Tales from the Crypt (1972)

tales from the crypt

“And now… who’s next?  Perhaps you?

The Scoop: 1972 PG, directed by Freddie Francis and starring Peter Cushing, Joan Collins and Sir Ralph Richardson

Tagline: DEATH LIVES in the Vault of Horror!

Summary Capsule: Five strangers get lost while touring some catacombs and encounter a mysterious hooded figure, who proceeds to tell them stories about their deaths.

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Drew’s rating: Why did they put the sequel’s name in the tagline?  That’s a little presumptuous.

Drew’s review: If you’re like me, your first exposure to Tales from the Crypt was probably the ’90s HBO series, a campy labor of love best remembered for its big-name actors and directors, uncensored violence, sporadic nudity, and the Crypt Keeper’s awful puns.  If you were interested enough to delve a little further, you may have learned that Crypt was adapted from a series of immensely popular horror comics from the ’50s.  

What you might not have known — I didn’t, anyway — is that in the intervening time, there was a successful movie adaptation of the franchise.  British company Amicus Productions was already well known for their horror anthology films when they obtained the Crypt license, and in 1972 and 1973 they produced two movies based on the old comics.  The first, Tales from the Crypt, opens with a tour group exploring some underground ruins.  Becoming separated from their guide, five of the visitors wander into a hidden chamber and are coolly greeted by a robed man (Ralph Richardson, a far more somber Crypt Keeper than the cackling TV version), who with little preamble begins telling them stories about… well, themselves.

The first tale, “And All Through The House,” concerns a housewife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, then has to hide the body while their daughter sleeps upstairs.  But as she begins her cleanup, a news report warns of a homicidal maniac loose in the area, possibly wearing a Santa suit… and indeed, if that isn’t jolly old St. Nick peering in the window.  When you can’t go outside for fear of a killer and can’t call the police because they’ll find your dead husband, what’s a poor murderess to do?  

It’s a great concept for a horror short and is pretty well executed, with minimal dialogue and an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia.  Unfortunately, this is one story that suffers in comparison with the later television adaptation.  The HBO version is twice as long, allowing for more cat-and-mouse between the housewife and “Santa,” and the killer actually seems crazed and threatening, particularly armed with an axe.  By contrast, the film version is unarmed and looks like a kindly old man, to the point where at first I thought he was an actual Salvation Army Santa who would be killed by the real maniac.  But no, he’s the real deal, just a very toothless lunatic who could really use a weapon or something.  The segment still works, but a few more minutes and some minor technical changes would’ve made a world of difference.

I won’t go into as much detail about the other vignettes, but suffice to say they’re of varying quality.  There’s a quite dull tale about a man who leaves his family to run off with his mistress and gets in a horrible car wreck, leaves to seek help, and finds people fleeing from him in terror… if you can’t guess the reason, kindly go back to Horror 101 class.  

After that, Peter Cushing stars as Arthur Grimsdyke, a lonely old man who delights in making children happy.  When a wealthy developer and son want his land, they resort to a smear campaign that soon has parents forbidding their kids from seeing Grimsdyke.  Mourning his deceased wife and now officially the town pariah, Grimsdyke takes his own life, but you can probably guess that’s not the end of the tale.  

Following it is a fairly stale retelling of the classic story The Monkey’s Paw (which it references by name several times), notable only for the slight twist(ed) ending.  Finally we close with the tale of a retired military man who takes over operations of a hospital for the blind.  When he slashes the budget mercilessly so that he and his dog can live in luxury, the patients rebel and trap him in the basement for days, constructing an obstacle course lined with razor blades for him to navigate… and at the other end, his unfed German Shepherd.  It’s a strong closer, aptly performed with typical British understatement, and once it’s over the five strangers who’ve been listening to the Crypt Keeper’s tales finally learn why they were brought there.  I’m guessing it’s for cake and ice cream!

Taken by itself, Crypt is an oddity, albeit an interesting one.  Adapted from a series of distinctly American comics, bold and brash and over-the-top, and presaging a television series that took this style and cranked the dial up to 11, the film has a distinctly British vibe to it.  Rather than violent crimes of passion, most of the killings seem very cold, calculated, premeditated.  

The majority of the performances are very good, particularly Peter Cushing, but even the most vile characters come across almost apologetically, like “Oh, very sorry I’m stepping out on you and the children to run off with my mistress, darling, do hope it doesn’t put you out terribly.  Stiff upper lip and all that!”  And Lord knows I’m not one to complain about a lack of gore, but for a line of comics that once took heat for having a dripping severed head on one of their covers, the cutaways and implied-rather-than-depicted deaths feel almost quaint.  Throw in a Crypt Keeper who does more stoic judging of the villains before him rather than gleefully delighting in their demises, and you’ve got Tales from an English Crypt

That notwithstanding, it’s still a pretty entertaining movie and an interesting chapter in the franchise’s history, so it’s worth seeing if you can find it.  Don’t go in expecting a titillating, expletive-laced slasher fest, and you won’t be disappointed.

A murderer?  He looks like he wants some tapioca and a nap.

Intermission!

  • EC Comics rose to prominence in the early ’50s when founder Max Gaines died and his son William took over the company.  Not particularly interested in publishing, William decided that if he was going to do this, he’d put out comics he himself would want to read.  Jettisoning the Bible comics and funny animal stories that had previously been Educational Comics’ stock in trade, he rechristened the company Entertaining Comics and shifted focus to crime and horror fiction.  Among the new offerings were The Crypt of Terror (later renamed Tales from the Crypt), The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, hosted by punning “GhouLunatics” the Crypt Keeper, the Vault Keeper, and the Old Witch respectively.  Together with Shock SuspenStories and Crime SuspenStories, these formed the backbone of EC’s line, quickly gaining notoriety for being gruesome, outrageous, well illustrated, funny, and often possessed of a twisted poetic justice.  Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Stephen King, and countless others  have cited EC’s comics as major influences on their work.  Sadly, the mid-50s saw comic books singled out as a possible contributor to juvenile delinquency.  Gaines himself was called before a Senate subcommittee to testify, and the end result was the establishment of the Comics Code Authority.  Among other things, the CCA expressly forbade the use of the words “terror,” “horror,” or “weird” in comic titles and the depiction of graphic violence, skimpy clothing or implied sexuality, and supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. — basically, all of the things EC was known for.  With their main books officially cancelled, EC briefly tried to make a go of it in other genres like sci-fi, but ultimately ceased publication of all titles except their humor magazine, Mad.
  • Of the five stories in the film, two are taken from the Tales from the Crypt comic, another two from The Haunt of Fear, and one from The Vault of Horror.
  • Peter Cushing’s wife had died not long before filming began.  When he asked how he should play his character, lonely widower Arthur Grimsdyke, Cushing was told to simply be himself.
  • At one point, malicious land developer James Elliott uses the phrase “Just one more turn of the screw.”  The Turn of the Screw is a gothic novella by Henry James, widely considered one of the finest ghost stories ever written.
  • The fourth segment contains two goofs.  First, when Ralph Jason is being pursued by Death, a close-up shot blatantly shows a human face under the skull mask.  And second, Enid wishes her husband back alive the way he was right before the accident.  If that were the case, then he would have blood in his veins rather than embalming fluid.
  • Robert Zemeckis has cited this as his favorite movie to watch on Halloween.  At one point Stephen King was interested in remaking the film, but settled for collaborating with George Romero on an homage called Creepshow.
  • Though adapted from comics with a reputation for being gruesome, Crypt is rated PG and only features two scenes with mild gore.  By contrast, sequel The Vault of Horror, released the following year, was rated R and is supposedly far more explicit.  Both films were released on a 2-disc DVD in recent years- Crypt is unaltered, but Vault is apparently the edited-for-TV version, with the more graphic violence removed to attain a PG rating.

Groovy Quotes

Carl: You meet someone, and suddenly that’s it.  I kissed my kids tonight, and- and-  Oh, for hell’s sake!  I mean, it will be worth it, won’t it, for both of us?

Edward [reading]: You were mean and cruel right from the start, now you really have no…

Charles: But don’t you see?  You wished him alive forever! You can’t kill him!  Every piece of him is alive still!  Alive and- and suffering… forever!

Rogers: Well, at least feed my dog, please!
Carter: He’ll be fed, all right.  Major Rogers, sir.

Crypt Keeper: And now… who’s next?  Perhaps you?

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • The Vault of Horror
  • Creepshow
  • Tales from the Crypt: Bordello of Blood

3 comments

  1. If you want to delve even further, the general style and tone of TftC can be said to have originated on this gem from the days of radio called Inner Sanctum. It was an anthology series consisting of somewhat campy tales of terror with a pun-prone host made even more surreal by the in-show plugs for the show’s sponsor.

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