When I wrote my review of BLACK CHRISTMAS this morning, I mentioned it was the only scary Christmas horror film ever made. Technically, I was correct, but also a bit off the mark. Even though Chad mentioned it in his review of CHRISTMAS EVIL, the Santa scene in the 1972 film version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT had escaped my mind. As you enjoy the rest of your Christmas day, take one last yuletide pleasure on Death Ensemble, in reading my review of another great Amicus portmanteau.
The portmanteau is a movie style that has fallen mostly out of favor, but back in the 1970s, it had its horror heyday. Though CREEPSHOW is probably the most famous example, British company Amicus put out a number of them, the most famous of which is TALES FROM THE CRYPT. That’s mostly because of the much-beloved HBO series of the same name, but even if you’re not a fan of the series (I’m not), there’s plenty to like for horror fans in the original, including a homicidal Santa, a kind old man driven to suicide only to get his revenge, and a cruel taskmaster who holds sway over a home of blind men until things go utterly wrong for him.
If you’ve seen any of the Amicus portmanteaus, the opening will be familiar: The film begins with five people going on a tour of a crypt. The door locks behind them, enclosing them in a tomb, and a weird figure dressed in Druids’ robes appears before them. They claim they have appointments to keep, but their only appointment is with death, and the Crypt Keeper is sure not to delay them. He reveals to them, one by one, the stories of their undoing.
Each story is a classy little piece in its own, and each subscribes to the morality of the EC Comics of old: People do evil for their own gain, and evil comes back to close the door on them. The film might as well have been called BAD PEOPLE AND THE BAD THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO THEM. And there are some very bad people here, beginning with Joan Collins.
“All Through the House” begins with an affable guy laying out gifts for his wife on Christmas Eve. As he sits down to read his paper, there’s a nifty shot of his wife ending him violently. When a deadly lunatic dressed as Santa arrives, the tension unfolds perfectly; with a dead body in the house, she cannot call the police to save her. A nice final shot ends this excellent segment. Given that all this takes place with a Christmas tree lit up in the living room and holiday standards playing on the radio, the irony is beautiful. Fans of HBO’s CRYPT series will know this segment even if they haven’t seen the film, as it was used for one of the first episodes. Obviously HBO wanted to start off on a strong foot.
“Reflections of Death” follows, and it’s a bit of a letdown. A seemingly nice guy says good bye to his wife and children, and trots off to the apartment where he’s keeping his mistress. He joins her in his car, ready to run away from his family, to a new life. When the mistress takes over driving and gets run off the road, the accident triggers some weird reactions as the man tries to discover what has happened. His reflection spells it out, but I figured it out long before a mirror told me. A weak episode, but it’s short.
“Poetic Justice” is the middle segment, and by far the best. An unscrupulous land owner wants to develop his neighborhood, but Mr. Grimsdyke, the kindly old widower across the street who entertains the neighborhood children and loves his many dogs, refuses to sell. The land owner turns up the pressure by arranging to ruin Grimsdyke’s life little by little, until the poor old man hangs himself. If you’ve know anything about the EC Comics, you know where this is going. But that doesn’t make this segment a failure. In fact, this segment is superior to the rest, based on Peter Cushing’s performance as Grimsdyke. I tend to think of him as the British noblemen he portrayed as Dr. Frankenstein and Grand Moff Tarkin; but he brings such shades of character in playing a decent, simple old man who’s victimized, and in doing so displays his versatility as an actor. He does such a great job in making Grimsdyke sympathetic, which paints his neighbor all the more evil. This may be the best acting I’ve ever seen out of Cushing. The story itself works on both the character level and as a horror story, an effectively creepy piece that’s a triumphant little tale with the EC twist.
Milton Subotsky must have had the undead on the brain when he wrote the screenplay, because “Wish You Were Here” is the third tale in a row that involves living corpses. This is a rip off of the old story “The Monkey’s Paw,” and I love how this segment goes out of its way to mention the story, as if it’s an homage instead of a plot thief. Having fallen on hard times, a man gets a call to meet his lawyer to discuss financial considerations. Driving off, he sees a motorcycle rider in a skull mask following him (this visual gag takes symbolism to silly lengths). His death in the car crash leads his wife to make some inadvisable decisions involving a statue that basically serves as the stand-in for the monkey’s paw. The segment is a decent rip off, and the EC twists clearly spells out that greed will only lead to suffering.
“Blind Alleys” is the last story, and also the longest. A particularly cruel retired army major takes a new job, presiding over a home for blind men. While his charges eat poorly and sleep with no heat (which causes death to one of them, a pivotal event), the major and his dog live an effete life, eating well, surrounded by creature comforts; there’s one great scene where the German shepherd is lying on a blanket, which could have saved the dying blind man. When the blind men decide to rebel in a fashion that as sadistic as it is creative, the major gets his comeuppance. As the spokesman for the blind, Patrick Magee proves why he was so perfect in roles of creepy old men in many of the Amicus tales.
Story wise, what keeps this movie relevant today is the morality behind the tales. Nasty things just don’t happen randomly, as they so often do in real life; instead, they happen to people who, through their own actions, deserve them. The horrors, even if they’re supernatural, actually serve the natural order of things, whether you want to call it the yin and the yang, or karma, or whatever. Order is restored at the end of one of these tales. So if you’re a murderer, or a adulterer, or greedy, or you abuse a position of authority, you will be brought down. If only real life worked like this.
Beyond story, the film also benefits from the direction of Freddie Francis. He directed many of the later Hammer films, so he was more than adept at ably handling horror films. He was also one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of film, and though he’s not his own DP here, his knowledge in that area is on display here as well. His work on the film bolsters the material, and gives the whole affair a level of class it wouldn’t have had in lesser hands.
Warner Brothers did nothing to bolster the film in the way of special features. Other than a long trailer, there’s absolutely nothing on the disc. How great would it be to have Joan Collins commenting on her segment, or David J. Skal discussing the importance of the horror anthology? Apparently the studio didn’t think TALES FROM THE CRYPT merited any extras, and decided to dump it into the bargain bin. Considering some of the talent involved (for God’s sake, Francis won two Oscars for cinematography), it’s an insult to fans and those involved that this disc got nothing.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT is a superior example of the portmanteau, that should reside in any horror fan’s collection right alongside George Romero’s CREEPSHOW. It’s a classy affair that offers five morality tales, and is effectively creepy. It’s also got a segment that’s the only effective psycho Santa story put to film that I’ve ever seen, and as Tiny Tim would say, God Bless Us, Everyone for that.