Tales from the Crypt, Season One (DVD)

Starring Bill Sadler, Larry Drake, Leah Thompson, Joe Pantoliano, Amanda Plummer, M. Emmet Walsh

Directed by Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Howard Deutch, Tom Holland, Mary Lambert

Funny how traditions come full circle. In the late-’50s, parents, appalled by the grotesque pulp renderings of beheaded women, re-animated corpses and vengeful husbands, were throwing their children’s EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt, to the fire. Literally. Nearly thirty years later, a similar censorship, albeit not one as dramatically extreme, was taking place before Rotten’s very eyes as he sat down to watch the premiere episode of HBO’s weekly Crypt series brought to the small screen in ’89 by producers Joel Silver, David Guiler, Robert Zemeckis and Walter Hill. My parents didn’t set the boob tube ablaze as actor William Sadler, four minutes into the show, coldly explained the effects of electrocution on the human body. They simply turned the TV off on my unsuspecting ass.

Until this two-disc set came along I had never seen Crypt‘s first season in its entirety thanks to my folks, and my refusal to watch the hacked versions on the Sci-Fi Channel. And like many of those poor saps who had their comics turn to ash and spread to the wind at sunset over the sea only to later catch up with their childhood later down the road, revisiting some of these episodes was a sweet mixture of welcome familiarity and revenge. Oh, that sweet revenge, there’s certainly no lack of that in the six tales told here by that decayed dwarf we’ve come to know as the Crypt Keeper.

Curious how time affects even the dead. In his debut season, the Keeper, forever voiced by John Kassir, certainly wasn’t the loud-mouthed, semi-obnoxious, cackling personality we were left to remember during his final days in the Crypt. Pun-dropping he has always been, but here his subdued introductions and on-the-nose epilogues are spoken with an eerie hiss. Did overconfidence creep up on the Keeper in the subsequent seasons? I dunno, but as a host, he’s never been better than his participation in Crypt‘s fledgling year which, surprisingly, is a mixed bag.

Horror, in the short story format, has always proven to be more effective, in my mind. Setting time constraints doesn’t, by any means, creatively limit the storyteller; it just forces him or her to cut the bullshit or trim the fat, so to speak, and weave a lean ‘n mean tale with enhanced characterizations, heightened intensity, far-out set pieces of bloodshed and a quickened pace. This is all plainly evident in Walter Hill’s entry, the first Crypt to air, The Man Who Was Death (26m 17s). Sadler plays good ol’ boy executioner, Niles Talbot, who carries an almost perverse pride about his work. “I like electricity,” beams Talbot. “It’s dependable. You can trust it.” When he’s forced out of his job because the state discontinues executing prisoners on death row, Talbot turns to murderous vigilante justice; however, the justice system itself doesn’t take too kindly to those who take the law in their own hand, no matter the motivation.

It almost goes without saying that Sadler chews the scenery. Death is the type of material any actor loves as the focus rests solely on their shoulders and Sadler, with his wry grin and chiseled features, makes this Crypt and memorable one.

And All Through the House (21m 57s) gains instant acknowledgement for two reasons. Robert Zemeckis was at the helm and this classic had already been adapted by Freddie Francis in 1972 for a feature-length Crypt anthology with Joan Collins. It didn’t take long for the series to capture a comic book essence thanks to scribe Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) who paints each character with broad strokes. Dr. Giggles‘ Larry Drake plays a sadistic asylum escapee who dons a Santa Claus suit and torments a mother who has just committed homicide. House is an episode that’s style over substance. Zemeckis obviously has a ball putting Mary Ellen Trainor through the paces, but if you’re looking for something with a meatier twist and one helluva payoff, Dig That Cat…He’s Really Gone (28m), delivers like no other in the season.

Joe Pantoliano is Ulric, a former homeless man who has been injected with a feline gland supposedly responsible for allowing cats to live nine lives. His new niche for death and rebirth has placed him as the hot ticket at a circus sideshow, but greed makes Ulric lose sight of his focus. Viciously clever and imbued with a hilarious gusto thanks in part to director Richard Donner’s style (look for his cameo as a dad pushing his kid into shooting Ulric with an arrow, it’s the balls), Cat is pure Crypt in that it follows the corruption of the innocent to a usually nasty demise.

There’s no corruption to be found in Howard Deutch’s weak Only Sin Deep (27m 13s), because everyone in it is already pretty loathsome, and that’s a fair assessment of Leah Thompson’s acting as well. If you can buy into her cold-hearted hooker routine, then maybe you’ll latch onto Dekker’s script. I, from the start, couldn’t do it and found Thompson laughable. Sin wreaks of ’80s from the brass-heavy music to photography as it tells of a prostitute who loses her good looks to a shop proprietor who uses her beauty for his wife’s corpse which he keeps in the back room. Lover Come Hack to Me (28m 33s) lurks a notch below Sin on this season’s list of disappointments. Although Tom Holland (Fright Night) directed, this one’s also a bit of a snoozer. It’s a slow burn that gives way to plenty of stylistic, steamy flair but it occurs too late for anyone to care and its spectral twist is a letdown, to say the least. Amanda Plummer stars as Peggy, a newlywed whose husband is only after her for her cash. On their honeymoon, the conniving bastard intends to off her. He doesn’t anticipate the fact that she has plans of her own on their very special night. Meh.

Finally, M. Emmet Walsh goes overboard in a good way in Collection Completed (28m 33s), a hammy chapter about a retiree driven to madness by his wife’s affinity for household pets directed by, you guessed it, Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary). Played for laughs and over the top in every way, Collection is a division for Crypt fans. It walks on that tightrope of camp and maliciousness; you’ll either dig it or you won’t.

Disc Two offers a pair of features. Crypt Keeper’s History of Season One (5m 4s) is a slice of silly business that looks at the first six episodes that launched a franchise as told by the Crypt Keeper himself. The footage of the Keeper is re-used material with a fresh voice over by Kassir. Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television (50m 18s), a documentary produced in ’04, charts the rise and fall of EC’s William Gaines and Al Feldstein. Reluctant to pick up his father’s reins in the comic book biz, Gaines and his EC team single-handedly made an indelible impact on both the comic publishing world, that was oft-imitated, and the American public. This docu comes complete with footage of Gaines defending himself before a Senate subcommittee who aimed to bring EC down and interviews with Feldstein, artist Jack Davis, Berni Wrightson, John Carpenter and George Romero. A fitting inclusion to this Crypt package that doesn’t go too much into the HBO series; one can only hope we’ll get more on Crypt‘s live-action antics in forthcoming box sets.

All episodes are presented in their original full frame format. Picture quality is decent with a modicum of grain and dirt; sound is fine as well, however, the Crypt Keeper’s voice track is remarkably lower and distant sounding than the main features.

Season Two is due this October. Maybe when Warner Bros. gets every season on my shelf we can finally see a Special Edition of the underrated Crypt feature film Demon Knight.

4 out of 5

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Jon Condit