Skip to main content

A review of "The Vault of Horror" (1973)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

The 1970s EC-comics based, British-produced horror anthology film The Vault of Horror was quite possibly my first exposure to horror as a child.  Some might say that it was a bad idea to let a five year-old watch it, but I can easily say that I'd be a much different - and probably lamer - person today if my parents actually made me turn it off.  It's an excellent collection of sometimes funny, mostly creepy, and not terribly bloody horror shorts that I would easily recommend to anybody.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Part Where I Give Some Background Information

If you're a horror fan, you're probably already aware of Amicus Productions - at least in terms of their output, if not their actual history. Back in the 1960s and '70s, Amicus, a British based film production company, specialized in filming and distributing low-budget horror movies with a similar tone and aesthetic to the much more celebrated Hammer Films (best known for their Christopher Lee as Dracula films).

I'm not learned enough in 1970s British horror to give a good essay treatment on Amicus, but what I do know is that there was a period where it seemed like they produced nothing but anthology films. Beginning in 1965 with Dr. Terror's House of Horror, it seems like they released a new anthology every 1-2 years until the late '70s.

I've not seen all the productions - though I intend to, because I just love this stuff - but there are two in particular that are especially notable due to their licensing of EC comics properties.

First, in 1972, there was Tales from the Crypt, possibly their most celebrated anthology film.  The '72 Tales featured an actual human being as The Cryptkeeper and was generally somber, but it otherwise hits a lot of the same notes and moods as the later, campier '90s Tales From the Crypt TV show.  Both the '72 Tales and the TV shows Tales celebrated the spirit of B-movies while indulging in the spooooooky fun of horror.  It's that barely-describable Halloween-ness that I touched on a couple of weeks ago.

Everybody loves the '72 Tales today, and I have a hunch its existence is a strong reason why they even tried to remake the property as a TV show twenty years later.  But as much as I love that movie (and that show), that's not what I'm here to talk about today.  Instead, I wanted to show a little love for their follow-up in 1973, The Vault of Horror, based on the other 1950 EC comics horror property.

The Part Where I Drop Useless Trivia That Doesn't Matter

In doing some research (translation: reading Wikipedia for five minutes), I saw that none of the stories in Vault of Horror were actually based on the Vault of Horror comics.  They were based on Tales from the Crypt comics.  Meanwhile, very few of the Tales from the Crypt shorts were actually based on Tales from the Crypt comics; they were just made up.

So... if that matters to you, and if you felt that this information needed to be shared with the world, and if you were tempted to write in to correct me on this omission... it's cool.  We got it.

Now I'll Avoid Summarizing the Plot(s)

Being that Vault is an anthology movie, it really does a disservice to try to just summarize the plot of each short.  The whole point of anthology films is that they feature short movies, so there's no reason you can't just watch it on your own time and enjoy.  Here's a quick run-down, anyway, with only the broad information kept intact.

(Apologies if any of this comes off as snark.  I really love this movie, but each story does sound a little silly when you remove all the setup and detail.)

The Bookends: The segments between each short are about a group of five men on an elevator who end up getting off on a swanky, reception area type room.  They're not sure why they're here instead of where they thought they were going, but since they can't get back into the elevator, they decide to sit down and chat for awhile.  The topic of dreams comes up, and each man shares the story of a terrible nightmare they keep having.  Each nightmare, in turn, features that character as the subject of some horrible fate.

Hmm... five men descending into a weird waiting room area instead of going upward in an elevator and forced to describe some horrible event?  This couldn't possibly be some kind of setup for a twist ending involving damnation, could it?

Story 1 - Vampires: A guy goes to a village and squares off with a bunch of vampires.  Their existence is probably supposed to be a surprise.

Story 2 - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: A neat-freak nags and bothers his wife because she doesn't keep his house as clean and perfect as he would like.  This may or may not end well for him.

Story 3 - Tourists Who Dig Magic: A couple of magicians on vacation in India see a really awesome magic trick and want to learn the secret behind how it works.  They'll stop at nothing... but their ruthlessness may have terrible consequences.

Story 4 - Claustrophobic Insurance Fraud: A guy hatches a scheme to defraud his insurance company by faking his death, but when he wakes up in a coffin underground, horror ensues.

Story 5 - Murder Painter: A wronged artist gets the power to cause terrible things to happen to people whose portraits he paints, and he decides to take some horrific revenge.

The Part Where I Reminisce with Nostalgia

I really do love the '72 Tales from the Crypt, but between that and this one, the segments that I remember best all came from Vault of Horror.  It's just so much more lurid and inventive.

I think it has to do with the finer details.  Both anthologies alternate between supernatural twists (such as the dead coming back to life) and real-world cruelty (such as your ordinary, everyday ax murderer).  But where Vault steps it up a notch is in its specific, vivid details.

Your mileage may vary.  But I'll tell you what I recall as a child.

The first one that got to me was the second short, involving the neat freak who (spoiler alert) is eventually killed.  It's set up as both horror and comedy and straddles the line of both perfectly balanced.  The conclusion, in which his individual body parts and organs are neatly organized into clear glass jars, is just brilliant.  It's disturbing without being overly gory or grotesque.  It's cruel and mean, but at the same time hilarious and ironic.  It's one of the best conceived deaths I've ever seen in a horror movie.

The third short is terrific in its ambiguity.  When a character dies while attempting the magic trick, it's not really clear what caused it - but that's kind of the point.  The character is a clueless fool bumbling into magic that they don't understand and refusing to pay any respect to the forces at play, so they are doomed.  All that is left is a blood trickle that mysteriously forms on and drips from the ceiling.  Again: it is gross without being gory; a subtle, terrifying thing that doesn't have to show so much as it has to suggest.

The king of details has to be the conclusion of the fifth short.  The painter's power is that he can inflict horrible fates onto his victims by messing with their portraits, so most of the story cross-cuts between close-ups of the mangled paintings and a setup showing you how somebody is going to be horribly killed.  These setups are disgusting, but never really get into too much bloody detail.  By the end, all they really need to do is show a close-up of the final, horribly disfigured painting, and you have a pretty good idea of what's in store.

The recurring theme throughout is irony.  (Ironic deaths, of course, were the bread and butter of the TV show years later.)  And although the '72 Tales from the Crypt had its share of irony, I think it wasn't quite as well conceived as the five shorts in Vault.  For example: probably one of the best-known premises ever is the one where a psycho dressed as Santa Claus terrorizes a woman who has just murdered her husband.  It's an ironic death only to the extent that she, a murderer, is being murdered... but there's nothing really thematically or situationally ironic.

Contrast this with the way the neat-freak ends up in Vault, and you'll see there's a world of difference.  One feels like a creepy tale.  The other feels like a creepy tale with a cosmic punchline.

In Conclusion...

You can go digging for Vault of Horror on Youtube if you like (Tales from the Crypt is readily available in its entirety), but... why?  These are such terrific films that you really deserve to treat yourself to a much better quality transfer.

So why not order the double-feature Blu-ray that's coming out this December instead?  They're the perfect gift for any horror fan and they're bound to become an annual staple in your house.  The Amicus productions are to Halloween what the Rankin/Bass cartoons are to Christmas.  Best to celebrate them properly.