In the early 1970s, England's Amicus Films sought a new source for their horror anthologies in the form of the notorious American EC comics. EC published controversial horror rags during the 1950s and gained a reputable following despite protests from those who found them immoral. Amicus co-founder Max J. Rosenberg, who had an office in New York, was able to set up a deal with EC publisher Bill Gaines, and the resulting effort became 1972's TALES FROM THE CRYPT. Scaring up a lot of dough at the box office, the film was successful enough for a follow-up to be produced the next year, VAULT OF HORROR, which was also sourced from the same pulpy literary source (stories written by Gaines and Al Feldstein). Scream Factory appropriately pairs the two together, uncut and complete, for this highly anticipated holiday-time Blu-ray double feature set.
As Amicus' fourth attempt at a horror omnibus, the bulk of TALES FROM THE CRYPT's stories deal with the living dead. In the second tale, "Reflection of Death", Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry, CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER) unknowingly (to himself) dies in an auto wreck and stalks around as a monstrous corpse (the price he pays for adultery). In "Poetic Justice", Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) is a kindly old man driven to suicide by greedy neighbor James Elliot (Robin Phillips, TWO GENTLEMEN SHARING) but later digs out of his grave as a rotting zombie to tear out his tormentor's heart. "Wish You Were Here" retells the old "Monkey's Paw" chestnut as a bankrupt couple (Barbara Murray, UP POMPEII and Richard Greene, THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU) wish for a lot of money while rubbing an ancient statue. Their lawyer (Roy Dotrice, NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA) tells her that an insurance policy will make her wealthy after her husband is killed in a car crash, but after his casket is delivered to the house, she regrets wishing for his embalmed body to return to life. The opening story, "All Through the House", has Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS) murdering her husband (Martin Boddey, PSYCHOMANIA) for life insurance payback on Christmas Eve, only for her young daughter (Chloe Franks, TROG) to let a murderous Santa Claus (Oliver MacGreevy, FLASH GORDON) into their happy home. The final tale, "Blind Alleys", tells of a bunch of blind men in a private home neglected by their new uncaring superintendent (Nigel Patrick, THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS), resulting in the death of one of their unfortunate bedmates. Headed by George Carter (Patrick Magee, DEMENTIA 13) they are able to ingeniously set a deadly and rather demented trap for their heartless administrator, despite their complete lack of sight.
Many critics have accused Freddie Francis' direction as being "workmanlike." This might be true when he was given inferior projects to helm, but here he delivers the frightful goods marvelously, and Amicus co-founder (and Rosenberg’s partner) Milton Subotsky concocts one of his better screenplays based on the graphic stories from the EC comics (here penned by Gaines, Goldstein and Johnny Craig). Over 40 years later, TALES FROM THE CRYPT is still genuinely scary, and at the time of its release, it was considered pretty shocking. Those who caught it on its initial 1972 theatrical run remember it as being really gory for its day (at the same time that the likes of MARK OF THE DEVIL and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT were packing 'em in at the drive-ins), even though it got away with a PG rating. The film also gave Cushing one of his best roles, even though he is only seen briefly in the grand scheme of things. As Grimsdyke, he's a kindly, misunderstood old man who loves children and communicates with his late wife (his real-life wife Helen had just passed away, and her portrait can be seen in the film), only to be tormented enough to hang himself, returning to life a year later (on Valentine's Day) to enact revenge. Cushing's memorable blank-eyed corpse face was created by former Hammer make-up man Roy Ashton, who had also done a lot of work for Amicus over the years. TALES FROM THE CRYPT's fine cast of British actors was topped by Ralph Richardson (FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY) as The Cryptkeeper (a far cry from the animated incarnation which would grace the HBO "Tales" series some 17 years later), who embraces the role with dry sense of humor, yet he also seems to have wooden tendencies (he repeatedly retorts, “All in good time” to his inquisitive damned souls). The legendary stage actor only sports a monk's hood and robe, and no elaborate make-up (reportedly, he was only on the set for a couple of days). Other cast members include Amicus regular Geoffrey Bayldon (FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) as the tour guide, David Markham (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB) as James’ passive father, and American star Robert Hutton (THE GREEN SLIME) as Grimsdyke’s neighbor.
The year after TALES, Amicus was back with VAULT OF HORROR, their second and final effort based on the old EC comics. The first story, "Midnight Mess", deals with vampirism, a familiar theme in past Amicus anthologies. After visiting a restaurant that oddly closes before nightfall, Rogers (Daniel Massey, WARLORDS OF ATLANTIS) pays a visit to his sister Donna (real-life sibling Anna Massey, FRENZY), ruthlessly murdering her for an inheritance from their deceased father. A later visit to the same restaurant uncovers a town inhabited by vamps that plan to make a late-night snack out of him. "The Neat Job" has tidy-happy Critchit (marvelously played by Terry-Thomas, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) driving his new younger wife Eleanor (Glynis Johns, THE CABINET OF CALIGARI) to the point where she can't stand anymore of his neat fetish, violently reacting with a hammer in hand. "This Trick'll Kill You" has a married duo of professional magicians (Curt Jurgens, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME and Dawn Addams, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) murdering and stealing to obtain the secret of a rope trick in India, with the expected tragic and twisted results. "Bargain in Death" has Maitland (Michael Craig, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) planning to fake his own burial for insurance purposes until he is double-crossed by his friend (an almost unrecognizable Edward Judd, ISLAND OF TERROR, sans toupee). Two anatomy students (Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies), looking for a fresh cadaver to study, later make a startling discovery when they dig up "late" housemate Maitland. In "Bargain in Death", the final and probably the best story of this collection, Moore (the great Tom Baker of "Dr. Who" fame) is a loner painter who learns about voodoo while living in the deep jungles of Haiti. When he returns to England, he is screwed over by a number of art-world scoundrels (including one devilishly played by Denholm Elliot, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER), thus prompting him to paint portraits of them followed by his mutilating of the inked canvases. Now skilled in deadly mumbo jumbo, whatever horrible things happen to the faces in the paintings occurs to their true likenesses!
VAULT OF HORROR was promoted as a sequel to TALES FROM THE CRYPT, but at times it actually feels more akin to the multi-storied antics of Amicus' ASYLUM, also directed by Roy Ward Baker the year before, with Amicus co-founder Subotsky himself again sourcing the material from the same EC literary source. Baker injects more satire into the stories, but the shocks are delivered in layers and the payoffs are handsomely gruesome. Thought by some fans to be a weaker Amicus anthology, it’s actually grown to become one of their most popular. It’s an enjoyable macabre viewing experience with the expected swift, twisted tales, and despite not having a Cushing (this was the only Amicus anthology without his presence) or a Christopher Lee, the cast is still top-notch and really seems to be having fun with it. Unlike most of the previous anthologies, there is no host (which was usually represented as "death") but rather five male protagonists having a high-rise elevator transport them to a rather plush basement crypt where they all get the opportunity to relay their nightmarish accounts. Stills shown in a number of horror related publications show the five leads in skull-face appearance (again, the fine work of Roy Ashton), but no scene of this type ever ended up in the final product. Like with TALES, Douglas Gamley was the composer, and his appropriately menacing scores are as familiar to Amicus fans as James Bernard’s compositions are to Hammer buffs. Also in the cast are John-Forbes Robertson (Dracula in Hammer’s THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES), Marianne Stone (TORTURE GARDEN) and Maurice Kaufmann, DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!).
For anyone who still owns Fox’s 2007 “Midnite Movies” double feature DVD, they will certainly want to upgrade to this Blu-ray, not only because of the exceptional picture quality on both films, but also for the fact that VAULT is finally available in its uncut form. Presented in 1080p HD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, TALES looks spectacular, with the well-balanced color reproduction being outstanding. Detail and clarity have also been drastically improved over the standard DVD, and the transfer shows that the original film elements used were in impeccable shape. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track has clean dialog that’s easy to follow and Gamley’s eerie score also sounds nicely balanced. Optional English subtitles are included. Note that like Fox’s previous DVD, this version of TALES is totally uncut, showing more gore (an extra shot of intestines during “Wish You Were Here” and an extra shot of a bloody, throbbing heart during “Poetic Justice”) not found in U.S. theatrical prints or previous VHS releases.
Anyone who has seen VAULT OF HORROR in its various incarnations in the past will be delighted to see this restored version, which is something of a revelation. The transfer was made from material preserved by the British Film Institute (BFI ) National Archive, here presented in 1080p in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The presentation provides a crisp, clean HD appearance and detail is superb. For a film that was often witnessed in past transfers with drab colors, the color schemes here are quite pleasing and bold when they need to be, and skintones look natural. The source print used results in a very clean picture free of specs or scratches. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound has a nice mix, and there are no age-related artifacts like hiss or crackling to be heard. Optional English subtitles are included. Extras for VAULT include the original theatrical trailer (oddly, like on the previous DVD, it’s shown in black and white and full frame) and the alternate title sequence (Dynamite Entertainment’s late 1970s re-release under the title TALES FROM THE CRYPT II, inserted over a bright blue background with the rest of the opening credits playing out silently).
SPOILER ALERT: Here is a rundown of the scenes fully restored to Scream Factory’s uncut transfer of VAULT OF HORROR which were never before seen on home video in the U.S., until now that is. At the 16:58 point (during “Midnight Mess”) a tap is plunged into Daniel Massey’s neck to extract blood which is replaced by an awkward still frame which optically blacks out the tap held by the bald waiter with vampire fangs (Jerold Wells from FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL) in the cut version. At 31:21 (during “The Neat Job”) a hammer shot to the head has been restored, and also during the same segment at around the 32:20 mark, extra shots of body parts packed in jars – notably a jar that’s labeled “odd and ends” – are also now reinstated (these missing shots only amount to seconds, but they are still crucial to the payoff of the first two stories). Additionally, at around 1:15:18 when a pair of hands is lopped off by a paper cutter during the “Bargain in Death” segment, more brief gory footage has been restored. The second Blu-ray in this package contains both the theatrical version (featuring all the cuts referred to previously in this paragraph) and an open matte version of the BFI restoration. Both are presented in 1080p HD with optional English subtitles included. (George R. Reis)
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