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“Tales From The Crypt”: Bruce Markusen Covers the History of the Comic Books, TV Series, and Feature Films

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"Tales From The Crypt": Bruce Markusen Covers the History of the TV Series and Feature Films

When you hear the words “Tales From The Crypt,” it’s likely that one of two installments of this longtime horror franchise come to mind. One is the popular HBO television series, which ran from 1989 to 1996. The other is the vintage comic book that gained popularity in the early 1950s before being sent to an early grave, so to speak. The third part of the franchise, a film that was released in 1972, is perhaps the least remembered of these ventures. But in some ways, it might be the best.

We’ll get to that 1972 film in a moment, but it’s important to dig further into the roots of the Tales From The Crypt franchise. It all started in 1950, when publisher William Gaines, the head of EC Comics, decided to produce a horror comic anthology series. Assisted by his editor Al Feldstein, Gaines put out the first issue of Tales From The Crypt in October of 1950. For a total of 27 issues, the bi-monthly comic book featured illustrated stories of supernatural occurrences, monsters of various kinds, and plenty of murder. The comic books also featured a host, a ghoulish, decaying old man named The Crypt Keeper, who would typically introduce a story with humorous comments based heavily on eerie puns and devilish double entendres.

Tales From the Crypt became a hit with its target audience, mostly teenaged boys, but also drew the ire of parents, teachers, priests, and other citizens who were clearly offended by the violent themes and often graphic depictions. Tales From The Crypt, along with two other Gaines publications (The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Terror) came under fire from a variety of censors, including a controversial psychiatrist and author named Fredric Wertham. He claimed, rather unconvincingly, that such comics led children to commit crimes, especially ones involving physical violence.

Tales From the Crypt 1950 Comics

Wertham’s repeated complaints influenced a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, which held hearings on the matter in 1954. The subcommittee warned comic book publishers to tone down their content, leading to the formation of a Comics Code Authority, or CCA, a self-censoring set of rules that banned comic book publishers from depicting zombies, witches, vampires, and monsters of varying kinds. Realizing that he could no longer produce his horror comic books under such restraints, Gaines cancelled Tales From The Crypt, The Haunt of Fear, and The Vault of Terror. By the end of 1955, all three magazines were gone from shelves. The Haunt and The Vault would never return to newsstands and stationery stores, while Tales From The Crypt would make only a brief comeback as a publication in 2007 and then disappear once again.

So as of 1955, Tales From The Crypt became a defunct comic, one that for the next several decades would be favored mostly by nostalgic fans who had grown up with it. Even when the Comics Code Authority was loosened, to the point that it was no longer being enforced by the late 1960s, Tales From The Crypt remained on the sidelines, seemingly never to be resurrected again.

That all changed in 1971, when Amicus Productions gained the rights to Tales From The Crypt as its source material and began production on a feature film. Taking two stories from Tales From The Crypt, two more from The Haunt of Fear, and one from The Vault of Horror, Amicus assembled a full-length anthology film. Presenting five different stories, with all of them linked to a primary theme involving five strangers in a crypt, director Freddie Francis oversaw what is generally regarded as one of the greatest horror anthologies ever made.

Sir Ralph Richardson Crypt Keeper

The movie begins with five tourists who have embarked on a guided tour of an old catacombs, only to be separated from the rest of the tour group. The five stray tourists are now in the presence of the Crypt Keeper, who proceeds to tell them stories that will foreshadow each of their deaths. Played by the great British actor, Sir Ralph Richardson, this version of the Crypt Keeper is a human draped in a hooded brown cloak that makes him look like a monk. He delivers his stories without humor, instead offering a serious and somber tone that foreshadows dire circumstances for each of the strangers.

In the first vignette, a young Joan Collins plays a woman who has just murdered her husband at Christmas time. She them hears a report that a homicidal maniac is on the loose, dressed as Santa Claus. Within short time, the maniac arrives at her door, leaving her in a quandary. Does she call the police and incriminate herself or does she take on the faux Santa Claus by herself?

The second story stars the excellent British actor, Ian Hendry, as a man who leaves his wife and children to be with his secretary. But as the illicit couple drive off, they become involved in a horrific car crash that kills the secretary. Hendry’s character survives, but in attempting to hitchhike home, he discovers that no one will pick him up. Instead, each person he encounters reacts with horror at his sight. Hendry eventually makes his way to his house, only to make a rather gruesome discovery.

Ian Hendry Tales From the Crypt

In the third vignette, arguably the best of the five, the great Peter Cushing portrays Arthur Grimsdyke, a grieving, tormented widower who tries to communicate with his late wife through a Ouija board. Grimsdyke is kind and considerate, but his physical appearance is that of a poor and slovenly man, which annoys two of his neighbors. Wanting to get rid of Grimsdyke, whom they consider an embarrassment, the neighbors smear him as an abuser of animals and a possible child molester. The smear campaign drives Grimsdyke to suicide, but he will eventually enjoy a last laugh against his awful neighbors.

The fourth story, perhaps the weakest but still reasonably effective, centers on a couple whose wife has discovered a Chinese figurine that will grant her several wishes. When her husband dies, she uses one of her wishes in an attempt to bring him back to life, but his resuscitation is not exactly what she – or the husband – have in mind.

The film then picks up steam with the fifth vignette, which stars the distinctive-looking Nigel Patrick as the new owner of a home for older, blind men. But rather than attend to the needs of the disadvantaged men, Patrick treats them with contempt, pinching pennies at every turn. One of the residents, played beautifully by Patrick Magee, pleads with the owner to improve the conditions of the home, but when his requests are ignored, he stages a most ingenious revolt against Patrick.

Patrick Magee Tales From the Crypt

Tales From The Crypt is lifted by good writing and source material, and by the presence of such brand name actors as Richardson, Collins, Cushing, Hendry, and Magee. Cushing’s performance is especially noteworthy. Cushing had just lost his wife at the time of filming, which must have made a storyline about a grieving widower hit him particularly hard. With Cushing in a deep depression, the producers wonder whether he would still participate. But the screen legend so wanted to be involved with the film that he actually accepted a lower salary. And despite being wracked with grief, Cushing gave the performance his all, making it both convincing and touching.

Some anthology films suffer because one or two segments fail to live up to the standards of the others, but that is not the case with Tales From The Crypt. All five segments are good, with the Collins and Cushing stories emerging as the most memorable. After the Crypt Keeper tells his five stories, he then delivers a disturbing and twisted revelation to his quintet of strangers. It all adds up to a very atmospheric film, with well-told stories and good if not spectacular effects.

The film version of Tales From the Crypt not only did well for Amicus, but it went on to influence future productions. Stephen King and George Romero drew from the 1972 film in developing the similarly themed Creepshow in 1982. Producer Robert Zemeckis became a huge fan of Tales From the Crypt, calling it his favorite movie to watch on Halloween. So influenced by the film, he used it and the original comic book series as the basis for his HBO TV series of the same name. In the HBO series, the Crypt Keeper once again became a supernatural ghoul, in this case an animatronic puppet voiced by John Kassir.

Tales From the Crypt John Kassir

Toward the tail-end of the TV series, two Tales From The Crypt films entered theaters. One was called Demon Knight and the other Bordello of Blood. Neither bore any resemblance to the ’72 film, but instead took on some of the zaniness and over-the-top look of the TV show.

After the release of the two 1990s films and two short-lived revivals of the comic book, Tales From The Crypt has again fallen into dormancy. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. Given the current wave of superhero comic books being used as film fodder (and even horror comic books like Morbius), it would make sense that some film producer would want to draw from the vintage horror comic world in creating a feature film. A Tales From The Crypt anthology would make sense, but some of the longer strips from the 1950s comic book could also be used in making a single-narrative story.

Either way, it’s time for Tales From The Crypt to rise once again.


Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.

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