Lord knows if "sequel" is right word to describe The Vault of Horror, a 1973 anthology film based on horror stories published in the first half of the 1950s by EC Comics. Not, as it happens, stories published in the pages of The Vault of Horror, one of the company's three dedicated horror titles. Of the film's five segments, one comes from the pages of the polyglot Shock SuspenStories, and four come from Tales from the Crypt - more than the latter magazine provided to the 1972 film Tales from the Crypt, ironically enough. And this gets us back to the issue at hand: this isn't really a "sequel" to Tales from the Crypt, but it is more of the same thing, justified both because of the money the earlier film made, and because of Amicus Productions co-head Milton Subotsky's ongoing love for the comics (as he did with the 1972 film, he wrote the screenplay for The Vault of Horror). It also has a framing narrative that seems tailor-made to instantly make all but the most naïve viewer ask if it isn't, like, exactly the same as the framing narrative from Tales from the Crypt, heading towards exactly the same twist ending. And to be fair, it's not exactly the same. The Vault of Horror doesn't have Ralph Richardson, so it's not as good.

Anyway, all of the above tends to force us to do the one thing you would prefer not to do, which is to directly compare the two films head-to-head, and of course there's no way The Vault of Horror is going to win that match up. It does not have a top-tier Christmas horror segment built around Joan Collins hitting pitch-perfect notes of self-aware but not campy schlock; nor does it have Peter Cushing as a heartbreakingly kind old retiree. Indeed, The Vault of Horror does not have Peter Cushing in it at all, the only one of Amicus's seven portmanteau films to suffer from that detriment.

There are other detriments beyond that; even without constantly measuring it against Tales from the Crypt and finding it wanting, The Vault of Horror is still ribboned with various problems, none of them especially large, but all of them cumulatively sufficient to make this one of the more middleweight Amicus anthology films. If I were going to go entirely off the deep end - "if", I am saying, please note that I am saying "if" - I might make much ado of the fact that this was shot at Twickenham Studios in London rather than Amicus's usual home at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, and it immediately pulls in a not-entirely-welcome "Londonish" vibe. The opening shot is framed on the Palace of Westminster, with Big Ben prominently visible, at which point the camera pans along the Thames and over to Westminster Bridge, at which point it zooms to a nondescript modernist office building And this has, ultimately, all been functional, getting us to that office building, but it strikes a mildly sour opening note that The Vault of Horror feels compelled to kick things off with such a generic London snapshot, the kind of thing you see in idiotic American movies trying to quickly establish a location. It sets a sort of urban mood that the film never shakes: while almost every one of Amicus's horror films takes place in the modern day (the major distinction between Amicus and its much bigger competitor, Hammer Films, at least in the 1960s), there's still a slight quaintness to most of them. Under the direction of Roy Ward Baker, who treats this all with a crisp, clean level of boots-on-the-ground naturalism, that quaintness is missing here, particularly in the first two segments. While they're obviously the two best segments, they also feel visually time-stamped to late 1972/early 1973 in a way that is not at all conducive to the business of horror. But we'll get there momentarily. For now, it's enough to note that The Vault of Horror has a distinctly contemporary vibe that is, if not inherently bad for horror, certainly not conducive to the brand of cutesy, corny horror that Amicus thrived on.

The framework this time around is about as slender as it gets. Five men get on an elevator in their office building, and descend all the way to the subbasement - not a button any of them pushed, and when they disembark, it's to find a handsome but minimally-appointed sitting room; it's a little like someone wanted to construct the impression of a gentlemen's club, but had neither the inclination nor the need to take the illusion beyond the seats, table, and bottles that the men would have to interact with. With nothing else to do, they start drinking and chatting, and almost immediately fall upon the topic of recurring nightmares. Each man tells his story, goaded by the weirdly hostile Moore (Tom Baker), and once they've all five gone, the reveal of why they're all in this strange subterranean vault is revealed, and it is exactly what one would expect; it's maybe the most painfully clear indication of how little originality Subotsky felt the need to include this time around.

The five stories this time around represent an almost uninterrupted decline in quality from segment to segment (the only exception, I'd say, is that the fifth is an upswing from the third and fourth). And while that's obviously an opinion, I have a hard time imagining how someone could like any of the other four stories more than "Midnight Mess", told by the somewhat befuddled Rogers (Daniel Massey) to kick things off. His tale, at least, has the perfect go-nowhere momentum of a real dream: he's in a strange town, and he goes to a restaurant that has apparently closed for the evening already, at 7:00 PM. He leaves to go find his sister Donna (Anna Massey, Daniel's actual sister), and it turns out he was always coming to see her, and that's so he could kill her for the inheritance money. And then he goes back to the restaurant, which is open now, and experiences an event totally unrelated to his hideous crime, though it ends up feeling karmically linked, even though it's basically two different stories running end to end.

That meandering quality is the strength of "Midnight Mess" that I'm happy talking about: it gives the story a genuinely inscrutable, unpredictable quality. There's another strength that I'm not willing to talk about: the events of the last scene. Suffice it to say that it's clear immediately that The Vault of Horror is ready to be much more comic than Tales from the Crypt (though that comedy is pretty bitter and sarcastic), and grosser. Two qualities that align it very much with the comics, in fact, and as far as that's concerned, this is a real triumph of proud schlock with a sucker punch ending. The biggest limitation, beyond the Massey's functional but impersonal acting, is that, like I said, this looks like 1972, especially the restaurant interior. Part of the way the humor thrives is by choking off the atmosphere, and cinematographer Denys Coop overlights the restaurant - lights it realistically, I should maybe say, but it ends up being a better backdrop for gross-out silliness than for real horror.

Even more than the restaurant, the great time-stamped location in The Vault of Horror is the home of Mr. Critchit (Terry-Thomas), who recounts "The Neat Job", a story about how he inflicted his extremely detailed obsession with keeping every aspect of his house neat and tidy upon his new wife Eleanor (Glynis Johns). That house is an appalling riot of russet reds, autumnal oranges, and the infamous harvest gold, with lines and spatial flow to match the color scheme. With Terry-Thomas and Johns anchoring it, it's no surprise that this turns out to be the silliest episode of all, despite taking as its subject emotional domestic abuse. Critchit is a screaming monster, whinging and belittling and yelling until Eleanor has been ground down into an exhausted paranoiac. The actors make this more light than otherwise, and Baker helps by staging the most tense scene in the sequence as a series of comic pratfalls, while Eleanor keeps making bigger and bigger messes while trying to keep things tidy according to Critchit's strict rules.

It's a little bit less overlit, and a little bit more confidently executed in camera position and blocking; and Johns throws herself into the role with great confidence in that she can find something in the cheesy horror shtick that will suit her slightly campy, slightly elegant persona well. It is, in best EC Comics tradition, a wind-up leading straight to its twist, more than any of the other segments her, but there's enough dark wit and absurdity along the way to make it fun. The downside is that "The Neat Job" is the first place where the low ceiling of the film's budget makes itself known; indeed, The Vault of Horror is the first Amicus horror film that I'd say is genuinely too cheap for its own good. That's already found in "Midnight Mess", but there it's slightly cute; here, the low budget for making props actually manages to take away some of the impact of the twist, by making something that should have been gross as hell look fake instead.

Critchit is followed by the surly Sebastian (Curd Jürgens), a stage magician who takes unseemly joy in traveling the world to embarrass other stage magicians in public. I mean, that's not the point of the vacation he tells us about, in "This Trick'll Kill You", but that's certainly all we really see him and his wife Inez (Dawn Addams) do at first, as they tour India looking for good tricks to add to their show. He does, eventually, find one - a levitating rope trick that turns out to be real, honest-to-God magic. The pity is that in order to get it, they murdered the assistant (Jasmina Hilton) to the fakir (Ishaq Bux) who performed the rope trick, and The Vault of Horror has already clearly indicated that it exists in a moral universe where people who do immoral things will 100% get their gory comeuppance for it.

With "This Trick'll Kill You", we pivot into genuinely bad material. Jürgens, Addams, and Hilton all do fine work in providing serious expressions for the story's trashier qualities to bounce off of (this is, on the surface, the most serious of the five tales), but that only goes so far. Especially since Jürgens's performance is necessarily brittle and off-putting, to suit his character. The twist, when it comes, is frankly nonsensical; it does not, at least, follow naturally from what we've seen already. And the stakes basically don't exist. It's also the most narratively cluttered segment.

Lacking any clutter - or much else at all - the quiet Maitland (Michael Craig) relates his dream, in "Bargain in Death". He and his friend Alex (Edward Judd) have a wonderful scheme to fake Maitaland's death chemically, get him buried to seal the illusion, and thus cheat the life insurance company, once Alex digs Maitland back out. Just about the only thing that could go wrong would be if Alex decided to double-cross his friend and leave him to suffocate underground. Naturally, this is exactly what happens, and the fallout from that event works to both men's disadvantage, in an unexpectedly convoluted way.

This is by far the slightest segment, though it's also here where Baker finally decides to start doing things stylistically. Having to shoot a considerable portion of the segment inside a coffin with Maitland forces his hand a bit, of course, but the segment also plays with editing like we haven't really seen, cross-cutting and playing with chronology a bit. It would be nice this meant that the segment stood out at all, but it's really so brief and it telegraphs its plot points so aggressively that has barely any meat on its bones at all. Though I'll say that it's nice to have one of these segments that isn't overlit.

Moore, having been a dick this whole time, is finally forced to tell his own story, "Drawn and Quartered", to wrap things up. He's a painter, it turns out, who has been living on Haiti for inspiration, and hearing reports from back home in London that his work is commercially unsuccessful mediocrity. It's only by pure chance that he discovers that art dealers Diltant (Denholm Elliott) and Gaskill (John Witty), and critic Breedley (Terence Alexander), have been working to defraud him. Furious, he asks a local voodoo priest to give him the means for revenge, and it's a real good one: any person whose portrait he paints will be under his thrall, and whatever damage he does to that portrait will be visited on their body. Thus does he get his bloody revenge in three pretty fine, shocking gore effects. And there it would end, except that when this all started, Moore was well on the way to finishing a self-portrait, and it turns out that the voodoo curse doesn't discriminate between subjects: Moore has to finish that self-portrait, and in so doing create a terrible vulnerability for himself.

We're back on the good side of things, though barely: the unbelievably slapdash way the filmmakers create "Haiti" (including a very visible prop that is very clearly from the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest) would be entirely sufficient to call into the question the whole segment's quality. The three scenes of painting-based revenge are so energetically nasty, though! And Baker plays an excellent bitter, hate-filled egotist who happens to be entirely in the right, giving this a bit more character complexity than we see in any of the other segments (other than maybe Johns, though that's entirely down to the twist ending). "Drawn and Quartered" is also probably the best-paced segment, covering plenty of material without leaving ellipses, as in "This Trick'll Kill You", or without racing at top speed, as in "Bargain in Death" and (to a lesser degree) "The Neat Job". It's a characteristically grungy weird tale, told with conviction, and far too small a budget - but that latter problem is endemic to all the segments.

Cheapness isn't the only problem with The Vault of Horror: being a retread hurts it, and its entirely perfunctory framing narrative (Amicus's worst) kills its momentum and also ends it on a reasonably low note. It also has much more of a "samey" feeling than the studio's other anthologies; "Bargain in Death" is the only segment with a particularly distinct look, and "The Neat Job" the only one with a persistently different tone. All of this together isn't enough to make it actively bad, but it is notably weaker than what Amicus had been up to in its signature portmanteau films, and coupled with the general softening in the British horror market around the same time, this is the first time that it actually feels like you can tell how and when the studio would run out of gas. It's a fine horror movie, but by no means a special one, and this was a point in the industry's history where a steady drip of special ones was necessary.