Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"The Vault of Horror" (1973, R.W. Baker)

Tales of the Crypt (1972) opened with a slow pan of a graveyard. The Vault of Horror (1973), a follow-up of sorts directed by Roy Ward Baker, opts for an even more ominous image: the camera pans along the Thames, a river we know to be full of severed heads, and eager to embrace one more floating corpse. But even before the opening credits end, we’re in a modern setting of a skyscraper’s elevator. The cobweb and dust of the crypt are gone. Will this movie deal more with urban dread...?

Not really. The Vault… is identical to its predecessor not only in its structure, but also in its thematic concerns. Only the second segment introduces some other drive than greed: namely, obsessive neatness. But all the remaining ones follow the rather misanthropic trait of the Tales… Whether the motivation is money (story #1), a piece of showmanship one wants to master (#3), insurance (#4) or revenues (#5) – the movie promptly sets up scenes of cruel and exquisitely original revenge, conducted on our very eyes. We relish in it, and we get the thrill of both sides: sadistic satisfaction of the once-mistreated, and the masochistic identification with the rightly punished.

At first, since there’s no Ralph Richardson’s Master of Ceremony here, the featured act of storytelling seems less symbolically loaded than it was in Tales from the Crypt (“Why don’t you tell us about it?” – “All right, I will!”). But the finale reveals how much of a Purgatory the vault is. Only it doesn’t purify: the ordeal the characters go through is on an infinite loop. No wonder people made it into a TV series later on. Gotta check it out one of these days, by the way.

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