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Tales From The Crypt

(Directed by Freddie Francis)

If you’re a genre fan, “Tales from the Crypt” means different things to different people. Of course there are the original EC comics from the 50s, and there’s the HBO series and movies from the 90s. But for UK horror fans of a certain age, this classic anthology from Amicus was their first exposure to the brand. A slight cheat inasmuch as only two of the stories are legitimately from the comics, this film was directed by the experienced Hammer/Amicus stalwart Francis. It manages to incorporate combine some of the ghoulish morality of the US comics, but it couldn’t be more British if it tried. It’s packed full of renowned English actors; including Ralph Richardson, Ian Hendry, Joan Collins, Richard Greene and (of course) Peter Cushing. The plot sees five tourists wander into some catacombs and becoming trapped, as the mysterious Crypt-Keeper (Richardson) foretells the manner of their deaths.

Any modern viewer of the movie (especially fans of the HBO interpretation) might be surprised at the Shakespearian thespian portraying the Crypt-Keeper as a sinister monk, rather than a cackling skeleton with bad puns. But aside from that, this shows the British studio at the top of their game, and it makes a surprisingly good stab at the gruesome nature of the original stories. Whilst each tale is basically built around the usual structure of “no-bad-deed-goes-unpunished”, the separate stories hold together well and deliver a genuinely macabre experience. It’s not generally explicit, but it still holds up today with some disturbing moments. Cushing’s zombie is pure EC undead, and one scene (sometimes missing from certain cuts) shows a character cursed with immortality survive a messy evisceration. Collins “Bad Santa” tale was also remade as an episode for the HBO show. On a sad note, Cushing’s melancholic performance has an extra edge to it, having just lost his wife before taking the role of an elderly widower. Otherwise, the film is a benchmark for horror anthologies, and directly inspired the production of “Creepshow” many years later.

Horror Express

(Directed by Eugenio Martín as Gene Martin)

This is a wonderfully out-there genre film that deservedly earned a cult reputation, due to plenty of late-night showings on UK and US TV channels during the 80s and 90s. Also known as “Pánico en el Transiberiano” (“Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express”) in some territories, HE was shot mostly in Madrid. It had an ultra-low budget and reportedly re-used some of the sets from other productions (such as “Pancho Villa”). From a film-fan’s perspective a big draw to the movie is the dual-billing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, not to mention the sight of Telly Savalas as a mean-spirited Russian Cossack, who doesn’t just chew the scenery but seems to swallow it whole! The loopy premise (which is set in 1906) sees Lee’s stuffy British anthropologist recover a frozen ape-man (or “Missing Link”) from the icy tundra, and transport the “corpse” via the titular train.

Unfortunately the “fossil” is the host for an alien presence, which can (literally) suck brains dry and possess other bodies.The narrative was said to be (very loosely) inspired by the novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr., which of course ultimately gave us Carpenter’s “The Thing”. But unlike that incomparable monster-fest, there’s a wacky offbeat vibe that inhabits this production, which is tremendously watchable for different reasons. Not least of which is the pairing of Lee and Cushing, who are both on the side of good for a change. Cushing was still grieving from the loss of his wife at this point, but the warmth and friendship of Lee (who persuaded him to take the role of the British Doctor) is evident in their interactions. There’s a brilliant moment as they’re accused of hosting the creature and Cushing replies indignantly; “Monster? We're British, you know!” The surreal nature of the film is enhanced by ghoulish visuals that are quite strong for the time. The “monster” mesmerises victims causing their eyes to bleed profusely and go white, and as it takes their memories their brains become “smooth” (as shown in several autopsies). Couple that with the fact that it whistles a spooky tune (stolen from the train porter!), creates a carriage full of zombies at one point, and you have an offbeat film to die for.

Death Line

(Directed by Gary Sherman))

With the importance and iconic nature of the London Underground it’s surprising that, with the possible exception of “An American Werewolf in London” and Christopher Smith’s “Creep” (2004), more horror films don’t use it as a primary location. However this film (also famously known as “Raw Meat” in America), milks its spooky potential for all its worth. Not only that but it united genre icons Christopher Lee and Donald Pleasence onscreen, and was responsible for giving schoolboys an irritating catchphrase that rang out after late-night showings on TV. The story itself is the stuff of urban legends, and initially focuses on a single disappearance at an underground station. This spirals off into the revelation that a community of Victorian workers existed in the labyrinth of tube tunnels, trapped by a cave-in that occurred in 1896. The insular populace only survived to the present-day by inbreeding and eating the occasional stray traveller.

Despite the misleading US posters and title (which suggested that there was a horde of zombified cannibals on the loose), the plot is surprisingly harrowing and unusual in its treatment of its antagonist. Only one survivor (albeit with a dying mate) is still around, and able to sneak out from his lair to chew on commuters. But in a role allegedly offered to Marlon Brando (!!), British actor Michael Armstrong gives a hugely sympathetic performance as “The Man”, and despite his murderous actions, the character is never shown as a soulless monster. On the contrary, he is depicted as a tragic and misplaced anti-hero of sorts. The scene where he fails to communicate with the kidnapped heroine is bizarrely moving. But he does snack on corpses… and the only words he knows are hilariously the oft-repeated “Mind The Doors!” mantra that echoes down the tunnels from the trains (hence that schoolboy catchphrase). Lee has only a cameo, but took the part to appear alongside Pleasence, whose irritable Scotland Yard Inspector is an eccentric joy to watch. Sherman would also go on to direct the much-underrated modern zombie chiller “Dead and Buried” in 1982.

The Night Stalker

(Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey)

Ahh good old Richard Matheson. He gifted us horror fans so many great stories, ranging from I Am Legend and Stir of Echoes to a whole bunch of Twilight Zone episodes too. Another one that he can be partially credited for (he adapted the original from Jeffrey Grant Rice) but that often flies under the radar is the TV movie The Night Stalker. The 70's was a good time for TV movies actually, what with Duel (mentioned in the 1971 list) and Don't be Afraid of the Dark (1973) also finding their audiences via the small screen. In fact, The film did so well it was released overseas as a theatrical movie and inspired a sequel TV movie titled The Night Strangler (which aired in 1973), a single-season TV series of twenty episodes titled Kolchak: The Night Stalker which ran between 1974–75, and a short lived 2005 TV series called Night Stalker.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (a veteran of theatrical and TV movies), The Night Stalker tells the story of Carl Kolchak, an investigative reporter (played by Darren McGavin), who is called back from holiday to report on the discovery of a dead Las Vegas casino worker who has been found in a dustbin, drained of blood. Sound weird? Well things get even stranger and more sinister for our man when a few more victims are discovered along the Vegas strip, all looking like they've been killed by...well...a vampire.

There is so much to like here that there's no wonder that it's so fondly remembered (by those who have seen it!) and that it became one of the best rated TV movies of the decade. The combination of the vampire story and the Las Vegas setting mesh together perfectly and toss in a dollop of gothic visuals and wry humour and you end up with a slightly strange - but great tasting - cocktail. Darren McGavin plays the role of Carl Kolchak with real finesse and the ambivalence of the character himself (he kinda seems more bothered about the story itself than actually stopping it) is pretty refreshing. The supporting cast are all excellent too - as is the direction of Moxey, who handles the whole 'vampire' thing really well. It's quite understated actually and that only plays to the films strengths and makes the whole things feel a bit more real and gritty than other fantastical vampire stuff from that era. It makes for a rather taut and suspenseful feature that's definitely worth tracking down.

The Telephone Box

(Directed by Antonio Mercero Juldain)

I mean, let's be frank. How can a Spanish short film (35 mins) about a man who gets stuck in a telephone box NOT be on this list?! Our thoughts exactly! But before you switch off and think we've just gone all artsy and pretentious, hear us out!

The Telephone Box (or La Cabina as it is known in Spain) was an overnight sensation when it aired in December 1972 and although US viewers may not be familiar with it, UK viewers of a certain age may have heard of it as it aired on several late night horror shows on the BBC in the 70s and 80s.

The plot is insanely simple and feels like a cross between Phone Booth (obviously) and some kind of Black Mirror nightmare. After seeing his son off to school, a nameless middle-aged steps into a newly installed phone booth to make a call. However, once the door shuts it won't open. A couple of passers by try to help and within a few minutes, he has become a bit of a spectacle with others trying to help him out - or you know, watching and laughing at him. Nice. However the crowd begin to cheer when the company that installed the phone booth turn up. Thing is, they think that they are there to rescue the hapless middle-aged dude. Turns out, it's not that straightforward. ..

We could tell you the rest of the story but the best way to enjoy this is to not know where it ends up. We don't think you'll be disappointed! Suffice to say it's a fascinating surrealist nightmare with a fat slice of social commentary added in for good measure. There's very little dialogue in The Telephone Box but it's kind of irrelevant as the horror here. Fear, hopelessness, panic, loneliness are universal after all. Look for it on Youtube if you dare...

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