There’s a Christmas cracker among the bones and rotting vestments in this classic compendium of chills.
“Merry Christmas,” says party-hatted Joanne (Joan Collins), as she splits her husband’s head open with a fire-iron and makes a mess of his evening newspaper.
So begins the first story in Tales From The Crypt. Getting lost on a tour of some ancient catacombs, five strangers encounter the weird, rheumy-eyed Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson.) One by one he exposes their secrets in the form of creepy episodes for our delectation.
In ‘And All Through The House’, desperate housewife Joanne chooses Christmas Eve to give herself the present she really wants – her husband Richard with his brains spread all over their fluffy white Habitat rug. That achieved, she calmly goes to see what he’s left for her under the Christmas tree.
Unfortunately for her, the radio breaks off its ironic choruses of “Oh come let us adore him” to announce that a homicidal maniac disguised as Santa Claus is on the loose. Santa duly appears at her door, but Joanne can’t call the police, not with Richard lying there like a sack of Christmas post. Cue furious attempts to make his death look like an accident by bundling him down the basement steps.
Joan Collins prowls and pouts her way through her role like a cat on a cold thatched roof, scampering on all fours around her beautifully appointed home to avoid being seen by the leering Santa, and daintily scooping Richard’s blood into a sherry glass in order to spread it down below at the scene of the supposed accident. It’s a star turn with her every movement and gesture electric.
This is a hard act for the other stories to follow, but they have their moments. In ‘Reflection of Death’, bored husband Ian Hendry runs off with his girlfriend, only for their car to take a nasty tumble on the motorway. When he comes around, it’s to find that everyone screams at the sight of him. In ‘Poetic Justice’ snooty Elliot (Robin Phillips) hates living opposite eccentric dustman Mr Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing,) who mends discarded toys and gives them to the local children. The young toff makes trouble by digging up some prize-winning roses, in the hope that it will be blamed on Grimsdyke’s dogs. “But you mustn’t take them away! They’re my friends!” Elliot’s schemes to undermine Grimsdyke grow ever more cruel, culminating in a prank on Valentine’s Day which drives the lonely widower to despair.
After ‘And All Through The House’ the best of the stories is ‘Blind Alleys’. Major Rogers is the new superintendent of Elmridge Home for the Blind. As played by Nigel Patrick, he’s a dapper, sharp-suited rogue with a fondness for creature comforts. The only living thing he gives a damn about is Shane, the huge Alsatian who serves as his furry henchman. Pleading a tight budget, Rogers wastes no time in starving and freezing the inmates, while lining his own cosy office with paintings from London galleries. When one of the inmates dies of pneumonia, there is a revolt and Rogers finds himself in a cell, nervously awaiting his fate.
The common thread running through these stories is the idea of terrible consequences arising from petty, small-minded selfishness. Elliot lets his irritation with Grimsdyke and his eyesore of a house get out of hand, and as a result receives a nasty, bloody, thumping Valentine of his own. Major Rogers hasn’t come to the Elmridge Home for the Blind with the express purpose of shaking the feebler inmates off their perches, but he’s incurious about their suffering to say the least. The inmates, by contrast, put a great deal of thought into their payback.
The prosaic origins of these ghoulish outcomes in reflected in the style of Tales From The Crypt, which under Freddie Francis’s direction lulls you with stagy and plodding exposition scenes, only to ferociously switch gear. The film is littered with moments of macabre poetry – the blood soaking through Richard’s newspaper as his head shatters, a burning car in a misty wood, Grimsdyke rising from his grave in a pall of eldritch dust, Rogers running a rat’s-maze of razorblades.
Not all of the stories are equally strong – ‘Wish You Were Here’ is a bit of a non-event, climaxing in an image of disembowelment which looks like a bad day at a balloon-bending class – but the principles are excellent (especially Joan Collins, Nigel Patrick and Patrick Magee as the leader of the rebellious inmates) and the effects make-up is gorgeously eerie. In the forty years since the crypt first opened its doors, the place has lost none of its delicious chill.
Best scene: Major Rogers enjoying a close shave
Best line: “Now you really have no heart.”
Moral: Never mess with a blind dude.