Monday, September 17, 2012

"...And All Through the House:" Joan Collins visits the Cryptkeeper for a merry li'l Christmas murder

You know what's fun?  Practically anything to do with EC Comics.  Beautifully drawn morality tales with twist endings, black humor and oozing with loads of gore-- EC Comics are pure joy for twisted kids of any age.  This company and its books were the stuff of legends when I was a child.  Comics so freaky and scary the government itself had to step in and shut them down.  I just assumed they were all destroyed or collected and locked away in some case-hardened, nuclear bomb-proof silo in the desert Southwest, a site guarded by unmarried, family-less soldiers near retirement age, a place forever cursed and haunted.  Actually, they mutated into Creepy and Eerie, then migrated across the Atlantic where British Amicus Productions adapted five classics for the 1972 anthology fear-ture (heehee!) Tales from the Crypt.

The sign you're in for some real fun.
My first experience with this movie came at the library an easy bike ride from my house.  The reference section contained these massive volumes on horror movies with photos from flicks like Freaks and London at Midnight.  One of them presented Tales complete with a brief run-down of its origins in those infamous old horror comics and a huge picture of some poor jerk about to make his painful way down a corridor lined with razor blades.  This must have been in the late 1970s, the beginning of my lifelong interest in and love for EC.

"Dare you enter the Crypt-Keeper's Crypt?"
Strangely, the segment I like best among the stories that make the movie's cut (heh heh heh) comes not from any issue of Tales but from Vault of Horror #35 (February-March, 1954).  You know, Vault was the Vault-Keeper's hang-out, and boy was he pissed at that glory-hogging Crypt-Keeper.  Not only does the Crypt-Keeper have the honor of being portrayed by BAFTA-winning, Academy Award- and Tony-nominated Shakespearean actor Sir Ralph Richardson (the Old Witch would have picked Arnold Stang), while the Vault-Keeper only managed to appear on the Saturday-morning cartoon Tales from the Cryptkeeper...  but Crypty also gets to tell Vaulty's prized story.  The Vault-Keeper doesn't even have an origin, just a ratty hooded cloak.  Which Sir Ralph steals for this movie, rather than wear a wig to match the Crypt-Keeper's flowing locks.

"The fu-- ?!"
Yes, you guessed it.  It's "...And All Through the House."  None other than Johnny Craig wrote and illustrated the comic story.  Craig was a sharp plotter-- check out the stories he wrote and drew for Warren a decade later-- and a genius at creating cinematic suspense in two-dimensions, a four-color Hitchcock.  Each panel in this short, fast-paced tale is a masterpiece of lighting effects and rising tension before its inexorable ironic finale.

The movie adaptation follows the story note-for-note if not visual-for-visual.  As such, it's virtually a one-woman show starring Joan Collins in kind of role she was seemingly born to play-- a cold-hearted murderer.  She brains her husband with an iron poker on Christmas Eve, just after he's put her gift under the tree and settled in to read the newspaper and listen to some seasonal music on the radio.  He goes down on the rug spilling blood and brains, his eyes bulging grotesquely and his tongue sticking out.  Collins is wearing a party hat is a touch of the morbid humor that ran through each and every EC horror title.

Why does she do kill him?  Well, to collect on is assurance policy (that's insurance to you and me, Russ), but it's probably not that important.  What matters is, it sets up the onrushing situation.  Because it's just her bad luck Collins chooses the one Christmas where an escaped madman in a stolen Santa Claus outfit is part of the the holiday festivities (by order of the town council).

And he's right outside the house!  Out of all the houses he could have picked, he's drawn to the one where the future star of a movie delightfully titled The Bitch and hate-queen of the TV show Dynasty has offed her spouse!  How very coincidental!  How convenient!  How lucky for us!  Now Joan has to dispose of a body and secure the homestead against an unwelcome holiday guest.  The poor woman goes through hell, only to have her innocent daughter let the seasonally-costumed killer right inside where he...

"And down I go..."
Well, it's an EC story.  They don't get giddy on eggnog then kiss under the mistletoe, I assure you.  When he finally appears, the Santa killer is more dopey than deranged, kind of like an alcoholic bell-ringer in need of a shower instead of a maniacal menace.  A visual disappointment.

Director Freddie Francis, a horror veteran who would later provide cinematography for David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, camera-stalks poor Collins... all through the house (boo hoo hoo).  She makes the most of her screen time.  From her satisfied reaction to having committed murder-- with a sneering inflection to her post-poker "Merry Christmas," Collins coolly conveys this in such a way you believe it's been building for a while-- to her growing hysteria as she shutters the windows and locks the doors and tries to figure out what to do about her husband's carcass, it's a performance of perfect pitch.  She makes you loathe yet feel strangely sympathetic to this woman when essentially you're watching a scenario that pits a calculating murderer against one of those old school nutzoids.  He can't help himself.  What's her excuse?  No matter; Francis and Collins have done their work well.

"Merry Christmas..."
So well, in fact, Robert Zemeckis directed another adaptation of this story for an early episode of the TV show, rubbing salt in the Vault-Keeper's wounds by once again letting the Crypt-Keeper-- rather than an august theatrical personage, now a desiccated, nose-less creature with John Kassir's high-pitched voice and memorably maniacal cackle-- introduce one of his best.  Zemeckis tapped Larry Drake (TV's adorable Benny from L.A. Law) to play the killer.  Not the woman; the Santa guy.  Drake puts his hulking, naturally sinister looks to good use, aided and abetted by some effective make-up.  He more closely resembles the Craig's crazy, too, than the dirty old bum from the movie version.

"Blast!  Speed dial won't be invented for years!"
To compare the two a bit, the movie is largely sincere while the HBO series plays the material more for outright laughs, a bit of cheese if you please.  This is a fine approach, one just as close in spirit to EC as Francis's more sober take. EC didn't rely on comedic relief simply so readers could breathe between shocks.  It's all over the comics, from the sometimes startlingly gruesome covers to the letters pages to the house ads, all part of the same gleeful embrace of horror for horror's sake.  A dance held in a drafty tomb, a moonlit frolic among the headstones.   The TV series turns this up a notch for a more jaded audience, but the movie still has a smidge of camp, some cheeky little moments.  Mainly, though, it busts its celluloid buns to gross people out and scare them into wetting their undies along with the winking and the smirking.

"Grandpa!  You're Santa?"
You know, I don't think the Vault-Keeper has ever gotten over this betrayal.  If you should find yourself in a cemetery some cloudy, moonless night, and he beckons you into his vault for a story-telling session, I advise you not to mention "...And All Through the House."  Or if you do, certainly don't let him know I told you all this.

Later we're going to take a look at Craig's original and drool over it like deranged Santa Claus.

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