THE VAULT OF HORROR
1973 / Roy Ward Baker
As a kid, the dull and drawn-out limbo of a school summer holiday was punctuated by a week-long stay with my grandparents. An annual treat would be a trip to Cardiff where I had some pocket money ready to spend, always kindly boosted by Nan & Gramps. My most formative trip was spent in a comic shop, my poor Nan accommodating a good hour of me gaping at their enormous selection, unsure of how to whittle it down to just a few comics and an issue of Fangoria. Amongst other things, I came away with a reprint of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt and was forever changed.
Presented by gleefully decaying hosts, one of these twisted morality tales fell under the Vault of Horror banner. Titled ‘Midnight Mess‘, it tells the story of a man who, while up to the standard EC scheming, finds himself on the menu in a restaurant for vampires. The panel depicting his face as he chokes on his bloody soup reeled me in, and assured my status as a lifelong EC ‘fan addict’, lapping up every so-called corruptive tale I could get my hands on. It was several years later that I discovered that Amicus Productions had included this story in their portmanteau adaptation of The Vault of Horror (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1973) and I couldn’t have been happier.
Taking its cue from Tales from the Crypt (UK, Freddie Francis, 1972), The Vault of Horror was also written by Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky, an American expatriate who brought his love of horror comics with him. The film has a cast of quite some pedigree and the director was a Hammer Studios veteran, yet it failed to find the critical or commercial success that its predecessor enjoyed. While there are various reasons that might point to why, they’re of little consequence now. Instead, with subjective abandon, let us take a trip to death’s waiting room and consider ‘Everything that makes life worth LEAVING!’
The film opens by blending the familiar with a strong sense of foreboding. The music by Douglas Gamley channels the works of composer Modest Mussorgsky: dramatic, ominous but set to a sun-drenched pan over Westminster, as deathly chimes guide us towards a tower block, where we find five men in a lift, all going down, but to where? Why, it’s some sort of ‘club’, no buttons, no way out. A strange situation, says Terry Thomas… almost like a dream. Except dreams are much more frightening. And so, their tales begin to unfold, over fine scotch and smokes, each man taking his turn to recount his unworldly vision.
The aforementioned ‘Midnight Mess‘ is a story of murderous sibling rivalry as Harold Rogers (Daniel Massey) visits a sleepy town where everyone is keen to get indoors before sundown. Harold hasn’t time for such trifles as he’s there to ensure his inheritance is his alone, and proceeds to murder his sister (played by Massey’s actual sister Anna). A little fratricide will understandably build one’s appetite so Harold heads out for dinner, only to find himself in a restaurant exclusively for vampires, one of whom turns out to be his dear little sister. Fratricide is indeed on the menu, but not as Harold intended.
‘The Neat Job‘ is the silliest and therefore most fun of all the segments, and when you consider it stars Terry Thomas then it’s altogether appropriate that it should be. Thomas plays Arthur, a wealthy bachelor who needs a wife to look after his beautifully gaudy, upper-middle-class home, and above all, keep it tidy. Very tidy. Glynis Johns plays his seemingly wide-eyed bride Eleanor to perfection, bouncing off Thomas’ as he prances from abusive husband to pantomime villain; pomposity without equal. Needless to say, his demise is gloriously apt, leaving Eleanor to sort out his ‘odds and ends.’
In ‘This Trick’ll Kill You‘, magician couple Sebastian (Curd Jürgens) and Inez (Dawn Addams) are on a working tour to India looking for new tricks to take back home. They discover a seemingly enchanted rope trick that they can’t fathom, so quite reasonably decide that murder is the most straightforward way to attain it and discover the secret. Not for the first time in The Vault of Horror, the story delves into forces beyond the understanding of its protagonists, and the consequences, as ever, are dire.
‘Bargain in Death‘ is a good old double-cross story as friends Maitland (Michael Craig) and Alex (Edward Judd) plan an insurance scam involving a fake death, gravedigger bribery (that old chestnut!) and some wonderful examples of cause and effect not always panning out as we might expect. This story also has a lovely, but as it turned out for this film, prophetic, moment of self-awareness as Maitland – an author – is reading an adaptation of the Tales from the Crypt movie and comments that ‘There’s no money in horror.’
‘Drawn and Quartered‘ takes us back into mystical territory as artist Moore (Tom Baker) toils in squalor on the island of Haiti, only to discover his art dealers back home have been lying to him, making huge amounts of money off his work while telling him it can’t sell. After a quick trip to the local voodoo priest, Moore is straight back to London with vengeance in mind and self-portrait in hand. His art becomes his retribution, and by defacing portraits of those who have wronged him, Moore burns out eyes, lops off hands and blows Denholm Elliott’s brains out. But you just know that self-portrait was a bad idea, and as it should be, fate finds a way to shove Moore head-on into his own violent end.
We are left with the five men exiting the club into a graveyard, uncertain as to what has transpired. Is it a dream or a memory, and haven’t they done this so many times before? One by one they fade into their tombs, and the last word goes to Curd Jürgens, who informs us that this is, as we suspected, a world beyond the grave with nothing to be done but recount their terrible deeds, night after night, for all eternity.
American horror comics being reframed into the misdeeds of proper British rotters is, on the surface, just a coincidence based on Subotsky’s interests and nationality. But, dear boils and ghouls, for me it is what makes the Amicus EC adaptations so diabolically wonderful, and keeps me coming back to them year after year. It has been stated that the stories in The Vault of Horror are essentially just macabre punchlines, and while this may have been true in 1973, they conjure a certain kind of resonance today that adds more than just a punch.
These five accursed souls were all obsessed with the search for something to define them, be it wealth at the cost of a favoured sibling, a trophy wife turned maid, fame, glory and of course, our old friend revenge. Each central character oozes entitlement in their pursuit of dominion, something that seems in keeping with a certain type of British attitude. Several of the characters find themselves as an imposter in a world ripe for pillaging, arrogantly marching toward their doom with not a care for their transgressions. Sound familiar?
The real world often seems like a place where the very worst of us can behave as we please and baulk at the lack of consequence, and if there is an elevator it never seems to be going down. The kinds of morality tales that Amicus and EC Comics once gave us can feel soothing and cathartic, and tell us quite emphatically that perhaps there is some justice beyond the veil, and that no, not everyone does get away with murder.
The Tales from the Crypt TV series that ran throughout the nineties is a true horror triumph, but I like to imagine a multiverse where the Amicus EC adaptations were such a success that we got in there first, and just after the watershed on a Thursday night, we’d all tuned into BBC 2 to watch Tales from the Crypt starring Rik Mayall as the Crypt Keeper. And if something seems a little amiss about this portmanteau, it’s the lack of Peter Cushing, who appeared in every Amicus anthology apart from this one. If only they’d cast him as the Vault Keeper…