The British anthology horror film that started it all
Score 10/10 - A Masterpiece
Posted by Kevin Nickelson | September 21st, 2022
In the world of the ghastly horror comics of the 1950s, titles such as William Maxwell Gaines’ EC Comics tended to thrive on the central theme of irony impacting its characters in a story. It might be the comeuppance of the nasty antagonist or just the downfall of the misguided ordinary person. In any case, it is this idea of an equal and opposite reaction occurring that fascinates fans like myself when it comes to this type of ghoulish periodical.
The ironic extends beyond the pages of fiction here and into the real world of film production business as it pertains to the production company Amicus, created through the partnership of American producer Max J. Rosenberg and fellow expatriate writer/producer Milton Subotsky in 1964 and based out of Shepperton Studios in England. The name of the company is derived from the early 17th century latin word meaning “friend” or “friend of the court.”
Certainly a genial connotation for a company most well-known for making horror films! In fact, Rosenberg often joked that the company’s reputation presumed by others of being kind to its artists and something close to a harmonious work environment was wrong and, perhaps, just the opposite. “Amicus had a reputation of being gentle, courteous and, above all, respectful of talent. None of that was true, but all of it seemed to work”, Rosenberg said in an interview published by the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society. Their output of gruesome fare would serve to be hugely popular with audiences even as it was often met with mixed reviews by critics.
That many of their projects, notably their portmanteau works, remain a hit today either on DVD or streaming services is a testament to whom the pictures were made for, fans versus elitist cinema scholars. Having had much success already with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum, the studio once again reached for the multi-story formula box office potential with what would turn out to be one of its finest entries (and most enduringly regarded by movie-goers), Tales From the Crypt.
Their output of gruesome fare would serve to be hugely popular with audiences even as it was often met with mixed reviews by critics.
Five tales are presented, with a disparate quintet following a tour guide through series of catacombs and ultimately greeted by a mysterious cryptkeeper. The host relates for each horrific events that await their futures. The first vignette, And All Through the House is the most straight-forward in its display of the nasty juxtaposition fate that awaits the lead character. On Christmas Eve a woman (star Joan Collins) murders her husband with fireplace poker while the couple’s daughter is asleep upstairs, only to overhear on the radio that a psychotic patient of a nearby clinic has escaped while dressed as Santa Claus. She sees the killer prowling about and becomes desperate to keep him out.
The segment features a neat, suspenseful pace and some truly stylish camera angles courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis, stepping in as director for the feature. In a 2003 interview with Barry King, Francis explained his comfortability in working with this type of picture and a bit on the famous kill shot in the first story with the newspaper seen from ground level, a thud sound, that dollop of gore on the paper and he leaning forward of the body with the head wound. “The 'omnibus' films were fun to make and I enjoyed them, firstly because it was always possible to assemble a great ensemble cast, and secondly it was always possible by the linking character to lengthen the stories when required (which was quite often!) so a lot of these linkages were shot 'off the cuff' and very enjoyable for that reason.
The scene with the newspaper was scripted but the way it was shot was my input. I cannot remember how many times we had to shoot it - certainly not many as most of these films were shot on a tight budget and schedule.” Rather odd that Rosenberg would enthusiastically get behind something that is an adaptation of a horror comic, which he professed to not be a big fan of as a youth. Asked if he was a fan of the literary subgenre he told film critic Roger Ebert in 1972: "Not really. That's Milton's obsession.
But apparently there's an underground cult for this stuff. You know science fiction and horror have become a respectable branch of literature. Some of these writers who work with me on films, I've never heard of them. But I mention them on a campus and they're heroes. Milton was a big fan of all the E. C. comics. He's a collector of all that stuff. He has a house full of comics and old science fiction magazines, and he got the idea of paying Gaines for the movie rights to his old E. C. comics. To a considerable degree, 'Tales from the Crypt' is a film version of one issue of a horror comic.
The old Crypt Keeper supplies a connecting thread by introducing each tale." Actor Tony Wall recalls (re: Joan Collins), in the Amicus House of Horrors 2012 documentary. ”It was a coup, for Ronnie Curtis the casting director, to actually get someone like Joan Collins into a script like that was brilliant, in my opinion. Clapper/Loader on the film Trevor Coop adds: ”Joan Collins trying to get the blood off the white rug was, um, various people were very worried about it because Freddie wanted the blood to go on the carpet where he was. But the various different people....i don’t know whether Milton had anything to do with that...didn’t want the blood on the carpet because it means he’d have to buy it as opposed to, um, from the prop house and would get charged an exorbitant sum.”
Art Director Tony Curtis described working on this story. ”The main set on that, the one with Joan Collins, that was on the silent stage up at Shepperton. The big stage. And I did a composite there, of the ground floor, the upstairs and all of the other bloody rooms that went with it. Yeah we did quite well on that one, actually.” While Reflection of Death, Wish You Were Here and Blind Alleys quite nicely carry their own creepy, unsettling weight as it goes in the film, it is the Collins foray and Poetic Justice that remain amongst the most identifiable to fans to this day.
The latter features the legendary Peter Cushing in what may be his most tragic, sympathetic portrayal. Elderly dustman Arthur Grimsdyke is bullied by snobby neighbors James and Edward Elliott as they consider him a blight on the neighborhood. James takes it further with a smear campaign. The poor fellow, a practitioner of the occult who uses ritual to communicate with his dead wife, is soon victimized by having his beloved dogs taken from him and local children prevented from visiting him. These ensuing acts of cruelty lead Grimsdyke to kill himself. One year later, his corpse rises from the grave to exact a bloody revenge on the pair.
This was the lone instance in the actor’s illustrious career where he would don the makeup of an actual creature of sorts. The iconic artist Roy Ashton applied the grisly layers. Producer/director Derek Pykett remarked about the now famous film stills of Cushing as Grimsdyke rising from the graveyad and walking. ”You wonder if these were just stills or whether they actually shot the scenes. Very interesting, because they are quite effective movie stills.” Amicus, coined by Rosenberg as ”the studio without walls”, would have a major financial bonanza with this entry in 1972. With a budget of 170,000 pounds, it would go on to gross more than 3 million dollars take in the United States. This placed it second only to Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent mob saga The Godfather in box office receipts for the year.
Somehow, some way, like the vampire that keeps getting resurrected despite the limitless methods and number of attempts to destroy it, both the anthology horror and horror movie in general keep coming back more loved each time than ever before. Why? Rosenberg may have summed it best, wrapping his interview with Ebert back in ’72. "I think horror films are a retreat from a violent and disorganized society," Rosenberg said. "We identify with the childlike, innocent monsters. We like them because they don't scare us. We're afraid of muggers, not monsters. We're not going to leave the theater and see Fay Wray on top of the Empire State Building."