It is a truth that I think to be self-evident that 1972's Tales from the Crypt is the best-known and most widely-seen of Amicus Productions's seven horror anthology films - maybe even their best-known and most widely-seen film, period. How much of this has to do with the fact that it shares a title and (after a fashion) source material with the beloved camp-horror TV anthology series that started airing in 1989, or that it has one of those amazing posters that feels like an iconic classic the minute you see it for the first time (it's a partial close-up of a skull with a living eye glaring out of the left socket), I cannot say. Some of it, undoubtedly. But I like to think that at least some of it is genuine meritocracy in action, for Tales from the Crypt is, to be blunt about it, pretty terrific. It has one segment that presents a very strong argument for being the best thing Amicus had made up that point; and then there's another segment that's even better, and puts in a very strong argument for being one of the best little horror vignettes ever filmed by a British studio. Anthologies being anthologies, none of the other three segments nor the wraparound story are nearly up to that level, but there's not a true weak link in the bunch.

The film is an adaptation of five stories taken from the three horror comic series published between 1950 and 1955 by EC Comics: Tales from the Crypt, obviously, as well as The Vault of Horror (which would lend its name to a later Amicus anthology film), and The Haunt of Fear. These were apparently very precious to studio co-founder Milton Subotsky, and the project was his baby, starting with the screenplay he adapted himself from five of his particularly favorite stories. It very much feels like it, too. All of the best Amicus films feel like the work of genre fans, not just people who know that genre means money, and that's for the very real reason that Subotsky, at least, was - but Tales from the Crypt feels that way even more so. It is made in a spirit of pure delight at the kitschy meanness of the comics, and while it doesn't possess their sometimes jokey tone, it's hard to say that it's taking itself too seriously. It's enthusiastic about presenting schlocky horror yarns with the best loving care that Amicus could afford (while this was still dirt-cheap, it was unusually expensive by the studio's standards), and treated with po-faced sincerity by all of its actors.

The film's opening credits are a series of pans across a sunny old churchyard, an unexpected way to start a film with such a leering, ominous title, but it sets up a nice contrast with the gloomy catacombs beneath the same church, is where we immediately head once the credits are done: here, a talkative tour guide (Geoffrey Bayldon) gives the history of the place, hinting that there is some kind of occult history behind these subterranean passages. Five members of the tour are about to get an up-close-and-personal experience withat that side of the catacombs, when they turn down an unusual-looking hallway, and end up in a open room where a man wearing brown robes (Ralph Richardson) sits on a crude throne carved into what looks awfully like an enormous stone skull. Dispensing with all pleasantries (and failing to offer even a single horrible pun), this ominous-looking figure informs the five people that they will be put into a direct confrontation with the manner of their death.

The crypt keeper's first subject is Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins), whose story takes place on a most inauspicious Christmas Eve. We meet her husband (Martin Boddey) as he very proudly sets her present under the tree, with the unhidden eagerness of a man who loves his wife very sincerely and would never imagine even for a second that she might be plotting to kill him that exact night for the insurance money. Oopsie for him. This leaves Joanne with a body and lots of blood to dispose of, but her troubles are just beginning: as she hears on the radio, a homicidal maniac has escaped and is loose in the area, and wouldn't you just know, he comes straight to the Clayton house, dressed as Santa Claus (Oliver MacGreevy). The problem here, as Joanne soon realises, is that she can't call the police without implicating herself in her husband's death, so she has to quickly clean up the house, and restage the corpse to look like the Santa-maniac committed the crime.

Let me get right to it: I think there's a very real possibility that "And All Through the House" (that is the segment's name) might very well be the single best piece of Christmas-themed horror cinema I've ever seen. There's not a single wrong step anywhere in the very tightly-packed story (one of the greatest charms of Tales from the Crypt is that, by virtue of cramming five segments and a framing narrative into an hour and a half, every single one of them is pretty short), which includes at least two capital-G Great moments of horror filmmaking. One is the husband's death, which is staged when he's thrown open his newspaper, filling the frame; there's a grunt and a splash of red appears on the backside of the paper, at which point the paper falls and reveals his last moments of confused pain. It's a neat little bit of innuendo and implicit gore, just gross enough to have a tiny bit of bite, and visually witty on top of it. The second is the low shot of Joanne attempting to maneuver around the large window out onto her lawn without letting herself be seen through it, leaving plenty of nice, open empty space for Santa to inevitably pop into.

Really, though, there are only good moments, including a particularly excellent use of ironic counterpoint as Christmas music plays while Joanne intently scrubs the hell out of her bloodstained rug, part of a really wonderful "cleaning up the crime" montage that also includes a hell of a good gag as she daintily scoops all of the blood into a cordial glass, so she can then pour it over her husband's corpse in its new location. Director Freddie Francis, making his seventh and final film with Amicus, goes all out in staging the Clayton house with his love of assembling rooms as boxes-upon-boxes in depth, and putting characters in different planes of action to carve little visual vignettes within the frame. And Collins breezes her way through the sequence, finding exactly the right measure of exasperated not-quite-camp to occupy as she treats the body in her living room and the psychopath on her lawn as just two more goddamn things to take care of during the usual rush of getting things done for Christmas morning.

The problem with starting out so strong is that Tales from the Crypt has already peaked. And it kind of knows this, I think, which is perhaps why the second segment, "Reflection of Death" kicks off so suddenly. Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry) and his mistress, Susan (Angela Grant), are tearing down the road at night; they get into a bad accident (shot in a pretty fucking stupid way, I regret to say), and Carl is thrown clear of the car. He rouses himself, and tries to make his way home to the wife he was previously so eager to leave behind, but when he tries to hitchhike, the drivers who stop react to him with surprisingly vehement disgust. Given that this entire sequence is shot through his POV, it's not very hard  to figure out why they're disgusted; one doesn't go to that kind of work to hide a character's face if there's not something to hide. But kudos to the film for packing a twist inside the twist, giving the whole thing a different kind of downbeat ending than the one I was expecting. This is easily the "other one" of the film, the shortest and simplest, built entirely around the "wow!" impact of its two concluding beats. And while the POV cinematography must have taken some effort to plan and execute, it's sort of drab-looking, not least because of how obviously it's setting up the reveal. Still, the name of the game in the whole movie is quick, punchy macabre anecdotes, and this has plenty of punch.

This quick little slice of schlocky horror is directly followed by the longest, most complicated, and unexpectedly tender-hearted segment, "Poetic Justice" - the film's second holiday-themed episode, centering around Valentine's Day. The man getting the story from the crypt keeper is James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who lives with his father (David Markham), in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The only thing not so nice is their across-the-street neighbor, a grubby old widower named Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing), whose beloved dogs are a nuisance, and whose kindly treatment of the neighborhood children means that there's noise and activity at his place day and night. The Elliotts want very badly to buy him out, but all of Grimsdyke's memories of his dead wife are tied up in the place, and he just wants to die there peacefully, and soon. James has been working on a scheme, though - a very fucking cruel scheme, one calculated to cut the old man where it will hurt the very most. What neither Elliott knows, though, is that Grimsdyke has been dabbling in the occult, trying to reach out to his dear wife, and even succeeding. This means he can lay in a complicated supernatural revenge scheme, one that will bear down upon the Elliott's with all possible irony.

I would not have expected this of a cheapie horror movie that is deliberately leaning into kitsch, but "Poetic Justice" is, like, actually sad. Cushing was approached to play the lead of the following segment, but he wanted to do something new, and playing a sweetheart of a sloppy old working-class man certainly counts. This was made very soon after Cushing's wife had died, the event that left him shattered so badly that he never really recovered in the remaining 23 years of his life (the division of his career between Handsome Old Man Cushing and Sunken-Cheeked Paper-Skinned Living Cadaver Cushing, for example, happened precisely when she got sick).  Her pours all of that into this story of a beatific old man who is struck dumb by the discovery that people can be hateful and cold, and the scene where he feels the weight of James Elliott's nasty plot is one of the most touching things he ever did, almost unbearably so.

This unexpected depth of sincerity makes the sequence feel, like, a real movie, practically, and it would be the easy standout of many an anthology film that didn't have the essentially perfect "And All Through the House" to its credit. Francis isn't directing this one with such vigor as that segment; he's mostly relying on Cushing, who is cradled in long medium shots. And the sequences with the Elliotts feel a bit pushed-through and perfunctory, obviously just there to get the plot rolling. Still, this has got so much heart to it, and that heart makes the nastiness the finale feel like it comes from a place of unusual emotional purity.

I have said that there are no bad segments in Tales from the Crypt, but the fourth, "Wish You Were Here", comes awfully close to testing that. As told to Ralph Jason (Richard Greene), it's basically a riff on "The Monkey's Paw", by which I mean that at multiple points in the sequence, a character says "wow, this reminds me so much of 'The Monkey's Paw'", or "don't do that! Remember how it turned out in 'The Monkey's Paw'?" Which would be fine if there was an ironic bit of commentary or some kind of metanarrative twist at point, but there's not: it's literally just "The Monkey's Paw". And maybe the idea that the characters still can't break free of their fate is onto something, but it doesn't develop it much. The only thing that redeems it is how excessively meanspirited the second and third wishes play out; this is the closest to the black comedy of the comics that the movie ever comes, and when it plays that out in the form of Ralph's panicky wife Enid (Barbara Murray), and her wildly ill-advised wish-making, there's some delightful nastiness in store, including a quick splash of gore (that had to be cut for the film's original run, but has I think been restored in all home video releases) that confirms that this is basically just a quick and dirty exercise in "what if we took this famous thing and really cranked it up?" Like I said, this redeems the segment, but not by a very strong margin. Also, this segment is the one that really tests the limits of the framing story: it doesn't quite fit, either what we already know, or what we'll learn in the framework's own inevitable twist (which has, by this point, started to become a bit obvious, so much so that I think the filmmakers wanted us to figure it out, to make the sense of doomy gravity even heavier.

Last up is the darkest story, "Blind Alleys", in which the well-to-do asshole William Rogers (Nigel Patrick) takes over a nursing home dedicated to the treatment of the blind, and immediately turns it into a living hell for its residents. By refusing to spend more than the absolute minimum amount of money to keep the place running, he's literally putting their lives at risk, as he is angrily told by George Carter (Patrick Magee), the sort of de facto leader of the patients. When Rogers's  penny-pinching ends with the actual death of one of the residents, from hyopthermia - hypothermia inside a building - Carter is thus the one to come up with a scheme for revenge that gives the appalling rich man back exactly as good as he got, with payback, in a exquisitely ironic chamber of horrors that feels like a test-run for Saw, thirty years ahead of schedule.

"Blind Alleys" is another superb example of the director's craft, particularly as it draws closer to its conclusion: the set-up for Rogers's comeuppance is staged with some very thoughtful and disturbing camera angles and use of focus - I am being vague because I don't want to describe the room, but the first time we see it is heart-chilling. Even before that, the the segment benefits from some exceptionally good blocking, with the scenes in Roger's office providing a suitable battle of wills just from how the two actors have been placed into it. And it helps that of those actors, Magee is giving a terrific performance, full of wiry intensity that the actor funnels through his clenched jaw and unblinking, unmoving stare. It's an excellent portrayal of the raging frustration that erupts in the film's ebulliently sick-minded climax, and the one place where the film drifts from fun, knowing kitsch right into some actual horror movie intensity.

All in all, then, some pretty great stuff, and perfectly portioned - the first, third, and fifth segments are quite good, the second and forth are the places it starts to sag, and the framing narrative ends on its best material by far, an overripe image played the hilt by Richardson, obviously having a blast playing such a one-note threatening figure. It's firing on all cylinders: Francis's direction is sometimes more functional than inspired, but there's usually a good reason for that, and the film brings in just enough gore to capture the playfully trashy vibe of the comics, effectively cross-bred with the grounded sensibility that only a bunch of trained British actors can bring. The lows are still pretty good, and the highs are off the charts, and well-executed quick hits like these are pretty much exactly the reason horror anthologies were invented.