Was there ever better source material for an Amicus horror anthology than the horror comic books published by E.C. Comics? Clearly, Amicus liked what they saw as they quickly followed 1972’s Tales From The Crypt the next year with Vault Of Horror. As with the previous installment, they used a stalwart Hammer horror director — this time, Roy Ward Baker — to guide a set of bite-size E.C. horror narratives translated into screenplay form by Amicus honcho Milton Subotsky. The results aren’t quite as concentrated in impact as Tales From The Crypt but still offer plenty of macabre fun for horror fans.
In Vault Of Horror, Amicus dispenses with the horror host conceit of E.C. Comics altogether and frames the storylines with a simple but effective linking device of their own. A group of five men, including Terry-Thomas, Curt Jurgens and Tom Baker, are mystified when the elevator they are using deposits them in an underground floor where a round table and drinks await. Since they can’t get the elevator to work (no button on this floor), they take a seat and swap stories to pass the time.
The horror vignettes that follow offer a variety of scenarios, with each man claiming that their tale comes from a strange, reoccurring dream. The scenarios include a fussbudget husband (Terry-Thomas) driving his new wife to the brink, a sleazy magician (Jurgens) trying to plunder a bit of magic in India and an artist (Tom Baker) who turns to voodoo to seek revenge on those who cheated him. As the tales pile up, the five men work their way towards an inevitably spooky twist ending in the wraparound.
Vault Of Horror is a textbook example of the Amicus style circa the early ‘70s: good production values, a nice cast, a balance between grue and black humor and an old-fashioned horror sensibility buttressed by the presence of a Hammer director at the helm. The results don’t pack quite the same punch as Tales From The Crypt: the lengths of stories vary, with the tale involving Baker running perhaps a bit too long, and the tales chosen here aren’t as effectively manipulative as those used in the previous film. The coda won’t surprise anyone who saw Tales From The Crypt but it’s handled with a surprising elegance and moodiness.
That said, Vault Of Horror still gets the job done. Subotsky’s script keeps both the dark humor and the shocks flowing. Baker directs the proceedings in a tidy, gently stylish manner. He doesn’t play up the comic book angle as much as Freddie Francis did but he keeps things colorful, particularly in an early tale involving a murderous swindler visiting a town with a secret (the coda perfectly captures the style of an E.C. Comics parting shot). Denys Coop’s cinematography helps build the mood, as does another thunderous score from Tales composer Douglas Gamley.
Finally, the cast is fun: Terry-Thomas takes pleasure in applying his “upper class twit” persona to more a menacing setting, Jurgens is subtly intimidating as the unscrupulous magician and Baker brings an unexpected but effective undertone of menace to his vengeful artist character. Fans of U.K. fare should also look for an early appearance from Denholm Elliott in the final story.
Blu-Ray Notes: Vault Of Horror was recently released by Scream Factory in a new blu-ray double feature set with Tales From The Crypt. It is included in no less than three versions: a new uncut presentation on the first disc with Tales and then a second disc that includes the edited theatrical cut and an open-matte presentation of the uncut version. All three transfers are solid and the uncut versions indeed restore all the missing snips from the theatrical cut. Extras are limited to an alternate title sequence (as Tales From The Crypt II) and a trailer this remains a great deal for fans of horror anthologies.