EXHUMING TALES FROM THE CRYPT: If the Vampires Don’t Kill Ya, the Undertakers Will
“To me, the most offensive thing about [The Seduction of the Innocent] was that Frederick Wertham presumed that everybody who read comics was a child or an idiot.” – Al Feldstein, EC Comics
I’m feeling sentimental this edition.
So, who were the people the Tales from the Crypt TV show was originally targeted towards? Ostensibly, a lot of kids who grew up with the various lines of EC Comics were now in their 30s and 40s and the main demographic subscribing to HBO, so it would follow that they were the brass rings. That said, there are enough episodes that, while stoking the nostalgia flame to appeal to the baby boomers remembering the good ol’ days of gore, would also appeal to their children who were sneaking their way onto the staircase to watch the show through the banister. Teenagers, especially those who couldn’t con their way into a rated-R movie yet, could also enjoy the horrific and sexual aspects of the show with the comforting levity of our dearly beloved Cryptkeeper, who almost worked as the comedic ferryman for those who were attracted to horror but still pretty freaked out by it.
I was thinking about this specifically with these three episodes. We have a goofy vampire story, a straightforward-yet-gritty morality tale that’s basically piloted by the-evil-that-economics-do, and a fairly violent romp starring a bunch of kids. The only conclusion I can truly come to is that Tales from the Crypt is sincerely the most democratic of television shows. Horror hounds love it; those who aren’t really into horror but enjoy one good scare once in a while dig it, and everyone else has to admit that it was still pretty interesting that a show with such an unusual conceit became as big of a pop culture phenomenon as it did.
Maybe your parents watched it. Maybe it was always you. Maybe you’re introducing your kids to it right now. Whatever it is, the crypt has always welcomed everyone. If you didn’t like one episode, well, you’d still have to turn in next week because, hey! Nobody survived the previous one anyway, so you’re safe! Unless you were a phony “moralizer” who fretted over fictional violence while doing nothing to help victims of real-life horror, you had and still have access to a weird dead uncle with endless bad puns and an (almost) endless parade of famous actor victims.
So enough swooning: Let’s get to the chopping block and see what tasty morsels of terror fall off the slab this week…
Season 3, Episode 7: “The Reluctant Vampire” based on The Vault of Horror #20
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Written by: Terry Black
Originally aired: July 10, 1991
Director and writer pedigree: Elliot Silverstein joins us for the first of four total episodes directing, though he was no neophyte to television. Starting in the 1950s, he directed episodes of various shows, including Route 66 and The Twilight Zone. On the silver screen, he’s best known for the classic Jane Fonda western Cat Ballou and 1977’s The Car, one of our finest killer car movies, which is strangely saying quite a bit for that kind of subgenre.
This column has sung the praises of Terry Black before, but if you still haven’t seen Dead Heat… c’mon, I only recommend the best! Sadly, this will be his last full script for Tales, but a few years later he’d turn up doing some work for a few episodes of the animated Tales from the Cryptkeeper show.
Other notables: Malcolm McDowell has made his way into the hearts of horror fans in multiple genre pictures, most notably in A Clockwork Orange, Cat People and Rob Zombie’s Halloween films for viewers of a certain age. Our Van Helsing character is played by the wonderful Michael Berryman, whose horror royalty reign started with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and has gone full stream through every decade since then.
Does It Deliver?: “The Reluctant Vampire” is one of those delightful total comedy episodes that avoids being cheesy by kind of reveling in its own weird charm. Donald Longtooth (I love it when a tone is immediately set with a character’s name) is a meek night security man for a blood bank. His boss is a leach (George “House and Cheers! Give this man a one-word title and he’ll give you gold!” Wendt), but the one bright spot in his day is the attention of his adoring co-worker, Sally (Sandra Dickinson.) It’s a rough life… especially if you happen to be a vampire who’s sworn yourself off from getting the red stuff fresh, and there’s an actual Van Helsing (Berryman) vampire hunter on your trail. Eventually, Longtooth’s bloodlust is aroused so often by Sally-yes, we get the classic fangs-as-erection motif here-that when he hears the blood bank could shut down due to a lack of donations, he decides to feast on the filth of the night to replenish the bank’s supply.
This is just pure fun from start to finish, from McDowell’s put-upon vampire giving the finger to the television Van Helsing is being interviewed on to him questioning whether his victims are on medication or had dental surgery before sinking his fangs into their jugular. With maybe the sweetest and purest ending on the show so far, this episode takes the best bits of comedic vampire movies from the 80s and 90s while injecting a bit of the old ultra romance back in. Even his lair is pretty dreamy.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Ah, it’s good to see two lovers so batty for each other. Now that’s a relationship they can REALLY sink their teeth into!
Season 3, Episode 8: “Easel Kill Ya” based on The Vault of Horror #31
Director: John Harrison
Written by: Larry Wilson
Originally aired: July 17, 1991
Director and writer pedigree: John Harrison started his directing career with Tales from the Darkside episodes (later directing its theatrical film), but his roots in the horror field started with earlier George Romero projects. He was the first assistant director on Creepshow and Day of the Dead, and as a loyal Pittsburgh horror kid, he executive produced and acted in Effects along with Tom Savini. He also directed 2009’s Book of Blood, based on the Clive Barker storie
Larry Wilson makes his debut as writer on this episode, later returning to write four more episodes and direct one. Wilson wrote the story for Beetlejuice, and a few months after “Easel” aired, The Addams Family movie, also scripted by Wilson, would come out as a pop culture juggernaut: MC Hammer music video and all!
Other notables: While he’d first make his name with Tarantino and in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tim Roth also appeared as an ape in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, which was absolutely on the cover of Fangoria, and I don’t want anyone pretending it wasn’t.
William Atherton is as smarmy in this episode as he was in Ghostbusters and Die Hard, bless him.
Does It Deliver?: Jack Craig (Roth) is an artist on the edge: broke and struggling with his sobriety, things are looking bleaker and bleaker. The only bright spot is the interest a beautiful member of his therapy, Sharon (Roya Megnot), takes in him. (These first two episodes definitely have a supporting-woman-character-as-savior syndrome.) Things come to a head one night, however, as he accidentally causes the death of a noisy neighbor. He feverishly starts painting the corpse in a rare fit of inspiration, giving no thought to calling the authorities.
This dark painting immediately sells for much more than Jack’s pieces usually go for, and the client, Malcolm Mayflower (Atheron), lets him know that thousands await if he can bring him more morbidly realistic works. Things escalate as deadly authenticity becomes essential to his paintings, and Jack quickly learns that karma doesn’t have to wait for an artistic mood to strike.
For some reason, “Easel” stands out in my memory more than a lot of episodes that I like more. While the plot is interesting, it is fairly paint-by-numbers (ha!) and sustains the same note throughout. I think it’s the mood: Roth has always been an incredibly intense, arresting actor, and he sets a strangely realistic tone for the entire thing. I’m also a bit obsessed with his studio apartment, which actually does look like it would house a starving artist! It’s like a sadder version of the apartment in The Life of Emile Zola, except with paintings, blood and tap water instead of books.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “You know, kiddies, some artists prefer watercolors, others prefer oils… but me? I prefer FINGER PAINTING!”
Season 3, Episode 9: “Undertaking Palor” based on Tales From The Crypt #39
Director: Michael Thau
Written by: Ron Finley
Originally aired: July 24, 1991
Director and writer pedigree: Michael Thau didn’t direct too much following this, and certainly not in horror, but interestingly enough he’s listed as the uncredited editor for the Two-Fisted Tales TV movie, which strung together various Tales’ episodes for a hopeful spin-off TV show.
Ron Finley would continue to write four more episodes of Tales… and not much else! We do love a purist.
Other notables: John Glover is famous for being an off-kilter oddball with a thin veneer of normalcy, be it in Ed and His Dead Mother, Gremlins 2, Scrooged or Batman & Robin, and he lives up to that sterling reputation here.
Composer Nicholas Pike would work on only one episode of Tales, but he composed every single one of the 44 episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares, plus Critters 2, Graveyard Shift and C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud. He also won an Emmy for In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution, but we all know what this column values.
Does It Deliver?: Jess (Jason Marsden), Aaron (Aron Eisenberg), Josh (Jonathan Quan) and Norm (Scott Fults) are preteen best friends. After a late night (Richard Donner) movie (in a cinema covered in Richard Donner movie posters), they decide to use the camcorder Josh always carries around to make a REAL horror movie. They hide and peep in on their local undertaker (Glover) who’s quickly shown to abuse the corpse of the town librarian (“I didn’t even know she was sick!”) by eating food around, then on, her before “manipulating” her face with a sledgehammer. After one boy overhears an evil plot the undertaker is making with a pharmacist (Graham Jarvis), which is confirmed by the suspicious death of one of their fathers the next morning, the boys decide to go through with that horror movie idea… this one with a new revenge plot. Handheld camera action! Double-crossing double crossers! Shoplifting! Guns! Suction! Their plot truly has it all.
This is my absolute, #1, no question about it favorite episode of Tales from the Crypt. The horror, effects, script, kinda-Stand By Me-dialogue and cast chemistry are all absolutely perfect, and having Jonathan Ke Quan from The Goonies only helped. When the episode switches from its traditional style to the camcorder POV the boys are operating, it’s such an effective and simple way to add a fresh feel to the plot. A very small handful of episodes feel like an entire movie, and “Undertaking Palor” is absolutely one of them. The charm is perfectly balanced with the humor and the genuinely disturbing scenes, and I wish there was a whole series spin-off about this gang of little dudes getting revenge on the wicked in various horror movie trope ways.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “They’re just dying to get into the horror business… and if they’re lucky, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to them.”
Based in the incredibly down-to-earth city of Las Vegas, NV, Stephanie Crawford is a freelance writer, co-host on The Screamcast and a frequent guest on film-centric podcasts. You can follow her hijinks at House of a Reasonable Amount of Horrors and on Twitter @scrawfish