Amicus Productions is a kind of diet Hammer.
The company often drew from the same pool of actors as Hammer, recruiting faces like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; and shared the same kind of measured macabre tone that’s marked with the occasional burst of outlandish violence. Unlike Hammer, though, Amicus movies tend to be set in the modern day and feature actors that are either on the fast track to retirement, in a mid-career slump or just getting their feet wet.
Basically, Amicus is kind of Hammer’s cheaper cousin. And while Hammer is famous for their tramped up versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Amicus is mostly known for their cheap, often silly, anthology horror films like The House That Dripped Blood, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, and this week’s VHS Vault pick, Tales from the Crypt.
Like twisted after school specials, most horror anthology films toe the line of rigid morality plays. The supernatural in anthology films—be it a vengeful zombie, a fortune granting relic, or an escaped convict in Santa garb–rarely takes on the role of antagonist, but rather acts as a great equalizer, serving as judge, jury and executioner for the film’s true villains: its stars.
Even though it’s not officially acknowledged until Tales from the Crypt, Amicus’s anthology style is largely borrowed from the pages of the various EC Comics titles, including Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. EC’s writers often used situations of ironic poetic justice as a way to let their monsters do their gruesome work without getting guff from the censors. After all, an innocent man getting his heart ripped out by a vengeful zombie would be out of bounds, but make the victim an adulterer or a crazy taxidermist then the zombies are free to rip away.
Tales From the Crypt adapts five stories from the EC archives (though, only two are actually Tales from the Crypt titles), all told through the frame of the Crypt Keeper telling five unfortunate souls their inevitable, grizzly fates. Hailing from all sorts of wretched walks of life (and, notably, all from privileged lifestyles), the film’s stars—including Joan Collins, Ian Hendry, Robin Phillips, Richard Greene and Nigel Patrick—have run-ins with a variety of ghoulies who teach them all harsh life lessons by brutally murdering them.
The film’s moral code is far from complex. Joan Collins murders her husband for insurance money, Ian Hendry runs out on his wife and children for his mistress, Richard Greene… actually, Richard Greene is just rich, he doesn’t do anything wrong. But most of the characters in Tales from the Crypt are wretched human beings, ones designed so the audience will cheer as they’re ripped limb from limb by the forces of beyond.
For as silly and fun as it is, Tales from the Crypt boasts one clear stand-out story: “Poetic Justice.” When an elderly man’s (Peter Cushing) home falls into disrepair after the death of his wife, his wealthy neighbor (Phillips) accosts the lonely soul through a series of cruel pranks that aim at driving the old man out of town for good. As Phillips continues the turn the screw, Cushing is driven further and further into loneliness and despair, until, ultimately, he kills himself.
The success of the story rests solely on Cushing’s performance. Cushing lost his own wife, Helen, only a year before the release of Tales from the Crypt, a personal loss from which the actor never fully recovered. In an interview with Radio Times released around the same time as Tales from the Crypt, Cushing revealed the depths of his grief: “Since Helen passed on I can’t find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be united again someday. To join Helen is my only ambition.”
Cushing’s personal torment is palpable in Tales from the Crypt. Even though “Poetic Justice” ultimately gives in to the extravagant violence and comic book moralizing that anchors the rest of the film, Cushing’s performance as a tormented widower gives Tales from the Crypt an unexpected dose of real human emotion—which is remarkable considering it’s ultimately a film about a bunch of people getting ushered into Hell by a monk sitting on a skull-shaped throne.
Cushing’s performance provides an emotional touchstone for the rest of the film—and is rather wisely planted dead in the center. Though none of the shorts are as strong as “Poetic Justice,” Tales from the Crypt is a macabre romp in comic book moralizing, all cheeky twists and ironic fates, but it has its moments of genuine style (the way the ambient whine of the crypt suddenly stops as the film cuts to a new story is a nice touch) and some solid performances.
Like most anthology movies, Tales from the Crypt is a bag of Halloween candy, empty, fun and gloriously self-indulgent.
Come see Tales from the Crypt on Monday, March 19 at 8 PM for free in the Nitehawk Cinema lobby bar!