12 a.m. – “Tales from the Crypt”/”Vault of Horror” – Horror
(1972/1973, Shout! Factory) Note: some spoilers may follow. The British film company Amicus Productions released a number of horror-themed anthology films in the 1960s and 1970s (“Asylum,” “The House That Dripped Blood”) of which these two films are probably the best thanks to their source material – the E.C. Comics’ horror titles of the 1950s – and a wealth of UK talent that gamely endures the infamously grisly and ironic fates on which the comics earned their reputations. Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis directs “Tales,” which benefits from Ralph Richardson as a wry Crypt Keeper and the best stories in the two films: in “… And All Through the House,” Joan Collins’ attempts to hide the evidence of her husband’s murder is interrupted by the arrive of a lunatic dressed as Santa Claus, while two posh snobs discover that they’ve picked the wrong old man (Peter Cushing) to harass in “Poetic Justice.” The concluding story, “Blind Alleys,” perfectly crystallizes E.C’s knack for memorably elaborate and horrible situations – here, the sadistic director for a home for the blind is forced by his abused charges to choose between being savaged by his starving dog or running a gauntlet of razor blades fixed into a narrow corridor – as well as the comics’ far-ranging influence on the genre, as seen in everything from the fiction of Stephen King (who penned the 1982 E.C. tribute “Creepshow” with George Romero) to the “Saw” franchise.
The success of “Tales” on both sides of the Atlantic spurred Amicus to quickly launch production on a follow-up feature, with Hammer vet Roy Ward Baker taking over for Francis. “Vault of Horror” (1973) doesn’t feature the same caliber of gruesome vignettes as “Tales,” though there are certainly moments that evoke the comics’ queasy black humor: Daniel Massey, as a classic E.C. cad, learns far too late about the secret ingredient on a mysterious restaurant’s menu in “Midnight Mess,” while “Drawn and Quartered” finds Fourth Doctor Tom Baker as an artist using voodoo to enact revenge on the men who cheated him. It’s a satisfying second course to the main meal of “Tales,” and even as a lesser effort, it’s more enjoyable than the majority of the episodes from the long-running “Tales” TV series. Shout Factory’s two-disc Blu-ray set looks stellar and offers two versions of “Vault”: the PG-rated theatrical edit, which trimmed out a few seconds of nastiness from “Midnight Mess” (involving Massey and a spigot) and Terry-Thomas’ interaction with a hammer from “The Neat Job,” and the original unrated cut, which returns those moments to their proper place. The trailer for “Vault,” with its marvelous tagline (“It has everything that makes life worth… LEAVING!”), and alternate opening title credits, which bill the picture as “Tales from the Crypt II,” are also included.
3 a.m. – “God Told Me To” – Horror/Thriller/Science Fiction
(1976, Blue Underground) One of the best in a long line of audacious genre pictures by writer-director and bona fide maverick Larry Cohen. Here, a devoutly Catholic New York City cop (played by Tony Lo Bianco) attempts to make sense of a series of seemingly random murders, all of which are linked by the suspect uttering the title phrase before expiring. A link is found in Bernard Phillips (the late, great Richard Lynch), a mysterious individual that reportedly appeared to each of the killers before their crimes; Lo Bianco’s investigation reveals not only the bizarre circumstances behind Phillips’ birth, but also confirms his nagging suspicion that he is somehow connected to this messianic figure. As with many of his other efforts – which include “Black Caesar” (1973), “It’s Alive” (1974), “Q” (1982) and “The Stuff” (1985) – Cohen pours a heady and at times unwieldy amount of sociopolitical commentary into the picture’s framework, making both fine tuned and broad statements about Catholic dogma, religious fanaticism and how a Christ figure might be received in modern society. Surprisingly, a lot of it works – no mean feat in the context of a police procedural dotted with some genuinely shocking moments, not the least of which is the sight of a then-unknown Andy Kaufman as a NYPD patrolman who opens fire at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That alone is worth the price of admission, but “God Told Me To” is a solid example of the horror genre’s ability to examine and explore challenging topics while also delivering its required amount of chills. Blue Underground’s Blu-ray is packed with extras, including commentary by Cohen, who is also featured in two Q&A segments from the New Beverly in Los Angeles and at the Lincoln Center, as well interviews with Lo Bianco and special effects artist Steve Neill, theatrical trailers and radio and TV spots.
4:30 a.m. – “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” – Horror/Thriller
(1945, Warner Archives Collection) Oscar Wilde’s story of the callow young man whose pursuit of pleasure grants him immortality while his sins are borne by his portrait has been adapted numerous times for film and television, but this version is perhaps the best known to audiences, thanks to Oscar-winning cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr., and a terrific cast. Hurd Hatfield uses his placid veneer to his advantage here, portraying Gray as a naïve blank slate, unaware of the monstrous impact of his actions (while Stradling’s camera captures the gloom that mounts around him in deep shadows and curling fog), and George Sanders is the picture of debonair debauchery as the socialite who leads Gray into perdition. A teenaged Angela Lansbury earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe as the singer ruined by Gray, while Donna Reed and Peter Lawford are innocents caught up in Gray’s downward spiral. Director Albert Lewin does subtle work in tandem with Stradling, leaving much of the unpleasant action out of frame to allow audiences to image the worst; when they do go for the jugular vein, they have a remarkable tool in Ivan Albright’s gruesome portrait of Gray, which gains greater shock value by bursting into 3-strip Technicolor when viewed. WAC’s Blu-ray presentation is another example of their miraculous restoration work, with nearly flawless sound and image; also included is the commentary track by Lansbury and Steve Haberman, as well as the Oscar-winning short “Stairway to Light” (1945), about pioneering French physician Philippe Pinel, and the Oscar-nominated Tom and Jerry cartoon “Quiet Please!” (1945), which features a rare speaking turn by Tom (voiced by co-director William Hanna).
6 a.m.– “Night Must Fall” – Suspense/Thriller
(1964, Warner Archives Collection) The shadow of “Psycho” falls heavily on this remake of the 1937 thriller with Robert Montgomery as a seemingly harmless Irish bellboy who may or may not be an axe murderer. No such ambiguity exists in British New Wave director Karel Reisz’s take: Albert Finney is barking mad from the get-go, playing weird games with a collection of severed heads in his room while alternately seducing and terrorizing wealthy widow Mona Washburne and her niece (Susan Hampshire). The approach eliminates the subtle build-up of suspense found in the original, but the remake is still watchable thanks to Finney, fresh from “Tom Jones” and swinging for the fences in his portrait of a charming lunatic who bulldozes his way into his victim’s lives before ending them. He’s closer in spirit to Patrick Bateman, or Charles Willeford’s “blithe psychopath,” Junior Frenger, than the willowy Norman Bates. WAC’s DVD is letterboxed and includes a frantic theatrical trailer.