No history of either the horror genre or of comics would be complete without William M. Gaines's EC Comics. He thought the Comics Code Authority had been created in 1954 just to get at him and it's even possible that this is true. No less a writer than Alan Moore has called Gaines's comics the finest short tales of their kind published in that medium. These included the living dead, vicious irony, gruesome twist endings and extensive borrowings from Lovecraft, Poe, Bradbury and more. Tales from the Crypt has since been adapted into two 1970s Amicus movies, an award-winning HBO TV series, an animated sequel (eh?) and three spin-off movies from the TV series. And that's not including films that were just inspired by it, like George Romero and Stephen King's Creepshow.
In other words, it's important. It's not as influential as Dracula or Frankenstein, but it's probably as big a deal as Stephen King. Not bad for a comic book.
I believe this is the first adaptation of EC Comics and it's a good'un. It's another Amicus anthology horror and it's capable of being ham-handed in its use of the source material, probably because Freddie Francis deliberately chose not to read them, but their lurid enthusiasm comes through and there are some cracking segments in here. There's a simple, satisfying framing story with a sinister monk (Ralph Richardson), which never gets in the way and yet is a lot of fun. I enjoyed the stories more because of Richardson. "I have a purpose." However what's important is of course the five segments, which are adapted from specific EC stories.
1. ...AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (The Vault of Horror #35)
Joan Collins plays a bitch who discovers at the worst imaginable time that she can't afford to call the police. On the downside, Collins isn't great and Freddie Francis makes a hash of the twist ending. It was blatantly coming a mile off, but even so he manages to deemphasise it so much that it slips under your radar and you're still waiting for the twist when the story ends. However the good news is that it's a Killer Santa movie that keeps merrily playing Christmas carols right up to the grisly finale. The whole point of the story is Christmas horror, so they really go for the seasonal cheer and the results are fun. At one point it even made me jump.
2. REFLECTION OF DEATH (Tales from the Crypt #23)
After Collins's bad wife, Ian Hendry plays a bad husband. Don't get married in the EC universe. This is the most lightweight of the five stories, partly because none of the characters in it are wicked. I might disapprove of what Hendry's doing, but at least he's not torturing people to death or burying his wife in the garden. There's a Twilight Zone vibe here that I quite enjoyed, although again there's an odd bit of direction from Francis. When Hendry wakes up with a cry in the car, startling the driver, you'd expect that to be a contributing factor in the car crash that's coming in about five seconds' time. Nope, not a bit of it. The film makes Hendry look blameless and our anti-heroes are simply about to fall foul of a lorry of death coming the other way, like in Spielberg's Duel.
3. POETIC JUSTICE (The Haunt of Fear #12, March-April 1952)
The highlight of the film. Peter Cushing plays a heartbreaking old binman called Arthur Grimsdyke, who lost his beloved wife ten years ago but still has conversations with her photo and even uses a ouija board to talk to her. He makes toys for the local children and keeps dogs, to be his friends. The real giveaway though is that he calls his wife Helen (i.e. the name of Cushing's wife who'd died the year before, leaving him depressed to the point of near-suicide for the rest of his life), despite the fact that her real name's Mary. Cushing was originally going to play the evil snobbish neighbour, but after reading the script he asked to play Mr Grimsdyke instead and even took a lower fee in order to do so.
All the segments in this film are fun, but Cushing takes it to another level. He's lovely. You couldn't imagine a gentler, more innocent man. His scenes with the children make me wish they'd done that third Dalek film and got him to play Doctor Who like this, incidentally. The story itself is strong and incidentally has the most lurid and blatantly EC-like final twist, but Cushing makes it human and beautiful.
My only problem is a plot point. I think it's wrong for Cushing to be the one who returns from the dead. I can't believe his Mr Grimsdyke would be capable of hurting anyone, even for undead vengeance, but imagine his late wife returning instead to punish his tormentor. That would give powerful motivation to the gruesome finale and fit with the story's theme of married love, instead of (as in the actual film) undermining Cushing's characterisation. That's a shame. Oh, and I'd been assuming that the evil neighbours were a gay couple, but wikipedia claims that they were supposed to be father and son. I think I prefer my interpretation.
4. WISH YOU WERE HERE (The Haunt of Fear #22, November-December 1953)
This is a two-tiered adaptation, since the original comic strip was itself based on W. W. Jacobs's famous short story "The Monkey's Paw." It's a "three wishes" story that's so memorably nasty that I had no problem whatsoever with the stupidity of the wishes. The segment made me wonder about the illegible last line of the poem and then never told me what it was, but I like the imagery of the motorcyclist of death and I like the mad comic-book energy of its gruesome wishes. Richard Greene didn't convince me as the wicked tycoon, though.
5. BLIND ALLEYS (Tales from the Crypt #46, February-March 1955)
This is the one with an army major in charge of a home for the blind. It gets a bit slow in the middle, but it has such an evil finale that even today it's still uncomfortable to watch. Yeesh. Ouch. Now that's vicious.
These portmanteau films, like all anthologies, are always more subjective than regular movies. You can analyse a feature-length story in detail, but these stories are either going to work for you or they're not. Different people will love different segments. One's assessment of the film as a whole becomes fragmented, depending on factors as random as how near the end they put your favourite segment or whether one or two stories happened to rub you up the wrong way. Me, I love the movie. It has identifiable flaws, but they don't stop the relevant segments from being fun, while the movie's strong points... well, Cushing. There's a great deal to enjoy here, but one of its five segments is special. I'd even call this film a must-watch if you're a fan of Peter Cushing, i.e. you're breathing and sane.
"Danger? Who to? Is it one of the children?"