punchy little shock-narratives of E.C. Comics had to wait until the early ‘70s to cross over from comic books into other media. However, it makes perfect sense that the first people to pick up the gauntlet were Amicus Productions: at the time, they were the reigning kings of the horror anthology thanks to titles like The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum. Their treatment of E.C. Comics’ classic Tales From The Crypt title melds their approach with the comic book’s style nicely while weaving in a few surprises on the side.
As with any good horror anthology, Tales From The Crypt begins with a framing device. A motley group of visitors making their way through the titular location suddenly become lost and emerge into a large, carved-out tomb where they find the Crypt Keeper (Sir Ralph Richardson). As the visitors question why they are there, the enigmatic Crypt Keeper gets them to reveal the circumstances of their above-ground lives.
A series of short horror tales ensue, including gems where a homicidal housewife (Joan Collins) has to square with an asylum escapee dressed in a Santa suit and a tale where evil neighbors try to force a kindly old-timer (Peter Cushing) out of his home, only to end up getting more than they bargained for. Of course, once everyone reveals their respective tale, the Crypt Keeper has a nice little surprise waiting for them.
The end result is a grand throwback to the days when horror was fun. Milton Subotsky’s script preserves the essence of the E.C. Comics story style, with tight, manipulative short narrative driven by the idea that justice might be delayed but it can never be escaped — and the more someone tries to manipulate justice, the more gruesome their fate will be.
Given how much E.C. Comics have been plundered since the film, it will be easy for horror fans to predict the outcomes but there’s still an undeniable satisfaction in their manipulative narrative style. As for the framing device’s coda, it owes a lot to a certain prior Amicus production but it’s handled well here and gives the film and appropriately spine-tingling coda.
The fun is furthered by sharp direction from Hammer vet Freddie Francis. He plays against horror conventions by frequently giving the film a brightly lit, primary-colored visual style that plays up the comic book vibe of the proceedings: for example, the colors really pop in the first, Christmas-set storyline. Norman Warwick’s cinematography furthers this mood by frequently going for comic book panel-style compositions and Douglas Gamley provides a suitably thunderous musical score that fits the film’s over-the-top style nicely.
Finally, Amicus wisely sprung for an ace cast of English thesps who deliver strong performances that fit the E.C. Comics vibe. Collins is a lot of fun as the murderer who finds herself in danger of becoming a victim, hinting at her future soap star status as a bitchy manipulator, and Cushing delivers a genuinely touching performance as a kindly old man who finds himself at the mercy of a snotty young neighbor. The heart he invests his performance with really amps up his storyline’s manipulative power.
However, the best performance in a story might come from Patrick Magee as a man living at a home for the blind who takes umbrage when he and the others are treated poorly by the place’s new cheap, casually cruel administrator. Magee shows a graceful touch as he gently builds the character’s simmering anger with the subtlest of facial and vocal cues, easily getting the audience on the side of the blind men for the story’s inspired, deliciously mean finale.
Richardson’s performance also deserves special notice. Subotsky’s version of the Crypt Keeper character is quite different from the comic, throwing out the ghoulish puns and chatty narration for a mysterious, quietly ominous character who is likely to answer a question with a pointed question of his own. Richardson underplays the part beautifully, wielding his silences as a tool to unnerve both the other characters and the audience. As a result, the change in characterization works and gives a nice layer of menace to the linking story sequences.
In short, Tales From The Crypt does an impressive job of translating E.C. Comics to the cinematic realm, setting the stage for latter E.C.-inspired films like Creepshow and weaving in a clever change or two of its own. Those who enjoy the darkly humorous side of horror will find plenty of macabre delights here.
Blu-Ray Notes: Tales From The Crypt was recently released by Scream Factory in a new blu-ray double feature set. The anamorphic transfer looks nice, with appropriately vivid colors, and is the same uncut version previously used on an MGM DVD. Extras are limited to a trailer but you do get Vault Of Horror in three versions: a new uncut presentation, the edited theatrical cut and an open-matte presentation of the uncut version. Thus, any fan of Amicus will want to pick this new set up.