Tales From the Crypt / Vault of Horror (Blu-ray)
Starring Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Glynis Johns
Directed by Freddie Francis, Roy Ward Baker
Distributed by The Scream Factory
When it comes to horror anthologies, no single studio stands out more than Amicus Productions. Though the company may have existed in the shadow of Hammer’s peak output period, their most valued contributions have been portmanteau pictures that were good enough to attract some of Hammer’s top talent. After successfully producing a handful of horror anthologies scripted by famed writer Robert Bloch, the studio looked across the Atlantic to America; specifically, New York City, home to EC Comics. Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky was a long-time fan of their comics – titles such as “Tales from the Crypt”, “The Haunt of Fear” and “The Vault of Horror” – so he convinced one of his partners to acquire the rights to a handful of their tales. Their initial production, Tales from the Crypt (1972), proved so successful that a follow-up, Vault of Horror (1973, also known as Tales from the Crypt II in some markets), went into immediate production. Fans can debate which the superior film is (for me it’s Tales) but there’s no question that the winning combination of Amicus’ horror anthology acumen and EC Comics’ strong storytelling yielded two of the greatest multi-storied horror pictures conceived.
Tales from the Crypt begins with a wraparound wherein five strangers are inexplicably drawn to aging catacombs. There, they meet the Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson), an enigmatic, hooded individual who proceeds to tell each of them their eventual fate. Joanne (Joan Collins) is subjected to the terror of a deranged Santa Claus after killing her husband on Christmas Eve, leaving her unable to phone the police lest they discover her dead beau’s corpse. Carl (Ian Hendry) leaves his family behind to elope with a younger mistress, but their plans of future bliss are cut short due to a violent car crash, one which Carl only appears to have survived. The Elliotts – Edward (David Markham) and his unscrupulous son, James (Robin Phillips) – do everything in their power to rid the neighborhood of kindly old Mr. Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing), a lonely widower who takes great pleasure in fixing toys for the local kids and raising a stable of dogs. When their efforts succeed beyond their wildest dreams, a visitor from the grave ensures they won’t be around long to wallow in hateful bliss. Ralph (Richard Greene) and his wife, Enid (Barbara Murphy), have fallen on hard times. A Chinese figurine they discover claims to hold the power to grant them three wishes, hardly what they should consider a blessing given the outcome of the old “Monkey’s Paw” tale. Finally, a home for the blind is being run by newly-appointed head Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick), a stern military type who rations everything from food to heating due to “economic concerns”; this despite the fact that he continues to live and eat like a king on the premises. The poorly-treated residents of the home don’t take kindly to his cruel rules, leading them to give the Major a taste of his own medicine. The film wraps up with the Crypt Keeper letting the five strangers in on a little secret, one which becomes clearer and clearer as the finale draws closer.
The greatest strength in Tales comes not from the acting or directing – both of which are perfectly sound – but in the rich stories culled from the comics. Somewhat ironically, most of the stories come not from Tales but some of EC’s other publications, though that’s more a minor bit of trivia than a condemnation. Each segment tells a full story in brief time, often with a morality angle and always ending poorly for the amoral characters who act as though they’re above reproach. Additionally, the film nails what many anthologies often don’t: the wraparound, which here is just as intriguing and mysterious as any one of the film’s stories. Also, maybe it’s the accents, but British horror pictures tend to have an air of regality about them that elevates the material ever so slightly; a touch more prestige, if you will. There’s also a great deal of wonderful practical FX on display, in particular the zombified Grimsdyke who isn’t on screen for nearly long enough. In fact, no segment overstays its welcome, ensuring the audience is hungry for more once the credits begin rolling.
And they remained hungry, so much so that Amicus quickly shuttled a sequel into production. Vault of Horror opened the following year, presenting a storyline virtually identical to its predecessor. Unlike Tales, which included a couple stories from its namesake comic, Vault pulled entirely from other publications; in fact, the majority of the stories are actually found in Tales. Not that any of this matters; it’s more about capturing the spirit of EC Comics’ publications than slavishly adapting them.
Here, five men find themselves on an elevator heading toward a destination none of them anticipated: the building’s sub-basement, where they find a posh room housing a large table and plenty of drinks. And, so, seemingly trapped here with time to kill each recounts a recurring nightmare they have experienced. The first, Harold (Daniel Massey), tells of visiting a mysterious village looking for his sister, who just inherited a large sum of money. He finds the townspeople odd and unhelpful, but eventually tracks down his sibling whom he promptly kills so the inheritance money will go to him. Death must cause considerable hunger because he heads to a local eatery for a bite, only to realize these are not normal people… and he’s just been added to the menu. Arthur Critchit (Terry-Thomas) is a fastidiously clean fellow, unlike his young wife, Eleanor (Glyns Johns), who is unable to meet his OCD demands. She’s such a nitwit that when she does try to earnestly clean, it only produces a bigger mess. And when Arthur gets home he erupts, finally pushing Eleanor to do some erupting of her own. Sebastian (Curd Jurgens) is a magician on vacation in India. He’s also a total dick who exposes fellow magicians to their rapt audiences. When he meets a woman who does extraordinary things with a rope (not that kind of extraordinary), naturally he decides the best way to acquire her skill is to kill her. What he doesn’t count on is the rope may not need the woman to perform its magic. A scam artist, Maitland (Michael Craig) concocts a scheme to collect insurance money on his own life by using a serum to give the illusion he has died. A friend of his is set to collect the money and, after burial, retrieve Maitland from the grave so he can live high on the hog for the rest of his days. Things, naturally, go poorly for all parties involved. Finally, Moore (Tom Baker), a painter in Haiti barely scraping by on his meager wages, learns his old art cohorts have sold his “worthless” paintings for a mint. Moore visits a voodoo priest and is given the power to use his artistic abilities for evil purposes, literally painting his enemies to their deaths. Moore, however, shows he’s a bit of a moron by painting a portrait of himself, which couldn’t possibly be damaged accidentally, could it?
The stories told in Vault of Horror are not quite as strong as those in its predecessor, but by no means is the film poor. It’s likely no accident the picture feels very much like an imitator of Tales from the Crypt given how popular that title was at the time. The tales aren’t redundant in any way, with each thematically different from the others. Conversely, three of the segments in Tales dealt with the living dead, whereas not a single one features a lumbering zombie here. Still, Vault can’t help but feeling a bit pedestrian, with no one story standing out as a clear winner. The onus of success then falls not on the writers but the actors, nearly all of whom turn in commendable performances. Terry-Thomas steals the show, if anyone does. His expressive face and trademark gap-toothed grin convey comedy and stern authority in equal parts. Plus, he was great in Danger: Diabolik (1968). The wraparound is the only piece that feels rehashed, though it’s still nicely done.
Let’s get to what’s really enticing for fans here: Vault of Horror is, at long last, available fully uncut. Horror fans know that often times literal frames can significantly impact a film’s, um, impact. This is absolutely the case with Vault, and the uncut version restores the neck tap, “odds & ends”, the result of a hammer blow and the aftermath of losing one’s hands. After watching the film for the first time, I cannot imagine having these crucial scenes trimmed. The big payoff in at least two of these stories would be greatly diminished had Scream Factory not made all the effort possible to make sure the film’s integrity was restored.
Tales looks absolutely marvelous, with a sharp 1.78:1 1080p image that is outstanding. Definition is strong, thanks to the impeccable print from which it was sourced. Colors appear vibrant and strong; just look at the kaleidoscope of hues on display in Joan Collin’s home during the first story. Contrast handles well, though black levels do sporadically look a little hazy. Shadow delineation is perhaps the image’s only deficient area, with moving images nearly completely lost in dark shadows. But, thankfully, that issue crops up only once or twice. Surprisingly, there’s even a decent level of depth to the picture.
Vault also features a 1.78:1 1080p image, though it’s just a bit below Tales in terms of clarity. The print looks pretty clean, as expected given the work Scream Factory put into it. The biggest difference between the two films is Vault simply isn’t as sharp, often looking a tad softer than Tales. Grain is present and aids in a filmic look, with only minor specks appearing occasionally. Colors are saturated nicely, and black levels are stable.
Rarely does Scream Factory disappoint in the audio department, and neither of the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 tracks is problematic. Both Tales and Vault enjoy strong fidelity, with excellently balanced dialogue, notable depth & range for each of their respective scores, and sound effects that carry a real weight to them. Subtitles on both films are included in English.
Don’t act so surprised there’s virtually nothing in the way of bonus features; Scream Factory said on their Facebook page that nearly all of the budget for this release went into making sure Vault of Horror was presented uncut. Film always takes precedence over supplements, but they did sneak a couple of features onto Vault. Also, if you call it a bonus, there are actually three versions of Vault of Horror included.
Tales from the Crypt holds no bonus material, but Vault of Horror includes the following:
The film’s theatrical trailer, presented in black & white, and an alternate title sequence, this one carrying the Tales from the Crypt II title.
Most fans will likely forego watching either cut included here, but for the sake of completists Vault of Horror is included in both the PG-rated theatrical version and a rare open-matte version of the BFI uncut master.
- Theatrical trailer (Vault of Horror)
- Alternate title sequence (Vault of Horror)