Thursday, December 18, 2014

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) / THE VAULT OF HORROR (1973) Blu-ray Review

The anthology film has been making a comeback over the past few years, with offerings like ABCs of Death, V/H/S and its sequels, The Theatre Bizarre, and the just-announced Tales of Halloween. The short form appears to be back in vogue, which sits just fine with this monster kid; I loved Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, etc. because I enjoy a good set-up-punchline approach to horror. During the late 60s/early 70s, the British film company Amicus cranked out seven of these omnibus efforts, packing each story with massive star power due to the short shooting schedule. In their ongoing re-releases of MGM’s Midnight Movies catalogue, Shout! Factory has now dropped two of the most popular in the series onto shiny new Blu-ray, both based on EC Comics’ classic titles and inspired by stories from the same.

Tales from the Crypt (1972) d. Freddie Francis (UK)

Boasting arguably the most uniformly solid collection of individual tales – as well as one of the crummiest wraparound stories – this Amicus omnibus (the fourth and most financially successful in the series) continues to hold up quite well 40+ years after its release. For reasons they cannot explain, five disparate individuals pull in to visit a museum of sorts, and find themselves face to face with the Crypt Keeper (a somber Ralph Richardson, a far cry from Kevin Yagher’s cackling puppet design from the subsequent HBO series).

Over the next 90 minutes, the hooded one unfolds each visitor’s destiny: Murderess Joan Collins must face a murderous Santa Claus in “All Through the House”; Ian Hendry leaves his wife and family to be with his mistress, only to crack up literally and figuratively in “Reflection of Death”; In “Poetic Justice,” Peter Cushing plays badly abused rubbish collector Arthur Grimsdyke (one of his most gentle and empathetic performances) who gets his heart-ily deserved revenge on antagonist Robin Phillips; “Wish You Were Here” has Richard Greene finding an Oriental statue that grants wishes…and wishes that he hadn’t; and sightless Patrick Magee leads a revolt against heartless taskmaster Nigel Patrick in “Blind Alleys.”

Amicus co-founders Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg produced, with Subotsky delivering the script based on stories from EC Comics’ Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, and Bill Gaines. The film was a smash release for the company, the most popular of Amicus’ anthologies (though not, as reported on the film’s IMDb page, the second-highest grossing film of 1972).

Trivia: Cushing’s tale has a particularly macabre verisimilitude: Grimsdyke is a widower who communicates with his wife through a ouija board; Tales was the first picture Cushing had made following his wife Helen’s death, and it is her photograph to which he speaks in the film.

The Vault of Horror (1973) d. Roy Ward Baker (UK)

Like its more-famous predecessor, this Amicus anthology (the sixth, following 1972’s Asylum, also directed by Baker) provides an impressively solid quintet of entertaining horror yarns – covering elements as diverse as vampirism, voodoo, and (furniture) varnish – bound together by a laughably weak wraparound story. (A building elevator takes five upper class twits to a mysterious marble-floored sitting room, so they decide to sit down and tell each other their dreams?? Puh-lease.)

But the ghoulishly comic tales themselves are loads of fun, whether it’s nefarious Daniel Massey tracking down his on-and-offscreen sister Anna Massey in “A Midnight Mess,” gap-toothed neatnik Terry-Thomas driving new wife Glynis Johns over the brink in the funniest of the bunch, “A Neat Job,” or Curt Jurgens as a immoral magician seeking new illusions in India with equally nasty spouse Dawn Addams in “This Trick’ll Kill You.” (The special effects for this third offering are particularly iffy, especially considering the sleight-of-hand subject matter.)

“Bargain in Death” features Michael Craig as a struggling horror writer who plans to bilk his insurance company by faking his demise, a clever plan complicated by a pair of overachieving medical students in search of a corpse of their own. The showstopper that concludes the proceedings, “Drawn and Quartered,” is also the darkest of the bunch, with Tom Baker (aka every child of the ’70s’ favorite Dr. Who) as a brooding artist out to revenge himself against the critics and art dealers who have done him wrong. (That same year, Baker memorably appeared as the evil wizard Koura in the Ray Harryhausen classic, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, opposite John Phillip Law and Caroline Munro.)

Subotsky again handles script duties, and Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker (The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula) does yeoman work shepherding his stars through their paces, nothing flashy but energetically paced and covering the seams in the meager budget as best as possible.

Up to now, Vault has experienced a rather ignoble legacy on home video, both its VHS and DVD bows serving up the clumsily edited U.S. theatrical version, signified most explicitly by the ridiculous freeze-frame conclusion of “Midnight Mess.” However, Shout! Factory has finally offered horror fans the chance to see the whole she-bang, pairing the uncut widescreen version as a double feature with Tales, while also offering the cut theatrical version alongside an uncut 4:3 matted version (decidedly strange, but there it is) on a separate disc. Not much in the way of special features, just theatrical trailers and an alternate opening title sequence for Vault under its "Tales from the Crypt II" moniker, but it’s a pleasure to see these classics finally available in such fine form.

Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror are available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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