The Grotesque Popcorn Marathon continues to be a popular fixture on the penultimate night of the Seville European Film Festival
“Ex-hu-mac-ion! Ex-hu-mac-ion! Ex-hu-mac-ion!” The Spanish audience in Seville’s Teatro de la Alameda picks up the four-syllable word and it repeatedly echoes round the barn of a building like a football chant. Up on the screen, a mouldy Peter Cushing has forced his way out of his grave after a year underground: an eyeless corpse in tattered, soil-encrusted rags, he staggers through a midnight cemetery with vengeance on his worm-gnawed brain.
Thus climaxes the middle segment of Tales from the Crypt (1972), a five-part portmanteau horror picture directed by Freddie Francis. Although better known as a cinematographer on prestige projects such as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), double Oscar-winner Francis was in his own right responsible for relatively “disreputable” chillers like The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968), Joan Crawford’s luridly bathetic swansong Trog (1970) — and Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).
The latter, featuring a gloriously unlikely cast combining horror regulars Cushing and Christopher Lee with Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle, Kenny Lynch (RIP) and Alan “Fluff Freeman,” was the first in a lucrative series of six anthologies produced by Amicus, which helped it emerge as the main rival to Hammer among horror-oriented British companies of the late sixties and early seventies. The ever-Stakhanovite Cushing appeared in nearly all of them: Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Asylum (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1973). The Cushing-less exception, The Vault of Horror (1973), was like Tales from the Crypt based on stories culled from the output of the cheap-and-cheerfully gruesome American publisher EC Comics (= “Entertaining Comics Comics” [sic]).
So much for the history; back to the present. Tales from the Crypt is showing on this mildish November evening at the Alameda as first half of the Maratón Grotesco Palomitero (“Grotesque Popcorn Marathon”), established since 2013 as a popular fixture on the penultimate night of the Seville European Film Festival (SEFF). This year’s Marathon, as usual, was sold out several days in advance: I had to pull some press-delegate strings to obtain a complimentary ticket on the event’s eve from SEFF head-programmer Javier Estrada. With tender concern for my sensibilities, Javier warned me that the Marathon is a “crazy underground night” with noisy audience accompaniment, and thus not a suitable environment for level-headed, cinephilic critical appreciation.
I assured him that I was already pretty familiar with both of the films selected. Tales from the Crypt popped up quite regularly on British television in the late seventies and early eighties, when I made a point of catching every small-screen horror film shown on non-school nights. The second feature I’d seen only four years before: Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura, 1963), a key precursor of and inspiration for the Amicus anthologies—along with Roger Corman’s brace of trilogies based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne respectively, Tales of Terror (1962) and Twice-Told Tales (1963).
In 2015 Black Sabbath was shown in the splendours of the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, paired with another Bava classic of confusingly similar moniker and vintage, Black Sunday (1960). The latter’s star, Liverpool-born horror legend Barbara Steele, was present that night in all her imperious, flirtatious glory, her allure scarcely dimmed in her 79th year.
The Teatro de la Alameda can’t compete with the Egyptian in terms of scale, pedigree or architecture, but the area in which it’s located trumps Hollywood Boulevard on most important criteria. Five minutes one way: the Guadalquivir river (with the huge, eerie ruins of the 1992 EXPO site just over the water). Five minutes the other: the Alameda of Hercules which gives the Teatro its name. A pedestrian zone of historic importance that’s now one of the city’s main nightlife areas, the Alameda developed around the four Columns of Hercules. In 1574 these 30-foot-high stone pillars were relocated from a nearby fourth-century Roman temple and now stand in two pairs at either end of a long rectangular piazza.
On my way to the Marathon I eat a tuna empanada outside Di Vino bar/restaurant, on terrace seating that provides a good view of the northern columns. Energetic kids use these venerable landmarks as crazily elaborate goalposts for kickaround football; dog-walkers and riders of micro-scooters abound; I keep an eye out for Halloween-style costuming and make-up, not knowing how seriously the Sevillanos take their horror evenings. When I arrive at the Teatro a few minutes later, the pavement outside is thronged with moviegoers—but, disappointingly, none sport notably ghoulish attire or zombie-style facial scarring. The crowd is male-ish, thirty-ish, beard-ish, vaguely goth/metal-ish, with black t-shirts proliferating.
Inside, there is no “rake” to the room—the regular seating has been folded back, replaced by moveable plastic chairs—so I take a pew in the front row as the place quickly fills up. Before the first screening two larkish hosts come on, toting a rubbery “corpse” dressed in military uniform. All present understand this is a nod to the exhumation of Spain’s long-ruling dictator Francisco Franco—who the previous month was moved from The Valley of the Fallen (a grand public site some 30 miles from Madrid) to a private family vault—and also the pending exhumation of one of the Generalissimo’s more murderous subordinates, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, who is (most controversially) still interred at Seville’s Basílica de la Macarena, just ten minutes’ walk from the theatre. The stage-prop cadaver isn’t especially convincing, but I notice that his hands look suspiciously un-decayed—and it turns out that behind the dummy lurks a puppeteer who springs into action at a crucial stage, animating the “stiff” to the crowd’s greatly delighted amusement.
Suitably whipped up—throats lubricated by the beer and wine being sold in plastic glasses near the entrance—the audience is ready for the evening’s festivities. Proceedings kick off with a real bang: Tales from the Crypt‘s first section is, I happily recall, the best one. It’s a festive-themed shocker in which Joan Collins is menaced by an escaped killer on Christmas Eve, the homicidal maniac turning up at her house in full Santa Claus get-up.
The house in question is a cosy pad redolent of the wealthy Home Counties upper middle class: the film’s five chapters are unified by a surprising streak of class consciousness, tending to focus on well-heeled miscreants getting their messy comeuppance from representatives of the downtrodden proletariat. These latter include Cushing’s hapless tinker Mr Grimsdyke, a genial codger (perhaps the gentlest character Cushing ever played in his famously gigantic filmography) driven to suicide by the callous machinations of his snooty neighbour, a hissably smarmy Young Conservative / Bullingdon Club type who meets a satisfyingly grisly end.
The “ex-hu-mac-ion!” chant recurs during the very next segment, a nicely nasty (and surprisingly post-modern) variation on the old “Monkey’s Paw” theme, in which yet another affluent Home Counties type suffers hellish torments after his greedy wife is granted three wishes by an occult statuette. By this point the Teatro has reached full capacity, with patrons sitting along the stepped area on either side of the hall. They whoop and holler at the slightest provocation: anything involving the consumption of alcohol, nudity (even partial disrobing), sex or violence is guaranteed to be met with cacophonous approval.
Tales from the Crypt‘s hysterical finale, in which the five cravenly selfish protagonists are dispatched to the flames of hell (rendered via ropey special effects) by the cowled “Crypt Keeper”—a plummy, slumming Ralph Richardson— brings the first half of the evening to a suitably rock-the-house conclusion. So far, so exhilarating. As the second decade of the 21st century draws to an end, it’s nice to discover that cinema can still, under suitable circumstances, deliver an exhilarating communal thrill.
A half-hour break between films allows us all to head to the toilet, get some fresh air, listen to the rock-band in the lobby, replenish our plastic glasses, and gear up for ninety minutes of excess from revered Italian horror-maestro Bava. Black Sabbath only comprises three sections instead of Tales from the Crypt‘s five; the pace is therefore significantly slower—I ponder that it it might perhaps have made more sense to switch the running-order.
The appearance of Boris Karloff’s name in the credits triggers much appreciative cheering, ditto the appearance of the horror-legend himself in the prologue, with slicked grey hair and a smart suit. This dapper appearance proves a stark contrast to how Boris appears in the second of the stories, “The Wurdalak” based on a story by “Tolstoi” (Leo’s lesser-known second cousin Aleksey)—wild-maned and attired in the furry winter costume of a 19th century Russian peasant.
Wisely played at maximum volume, Black Sabbath—origin of the Birmingham heavy-metal band’s moniker—proves catnip to the indulgent crowd, by now decidedly merry on alcohol and the warm excitement of communal cinematic fun. The third section, “A Drop of Water,” (described in the credits as being an adaptation of a story by Chekhov, but in fact no such thing) sees Bava in stirring baroque form as he evokes the dusty decor of 19th century Paris—complete with gaudy colours of fabrics, curtains and fittings—for yet another tale of how naked greed yields spectacular punishment.
There’s a certain “pearls before swine” feeling in the air by this stage, some 30 minutes before the witching hour. The audience mutter audibly in the slower patches, but roar back to attentive, vocally adulatory life for grand guignol interludes involving a troublesome, grotesque corpse. At the end of this concluding segment Boris returns to wrap things up, still in his crazy Wurdalak get-up. He appropriately gets the biggest cheer of the night as he bids us on our way with sinister politeness. It’s five to twelve; motivated by vague superstition I scurry back to the Alameda and seek protection from the hero-god. I make it with a few seconds to spare; and there I stand, safe between Hercules’ columns, as midnight does not strike.
Photographs © Esther González