I have loved old schlocky horror films for a long while now, particularly the British ones from the Hammer studios. In fact, there's a certain grade of British film - usually of the mystery, thriller or horror genre, but not always - which thrill me endlessly. The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films are a good example of this. Another is that marvellous British invention, the horror anthology.
People who read Sight and Sound magazine will, no doubt, tell you that the correct term here is "Portmanteau Horror". Whatever the nomenclature, I have a voracious appetite for them. I can't even remember the names and details of all the ones I have seen, and for the purposes of this am working from the four I have seen the most or remember the best: Dead of Night, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The latter I watched last night, so it is particularly inspiring and fresh.
You probably know the format. A certain group of people find themselves ensconced together, usually against their will. There, they relate to each other scary stories, bad dreams or dreadful thoughts. Each one is then presented for us as a mini-film within the feature. Indeed, for Dead of Night - probably the pioneering film of this genre - each film-within-the film had a different director which afforded them all a slightly different feel. My favourite, I must confess, is Tales from the Crypt. It has the perfect combination of moralising, horror, silliness, frights, pathos, bad acting and over-saturated colour.
As with any set of generic conventions, there are certain rules that these films tend to abide by. Dead of Night is something of an exception to many of these, but as the trailblazing film of its kind can probably be excused this. Besides, it contains perhaps the single most memorable mini-story of any of the four films I've picked out, the one which has had the most cultural impact beyond people who watch films after 2 a.m.
1. Sequester your dramatis personae
This is very important. The normal number of people for this is generally five, plus one other mystery man to tweasle things along. In Dr. Terror's, the five find themselves stuck in each other's company on a train journey with Peter Cushing as a mad old Tarot reader. In Crypt, a group of people wander off from a tour of an old Monastery to be confronted with a mystery monk. In Vault, the five people find themselves spat out at a strangely opulent room after their lift goes all the way to the bottom of the building.
2. Ensure that your characters are all completely amoral monsters
Foul swines who act in ways not even covered by the Deadly Sins are vital here. Murderers, cheats, cowards, crooks. This is very important, too, principally as a way to ease the audience towards point three, perhaps the most important point.
3. At the end, reveal the fact that all the people have actually died for real, and not just in their tales of woe
When one first encounters this, it can feel like a bit of a numbing experience. But you grow to relish it, I find. My favourite exposition of this important plot development comes in Dr. Terror, where a fluttering newspaper on a deserted platform reveals that the train on which they had been riding had crashed fatally, with no survivors. Now, THAT is drama!
4. If your cast list doesn't raise (a) an eyebrow and (b) a chuckle, you have failed
For these ensemble affairs, casting is by no means an easy process. Many different actors may be needed to cover all the stories. The more big-name performers you can get, the better. The more surprising their decision to appear in such a film, all the better! If you peruse the four IMDb links to the films in question at the beginning of this post, you will see a cavalcade of actors - Shakespearean heavyweights, hammy melodrama specialists, old dames, soap stars, comedy greats, horror legends, the lot. My favourite: the opening titles of Vault of Horror trying to establish mood whilst also revealing that one of the players is Terry-Thomas. I say! The film's credibility is not helped even beyond the title sequence when, in the first scene, Tom Baker enters the lift sporting a terrifying ginger beard. There's also the hint of a dynasty developing... Mervyn Johns stars in Dead of Night whilst his daughter Glynis features as Terry-Thomas' put-upon wife in Vault of Horror.
5. A combination of classic horror tales and inventive new twists is the optimum
None of the films in question here can quite compete with Tales from the Crypt here. However, all of them have at least one mini-film which will grab your attention. In Dead of Night, it is the famous story of Michael Redgrave slowly becoming possessed by his ventriloquist's dummy and going insane. This film alone is responsible for 90% of all phobias of puppets in the Western world. For Doctor Terror's, the one which always stood out for me is Roy Castle's tale. A jazz musician playing that damn dirty voodoo black magic shit in his sets, Roy is somewhat taken aback when the brambles around his house start to completely subsume it and anything else in their path. I can honestly say I have never done any gardening since, without thinking about Roy Castle.
In Vault of Horror, the standout tale for me is Tom Baker's, and again features voodoo. An artist, scorned by the art community so as to artificially decrease the prices of his work so they can later make huge profits on it, Baker returns from his exile in Haiti a bitter man who has sold his soul to a voodoo preacher. Painting portraits of his three bitter enemies, he amends them in such a way as to bring terrible things upon them all. But Tom Baker has a sword of Damocles - shortly before getting his voodoo powers, he's painted a self-portrait, whose safety he has to guard at all times! In fact, this film deserves praise for something else beyond its stories - knockabout comedy stylings! A group of vampires sticking a tap into a man's neck and using him as a wine box? Glynis Johns accidentally destroying a house which she was just trying to tidy for her fastidious husband? Gold!
I just love Tales from the Crypt, though. Every story is memorable, all for different reasons and some for all the reasons at once. The first story features Joan Collins, murdering her husband on Christmas Eve. Whilst trying to dispose of his body, a newsflash on the radio reveals news of an escaped madman. Joan is increasingly terrorised by this man, unable to call the police on account of having a stiff on her hands, before her daughter lets the man - dressed as Father Christmas - in, for festive japes.
The second tale features a man cheating on his wife with some bit of fluff. In a delightfully recursive morality fable, he and his bint are involved in a horrible road crash in which she is blinded and he is killed. NOT that he knows this! Superb screaming here, as he catches sight of himself.
The third tale features an odious man, forcing a delightful old fellow out of his house by a concerted campaign of cruelty which causes him to commit suicide after a raft of malicious Valentines. After every setback - the local children being told not to play with him, his job and his pet dogs being taken away, the man - played by Peter Cushing - takes it on the chin, confiding with a picture of his dear departed wife. It's particularly crushing, this, bearing in mind that Cushing made this film shortly after losing his own wife, something which was the single most devastating event of his life. In a film where the blood is bright orange, the skin is rubber and the acting is suitably dubious, Cushing's performance is a beacon. Actually quite profoundly moving and, yet, ultimately insane and brilliant. It takes a fine actor to get us to really connect with his character, as Mr. Grimsdyke rises from the grave a year on from his death to RIP THE HEART out of the nasty property tycoon before writing a poem in his blood on a handy piece of paper.
The fourth tale follows the old rule about abiding by horror classics, and is a reworking of the old tale of The Monkey's Paw. In this version, a man faces financial ruin and his desperate wife makes a wish on an old Oriental trinket to be wealthy. The method? Well, it turns out to be an insurance payout following her husband's death. Later wishes bring the poor man back as an embalmed corpse, who, thanks to some careless wording, in unable to die. Living the rest of your life in agony, AND being poor. Life sucks sometimes.
The final fable features a bluff old colonel becoming the manager of a care home for the blind. As the blind people freeze and starve to death on a diet of gruel, the man and his fearsome guard dog eat fine beef and drink fine wine in a splendidly opulent office. The blind are having none of this, and rise up against him. First they steal his dog and starve it for days. Then they trap the old colonel within a beserk Crystal Maze-style room with all lights out and the walls sewn with razor blades which they, the blind, had constructed. And designed. The dog is then set loose, eating his owner's face off.
Oh, what a film. I must heartily recommend you watch it.