Nearly 30 years after its first airing, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt continues to be known for many things: pushing the boundaries of sex and blood’s marriage on television, memorable special effects not often seen on the small screen at the time, a conveyor belt of famous faces, and puns. So many puns. Another big thing was the star-studded talent behind the scenes. Masterminded by a crew of superstar producers, Tales from the Crypt made its nasty genre fare—which could range from brilliant to downright terrible—attractive to both writers and directors from every film and television genre.
With the likes of Joel Silver (pre-The Matrix but already a massive action-movie-producing powerhouse), Walter Hill, David Giler, Richard Donner, and Robert Zemeckis executive producing, it was clear from the start that this show wasn’t going to be some cheap, fly-by-night one-season run. This was something special, different, and weird: the kind of thing that could infect the zeitgeist and pull conversation out of a Saturday night airing and into Monday’s water cooler conversation.
Genre creatives had a hell of a fun time on this new playing field, and many had fond memories of pawing through the EC Comics as children, giving the grue and gore a nostalgic glow. Tales also attracted a good number of luminaries (and maybe a few not-so-luminaries) who hadn’t worked in horror before or since, however, making the outlet both more democratic to different visions and possibly more uneven overall.
In this column, I’ll be revisiting each episode of Tales from the Crypt with an eye to the boils and ghouls behind the screams! Which is to say: Is there a marked difference between the episodes made by the horror kids vs. the ones who are usually too cool to sit at our messy table? Settle in, kiddies…
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Man Who Was Death” based on Crypt of Terror #17 (#1)
Director: Walter Hill
Written by: Robert Reneau and Walter Hill
Originally aired: June 10, 1989
Director and writer horror pedigree: Light on horror but heavy—nay, legendary—on the genre film front. Walter Hill was one of the producers who worked to bring Tales from the Crypt to television, and his thrill-heavy filmography only helped. From directing The Warriors to producing multiple Alien films, he’s about as bonafide as you can be without actually being known as a “horror guy.” Anyone who’s seen Streets of Fire or 48 Hours knows that Hill is as skilled at handling action as he is guiding actors through unusual plot twists.
Robert Reneau was an interesting name to see paired up with Hill’s here, as his filmography barely fills a light handful, with his most well-known projects being the screenplays for Demolition Man and Action Jackson. Still, two years prior to Tales, he co-wrote an episode of The Hitchhiker (aka Deadly Nightmares), another anthology television series that dealt in the strange and unusual. His entry, “Joker,” is more irritating than chilling, but it has enough disturbing beats that I can see why it worked in his favor in getting this job.
Other notables: As an OG Roswell fan, I will never neglect to give William Sadler as many props as I reasonably can. I could fill this page with a focus on his varied and fascinating career, but I’ll stick to pointing out that he’s technically the most die-hard, true-blue one involved in this episode, as he went on to appear in the Tales from the Crypt movies Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood.
My beloved Gerrit Graham of Terrorvision and Phantom of the Paradise and so many other wonderful projects also appears, blessing this episode forever.
The director of photography, John R. Leonetti, went on to work on a huge amount of horror films, most notably with James Wan, including directing the recent Annabelle and Wish Upon.
Does it deliver?: In a real low-key, neo-noir way, it sure does. A classic villain-protagonist turn villain-antagonist plot, Sadler’s prison executioner loses his job thanks to changing laws. Instead of just moving to Texas or Florida, he turns to street justice to mete out the penance that the law failed to deliver. While you can see exactly where it’s going, the acting, pacing, and moody cinematography make it an entry that ends up on a lot of fan’s top 10 lists. Less a morality tale (and more of a GOREALITY tale!) than a look at what happens when someone takes a Manifest Destiny approach and appoints themselves judge, jury, and executioner, this set the stage beautifully for the signature blend of horror folktales slam dancing harmoniously with HBO’s 80s-to-mid 90s “ultra-hip” view of sex, violence, and dark humor.
Best Cryptkeeper line: Nothing memorable in this first outing, but his spirited skill in using an electric chair on himself more than makes up for a lack of one-liners.
Season 1, Episode 2: “And All Through the House” based on Vault of Horror #35 (#24)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Fred Dekker
Director and writer horror pedigree: Much like Walter Hill, Zemeckis is beloved by genre fans while not exactly being tied to horror—although he did go on to develop the story for Bordello of Blood. No, Robert visited the spooky stuff when he needed his break from his Roger Rabbits and Back to the Futures with producing for Dark Castle Entertainment along with Joel Silver, which began in the late 1990s to remake old William Castle movies before expanding their releases. Still, he did direct the terrific Death Becomes Her, which is just about as fine a horror comedy as you can get. Also, whether or not nepotism was involved, Zemeckis hiring then-wife Mary Ellen Trainor was a great choice: She knew just how to balance playing a sleazy character we’d still end (kind of) rooting for.
Fred Dekker is no stranger to horror fans, thanks to Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. If anyone could sell a scary and slightly cartoonish killer Santa, it’s Dekker.
Other notables: Being shot by Dean “Halloween and The Thing and endless other legendary projects” Cundey is about as flawless a pedigree as you can get. (Is it just me, or would Nothing but Trouble, which Cundey was also the cinematographer for, be a great Tales from the Crypt movie?) Marshall Bell, aka “the gym teacher in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” appears and disappears. The real standout, however, is scary Santa, played by Durant and Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake. He’s absolutely unhinged and terrifying, and I’d put him up against any other horror Santa out there… except The Cryptkeeper itself, who hosts in an unsettling latex Santa mask.
Does It Deliver?: Santa always delivers! Seriously, there’s a reason why this is a favorite (the story also appears in the 1972 Tales from the Crypt film), many even assuming it was the first episode of the series thanks to its impact. From a graphic poker to the head in its opening minutes to Drake’s completely gonzo performance in makeup that says “melted meth head,” “All Through the House” remains one of the creepiest and most fun entries, even with years of the show following to compete against. This is truly the Crypt at its best: creepy, gory, morally judgmental, and an absolute scream.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Be very careful what you AXE for on Christmas… you might just GET IT!” (cue laughter)
Season 1, Episode 3: “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” based on the Haunt of Fear #21
Director: Richard Donner
Written by: Terry Black
Originally aired: June 10, 1989
Director and writer pedigree: While Richard Donner is deservedly well-known for directing the Christopher Reeve Superman along with Lethal Weapon and The Goonies (viciously pit this episode against “And All Through the House” if you’re one of those weird Goonies vs. Monster Squad kids!), he also directed The Omen, one of my very favorite horror films.
Terry Black has a place in my heart for writing the much-maligned but holy shit do I love it Dead Heat. With that kind of background, you can get an idea of the horror/comedy well the producers were drawing from when getting people to write these scripts. Black went on to write mostly in television, including the Tales from the Cryptkeeper cartoon show, which I remember less than I remember the very strange and VERY 90s Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House game show, which I desperately wanted to compete on as a kid. Anyway, as Saint Shane Black’s older brother, Terry offers proof that screenwriting may be a hereditary trait.
Other notables: Donner brings in The Goonies alum Joey “Pants” Pantoliano, who’s obviously best known for the 1983 slasher The Final Terror.
Does it deliver?: In my humble opinion, this is where Tales really hits its stride and sets the tone for the rest of the series, and what a feat to get that done by the third episode. The comedy is wicked and just this side of too cheesy, and we have a lead who we can’t wait to get served their just desserts. The camerawork is purposely disorienting, and the punishment for hubris (this one preying on a fear that 99.9% of the population absolutely has to share) is satisfying. There’s also a “nine lives” theme that gets played shamelessly here, and I have to give a shout-out to the sound department for going all the way with it.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “… though Dying for Dollars could have been a popular game show. They could have put it between Wheel of Misfortune and The Newly Dead Game! Unless they bury it in the wrong timeslot… (cue laughter)”
Overall, we have a mighty strong batch of episodes welcoming us into the crypt. Thanks to the high quality of the first season, the success of the show was pretty much assured. Of these three, although I enjoy them all quite a bit, my personal favorite goes to “And All Through the House” as I’m a sucker for the classics. We have a nice balance of those with horror experience collaborating with people who are known predominantly for being good filmmakers, and that may just be the winning combination. Still, this is early days, so tune in next SLIME for some more IN-DEPTH AUTOPSIES of TALES… FROM THE CRYPT!