Synopsis: Get ready for to descend into the darkness of horror! In this “frequently macabre and eerily funny” (Cue) collection of tales, five unsuspecting hotel guests step out of an elevator into a vault deep underground. Trapped with no way out, each guest shares a gruesome story of an encounter with death. But as the stories unfold, the men begin to suspect that their presence in the vault is no coincidence, and they may have already found that the only way out…is death!
Vault of Horror 7.25
eyelights: the cast. the variety of stories. the mixture of horror and camp.
eyesores: the so-so performances of the secondary cast.
‘Vault of Horror’ is a 1973 horror anthology film that takes its title from the EC Comics produced by Max Gaines (of Mad Magazine fame). Interestingly, most of the stories come from its sister publication, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ (which was adapted into a movie just the year before), not from ‘Vault of Horror’.
Like its predecessor, the picture consists of five unrelated stories connected together by a wraparound story – in this case, five strangers getting on an elevator separately but finding themselves trapped in a posh, hexagonal-shaped, basement waiting room. Unable to leave, they begin to recount their recent nightmares to one another.
1. Midnight Mess: A man hires a private investigator to find his sister. Once he does, after ensuring that the P.I. was discreet, he murder the latter to leave no trace of his search. Then he goes to a small town where his sister, the new heiress of their father’s estate, resides and proceeds to murder her as well. The local bumpkins have been warning him to not go out at night, but he decides to stop by a high end restaurant for dinner. It’ll be a dinner he’ll not soon forget… I really enjoyed the basic idea, and I quite enjoy Daniel Massey, but there was an issue I couldn’t get over: passing tomato juice as blood. Honestly, no one could ever mistake the two. Seems to me the filmmakers could have tried just a wee harder. 7.75
2. The Neat Job: Terry-Thomas plays a wealthy man who decides to marry late in life. However, he’s a very orderly man set in his ways and his housewife has a difficult time adjusting to his specificity. She tries hard, but then she has a disastrous, slapsticky day and it all goes to hell from there. I loved seeing Terry-Thomas in a serious role (instead of his usual broad comedies), and really enjoyed the concept and punchline, but it was hampered by Glynis Johns’ overacting and the poor staging of her character’s “off day” – which I suspect was only unintentionally comedic. 7.5
3. This Trick’ll Kill You: Curd Jürgens is a magician traveling in India with his spouse to find a new magic trick for his show. He’s so arrogant that he humiliates the locals by debunking their tricks in public. But then he finds a woman with a magic rope that responds to her command without any apparent trickery. He can’t figure it out, so he tries to buy it from her. When she won’t sell it, he murders her – and then the magic turns against him. I like the idea, but it stunned me that he didn’t realize that the woman was the same one whose boss he humiliated just previously (I guess Indians all looked the same to him?). And I hated that they didn’t use a proper Indian woman. 7.5
4. Bargain in Death: A man wakes up buried, in a coffin. What we soon discover is that he’d planned to fake his own death for the insurance money, but got double-crossed by his partner. Meanwhile, a couple of medical students are looking for a cadaver for their studies… As unrealistic as the ploy is (was he planning to hide away the rest of his life?), I found it intriguing that someone would go to such lengths just for money. And I like the dark humour of it. But, ultimately, I wasn’t entirely convinced. 7.25
5. Drawn and Quartered: An artist discovers that he’s been jipped by the people representing him, who have been buying his paintings for a pittance, telling him they’re worth nothing, and then reselling them at their true value for massive profits. As he’s in Haiti, he decides to see a voodoo witch doctor to get revenge, after which he can make things happen to his subjects through his paintings. It’s great concept that’s poorly written, as he could have done everything remotely, instead of going to England, and he could have done all of it in one go instead of wasting time doing them one by one. And why did he complete (and bring with him!) a painting of himself, now knowing what his evil spell could do? Suicide wish, much? Still, it has its moments and it was nice to see Tom Baker in a role other than Dr. Who. 6.75
The main cast is terrific. While they aren’t all realistic performers, they are remarkable character actors nonetheless: Tom Baker (‘Doctor Who’), Denholm Elliott (Indiana Jones trilogy), Curd Jürgens (‘The Spy Who Loves Me‘), Daniel Massey (‘Star!‘) and Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).
It’s amazing to think that the producers were able to draw all of them to this low-budget horror film.
I really enjoyed seeing them in this context, instead of their more usual fare, but I also enjoyed the overall chill pace and vibe of the picture. If anything, it’s like watching a series of interwoven television episodes or mini-plays, seeing as each story is limited in scope and features only one or two main characters.
One could also say that it’s like watching an issue of the original anthology comic.
And, from that perspective, ‘The Vault of Horror’ is a success. It’s not a great film by any standard, but it represents its source material rather well and could only be improved with better production qualities. I suspect that fans of the original ‘Tales from the Crypt’ books would be rather please with the way this has turned out.
Nota bene: I watched the North American edition, which was edited for a PG rating upon release; it’s apparently slightly different from the original European release, which is a touch gorier. Why the latter is not also available on home video is beyond me.
Date of viewing: September 2, 2015