The portmanteau film—or a movie made up of shorter, often unrelated horror movies—is a lost art in horror today. Experiments like VHS and ABCs of Death have tried to bring it back, but those are based more on shock and gore than on character. The best one in recent memory is Michael Daugherty’s Trick r Treat, but you have to go way back to find the heyday of the portmanteau horror. Back in the day, the undisputed masters of them were Britain’s Amicus Productions, which made seven such films in the ’60s and ’70s in an attempt to rival the Hammer Horror juggernaut. Their best, in my opinion, was their 1972 adaptation of several EC Comics stories, known collectively as Tales from the Crypt.
Despite that awful trailer, Tales from the Crypt is actually very good. Directed by genre staple Freddie Francis, it’s a movie built on mood and dread, but with that distinct EC Comics black humor. And in a move that surprised a lot of people, Amicus didn’t really change the original stories all that much to adapt them to screen. The thing about all of EC’s horror stories—in other banner titles like Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear—is that they were always about nasty, vile people getting their comeuppance, which translates beautifully to a short film. Lots and lots of horrible things can happen because of the main characters, but they’re always punished. This fit in perfectly to the Amicus brand, where the “heroes” of their earlier portmanteaus always met a grim fate. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
The wraparound story features five people who are on a tour through some ancient English castle/mausoleum. They don’t know why or how they’re there, and end up finding a “way out” that actually leads to another chamber. The Crypt-Keeper himself (played by Sir Ralph Richardson, not a decomposing puppet) comes and tells them why they’re there. (You can pretty much guess the outcome, but he relays a story for each of them.)
The first story is based on “…And All Through the House,” which you no doubt remember if you’ve seen the HBO series. It follows a woman (Joan Collins) who kills her husband on Christmas Eve night while their young daughter waits upstairs for Santa Claus. At the same time, a lunatic dressed in a Santa suit breaks out of a mental hospital and has been seen in that neighborhood. You can probably guess what’ll happen, especially since the woman can’t call the cops. This is arguably the best short in the movie and it’s made even more scary by the absence of horror music and scored only with ambient noises. Also, it’s a very well-lit apartment, which somehow makes it creepier.
The second story is entitled “Reflection of Death” and it stars Ian Hendry as a man who’s cheating on his wife and decides to leave his entire family for her, sneaking away in the night, only to be in a horrible car accident. The rest of the short is shot through his POV as he desperately tries to get back to the woman he loves, and then his wife, only to discover something very shocking about himself. This one is a personal favorite; I think it’s very effective.
The third story, “Poetic Justice,” is easily the saddest. A kindly old garbageman named Grimsdyke (played by the glorious Peter Cushing) lives across the street from a snooty real estate rich guy (David Markham) and his hateful son (Robin Phillips). They want Grimsdyke to leave and hate everything about him, from his yard full of dogs to the way he makes toys for the neighborhood kids. They devise incredibly mean schemes to have everything he loves taken from him in an effort to make him sell his house, but little did they know he’s got some black magic…
Cushing is typically great, and the story just makes you want to cry.
The fourth story is easily my least favorite, “Wish You Were Here.” Luckily, it’s not too long. It concerns a couple close to financial ruin who finds an old Chinese figurine that grants three wishes. Naturally, they’re big dummies and don’t know how to wish things properly. Each wish is granted through some kind of tragedy, which negates the need for the wish in the first place. It ends very grotesquely with a dead, already-embalmed man being wished back to life and screaming in agony of his veins being full of embalming fluid.
The final story is back to awesome. “Blind Alleys” tells the story of the new caretaker of a home for blind men. The director, Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick), treats the men like soldiers, even tightening their rations, lowering the heat, and doing all manner of other things to bring the facility under budget. One blind man (Patrick Magee) tries to appeal to the Major’s humanity, but when it’s proven he has none, he and the other residents devise a devious torture chamber where being used to darkness is a boon. It involves razor blades on the walls and a very hungry Alsatian.
Aside from short four, which is fine just not great, Tales from the Crypt is a wholly successful portmanteau horror film that delights in changing things up with each story. They all look different, have different tones, and are concerned with different types of fright, just like the EC Comics themselves.
Amicus made another film based on EC Comics’ stories–1973’s The Vault of Horror, which is equally good, and the pair of them were released in a Blu-ray set from Scream Factory last year. Very much worth your time, even if they’re less bombastic than the HBO show.
Images: Amicus Productions/20th Century Fox