Five strangers get lost in a crypt & receive visions of how they will die.
— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) December 26, 2020
I recently recounted the story of my earliest interactions with VCRs (not here, but for a another project that you’ll be hearing about in the months to come). It made me realize that one of the most important moments in my development as an aficionado of obscure, weird, horror and other B-movies was the purchase of my family’s first VCR. My parents had been a little slow to come around to the idea that we needed to OWN one, and in fact had resorted to renting a VCR a few times. But, after a few successful VCR rental weekends – and a lot of begging from me – my parents finally decided that it might be more economical – and less annoying – to buy one.
My mom took me down to Adi’s Video, one of the closest and most successful movie rental stores in the neighborhood. Adi’s wasn’t just renting movies in those days, they were also selling VCRs – and they had both VHS and Beta. My Mom asked the man in the store (I don’t think it was Adi), which format was the best. He did not hesitate to tell us that Beta was far superior to VHS. So, my Mom bought a Sony Betamax. It came with a wired remote control and a free Beta t-shirt (which I wore for a couple of years). I have to say, that machine worked really well. And even after Beta lost the war to VHS, I continued to use it to tape movies off the TV. In fact, I still have it hooked up to my TV today – and it still works (almost 40 years later). On the other hand, my family went through several VHS VCRs over the years. Some of them died after only a couple of years. Coincidence? Who knows…?
I have a really strong memory of the guy who sold us that Betamax, standing there in his “Beta #1” t-shirt, and I am certain that he is the one from whom I rented Tales from the Crypt (1972) – on Beta, of course. It must have been on the same day we bought the VCR. I remember the “Beta #1” guy so vividly, taking the movie box from my hand and examining it, approvingly.
“This is a good movie,” he said. “Jacqueline Bisset is great in it…” then he turned the box over and looked at the back. “Oh, wait,” he said, “It’s Joan Collins who’s in this. I get them mixed up.”
My Mom reacted, physically. “I wouldn’t want to be confused with Joan Collins,” she said, judgementally.
This comment has remained burned in my brain for all these years. My Mom thought it was an insult to Jacqueline Bisset that “Beta #1” thought she was Joan Collins. Or, rather, that he thought that Joan Collins was her, as the case might be. I never asked for clarification of that remark, because I assumed that it was because Joan Collins was the “bad woman” Alexis Carrington on Dynasty (1981-89) in those days. I was a little surprised, because I didn’t think my Mom even watched Dynasty – she was much more of a Dallas (1978–1991) fan.
In any case, because I can remember this moment so clearly, I know that my Mom was there, at Adi’s, when I rented Tales from the Crypt. After that first day, when we bought the (surprisingly heavy) VCR and took it home in the car, I don’t think my Mom was ever at the store when I rented movies. I would generally walk over with my brother, or with a friend. So, this means that Tales from the Crypt may hold the distinction of being the first movie that I ever watched on my family’s first VCR. As you might imagine, this makes it a seminal viewing experience for me.
I suppose it’s possible that my Mom came with us to rent movies at some point, but if she did, it would have been very early in our VCR owning days. So, either way, Tales from the Crypt is a movie that goes way, way back for me. It was, I’m certain, the first Amicus horror anthology that I ever watched. It wasn’t quite the first anthology, I don’t think. That distinction may go to Creepshow (1982), which I was lucky enough to see in the theatre. In fact, Creepshow may have given me the idea to rent Tales from the Crypt, but I’m not sure. I also saw Dead of Night (1945) on TV as a kid. I’m not sure exactly when, but my memory of it is pretty hazy, so I must have been pretty young.
I loved Tales from the Crypt instantly. Every story worked for me, and felt fresh to me. The first one, And All Through the House, starring the aforementioned Joan Collins, was probably the first Christmas horror story I ever saw – and the first time I saw a murderer dressed up as Santa Claus. This would, of course, become a much more familiar sight to me, as I saw movies like Silent NIght, Deadly Night (1984). But in some ways, this short story was more effective, more clever and scarier than any of the other killer Santa movies. Even when they remade the same story for the TV series, Tales from the Crypt (1989–1996), it failed to be as scary as this original movie version.
I actually wrote a short play back in 1995 called The Blood On Santa’s Claws, which was meant to be a satire/homage to Christmas horror films. And All Through the House was one of my main inspirations. Interestingly, the play was part of an anthology of Christmas plays called Six Twisted Christmas Tales. Sadly, the show was cancelled and the play went back into my desk drawer to rot. A few years later, a theatre company called Cherry Red Productions in Washington D.C. found out about the play and asked me if they could do it as part of their Christmas extravaganza. Cherry Red Productions was once described by the Washington Post as “D.C.‘s only theater company dedicated to smut,” so of course I was thrilled. Sadly, they folded in 2012.
The problem with many horror anthologies is that they are uneven; a mixed bag of good, bad, and indifferent stories. This is partly due to the fact that the majority of them seem to be made by a bunch of different filmmakers. And I can understand that temptation. Hey, here’s four, or five, or ten interesting filmmakers. Let’s get ’em all together and have ’em make short films on a theme (or not). Even if they all do good work, the clash of their different styles often makes the whole seem like less than the sum of its parts.
All five of the stories in Tales from the Crypt were directed by Freddie Francis, and they are excellent as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this movie over the years, but it never fails to entertain me. I hesitate to call it #NotQuiteClassicCinema, because it is certainly a classic in my book. But, just as the original comic books that inspired it would not have been called great literature by the critics of the day, so this movie would have been maligned by people who think they have good taste. But as Pablo Picasso once said, “The chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” And I have always prided myself on being at least a little bit creative…
If you’ve never seen Tales from the Crypt (1972) – or even if you have – do yourself a favour and slot it into your next #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. You won’t regret it.