Tales From The Crypt
1972 / Freddie Francis
Horror and comics have always been my favourite things. Sometimes one medium takes the wheel, and my immersion is a little uneven, but they’re usually on par. So, horror comics are naturally the best thing ever, aren’t they?
It was probably my adolescent diet of Hammer films and Adam West Batman (1966-68) episodes that gave me a deep-seated appreciation for lurid imagery and emphatically exclaimed dialogue; and it was exemplified in the pages of the EC horror comics of the fifties, namely Tales from the Crypt (original run 1950-1955). Masterminded by Ed Gaines, these anthology comics certainly carved their place in horror history, partly because of the witch-hunt by pseudo-scientist Frederic Wertham.
His book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) sought to lay blame for the moral deviance of all youth at the feet of comic books, specifically horror. Wertham’s spiteful crusade had long since become a footnote in comic book infamy when, in 1989, Tales from the Crypt was rejuvenated as a weekly TV series featuring every well-known actor, writer and director of the day. The series creators adapted individual strips as single episodes; bookended by John Kassir’s animatronic Crypt Keeper; a true horror icon with the finest cackle ever recorded.
And that’s basically the potted history of Tales from the Crypt…
Except it isn’t.
Amicus Productions, unofficially and perhaps unfairly deemed Hammer’s lesser rival, would – if they still existed – tell you as much.
Founded in the early sixties by American producers and screenwriters Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, Amicus’ chapter in the horror movie history books will be found at the top of the portmanteau section. Comprising four or five separate stories and linked together by a narrator or over-arching incident, these films did not begin with Tales from the Crypt. The comic book structure wasn’t even the inspiration for the house style; that was 1945 Ealing Studios picture Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer). Subotsky however, was an EC fan, and the property was ripe for adaptation. So why the hell didn’t I know about it till 2010?
Released in 1972, Tales from the Crypt features Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, and Ralph Richardson as the wraparound Crypt Keeper, so it’s not exactly lacking in pedigree where the cast is concerned. The typical comic book format of the ghoulish host is dispensed with, and instead, we have five strangers on a tour of some catacombs One can only assume this was a run of the mill excursion in the early seventies, as all the characters seem to just go with the flow as they are led down to the Crypt and met by an old man in a cloak. He’s what you might call… cryptic. In turns, they begin to question their presence in this deathly space and their tales unfold in the classic EC fashion, as cruel scheming and moral vacuousness meet vengeance in the guise of a fateful twist. Be it on-page or on screen, the grisly, ironic downfall is the best part of any EC story, so I’m not going to spoil them. That said, you may have an inkling…
‘And All Through the House‘ stars Joan Collins in a festive tale of a woman who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, only to be stalked by an escaped maniac in a Santa outfit. The choral overlay of carols wonderfully juxtaposes Collins’ vile intent, and her willingness to despatch poor unsuspecting hubby while her daughter is sleeping upstairs is her eventual undoing.
‘Reflection of Death‘ is a particular favourite of mine because it has genuine scares that you’ll see coming a mile off, but the story keeps you dangling, waiting for the reveal. And for those of you that may be of the more adulterous persuasion… maybe take a bus next time.
‘Poetic Justice‘ is the standout tale and one of the best examples of this style of storytelling. Kindly widower Arthur Grimsdyke is persecuted by snobs who live across the road, eventually taunted into suicide. This story features some next level bastardry and may even have been the inspiration for a lot of contemporary government policy. Peter Cushing deftly embodies the role of Grimsdyke like a wounded hedgehog, rinsing every drop of empathy from the viewer until you begin to wish his tormentors were real so you could kill them yourself.
‘Wish You Were Here‘ is a basic retelling of The Monkey’s Paw and interesting in so far as its protagonists haven’t really committed any great sin other than to wish for wealth. What transpires is agonising and relentless; and also the source for the wonderful poster depicting Death on a motorcycle.
The final story, ‘Blind Alleys‘, will leave you enraged and empowered as Major William Rogers takes over as superintendent at a home for the blind. He callously mistreats these most vulnerable of people while indulging himself to everything they are denied. This is a timeless morality tale that is far too prescient for a film that’s almost fifty years old, but more than any other it allows us to feel good being bad.
The Crypt Keeper has the final say in this film, as it should be, but minus the puns. There is something quintessentially British about this take on what is distinctly American source material. There is quiet sufferance, outrage, moral superiority, and class division. There are also a lot of women in relationships with men old enough to be their fathers, something that is clearly a cinematic choice.
The portmanteau horror is common these days, though far more likely to be referred to as an anthology. It is a staple of the genre that you’ll only find comics utilising with such regularity. And while people will rightly hang the hat of standard-bearer on the likes of Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982), Tales from the Darkside (1983-84), and more recently Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty) VHS (2012, Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence) a cap must also be doffed to Amicus. Their output may not resonate the way that Hammer’s does, and their anthologies may have been eclipsed by more modern attempts, but they blazed a certain cinematic trail for British horror. We may not have Ghost Stories (2017, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman) and Inside No.9 (BBC, 2014 – ) without them.
And for those fan addicts among you who love a good crypt, you’ll know that vaults are also great places to tell terrible tales of horror.
Until next time…