Jonathan Rosenbaum will occasionally defend Louis Feuillade’s serial Les Vampires with the odd observation that it provides a necessary glimpse at life in Paris circa turn of the century. Well, if he gets to use that as an argument, then I feel compelled to point out that Amicus studio’s blockbuster Tales from the Crypt is one of the seemingly atypical British horror films from that fertile late-‘60s/early-‘70s onslaught that doesn’t turn its sights on the 18th century, the gothic tradition, or the backwoods of northern England, strewn with yellowing autumnal leaves. Instead, director Freddie Francis focuses on the more subtly disconcerting milieu of your average, middle-class London suburb to serve as his backdrop for overstated horror, Roman Catholic retribution-style. (Though it’s worth noting that mustard and pus-hued yellows still play a prominent role in the cinematographer’s color wheel, only here they show up in the form of riotously gauche shag rugs and ill-advised, chafing tweed blouses. No one quite did the whole ‘70s look like the British.)
Though he’d been here before, with his previous anthology of horror shorts Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Francis’s masterstroke was in adapting the archetypically American suburban stories from William Gaines and Al Feldstein’s notorious EC horror comics of the 1950s as a mirror for the growing malaise (and festering middle-class resentment of the working class) of Sir Edward Heath-era Britain. Only one of the film’s uniformly strong segments, “Blind Alleys,” directly deals with economic despair. In it, the inhabitants of a run-down shelter house for the blind gradually come to the grim realization that the military major brought on as the new director of facilities appears to have been appointed by the government to effectively shut it down, as he cuts rations, heat, and keeps the residents cowering with his vicious wolf of a dog, measures that ultimately kill off one of the elderly blind men. In a classic EC turn of the tables, the men corner the major, lock him up in a tight cellar closet, and work together to build a hallway outside his door festooned with razor blades, their approach to industrial work as an act of social outrage almost presaging the impending anti-unionism of Margaret Thatcher.
Still, it’s not all gloomy Sunday school moralizing, because one of EC’s most lasting legacies is in the unforgiving dual nature of their bile against humanity. For with every O. Henry twist ending that puts each antihero in their place (and, make no mistake, the unbearable pathos “Poetic Justice” earns through Peter Cushing’s put-upon economic outcast, driven to suicide by his social-climbing next-door neighbors—clearly portrayed as a tired-but-rich gay sugar daddy and his surly gigolo—provides a wind-up that would have even Sister Helen Prejean howling for bloody vengeance) is the sense that the rampant, intractable moralizing is, if anything, a loopy Kurtzman-esque parody of the cheap social judgmentalism so many have accused the Tales from the Crypt comic books of pedaling. Which is probably why the conclusion of the wraparound segment, wherein the main characters of the five stories discover that they’re all locked away in the depths of a catacomb because, well, it’s the gateway to Hell, seems so goddamned funny in a No Exit sense, especially when Sir Ralph Richardson’s incarnation of the Crypt Keeper is held up against that animatronic bitch HBO used as a host. If I’ve managed to mistakenly sell the film as a series of dour morality plays, I guess that wouldn’t be too far off the mark. But at least the undercurrent of sternness is tempered by a truly bottomless roster of campy excess within the all-star (well, make that “all-ham”) cast, especially Patrick Magee, all clipped diction and carefully modulated burps and hiccups (“You eat meeeat…and drink wiiine?! While we get nothing but schlopp!”), playing blind as a bat and proving it too with his constantly grasping, outstretched arms.
Tales from the Crypt was Amicus studio’s biggest anthology hit, so it was lucky for them EC Comics had two other horror titles with which to start the inevitable offshoot franchise. That the hasty sequel The Vault of Horror was never followed by The Haunt of Fear should give you a fairly accurate sense of Vault of Horror‘s overall worth, but it’s not entirely without its own tragically ‘70s, tragically British charms; many of them turn up in Glynis Johns’s wardrobe, all cow prints and silk jumpsuits. The fatal problem isn’t that the performances aren’t suitably broad, or that Roy Ward Baker (fresh of helming the far more successful Asylum for Amicus) is a lesser director than Francis. The problem is that the five stories selected this go around pale in comparison to those included in Tales from the Crypt, all but one of which—the mundane p.o.v. of a unknowing corpse yarn “Reflection of Death”—were among the comic publisher’s absolute best. (I’d even go so far as to say that “Wish You Were Here,” with its mythically horrifying twist ending, bests its antecedent “The Monkey’s Paw.”)
Not so with Vault of Horror, which doesn’t even have the good sense to include even one of the “reanimated corpse wreaks revenge on its murderer” tales which were EC’s stock in trade. Instead we have the lackadaisical “Bargain In Death,” one of those stories where someone takes a potion that allows them to fake their own death and cash in on a life insurance policy, the sketchy “Midnight Mess,” in which a man mistakenly stumbles into a restaurant run by civilized vampires with tasteful, human culinary habits, and the downright moronic “This Trick’ll Kill You,” a none-too-subtle allegory about a married pair of magicians murdering fakirs in India to steal their seemingly inexplicable rope trick (the implications are obvious). If the other two stories fare better, it’s because they stick to the key ingredients of the EC mythos. “Drawn and Quartered” is a voodoo-laced example of the “let the punishment fit the crime” school by way of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, with an added bonus that the punishment is actually brought about by the offender’s own hand (resulting, with the powerful final shot, in an unusually smart deployment of suggested gore). But the only story that really seems in its own element is “The Neat Job,” in which Johns can’t seem to properly tidy up the house of her fussbudget OCD husband (Terry-Thomas, who matches Johns pound for pound by leading with the gap between his teeth). Like “Midnight Mess,” it’s more a sketch than an actual story, but its presentation of domestic terror into an eerily cloistered suburban pad is prime EC territory.
The picture and sound are what they are; no one familiar with the two films will be surprised by their presentation. The real story here concerns the edits on both films, which apparently bear the scars of a storied past spent volleying between R and PG ratings in different markets. First the bad news. The Vault of Horror is censored. As far as I can tell, the cuts affect three nasty bits of business, but I'd only count one instance as being ruinous: The grisly reveal at the end of "Midnight Mess," when Daniel Massey is shown with a spigot drilled into his neck to tap his blood, is not only freeze-framed, but covered with a big piece of black construction paper. Embarrassing. Another freeze-frame shows up in "The Neat Job," but I actually think it has an oddly disquieting effect in this particular case, especially the cut to Johns's nutso stare immediately thereafter. (I say that not having seen the original version, which I understand is pretty bloody.) The last cut shortens a shot of a man's hands being severed at a printing press. Annoying, but it's not like you don't still see the nasty part. Conversely, the edit of Tales from the Crypt retains every drop of red tempera paint and lingers on the grisly final rhyme of Peter Cushing's bloody valentine as long as I've ever seen in video form. Moreover, "Wish You Were Here" includes an insert shot during the climax of a bloodless, embalmed disembowelment that I'd never seen before and had me gagging. I question this being the PG cut advertised on the back of the box, but gratefully.
Nothing except for a trailer for The Vault of Horror which ludicrously includes the uncensored, unfrozen shot of Daniel Massey's neck being tapped (albeit in black and white).
You can cut the gore out of The Vault of Horror and you can cut the bloodless guts out of Tales from the Crypt's Richard Green, but you can't cut the ham from the bones of either.