Strange situation … almost like a dream.
Hallowe’en treat time: welcome to the Vault of Horror. Released in 1973, this is possibly the best known of the Amicus portmanteau films. Usually comprising of several short twist-in-the-tail segments which starred an array of familiar faced actors, such titles as Dr Terrors House of Horrors (1964) and Torture Garden (1967) stitched the stories together using an overarching theme. A train journey, an eerie funfair, a hospital, an antique shop. Often, as in Dr Terrors House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt (1972), the impending fate of individuals was revealed by supernatural means. For some in came in the persona of a tarot card reading Peter Cushing. Others were subject to the fortune telling of a subterranean monk played by Ralph Richardson.
The Amicus films were produced by the wonderfully named Max Rosenburg and Milton Subotsky. Like its predecessor Asylum, Vault of Horror was directed by the great Roy Ward Baker and gathers the inspired cast of Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Terry-Thomas, Curd Jürgens and Daniel Massey. Together, they assemble inside a lift in a modern day London office block and are plunged into a menacing basement. The prospect of return appears uncertain, so the five settle down to recount their own individual stories – and reveal their own fates – inspired by their own particularly vivid dreams.
Like the earlier Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror is inspired by the American EC horror comics from the 1950s that share the same titles (all of the stories are derived from EC although not actually from the original “The Vault of Horror”). Despite this connection, the Amicus films have a particular British 1970s flavour to them as all of them have a “modern” setting in contrast to the period flavour Hammers of the same era. The Vault of Horror casting also helps, in particular a pre Doctor Who Baker and Terry-Thomas in a rare horror role (although he more than made up for the lack of horror on his CV with the two Dr Phibes films around the same time). In general, Amicus provided a feast of screen stars in the portmanteau films. Joan Collins, Edward Judd, Denholm Elliott, Jack Palance and Burgess Meredith – decide for yourself if they were facing up to the end of their careers or were merely going through a fallow spell. Or maybe just having fun.
Anyway, time to go through each story in turn as I know that’s what you’re here for.
A man murders his sister for an inheritance and ends up providing a meal for vampires – including his sister. Real life siblings Daniel and Anna Massey appear in this segment, along with scruffy private eye Mike Pratt (from Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Midnight Mess is nicely atmospheric – especially the eerily empty town where events are set – and Daniel Massey plays it wonderfully straight, although the story has an ultimate comic element to it. If you happen to eat in the same town, I heartily recommend the clots.
The Neat Job
A woman is driven to distraction by the fussiness of her new husband and murders him, cuts him to pieces and stores him neatly in jars. Terry-Thomas is perfectly cast as the fastidious bachelor, heard to utter such phrases as “How can one live in chaos?” Glynis Johns is equally pleasing as his wife. If you happen to eat with Mr T-T, I recommend that you don’t forget the spaghetti sauce.
This Trick’ll Kill You
A magician and his wife kill to get hold of a genuine Indian rope trick which leads to their unpleasant deaths. Curd Jürgens and Dawn Addams play the very very foolish couple. Probably the weakest segment in the film, and I didn’t feel sorry for either of them.
Bargain in Death
A man’s scheme to give himself the appearance of death and then to collect his life insurance goes horribly wrong. There’s some more comic elements with this one, featuring Arthur Mullard, Edward Judd, Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies (popular in the day in the tv Doctor sitcoms). Bargain in Death is perhaps the most keeping with the EC Comics type of tale, where cunning plotters never get what they’ve bargained for. In fact nobody really comes out on top, except perhaps Mullard as the bemused gravedigger.
Drawn and Quartered
An artist in Haiti is given the power to make whatever he paints come true and uses it to revenge himself on the men who have been living off his work. Tom Baker plays the artist whose victims include Terence Alexander and Denholm Elliott. It’s a credit to Baker that he can deliver a series of absurd lines – including a gem such as “I want to buy voodoo” – without smiling. This is probably the best of the segments, with the revenge being particularly sweet. Look out for a terrifying sequence involving an office guillotine. But most chilling for me is Baker’s beard and Elliott’s peculiar fringe – both disturbing in equal measures.
After passing the time by recounting their dreams, the men discover that they are all dead and must recount their stories, night after night, forever. No real twist there, I’m sure you would agree. Vault of Horror comfortably sits in the genre of oft repeated late night tv horrors. Steve Coogan unwisely chose to spoof it in his Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible series – I say unwise because I don’t think it’s possible to parody something so camp as an Amicus portmanteau horror. Vault of horror has also found itself onto YouTube to delight new fans, and the Amicus films defy the usual inevitability of the US remake because of their charm; stuck in the 70s just like our stars in the office basement.
- The Vault of Horror sits beneath Millbank Tower in London.
- In Bargain in Death, Michael Craig is seen reading a copy of Tales From the Crypt.
- There is a rumoured deleted scene from the end of film, showing the characters with skeletal faces as they walk off into the night…
The IMDB entry comes with a health warning for this film: “Several creepy and gruesome moments occur throughout”. I couldn’t agree more, but don’t forget the laughs too.
The Amicus Portmanteau Series
- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Passengers on a train.
- Torture Garden (1967). Visitors to a funfair.
- The House That Dripped Blood (1970). Owners of a house.
- Asylum (1972). Inmates of a hospital.
- Tales From the Crypt (1972). Tourists in a set of underground caves.
- Vault of Horror (1973).
- From Beyond the Grave (1973). Customers of an antique shop.
- The Monster Club (1980). Stories told at a peculiar nightclub – the final Amicus film.