A Collection of Caliginous Choppings

Tales from the Crypt (1972)

The Twelve Slays of Christmas 2013

For the third slay of Christmas, this genre gave to me, an Amicus anthology, Santa’s Demon Krampus, and a scream queen hanging free!

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If Santa Claus knocks at your door tonight, don’t answer. — from Roger Ebert’s review

Ho ho ho! Hope you’re in the holiday spirit, I sure know that I am! Today I am getting at the root of the Killer Santa with the original 1972 Amicus anthology Tales from the Crypt, directed by Freddie Francis. As far as I can ascertain (from a perfunctory Google search) this film is the first to feature a murderous madman clad in the red and white-trimmed suit. If that is incorrect, and you know of an earlier film with a killer from the North Pole, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Tonight’s treat is stocking-stuffed full of revenge tales and evil-doers getting their just desserts — a common thread through all of my X-mas picks this season thus far! Tales from the Crypt sees five strangers united on a tour of some old English catacombs. We, the viewer don’t know why they’re here, and they themselves don’t either. The central five are quickly separated from the rest of the group and joined by a mysterious cloaked figure — The Crypt Keeper. Now, honestly, Ralph Richardson isn’t The Crypt Keeper that I grew up with — he has much more flesh on his bones and much less cheesy jokes than HBO’s early 90s incarnation. But, as a very dry, slightly sardonic purveyor of eternal condemnation, he works in this role. Plus, he was knighted, so you know that means he’s one of the queen’s own actors. Indeed, the acting is very strong through-out this entire picture, but I also get a sense that they are all playing very familiar roles. With the exception of Peter Cushing, who plays a down-on-his-luck trash collector, the main actors are all well-to-do high society types, that just tend to rub middle-class me the wrong sort of way.

. . . And All Through the House

Case in point is Joan Collins as a money grubbing wife who kills her husband on Christmas Eve. The first thing that she does after clubbing the man in the head is not to clean up the murder scene, but to check the safe to see that his insurance papers are all in order. But then two things happen to up the ante. The first is that the couple’s daughter calls down from her upstairs bedroom. The second is that the radio announces that old crazy guy on the loose from the mental institution trope: “a man described as a homicidal maniac has escaped from the hospital for the criminally insane . . . and may be wearing a Santa Claus costume.” (I know this trope seems well-worn, but the only other time I can actually remember it from a film is Night of the Creeps.)

Now the murderous mother has to deal not only with cleaning up her crime scene, but also keeping the madman outside, and her daughter on the inside. The TV version of this episode has much more back and forth between the woman and Santa, but the ending to that plays out much the same here in the original. I won’t ruin either of them for you if you haven’t seen them. Just note that the Santa here is more likely to be seen on a Macy’s float while the latter Crypt Santa is more akin to the drooling on his straight-jacket in a padded cell sort of criminally insane.

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Reflection of Death

The second story in this anthology stars Ian Hendry as a man who leaves his wife and children to run away with his mistress. Only, obviously, things don’t go as they planned. Hendry wakes up from a nightmare during the drive, and moments afterward they are involved in a pretty wicked car crash. The car flips upside down several times, with silly slow motion cuts of each of them banging around the car’s interior. Then, seemingly moments after the crash, the man awakes to find himself in the English countryside, near his burned out car. As the viewers, we follow his POV shot through the woods looking for help, but everyone he stumbles upon runs or drives away. He returns to his wife’s house to have the door slammed on his face and her scream in terror. The reveal of whatever is so hideous and repulsive about this man doesn’t happen until he visits the apartment of his mistress and sees . . . well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. I felt that Reflection of Death was the weakest of the tales in this film. It was one of those easy to see twist endings, as well as one of those weird, too funny to take seriously dream endings. It’s all very well shot and well acted, but just not up to the standard of the rest of the stories.

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Poetic Justice

The third story features the late great Peter Cushing as a down-on-his-luck Mr. Rogers type character named Mr. Grimsdyke. All of the neighborhood children love him, and frequently visit his home to take in puppet shows and recieve gifts. Unfortunately, Mr. Grimsdyke is unfairly hated by his very well-off neighbor played by Robin Phillips. This entitled bastard takes it upon himself to get Grimsdyke to leave the neighborhood in an effort to ease their property taxes. It is laughable to see what the neighbor’s call a veritable pigsty actually be so clean and tidy. Perhaps they were offended by Grimsdyke’s finger-less hobo gloves. So, this young prick makes Grimsdyke’s life hell by first tearing up another neighbor’s rosebushes and getting the police to take Grimsdyke’s dogs away. Next, he gets him fired from his job as a trash-collector and then makes all the families in the neighborhood keep their children away from him. And if that isn’t enough, he sends the poor old man a bunch of NASTY Valentine’s Day cards.

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This kindly old man just can’t take it any more. Distraught after all of the vitriolic hatred, he decides to end his life by hanging himself in the pantry. With smug satisfaction the entitled young man and his father find the body, and for them at least, all is finally right in the neighborhood. Only, poetic justice is served, when one year later Grimsdyke rises from the grave to deliver his own Valentine’s Day card. This story is probably the best of the bunch in part to Cushing who was playing a character pretty similar to himself. Throughout Grimsdyke talked to the photograph of his deceased wife Helen when in reality Cushing’s own wife Helen had passed away about a year before this film. (I can’t comment on the actor’s use of a ouijia board or automatic writing device to contact her though.)

Wish You Were Here

The fourth story is a classic spin on that old story The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs. In fact, they even reference that story in this one! Richard Greene plays a business faced with mounting debts. Either he can go into bankruptcy, or sell off all of his collected artwork to stave off financial ruin. Surprisingly, he decides to be honorable, and sell of his excesses. That is when his wife stumbles across an oriental statue that promises to deliver them the standard three wishes. Immediatedly, despite a caution from the businessman himself, she wishes for their wealth back. Lo and behold, they get a call to meet with their lawyer, but when Greene goes he is chased by a skeletal biker, crashes, and dies. The wife, however, becomes well off because of her husband’s ample life insurance.

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Knowing that she has still has two wishes, and distraught about her husband’s death, she uses another wish — again, despite the warning from the lawyer — and asks for him to be returned to her just as he was before the car crash. Some mysterious undertakers bring in the husband’s coffin and lay it out saying he had a heart attack right before the crash. Second wish wasted. She also wastes the third wish to ironic effect, but I won’t say what happens, except that of all five protagonists, this guy gets the rawest deal in the end, and actually given what happens, he shouldn’t be with the others in the Crypt Keeper’s prescence. It is the foolish wife who brings down all the trouble on this man.

Blind Alleys

The movie’s last story sees Nigel Patrick as Major William Rogers, the newly appointed superintendant for the Elmridge Home for the Blind. He addresses his men in the most military of fashions, and turns the home more into a barracks than a convalescent home. The blind men are not pleased, especially as the major and his German shepherd feast on steak and wine while they must eat meatless slop and sleep in their frigid beds on cold, heatless nights. When one of the blind men dies the others have finally had enough. They decide to take over the hospital and punish the major (and his dog) for how they have treated him.

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The blind men lock up the major and his dog in separate cells in the basement. Then they go to work with wooden boards, saws, hammers, and nails, blindly shambling through their construction zone like zombies. Once they are finished, they open the door to the major’s cell, and he is faced with a Saw-esque torture hall covered with exposed razor blades. There is no going back, and he must proceed . . . to his doom!

This was such a fun film. It much less cornball than the 90s TV show, but I think there is still a healthy amount of sardonic charm and cinematic irony to make this fun for the whole family. It is only rated PG after all! It is well acted with a nicely rounded cast. Also, this is just dripping with Gothic charm as the visuals of a rundown cemetery at the opening and the music, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in the opening and closing, contribute to something that is very British, sophisticated yet atmospheric. It also doesn’t betray its comic book roots, as the blood throughout is bright vivid red. There isn’t anything too gory, but there madman Santa, as well as the Peter Cushing zombie have been iconic images in the horror genre.

If you haven’t watched Tales from the Crypt recently, then the holiday season might be just the time for you and yours to enjoy something shocking, yet pleasing for all, young and old.

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8 responses

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