Monday, October 28, 2013

Monster Serial: TALES FROM THE CRYPT, 1972

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Tales from the Crypt.

I can think of few things I wanted more as a kid and few things more beyond my reach. When I’d read books on comics history, I’d drink in the unbelievable images of gleeful gore and morbid morality, forever wondering what the full stories contained.  At the time, they were out of print or only available in hideously expensive slipcover sets, so there was no way I’d get to read them in full.  The only thing I knew was that this was the good stuff.  I found the answer in the Amicus Tales from the Crypt anthology movie from England.  I was in the third grade when I saw it (and its slightly wonkier sequel, Vault of Horror), and it was deeply formative.  Twilight Zone had yet to go into syndication in Louisville, but here were morality tales served up with lurid panache and Grand Guignol ironies.

Oddly, though, it was so formative that I totally forgot about it until the DVD arrived, and it all came back in a flash.

The stories all come from various EC horror comics, but updated to 1970’s England, decorated with enough fantastically bad design taste to fill a dozen James Lileks books.  Five English tourists are exploring a, you guessed it, crypt when they are warned by their guide to stay with the group in the labyrinthine catacombs.  Thus advised, they immediately wander off from their guide because the movie needs them to, and they wind up in a stone judgement chamber overseen by a monastically garbed Sir Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper, by turns indulgent and judgmental.  Each of the five receives what seem to be warnings of what will happen to them once they leave the crypt to make Bad Decisions.  A callously homicidal wife (Joan Collins, cast ideally) will encounter the kind of scary Santa Claus who makes scary Santas legitimately scary.  A philandering husband (Ian Hendry) is repaid by the cosmos when an accident blinds his girlfriend and turns him into a zombie.  (Look, laugh all you will, but these things happen.)  A scheming fop has his heart cut out by the reanimated corpse of Peter Cushing after driving the old man to suicide.

(Cushing’s performance is especially touching.  A year before, the actor’s wife of several decades died.  This demoralized him for the rest of his career, and he freely admitted it.  His character is a profoundly fragile widower, and Cushing allows himself a vulnerability that goes beyond mere acting.  The audience is invited in to a very truthful, very haunted place in the life of one of our greatest actors.  It would be an uncomfortable moment of voyeurism were it not for a strange, almost therapeutic generosity in Cushing’s work.)

In a later story, Games of Thrones fans will enjoy Roy Dotrice as he stands as a helpless witness to a retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw”...  a version that has one of my favorite punchlines.  In the final tale, the denizens of a residential home for the blind, led by Patrick Magee, take revenge on a cruel superintendent involving a starving attack dog, eyes, and hundreds of razor blades.

Then, we find out these are not predictions for the five, but explanations of their misdeeds.  Then, they all voluntarily leap into the pits of Hell.  And... scene.

Great movie.

In watching it, I had the same experience I have with all great art; I was reminded of 1966 Batman TV series.    

No, really.  And let me rewind a bit.

I have to confess that while I admired the HBO Tales from the Crypt TV series, I found it a bit too goofy for my tastes.  It was a bit like the person who laughs really loudly to let everyone know what great sense of humor they have.  However, it was impossible to assert that its tone deviated from comic book series.  But the comics achieve two effects at once, just like ABC’s Batman.  When I watch Batman, I still enjoy it for the comic book adventure as much as for the comedy. The source material supports both readings.  Similarly, those original EC horror tales can be read as legitimate horror stories as well as wry satires of horror and morality.  The original Mad Magazine, in every sense of the word.  

In Tales from the Crypt, Amicus largely takes their EC adaptations dead seriously, allowing the ironies to insinuate the stories rather than dominate them.  I really like that approach, and I think it’s essential viewing for those who’ve only been exposed to the Zemeckis interpretation.  There are legitimate moments of pathos and dread, and yet the episodes are short and pithy enough that I never feel a lugubriously heavy hand... which can be just as much a vice of horror.

When I was older, I finally got to revel in the actual EC comics, and they were as grand as I had hoped.  But I missed Sir Ralph Richardson’s regal ambiguity as the Crypt Keeper as much as I missed the presence of Peter Cushing.

As much as I cherish the tone and content EC comics, I love the Amicus interpretation even more.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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