Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Tales from the Crypt (1972)

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.

Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Torture Garden (1967)

I seem to recall that somebody told me never to watch Torture Garden (1967). He may have gone so far as to say that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. Well…

Clearly he’d never seen any truly bad movies.

Torture Garden is a well made movie, with good actors, good production values, etc. It is not even in the same category as the “worst movies ever made”. I could name a few titles that might be contenders, but no matter which ones I choose, there will be someone out there who will say “But I love that movie…”. And I will most likely nod my head and say “So do I.”

I am a connoisseur of “bad movies”. I have friends with whom I watch movies, and we often refer to our marathons as “bad movies nights”. But this does not mean that we judge all of the movies we watch to be “bad”. Often we discover movies that we quite like; lost gems from the video fringes and bargain bins of yesteryear. Sometimes a movie is objectively “bad”, but it is 90 minutes of pure entertainment. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is often called “the worst movie ever made”, but it is actually quite fun to watch. This raises the question: If a movie if entertaining, can it truly be called bad?

          

One of my favourite movie review books, Terror On Tape by James O’Neill, gives Plan 9 From Outer Space three stars (on a four star system). On the same page he gives Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971) three stars. These movies are at opposite ends of the spectrum, quality-wise, but O’Neill gives them the same rating. He calls Plan 9… a “grade Z masterpiece” and notes that it is “a lot funnier than many intentional so-called comedies.” A lot of books would give Plan 9… zero stars, or half a star, and dismiss it as a “bad movie”. I admire O’Neill’s approach, which I think is more useful. Incidentally, O’Neill also gives Torture Garden three stars. One might be tempted to think he gives all movies three stars, but I can assure you that this is not the case.

Torture Garden is an entertaining horror anthology by Amicus Productions, the British film company that specialized in horror anthologies (Tales From The Crypt (1972), Vault of Horror (1973), etc.), It is written by well known author Robert Bloch, most famous for writing Psycho. All of the stories in Torture Garden involve an element of the fantastic; something that could be described as “far fetched”, if one was particularly inclined to stick with realism. I could imagine that this might be why some people would say Torture Garden is  a “bad movie”, or in fact “the worst movie” they have ever seen.

But that’s complete nonsense, isn’t it? Good movies can be made from ideas that are utterly absurd. I can think of a few personal favourites that if someone had pitched to me before they were made, I might have said “How the hell is THAT going to make a good movie?” The idea, or concept, isn’t always the most important thing. A composer friend of mine was once looking for an idea for a new musical. He wanted it to be “perfect”, so he kept running ideas past me and asking what I thought. Most of the time I would say “That’s an idea that could work.” Eventually I said “Look, it doesn’t matter what IDEA you choose. The trick is just to pick something and work hard to MAKE it good.” Who would have thought that a musical about cats would be a monster success (not withstanding the new movie adaptation which some people are calling “the worst movie they have ever seen)?

Torture Garden (1967) is not the worst movie I have ever seen. I enjoyed it – perhaps all the more for having been warned away from it once upon a time. The fact that some people feel it’s horrendously bad makes it #Certified #NotQuiteClassicCinema and the perfect addition to a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.