Give a Brit’s mind a premise as basic as a guilt-driven reverie, and it will churn out five stories of adultery and/or class retaliation. Freddie Francis’ Tales of the Crypt (1972) is great fun to watch, not only because each of its five novellas is engaging on its own, but also because they all seem to be truly of the same mind about class society and heterosexual marriage. First two involve marital unfaithfulness, last three: status-anxiety-ridden ruthlessness. All are told to a group of seemingly contained, upright citizens, who happen to be visiting a crypt of religious martyrs, killed during the reign of Henry VIII. It is in this Catholic space that, fittingly enough, the pangs of conscience materialize into gruesome tales of terror. Ralph Richardson, the master of the ceremony, is there to give everyone a moral lesson, and the one he delivers is cruel: people all being punished for their mere desires, even before they had a chance of acting upon them.
The positioning of the five characters is not unlike this of the little girl in the opening segment: first she’s safely in bed, and then she gets exposed to horror. It is this exposure to fear that serves here as a way of being disciplined.
And yet we’re children, too, in the way we are willing to be guided by the film. It testifies to the filmmakers’ craft how manipulated our moral sense gets: we are menaced only by the killings we’re supposed to be menaced by. Others – like Joan Collins murdering her husband with a poker – seem almost acceptable. It is not murder itself that’s scary in the stories; it’s the punishment part that we shrink from, because (in a way) we’re complicit with the characters all along.