Tales From The Crypt
1972 / Freddie Francis
Where does one start with examining arguably Amicus’ greatest portmanteau film? Well, for me, wiping away the tears first while trying to get over the emotionally draining aspect of perhaps its most famous segment is the way to go, but more about that later…
Following several box office disappointments, which included I, Monster (UK, Stephen Weeks, 1971), Amicus’ head honchos, Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg, decided to go back to their trusty anthology format, which had brought them so much success in the past.
Subotsky was a long-standing fan of EC Comics, so was keen to adapt some of the publications’ stories for the big screen. Unfortunately, as he revealed in the Summer 1973 issue of Cinefantastique, ‘…it was very difficult for us to get the rights because money didn’t interest Bill Gaines, who owned them. He was more interested in seeing a good film made from the material… I kept coming back to Max… urging that he obtain the rights to the EC comics, and finally he met Bill Gaines and they were able to work out a deal.’
Ultimately, the stories depicted were chosen from paperback reprints rather than the comics themselves; four came from Tales from the Crypt (Ballantine, 1964) and a fifth from The Vault of Horror (Ballantine, 1965).
Subotsky and Rosenberg also threw a larger than usual budget at the production – perhaps an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach in a desperate attempt to create a hit. Nevertheless, out of the £170,000 earmarked for the film, less than £16k was spent on paying the principal cast. Always mindful of getting the most for their money, the duo realised that the short amount of time needed for each star meant they could get the best possible actors at a cut price.
They really struck gold with Ralph Richardson, who they hadn’t expected to be interested in playing the crypt keeper/monk who appears in the framing story – but, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and their cheek paid off.
Richardson was suddenly available after ‘West of Suez’, the John Osbourne play in which he’d been starring on tour, didn’t transfer to the West End. He asked for £3k for two days of work, and Amicus snatched his hand off. Incidentally, this would be Richardson’s second and last horror movie after The Ghoul (UK, T Hayes Hunter, 1933), in which he made his big-screen debut.
Having his name attached attracted other stars, while Subotsky and Rosenberg turned to an old colleague and a safe pair of hands as director – Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, who hadn’t worked for the company since Torture Garden (UK, 1967). Like Amicus, he badly needed a hit to boost his flagging directorial career, so jumped at the chance.
Subotsky, again in Cinefantasique, said of his appointment: ‘The thing I like most about working with Freddie is that he’s got a fantastic visual sense and these films need a visual style. He can give the picture a better look than any other director.’
Hmmm… I’m not sure David Lean or Alfred Hitchcock would agree with that statement; perhaps what Subotsky really meant is that no other director could do it on what for Amicus was a good budget, but by Hollywood standards, still rather small.
However, they were right to choose him because Francis delivers a stylish and atmospheric film; right from the start, we can tell that Tales from the Crypt is going to be at the very least intriguing.
The whole production starts in a fittingly portentous manner, with scenes of a stroll around a graveyard (Highgate Cemetery, maybe?) set against the backdrop of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor. It’s actually quite a long sequence, which ends with a sign pointing the way to ‘The Catacombs’, where Geoffrey Bayldon, in a one-scene cameo, is conducting a guided tour.
It’s then that we notice that some of the participants are rather familiar-looking – they’re played by Joan Collins, Ian Hendry, Robin Phillips, Richard Greene and Nigel Patrick. We’re going to get to know a whole lot more about their on-screen alter egos over the next 90 minutes – and none of it’s good.
The quintet lose sight of the rest of Bayldon’s party and finds themselves in a dead end – how prophetic – where they’re greeted by Richardson’s solemn monk. It’s then that the fun begins…
The first of the five tales, the almost-dialogue-free ‘…And All Through the Night’, stars Collins as Joanne who, on Christmas Eve, bumps off her husband so she can claim his insurance money.
She only checks the policy is valid AFTER she’s walloped him over the head, which seems a bit silly. What if he’d forgotten to keep up the payments? She also makes an awful lot of bloody mess in a largely white room – that stain will never come out of the furry rug.
His death, however, is rather wonderfully depicted – we don’t actually see her do it; instead, it all happens behind the newspaper he’s reading, with a sudden thud quickly followed by a red stain splattered on the pages.
Meanwhile, on the radio, a report comes through regarding an escaped maniac wandering the area wearing a Santa costume. Perhaps he could be blamed for Joanne’s husband’s gruesome demise. It seems not – her daughter (rather aptly called Carol and played by Chloe Franks, who previously worked for Amicus in The House That Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971)) lets him in, believing he’s the real Santa and, well, you can guess the rest.
It’s rumoured that Francis and Collins didn’t get along, but perhaps that helped create the tension needed to make the story memorable. They can’t have hated each other that much anyway because only a year later, they were back together for the Amicus-like Tales That Witness Madness (UK, 1973), in which Collins is memorably usurped in Michael Jayston’s bed by a tree. It would make more sense for old Joanie to hold a grudge against Francis after that…
‘…And All Through the Night’ is a great way to start the film. It’s short, brutal and compelling, a surefire way to get viewers hooked. Mark Kermode called it the film’s best segment during the special Christmas edition of his series Secrets of Cinema (BBC, Nick Freand Jones, 2018). I can’t agree with him, but it certainly provides a strong opening. Sadly, it’s followed by the weakest tale.
Ian Hendry, no stranger to the horror genre at this point in his career after roles in Children of the Damned (UK, Anton M Leader, 1964) and Repulsion (UK, Roman Polanski, 1965), takes the lead in ‘Reflection of Death’ as Carl Maitland, an unfaithful husband about to run off with his mistress Susan. However, they have a car accident, which he seemingly witnesses – and then promptly wakes up, still in the car with his girlfriend at the wheel. It’s alright, it was all just a bad dream – until the same thing happens, this time for real.
The rest of the episode is seen from Carl’s point of view. Everyone runs away from him in fright, including his wife, who appears to have a new man. And then he arrives at the flat occupied by Susan, who has some shocking answers to his questions…
By the time Tales from the Crypt was made, Hendry’s dream of becoming a major movie star was over (he’d walked away from a starring role in The Avengers (ABC Television, 1961) to pursue the big-screen success that never came); his looks were already ravaged by alcohol and as a result, you do wonder how his character had managed to woo Angela Grant’s sexy Susan. He must have had one helluva personality.
A bit of a letdown after ‘…And All Through the Night’, ‘Reflection of Death’ is mercifully short, which allows us to get onto ‘Poetic Justice’, easily my favourite story in the entire movie thanks to one man – the mighty Peter Cushing.
He plays Arthur Grimsdyke, a kindly bin man who cares for stray dogs, is popular with the local children and repairs old toys he can give away as gifts. However, the widower has two enemies living across the street – father and son James (Robin Phillips) and Edward Elliot (David Markham) who want him to leave because his property apparently reflects badly on their own swanky pad.
When getting his dogs confiscated and spreading rumours that he’s a paedophile don’t work, the son sends vicious Valentine’s cards to the old man, purporting to be from local residents who apparently all hate him. The next time we see him, poor Grimsdyke, has hanged himself, but that doesn’t mean his evil neighbours are going to get away with what they’ve done scot-free.
Although I admire ‘Poetic Justice’, I find it difficult to watch. Cushing’s performance is utterly heartbreaking. In his book English Gothic (Reynolds & Hearne, 2000), Jonathan Rigby describes the performance as ‘…acting of a beautiful, unforced delicacy rare in horror films – rare in films generally, for that matter.’
He’s not wrong. Cushing makes me cry every time, to the point where for a while I had to ban myself from watching the film; I couldn’t cope with the heartbreak. Clearly, contemporary audiences were also impressed, resulting in him winning the Licorne d’or Award for Best Actor at a French film festival.
‘I based the character of Grimsdyke on an old man I once knew,’ Cushing stated in Amicus’s publicity material for the film. ‘He was rich but wore shabby clothes… and was good to the kids in the neighbourhood.’
The role also gave him a rare opportunity to wear a heavy disguise; previously he’d only ever grown impressive whiskers or worn a wig. Hammer’s acclaimed make-up designer, Roy Ashton, created a wonderful zombie look for the scenes in which Grimsdyke returns from the dead to wreak his revenge.
Tales from the Crypt was the first of five films the actor made in the space of four months as he threw himself into work in order to escape the grief he felt following the loss of his beloved wife Helen. Contrary to some rumours, the photo of Grimsdyke’s wife, although they share the same name, is not that of Helen Cushing; the actor claimed in his autobiography Past Forgetting (1988) that that would have been ‘wrong casting’.
You can’t really imagine that playing a lonely widower dealing with trauma and emotional upheaval provided Cushing with much therapy. Nevertheless, he and Francis more or less created Grimsdyke between them, with many of the lines ad-libbed – as originally written, the character had literally nothing to say, but Cushing asked to play the part after turning down the lead role in the following story, ‘Wish You Were Here’.
Taking over the part was Richard Greene, the man then synonymous with Robin Hood thanks to his starring role in the 1950s TV series about the legendary outlaw.
Here he plays debt-ridden ruthless businessman Ralph Jason who’s told he must sell his home and its contents to pay off his creditors or declare bankruptcy. However, his wife Enid thinks she’s found a better way to remain solvent – they just so happen to own a figurine that will grant them three wishes. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, you should be careful what you wish for…
Clearly, the tale has been inspired by ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (WW Jacobs, 1902); in fact, it’s referenced several times throughout – how very meta.
Unfortunately, the plot itself makes little sense – Ralph is run off the road by a biker wearing a skull mask that makes him look like somebody auditioning for Psychomania (UK, Don Sharp, 1973). Who is he? Are we meant to believe he’s somebody wronged by Ralph in the past or an avenging angel of some kind?
And why is Ralph the one stuck with the other wrongdoers in the crypt? Surely it’s his wife Enid, played by the always excellent Barbara Murray, who should be there – after all, it’s her who’s made a pig’s ear of the wishes after being adamant she didn’t want to give up their lavish home and lifestyle.
However, there’s no denying the excitement of the final scene, in which Enid tries to end her embalmed husband’s agony by killing him once and for all. Unfortunately, chopping him up with a handy sword only makes the matter worse, because her final wish was that he would stay alive forever.
The infamous Amicus animatronic hand makes a grisly reappearance here, wriggling around under Ralph’s chin after Enid’s chopped it off. The censors allowed that, but cut the shot of his innards; it was later re-inserted for the DVD release.
Last but by no means least is ‘Blind Alleys’, which benefits from strong performances by Nigel Patrick and Patrick Magee. The former doesn’t stray too far from the kind of role in which he excelled throughout his career – that of a clipped, stiff-upper-lipped villain. He plays Major Rogers, the new chief of a home for the blind, which he plans to run with military-like efficiency, with help from his Alsatian Shane.
However, when he begins living in luxury while the residents have to deal with poor food and freezing conditions, his fate is sealed, particularly after he utters the story’s best line when Magee, as resident Carter, and his sightless friends try to complain: ‘What do you want? Can’t you see I’m eating?’ What a rotter! The almost silent scenes in which the blind men close in on him, led by a chilling Magee, are genuinely unsettling – as is their plan to deal with both Rogers and Shane.
They lock them both up for two days while building the alley of the title that leads from Shane’s cell to that occupied by Rogers. Then they let them free – but what Rogers hasn’t realised is that his route to possible freedom passes through a corridor studded with razor blades, which draw blood and attract his once obedient, now ravenous hound towards him…
It’s a great ending, particularly as we’re left to make our own minds up over Rogers’ fate – does Shane eat him, or do the razor blades open a crucial vein?
Then it’s time to cut back to the crypt for the last time, as Richardson, in suitably sepulchral mode, points them towards the way out, a light that leads the way to a fiery pit. The special effects here are pretty awful, and perhaps simply letting the stars disappear into darkness would have been a better idea. Finally, Richardson turns to the camera to ask, ‘Who’s next? Perhaps you.’
It’s a performance he could have done in his sleep, and it might have been nice to see him add a little more humour to the role – unlike his contemporary, Laurence Olivier, Richardson was a decent comedian, as anybody who’s seen The Wrong Box (UK, Bryan Forbes, 1966) would testify. Fans of EC Comics will also be aware that the crypt keeper who introduced Tales from the Crypt’s stories was a cackling jokester, so there was perhaps room for a gag or two.
The section devoted to the film in the book Amicus: The Studio that Dripped Blood (Stray Cat Publishing, ed Allan Bryce, 2000) agrees: ‘The greatest sin Subotsky’s script commits is missing out the humour of the comics.’
But never mind. Perhaps Subotsky felt that straddling comedy and horror was a step too far, although Dead of Night (UK, Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden, 1945), which set the template for Amicus’s anthologies, did it successfully via its humorous golfing story. Personally, I don’t mind the more sombre approach, I think it helps build the tension.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times felt it was effective, even if a meeting with Rosenberg didn’t go as he expected – the producer was apparently more enthusiastic about eating tonnes of coleslaw than he was promoting his latest project.
The March 9, 1972 edition of the New York Times described it as not ‘…strictly speaking a horror film at all, although it has its share of silly supernatural effects. Its people are small and spiteful and their bad ends exhibit the kind of heavy morality I associate less with horror fiction than with cautionary literature designed to persuade children to brush their teeth.’
I can totally see where that reviewer is coming from, particularly as the film was released just as cinema was, by and large, growing darker, while the genre itself was about to take a far more serious and terrifying turn.
Modern reviewers have been kinder, with Julian Upton in Offbeat (Headpress, ed. Upton, 2022) stating that ‘The first half hour… is surely up there with the best of the classic 1957-to-74 cycle of British horror cinema.’
I’d go even further than that. Upton isn’t keen on ‘Poetic Justice’, but I feel it’s a real landmark for the genre in this country thanks to Cushing’s astonishing performance – transfer that to another genre, and he’d have swept up during awards season. What’s more, unlike other similar anthologies, both by Amicus and other studios, the film features a higher hit rate than usual, with only the second story really letting it down.
Cinemagoers at the time of the film’s original release certainly weren’t worried about whether it lacked a laugh or two – incredibly, in the US, it came second at the box office in 1972 to only The Godfather (US, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972).
It’s something that Subotsky himself found mystifying, as he told Cinefantastique: ‘Tales from the Crypt has made the most. Somehow it hit it big, and we don’t know why… It had something special that our other films didn’t have and Max and I can’t put our fingers on it.’
Nevertheless, the duo didn’t stop trying to find that magic ingredient, leading them to return with The Vault of Horror (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1973), their second EC Comics-inspired portmanteau – whether they succeeded or not is perhaps down to personal opinion.
Amicus: The Studio that Dripped Blood (Stray Cat Publishing, ed. Allan Bryce, 2000)
British Cult Cinema: The Amicus Anthology (Hemlock Film, Bruce G Hallenbeck, 2014)
Chopped Meat: British Horror of the 1970s (A We Belong Dead Publication, eds. Eric McNaughton and Darrell Buxton, 2022)
English Gothic (Reynolds & Hearne, Jonathan Rigby, 2000)
Offbeat (Headpress, ed. Julian Upton, 2022)
Past Forgetting (George Weidenfield & Nicolson, Peter Cushing, 1988)