Month of Horror 2018: A/S/L – 1970s: Tales from the Crypt

10/16/2018 – 1970s: Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Directed by Freddie Francis

If the 1960s saw the industry starting to expand and develop, the 1970s saw that fracturing increase exponentially.  The independent scene took hold as the New Hollywood movement developed across the industry.

We’ll start again with the classics. With a reputation as “The Scariest Movie of All Time” (for example it’s what the poster on my wall says behind me as I write this).  William Friedkin’s The Exorcist tends to carry a lot of baggage with it for first time viewers.  While the head-spinning, and various other effects likely won’t have the same impact they did on audiences back in 1973 (not that Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge’s is any less fun), people forget that it contains far more including a priest wrestling with his very faith even as he is confronted by demons.  It would go on to be the template for every exorcism movie that would come.  There was also a sequel released later in the decade, but the less said about that one, the better.

Don’t Look Now from Nicolas Roeg has become famous for its big scenes, the sex scene and the ending, but it’s a fabulous thriller on top of that as well and story of grief whose visual style would go on to be highly influential.  Theater of Blood has no such deeper meanings, it is just Vincent Price in the role of a lifetime devouring the scenery as Shakespearean actor getting revenge on the critics who he felt unappreciated him.  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would be the most influential of the three when it comes to horror.  Tobe Hooper’s low budget film would provide a major part of the blueprint for the slasher genre and its raw feel would shock audience despite its restraint in terms of what it actually showing on screen.

The influence of Jaws (one of the greatest horror films ever made) would be felt far beyond just horror. While it would lead to a boom in knockoff natural horror films (Piranha being far and away the best though Orca isn’t bad) in the late ’70s and to an extent this day, the film also became the go to example for how to do suspense in a film (slowly revealing the shark and keeping him mostly offscreen), and along with Star Wars two years later, helped establish the trend towards blockbusters in cinema. It also launched the career of director Steven Spielberg who had gotten his start on two horror TV films, the rather good debut (discounting the lost Firelight) Duel and Something Evil.  Like The Exorcist, it too would get a sequel a few years after the original that succeeds in comparison by merely being bad.

Brian De Palma would direct a number of horror films in the 70s, the decent Margot Kidder-starring Sisters, the comedic rock opera Phantom of the Paradise, and the supernatural horror film The Fury, but his adaptation of Stephen King‘s Carrie would be the first of many for King and the best of his uneven career (and an uneven but great film).  It took a while for George Romero to achieve success again after Night of the Living Dead (The Crazies is fine but wasn’t a success), but he finally did so with the sequel Dawn of the Dead.  Bigger and in color with more of an emphasis on the satirical content of the first, it’s also the best zombie film made still to this date.

Building off of numerous forebears including the Canadian Black Christmas, John Carpenter’s Halloween would solidify many of the tropes of the slasher film, providing a template for those to come.  It’s also, as much as I enjoy watching slashers, the one that rises above it to become a fantastic horror film in its own right.  Donald Sutherland’s second entry on this list (after Don’t Look Back), Invasion of the Body Snatchers remade the 1956 classic and somehow improved it into a classic of paranoia fiction.  Finally, we close out the decade with the excellent Ridley Scott directed sci-fi horror Alien.  It blended elements of the slasher film and the classic 50s B-movie while portraying a realistic group of regular workers at the center of the film and one of cinema’s greatest design aesthetics, most notably the design of the alien itself.

AIP expanded successfully into a number of other genres in the 70s, but they continued to release horror including some of their best titles.  After a Vincent Price special, An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe that I highly recommend (it’s merely Price reading Poe, but that’s more than enough), Price and AIP would team up for the Dr. Phibes series with The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again.  The former is the much better movie, but both are worth seeing.  Among their blaxploitation titles, they also crossed over a few with horror.  Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream are both alright, but Sugar Hill offers the far more engaging experience.  The aforementioned Sisters came from the studio as did The Amityville Horror which I may not have liked, it’s hard to deny years later staring down a third Annabelle movie that it’s had an impact far exceeding its quality and anything else the studio released.

Other great American films of the era include The Stepford Wives which succeeded on the back of its satirical plot and Don Coscarelli’s fun cult item Phantasm.  There’s some imperfect items to consider however.  The Velvet Vampire which kicked off this year’s leg of coverage of films from female directors is notable for being just that in an era with so few.  The Last House on the Left is a wildly uneven and exploitive remake of The Virgin Spring while The Hills Have Eyes is merely mediocre, but they are important for introducing the world to director Wes Craven.

King Kong was both the fifth highest grossing film of 1977 and one of the highest grossing horror titles of the decade making it notable despite its failure.  David Lynch’s Eraserhead is beloved by fans of surrealist films.  I Spit on Your Grave is pretty ineptly made, but I also can’t deny its impact or the controversy it generated for its depiction of the rape and revenge genre.  When a Stranger Calls is mostly a pretty forgettable film, but that fantastic intro alone deserves a mention.

We already hit one Canadian film in Black Christmas (whose director Bob Clark also helmed the solid Dead of Night), but the most notable director to start in the ’70s there was David Cronenberg.  After an interesting if not especially good first effort in the body horror film Shivers, he started to really show his promise on his follow up efforts of Rabid and The Brood.  There’s also Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS the defining Nazisploitation film if that’s something to be proud of.

Across the Atlantic, things were looking grim for their prime horror studio.  Hammer wouldn’t survive the decade with their last film with their last film being released in 1979, but even before then, things were on shaky ground.  They’d produce four Dracula, two Frankenstein, 1 Mummy, but each of the series were extremely tired by this point.  They’d start a new vampire series with The Karnstein Trilogy featuring explicit for the time lesbian themes (including The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil), but that did little to change the overall pattern (Twins of Evil is the one to pick of those two).  Amicus, a competing studio that had been producing films since the ’60s and were known for their (generally solid) anthology titles would produce their standout title in Asylum as well as today’s featured film.

The Omen (a British-American film from Superman director Richard Donner) wrapped up an unofficial trilogy of satanic classics with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as the weakest link but filled with too many unforgettable scenes to consider as anything less than great.  The Wicker Man featuring Hammer great Christopher Lee may be overshadowed by the comedic remake, but the original still holds up as an effective mystery.  I’d comment more on the Ozploitation horror films of the ’70s, but of the two I’ve seen, Wake in Fright is (as wonderful as it is) on the borderline of horror and thriller, and The Plumber isn’t very good.  Still, the low budget Aussie films that emerged in that period also included The Cars That Ate Paris, Patrick, and Long Weekend.

After Mario Bava created the first giallo in 1964, the genre slowly developed until another director came along to help refine it.  Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage added more style and violence and in the next couple years, waves of imitators followed.  1971’s A Bay of Blood from Bava would become another influential title in the slasher’s development while A Lizard in a Woman’s SkinThe Case of The Scorpion’s Tail, Don’t Torture a Duckling, and What Have You Done to Solange?, and especially Deep Red would all represent prominent titles.  Argento would go also go on to make the bold, stylish supernatural film Suspiria in 1977.  1975’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom has remained controversial to this day and it’s not exactly a film one “enjoys”, but it is a film with a high degree of critical acclaim.  Zombi 2, which serves as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, has gone on to gain cult recognition among zombie fans and wound up spawning a side series in Italy.

Elsewhere in Europe, the great films were released in the Czech surrealist horror film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, the Spanish creepy child flick Who Can Kill a Child?, and the German Nosferatu the Vampyre remake directed by Werner Herzog.  The Mexican Alucarda was entertaining if a stretch to call a good film while the Japanese House is a fantastic bit of madness.  Speaking of Japan, both the Godzilla and Gamera franchises continued into the new era as they continued to get cheesier.

Tales from the Crypt originated as an EC Comics series which ran from 1950 to 1955.  It was ultimately killed thanks to the self-censorship by the comics industry bowing to public pressure creating an environment where the gruesome comics had no place.  The series is now better known for anthology series that ran on HBO from 1989 through 1996 and more specifically the hilarious, bad pun fueled host, The Cryptkeeper, voiced by John Kassir.  I’ve been slowly working my way through that series over the past year and while it is probably unfair to compare it to its predecessor, the comparisons will crop up.

The film version is also an anthology from anthology specialists Amicus.  Gone is our beloved Cryptkeeper and now we have Ralph Richardson in the role dressed in a robe.  He’s a decent host, far more typical and playing the role straight that the more famous one.  He probably would have been a lot better if I wasn’t constantly mentally associating him with the very different take we’d get later (that based on my secondhand knowledge of the comics seems more apt), but more than anything SPOILERS1.  He’s there to tell everyone how they are going to die if they don’t change their ways although none of them know how they got there.

Like the series, just about all of them are assholes in their own specific way.  The first is a wife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve and has to deal with disposing of the body while her son is upstairs and a man who escaped from the hospital for the criminally insane wearing a Santa suit roams about.  Another man takes off with his mistress, but after rolling his car hilariously has to stumble home in first person.  While Peter Cushing isn’t technically the jerk of the story, he still winds up as the focus in one tale (as is required of all British horror movies) as a poor man whose two neighbors try to chase out with mean valentines.  I just wanted to give him a hug so bad in it and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play so kindly.

The final two stories are probably the most notable. A couple in financial trouble finds a statue in their possession with an inscription they hadn’t noticed where they can make three wishes.  The Monkey’s Paw gets name dropped and then they just go and rip it off as they discuss it and try to subvert it.  We just looked at another take on the story in Kagbeni and it’s a clever idea to inject some new life into the story with a fun ending.  SPOILERS2  The best story is saved for last as one of them runs a home for the blind filled with shit food, no heat, and treating them like garbage.  He runs it like a military facility (and keeping all the best food and accommodations for himself) despite the fact that not only are they all mostly elderly and therefore in far worse condition that a typical soldier, but they also have their sense heightened and feel the terrible conditions that much worse.  SPOILERS3

Most of the stories feel short, but the layout of them is smartly done as they build in quality throughout. The quality and production value are characteristically solid even if there is are a number of ridiculous effects including some blood straight out of Death Race 2000 in the opening scene and the aforementioned car flip. It’s the interconnecting bits that hold the story back the most however as they mostly just exist to cut back to the person reacting hammily about what happened in their story and to set up the ending. SPOILERS4 I still liked the movie, but it fell a bit shy of being something more.
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Bonus Episode #26 – A – 1960s: Captain Clegg (1962)
Directed by Peter Graham Scott

Known as Night Creatures in the US and loosely based on the Doctor Syn novels, we move onto our second Peter Cushing film of the night.  This one however comes to us from Hammer.  The pirate ship of Captain Clegg cuts the tongue out of and abandons a man on an island.  The action then moves to the Romney Marshes in England in the late 18th century.  Said to be haunted by the Marsh Phantoms who appear to be glow in the dark skeletons on phantom-like horses with eyes behind those skulls, they are also haunted by reports of smuggling.

The Royal Navy is sent into investigate these reports and the film focuses on those seeking to outwit him.  For the entire town is in on it including the parson played by Peter Cushing.  He refuses the sailors quarter, hides the liquor in coffins, and SPOILERS BUT OBVIOUS5  Captain Clegg has since been buried in the town’s graveyard, but the film makes it clear early on there’s more to his story.  Oliver Reed in an early role following up his title role in The Curse of the Werewolf.

The ties to horror are tenuous, but the look of the Marsh Phantoms, especially from the distance where the horse seem to flicker in and out of existence is great.  It’s a fun story away from that, allowing Cushing to have fun messing with the king’s men and dealing with the stress from their stay.  I’ll be honest, I watched this merely because it was on the disc with the next movie, but it’s one of the better Hammer films I’ve seen.  Not gushing praise, but a well-made film.


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Bonus Episode #27 – A – 1960s: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Directed by Freddie Francis

When Hammer started remaking the Universal horror films, they had to be careful not to mimic certain distinguishing traits of those films which had been invented for the films. They could pull from any of the novels or adapt similar works, but the iconic Universal look remained off limits.  The Evil of Frankenstein was the first Hammer film made under a new distribution deal with Universal that allowed them to more closely mirror the look of those older films.  As a result, the laboratory more resembles that old one with all the coils and that big center platform, while the monster also more closely resembles the original with his flat head.

It also abandons the continuity of the current Hammer films in favor of a new one.  In an earlier experiment Baron Frankenstein (played by Peter Cushing) had tried to create life. However, when he succeeded, the monster went on a livestock killing rampage which attracted the anger and gunfire of the townspeople.  Charged with assaulting a police officer and working against god, Frankenstein was chased out of town and had to work his way back up from scratch.  Now, having to head back to Karlstaad after nearly ten in desperate need of money for research (planning to essentially strip his own place for parts).  He finds out however that the Burgomeister has moved in to his place in the interim.  After discovering that the monster is still alive, frozen in ice, he restarts his work.

This monster is an ugly bastard with a patchwork, leathery face.  It’s an interesting (if not unique or equal) update to the Karloff version.  I feel like complimenting the look of the film is cheating since it is just copying the homework of someone else, but it makes for a solid facsimile of the original.  Sadly, the story is a bit of bore with an emphasis on hypnotism brainwashing the creature to do a character’s bidding.  Said hypnotist (played by (Peter Woodthorpe) isn’t even a compelling villain, hamming the same way every other film hypnotist has since they started making sound films.  There’s a reason Universal Frankenstein films went out of fashion and that is because they got stale.  This film can’t even manage to reach that level and just drags its feet to the conclusion.


Next up: Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire-western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

2018 Schedule