Horror is a surprisingly conservative genre – often, its stories focus on the dire consequences of straying outside of societal or moral norms. Nowhere is this idea more obvious than in the E.C. comics of the 1950s. In Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, though the innocent suffered, it was the guilty – whether they were adulterers, murderers, or just downright bastards – who met the gruesome comeuppances that made the comics notorious.
It’s overshadowed now by the latter-day show and movies with the annoying Cryptkeeper puppet, but this 1972 feature by England’s Amicus studios adapts five E. C. stories with a fair amount of success. Despite the obvious low budget, the movie succeeds thanks to the power of the stories chosen for adaptation, some good (even great) acting, and director Freddie Francis’ eye for atmosphere.
The film opens with a group of sightseers visiting catacombs where persecuted monks once hid. A group of five people become separated, then are locked into a room where a sinister fellow (Sir Ralph Richardson, all piercing eyes and hypnotic voice) in monk’s robes and hood sits on a skull-shaped throne. He then tells the five visitors stories of what he claims is their future (or is it!).
“All Through The House” is the first, and unfortunately the weakest of the tales. A trophy wife (Joan Collins) chooses Christmas Eve as the night to bash in her husband’s head with a fireplace poker. She’s done this to get his insurance money payoff, but I suspect the God-awful décor in her house is what’s driven her to murder. Joan’s hands are already full with making her husband’s murder look like an accident and keeping her kid from finding out what’s happened, but it turns out there’s a homicidal maniac prowling about, disguised as Santa Claus. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
In “Reflection of Fear”, family man Ian Hendry tells his wife and kids he’s going on a business trip and doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Ten points if you guess that “business trip” is really “running away with my hot young lover” and “doesn’t know when he’ll be back” means “never, and it’s been nice knowing you.” Ian and his honey get into a wreck on their way to their new love nest, but Ian soon recovers, and seems to be fine… or is he?
“Poetic Justice” is the tale that comes closes to horror, though not for its grisly denouement (which its villain richly deserves, and then some). Kindly old widower Grimsdike (Peter Cushing, in a heartbreaking performance) just wants to live out his twilight years in the house he once shared with his wife. He’s happy there with his pet dogs, and he makes toys for the local kids who come to visit him. Unfortunately his neighbor covets Grimsdike’s property and starts harassing the poor old man, taking away all the simple joys of his life until Grimsdike’s driven to suicide. But a minor thing like death has never stopped anyone in the E. C. universe from enjoying a little well-deserved revenge.
“Wish You Were Here” offers a take on the idea of being careful what you wish for. A wealthy couple learn that oops, they’re not as wealthy as they thought and will have to sell off “all our lovely things” to avoid bankruptcy. (The “lovely things” look like what you’d find at grandma’s church rummage sale.) Among the prize possessions is a jade statuette that offers the user three wishes. Even though the husband has read “The Monkey’s Paw” and warns against using such wishes, the wife goes ahead anyway. Things work out even worse than they usually do in these situations.
The last tale is possibly my favorite of these, as it’s a pure revenge tale. “Blind Alleys” is the tale of a retired military major who takes over management of a home for elderly blind men. The major’s contemptuous attitude toward his charges is bad enough, but soon he’s feeding the men substandard food, turning off the heat, and refusing to call doctors when the men are ill – all the while pampering himself with fine foods and even giving blankets that should go to the men to his German shepherd. When one of the men dies, the others take it on themselves to show the major that justice is blind, and give him a gruesome fate.
It all ends back at the crypt, with a twist that can be guessed a mile away but is still satisfying.
Having read most of these stories in their original comic form, I can attest that for the most part the movie-makers have done a good job adapting them for the screen. It’s not a perfect adaptation – “All Through the House” is too short and doesn’t sustain its tension, while “Wish You Were Here” doesn’t work as comeuppance (the protagonists aren’t portrayed as particularly bad people) or as pure horror (they’re not particularly nice either). But for the most part the spirit of the E. C. tales is alive and well, demonstrating that if you step outside the bounds – whether you’re a murderess, adulterer, covetous bastard, or just plain cruel – sooner or later you’ll get what’s coming to you.
The DVD is a bare-bones affair, with nary an extra. The picture seems soft and the sound a bit muffled but I’m not sure how much of this to attribute to the transfer and how much is because it’s a low-budget movie from 1972. But if you like your moral tales served straight up, by all means pay a visit to the crypt.