The Vault of Horror (1973)

the vault of horror

“You know, it would have made a really great story. But I’d have been lucky to get fifty pounds for it. There’s no money in horror.”

The Scoop: 1973 R, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Tom Baker, Denholm Elliott and Daniel Massey

Tagline: Everything that makes life worth Leaving!

Summary Capsule: An anthology horror movie based on a line of violent comics from the ’50s. As you might expect, there’s some ironic punishment to be had.

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Drew’s rating: Actually, they were originally going to have a Vault Keeper, but he wanted a producer credit and creative control. Not gonna happen.

Drew’s review: On the list of Most Exciting Ways To Start A Movie, “five guys riding an elevator in silence” is not at the top of the list. It is, in fact, not even in the top ten. It just doesn’t carry the same punch as getting lost wandering through catacombs, and when the men are discharged at the wrong floor and realize there are no buttons to call back the elevator, well, that lacks the dramatic impact of meeting a somber Crypt Keeper who makes you listen while he outlines your horrible deeds. There’s no Vault Keeper here to pass stoic judgment, nor a Crypt Keeper or an Old Witch for that matter — simply an empty social club where the men help themselves to drinks and pass the time waiting for help by talking about their persistent nightmares. So right away the framing sequence in Vault isn’t as strong as its predecessor, but that’s okay… it’s only a framing sequence, after all. What really matters is the stories, and again we have a quintet of tales adapted from the original EC Comics. Are they properly horrifying and grotesque?

The first segment, easily one of the strongest, sees Harold traveling to a remote town to find his estranged sister. Things seem a bit odd, with businesses closing at dusk and people hurrying to return home, but Harold manages to locate his sister and delivers the bad news: their father has died. Then he gives her the worse news: she inherited everything, so he’s here to kill her. After doing the deed and utterly failing to wipe his fingerprints off the knife, he decides to grab a bite to eat, because when you’re a stranger in a small town who’s just murdered his sister, why not hang around and let lots of people see your face? Sadly for Harold, he finds the restaurant’s fare isn’t quite to his liking, and the other patrons seem more interested in him than their food. “Midnight Mess” features decent acting and one of the stronger hooks of the segments, but it probably could have stood to be a bit longer. We don’t really have time to get to know Harold or his sister, which cuts down on the emotional impact. Still, it’s funny and appropriately macabre, which goes a long way. (If you’re watching the PG version, it also shows the most obvious signs of editing, with a blatant freeze frame where the violence is supposed to go. See also: the next segment.)

Next comes “The Neat Job,” with wealthy older gentleman Critchit marrying a younger woman, Eleanor. As she quickly learns, he’s not just old but hopelessly anal about how his house is kept, blowing up about the slightest furniture rearrangement or forgotten food item. More than anything this extends to his workbench in the basement, but when Eleanor has a day where nothing goes right, said workbench might see some new uses before the day is over. It’s… a strange segment, never quite seeming to know what it wants to be. Eleanor’s klutzy afternoon plays out like a vaudeville routine, full of forehead-slapping spills and pratfalls, but the ending kind of comes out of nowhere, with neither character having demonstrated the extreme reactions up to that point that would theoretically lead to it. A little out in left field, but not terrible.

The third short commits the cardinal sin of completely boring me. “This Trick’ll Kill You” finds magician Sebastian and his wife on a working holiday in India, searching for new tricks for their act. After exposing a local fakir as a charlatan, he comes across the man’s daughter demonstrating a rope trick he can’t figure out. When she refuses to sell it to him, claiming the rope is truly magic, Sebastian lures her back to his hotel room, kills her, and sets to figuring out the trick. Unfortunately for he and his wife, the rope may actually BE magic, and it has a mind of its own. Yeah… a living, homicidal rope. If that’s the stuff of your nightmares, enjoy. Otherwise, join me in offering a colossal “meh.”

“Bargain in Death” brings us the old “fake your death for the insurance money” scam with a twist- Maitland injects himself with chemicals to enter a near-death coma and is actually buried, with friend Alex charged with digging him up that night. Both plan to betray the other, but since one of them is six feet underground, advantage: Alex. But when two med students pay the gravedigger to provide them with a fresh corpse to study anatomy (they don’t have Operation in England?), both partners in crime may get more than they bargained for. I don’t have too much to say about this short… the acting by Michael Craig is good, the med students are slightly amusing, it’s arguably too cutesy with a meta-wink to the audience and the shout out to the previous movie. The final line is smile inducing and ensures it a place in the plus column.

Finally we have “Drawn and Quartered,” another of the stronger segments. A pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker is Moore, a poor artist who learns he’s being scammed: an art critic intentionally pans his work to convince him he’s no good, allowing two dealers to buy his paintings cheaply and then resell them for what they’re actually worth. Seeking out a voodoo priest, Moore acquires the ability to visit harm upon people by creating, then defacing portraits of them. Before long he’s Dorian Gray-ed the critic a blinding and the dealers a free hand removal and a hole in the head respectively. One problem: before gaining his power, Moore painted a self-portrait that for obvious reasons is now precious to him. And keeping it safe may be harder than he expects.

Even though it has about the same ratio of strong-to-weak segments as Tales from the Crypt, I can’t call Vault as successful as its predecessor. Maybe it’s the weaker framing sequence, maybe it’s the fact that the ending is functionally identical, maybe it’s because without a host, it just doesn’t feel like an EC Comics adaptation. And who knows, perhaps that’s why there wasn’t a The Haunt of Fear movie in 1974. No matter, it’s still a relatively entertaining horror anthology; not as good as the original, but how many sequels truly are? I doubt it’ll find a place on your all-time favorites list (and gore-o-philes will no doubt lament the edited violence), but if you’ve already seen and enjoyed the original, Vault is a (mostly) worthy successor, boils and ghouls. Pleasant screams!

TheVaultofHorror1
“Screw painting, I’ll just prevent them from ever being born. Where’s the TARDIS?”

Intermission!

  • Vault was originally rated “R” for gruesome violence, but it’s only been released on DVD (as a double feature with Tales from the Crypt) in its edited-for-TV format, with most of the gore excised to give it the equivalent of a “PG” rating.
  • In the southern U.S., the film was released as Tales from the Crypt II.
  • None of the segments are actually taken from the “Vault of Horror” comic book. One is from “Shock SuspenStories,” the other four from “Tales from the Crypt.”
  • Real life brother and sister Daniel and Anna Massey play brother and sister in the first segment, “Midnight Mess.”
  • One of the characters, Maitland, is shown reading the novelization of Tales from the Crypt.
  • Here’s an idea- if you’re trapped in a coffin waiting for someone to dig you out, stop lighting matches. Fire burns oxygen, dummy.
  • Moore’s segment doesn’t make sense to me. One, because he painted his self-portrait before getting his voodoo powers. And two, he seems to have trouble breathing, which only abates when he removes the portrait from his safe. But why would a painting need to breathe?
  • [SPOILER] In “Midnight Mess,” when Donna shows up after having been repeatedly stabbed, her dress doesn’t show any holes or blood stains.

Groovy Quotes

Maitland: You know, it would have made a really great story. But I’d have been lucky to get fifty pounds for it. [turns to the camera] There’s no money in horror.

Gravedigger: You got the money?
Student: After we get the body.
Gravedigger: What do you want his body for?
Student: We’re ghouls.

Moore: Now what? Will I get a little doll to stick pins into?
Voodoo priest: You are artist. You don’t need doll.

Sebastian: That’s how it is, and how it always will be. Night after night, we have to retell the evil things we did when we were alive. Night after night… for all eternity.

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