Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
October 7, 2020
On Tales from the Crypt, Two Evil Eyes, and Tales from the Hood
to) their deaths. This fivesome — all of whom will apparently die incredibly violently, partially as a result of what appears to be karmic interference — is encompassed by Joan Collins, Ian Henry, Richard Greene, and Nigel Patrick. All in Tales from the Crypt concludes neatly, nightmarishly. In fact, the finale’s nightmarishness is so neatly nightmarish that a viewer might be more inclined to laugh than reel back in horror. The morbidity is audacious and infectiously pleased with itself.
Detailing exactly what goes on in each of the sub-narratives is, I think, a disservice. It’s best to walk into Tales from the Crypt knowing as little as possible — the same way a devoted reader of the E.C. Comics might seethe if someone were to spoil the twists to enjoy in the latest collection they have not yet bought. What can be said is that each one of the characters is almost deafeningly immoral, and that each segment forces them to pay for that. We have fun with Tales from the Crypt because its horror stories star characters who have contributed significantly to, if not served as the very root of, the suffering of others. The bulk are in some kind of position of power; most are very wealthy. Whereas in real life they might move with impunity, continuing to cut corners and suffer no immediate consequences for their ills, cosmic comeuppance comes swiftly in this universe — instant retaliation to a step too far.
The movie wouldn’t have the same effect if it were populated by characters who have, to all appearances, done nothing wrong. That would teeter toward a genuine horrificness, which Tales of the Crypt isn’t going for. The film’s terrors are designed to have a hint of gratification. What happens to these people is indeed dark and scary — exactly as it should — but they would perhaps not be greeted with darkness, scariness, had they not beforehand brought the same two things to others, apparently doing so knowingly and, in effect, masochistically. Tales from the Crypt functions a lot of the time as a prismatic revenge movie. Many of its segments involve the victims of the story leads seeking vengeance, sometimes from beyond the grave. It’s suggested the primary characters do not have an inner voice imploring them to act morally. But if there is even a semblance of one, it eventually manifests in the movie as a ghoul or a disembodied voice that will not slink back into the spirit realm’s shadows until the person who has sent them there in the first place has suffered as much as, if not more than, they have.
If there’s a unified “moral to the story” to be reaped from Tales of the Crypt, it’s probably that we should move about life treating others kindly, living selflessly as much as we can. A malicious act in real life is not likely to result in supernatural retribution. Nonetheless, the feature leeches onto one’s fears of being caught, and of eternal damnation. Didactic as this sounds, there is no sanctimony in Tales of the Crypt. Its imperatives are subtle throughlines; its uniformly efficient stories keep them steady.
Joan Collins and a friend in 1972's Tales from the Crypt.
omnibus movie that functions, essentially, as an abbreviated version of the series. Written by Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis, the British production is composed of five narratives, all of which, like in the show, are based on tales of terror featured in the E.C. Comics of the 1950s. In the film’s frame story, a quintet of strangers touring catacombs at a middle-of-nowhere tourist attraction take a wrong turn and wind up in a dark, creepy room that holds a hooded man who calls himself the Crypt Keeper (Ralph Richardson).
He takes turns telling each one of these people how they will eventually die; individual segments dramatize the circumstances
leading up to (and the act that will finally lead
eventeen years before HBO greenlit the horror-anthology series Tales from the Crypt (1989-‘96), there was another Tales from the Crypt — a fleet, effective
ales from the Crypt isn’t the only feature-length horror-omnibus movie to have a basis in the E.C.-Comics universe. It isn’t the best, either: Such an honor goes to 1982’s Creepshow, directed by
George A. Romero and written by Stephen King. Tales from the Crypt is pretty fatless, straightforwardly cynical and
frightening. But Creepshow, whose visual style handsomely evokes its pulp source material, finds a better middle ground between genuine terror and dark comedy. Its makers more evidently luxuriated in the macabre pleasures of their product. One might think, then, that another omnibus horror movie, Two Evil Eyes, from 1990, would function similarly well: Like Creepshow, it’s directed by Romero.
Maybe the requirements for success — that is if a horror-anthology movie is coming your way and Romero is attached — is that the secondary collaborator is King, and that the stories included in the movie have been thought up by someone other than Edgar Allan Poe, whose creations are notoriously hard to suitably dramatize. Two Evil Eyes is composed of two shorts — “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” directed by Romero, and “The Black Cat,” directed by Dario Argento. Neither (particularly Argento’s segment) makes that good a case for the amount of time it’s allotted, which dovetails into our uncertainty around how much this movie needed to be made in general.
Argento and Romero previously worked together on 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, though not in this same capacity: Argento was mostly in the backseat as one of the film’s co-composers and co-writers for that zombie film. What Two Evil Eyes makes evident is that their directing styles are so poles apart that juxtaposing them only makes the deficiencies of the other more prominent. Argento is a great visual stylist but typically blundering when it comes to directing actors. No one in his vignette, which stars Harvey Keitel and Madeleine Porter, does anything that rings to us as human and not human mimicry — humanity reenacted by a visiting alien. Romero isn’t as great a visual stylist as Argento but is far better at dramatic staging and building narrative momentum.
Romero’s segment comes first in the movie, and it’s far and away better, if still gratuitously long. It’s about a dead rich man (Bingo O’Malley) who haunts his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and her lover (Ramy Zada) after they cheat their way into an inheritance by killing him. Because it’s so much stronger than Argento’s segment, which is mostly incoherent and features Keitel, too often donning a silly-looking beret, desperately overacting, the movie comes to resemble a portrait of someone where the head is vivid and detailed but the body is a stick figure.
If the movie instead featured Romero and Argento directing multiple segments, their products flip-flopping and maybe not based on Poe stories, Two Evil Eyes (which would have to be renamed) might strike us as potentially better, if largely bumpy. The dream would be an anthology featuring, like Tales from the Crypt, five or so horror stories, each directed by a different horror maestro. But that, of course, remains a fantasy. But with just two short features to work with, with the second so much worse, Two Evil Eyes finally has the arc of a satisfactorily unnerving white-water rafting trip concluding with an unplanned plummet off a waterfall. We liked where it all started, but we didn't need that abrupt descent.
s one peruses the various horror-anthology movies released over the last few decades, it isn’t hard to notice that the grand majority — from Black Sabbath
(1963) to The House That Dripped Blood (1971), from
Tales of Terror (1962) to Trilogy of Terror (1975) — are led by white people. Tales from the Hood (1995), co-written and directed by Rusty Cundieff, points out a couple of things that have long gone unaddressed in the white-washed horror-anthology subgenre: that these characters have been largely unbothered by horrors expressly and inextricably connected with their race, and that Black people in America have, for centuries, been faced with unthinkable horrors that don’t have to be imagined for the purposes of a horror movie.
Built up of four segments in the E.C. Comic style, Tales from the Hood is sharp and effortlessly genre-blending, moving between tones elegantly. Each, though characteristically fitted with a Lovecraftian, paranormal bent, also explicitly contends with problems uniquely harmful to Black people: police violence (and the institution’s general use as a tool to perpetuate white supremacy), domestic abuse, the enduring effects of slavery, and gang violence. Each recreates the unmistakable push-pull between the ghastly and the comedic, just as E.C. did. Visually it recalls the difficult-to-describe otherworldliness of Creepshow.
For its Tales from the Crypt-style frame story, Tales from the Hood sees a trio of South L.A. drug dealers (Joe Torry, De’Aundre Bonds, and Samuel Monroe, Jr.) arriving at the funeral home of the goofy Mr. Simms (played with cheerful hamminess by Clarence Williams III) ostensibly to take a load of “discovered” drugs off his hands. The film’s sub-narratives are animated when Mr. Simms, forever widely grinning, gives the three a tour of the place before getting down to business. He describes to them how some of the corpses currently lying around got to be dead. Like the characters trapped in that stony throne room with the Crypt Keeper, the suggestion is that none of these people can leave until they’ve heard their host’s unsolicited story offerings.
In the E.C.-Comic tradition, Tales from the Hood depicts powerful, evil people getting hit with the greater part of the supernatural horror — racist cops, explicitly white-supremacist politicians, abusive fathers. But it drives home that even though in the scope of the film those who deserve to pay for their evils will (and will in creative, merrily depraved ways), this still doesn’t nullify the overarching problem itself. It's cathartic, but not alleviative.
Movies like Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow don’t stick around in our heads all that much, however successful they are at frightening us and/or getting us giggly for some 90 minutes, because their terrors are so much skewed toward the preternatural — stuff that couldn’t really happen. In Tales from the Hood, the everyday horrors of being Black in America prove scarier than any made-up horror-anthology platitude.
Tales from the Crypt: A-
Two Evil Eyes: C
Tales from the Hood: A