Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: A Mess of Deadlines
DATELINE: As traditional journalism dies in the dark, will the trope of the gritty yet noble reporter die with it? Is there any romance in today’s world of digital journals, SEO and ads that can read your browser history? I say we leave that for now and dive into the now-quaint world that’s black, white and DEAD all over! Here we deal with industries that are going through tumultuous times now, but as you’ll see with this batch o’ battiness, jobs aren’t easy even when things are booming…
Season 3, Episode 10: “Mournin’ Mess” based on Tales From The Crypt #38
Director: Manny Coto
Written by: Manny Coto
Originally aired: July 31, 1991
Director and writer pedigree: The rumors are true: This is written and directed by Manny “Dr. Giggles” Coto himself! He was also an executive producer on Dexter, he wrote an episode of the recent (fantastic) The Exorcist TV show, and he currently works as a consulting producer on American Horror Story, so even though he only did one episode of Tales from the Crypt and one for Tales from the Cryptkeeper, his bloody, beating heart for horror television is true and probably under the floorboard somewhere.
Other notables: I keep waiting for a Steven Weber movie renaissance to happen, kind of like what Thomas Hayden Church got when Sideways came out. I’m glad he’s doing so well on television again, but he’s so incredibly good at walking that line between almost-an-asshole and the-perfect-quippy-guy-to-pit-against-assholes that I’d like to see him on the big screen again, mostly to scoff at people. He’s a terrific scoffer. And say what you will about The Shining ABC miniseries, but he was a great Jack Torrance.
Since seeing Vincent Schiavelli in Ghost when I was a kid, I always thought he was more disturbing in that big budget movie where he wasn’t even an evil guy than a lot of purely sadistic slasher killers. I think there’s a desperate sadness in this and many of his performances that he completely mastered and used to enrich a lot of roles that may have originally been one-note on the page. While there just isn’t time to give him that much nuance in this episode, as always, he elevates the role he was given.
Dale Sweeney (Weber) is a classic back-talking, heavy-drinking, cynical reporter who’ll do anything to get his story. He’s on what, on the surface, seems like a pretty soft story about a cemetery opening for homeless people, all thanks to the organization Grateful Homeless Outcasts and Unwanted Layaway Society (G.H.O.U.L.S.). QUICK POLL: Better underground shenanigans acronym: G.H.O.U.L.S or C.H.U.D.? The homeless population has been targeted in a series of murders, though, and our reporter knows that something smells in Homelessville and that’s the real story he needs to uncover. If he has to seduce Rita Wilson (the director of season 4’s premiere is her husband, congratulations to him!) then he’ll do it.
Of course, there something afoot-or underfoot-as the case may be. Robert (Schiavelli) wants the real murderer of homeless people caught, and as he tells Sweeney, “you look hungrier than I do.” From there, the episode shifts from light-journalistic gumshoeing to full out supernatural violence, caves and all.
The build-up is pretty by-the-numbers, though I do appreciate Weber using Jerry Seinfeld’s exact voice for his character: It certainly was a choice. This suffers a bit from a tonal disconnect from the first act to the last, a bit like From Dusk Til Dawn’s road crime picture’s journey to its guitars made of body parts bloodbath, with a strange kiss of Cast A Deadly Spell added for flavor because why not. Like those films, though, it’s fun, it knows it’s weird, and the ending here is appropriately ghoulish. This may be the most HBO of the adaptations of an issue of “Tales from the Crypt” so far, which makes it strangely difficult to nail down: It’s so savvy and modern about such a classically spooky ooky story concept that it’s everything and not much of anything all at once. I like it, yet it’s not one that I’ve ever recommended to someone new to the show.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Although you’ll be happy to hear he’s found himself a new career…. as a GHOSTWRITER!”
Director and writer pedigree: Much like Mary Lambert from season 1, Russell Mulcahy went from directing music videos into television and film, with quite a bit of genre work sprinkled throughout his career. While controversial (Full disclosure: He directed Highlander 2: The Quickening), he was brave enough to make a LOW budget mummy movie in the late 90s, and that’s the kind of chutzpah we need down in the crypt. He’ll return to direct three more episodes and a dash of the Perversions of Science spin-off. His filmography is impressive with regard to genre television, and it includes stints on both The Hunger and Teen Wolf series, making him one of the few directors who’ve been able to successfully adapt and grow with the changing mainstream TV horror landscape and its trends throughout multiple decades. Yes, even though Manny Coto is in this company, it’s still rare even with that coincidence of their episodes airing together, thank you!
I’m a big nerd for Richard Christian Matheson’s short horror stories, and I highly recommend “Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks” for fans of Tales from the Crypt and anthology horror in general. Screenwise, he’s also written for the show Splatter and two episodes of Masters of Horror. He has a segment in the upcoming anthology film Nightmare Cinema, which also includes work from Mick Garris and Joe Dante.
Other notables: None other than Brion James himself stars in this turgid tale. Blade Runner is a lot of viewers’ go-to in his filmography, and for good reason, but Max Jenke is still one of the best and most memorable names in the horror killer pantheon, and The Horror Show (House III? Really? You’re gonna hold me to that?) would have worked better as a Tales from the Crypt episode.
Ah, another narration episode, but this time it’s from a woman! Liz (Michelle Johnson, Dr. Giggles and Death Becomes Her) is a gorgeous but bored bar waitress in a small logging community. She wants excitement and romance and doesn’t mind being reckless about how she gets it. After dancing and talking with Steve (James) for a night, they decide to get immediately married because he’s smitten, owns a lumber company, has money and she has nothing better to do.
Problems start right away as his employees make off-color jokes about her sexual history, and Steve is immediately shown to have a violent, jealous temper. Liz is annoyed by this until she’s distracted by a hunky, naive new lumberjack, Ted, played by Billy “The Lost Boys” Wirth. She decides to seduce this sweet kid for fun, but when Steve’s violent retribution causes Ted to suffer a permanent, serious injury, the employees decide they’re tired of being the pawns in the sloppy emotional games their boss and his wife are playing.
The pay off to this episode is beautiful, and visually, it’s one of the most satisfyingly EC endings of the series thus far. It’s gruesome, morally clear-cut and the physics are completely nonsensical: a masterpiece. The journey there, however, is a pure soap opera, and I was basically filing my nails and nodding along to the “sexual intrigue” while waiting for the great coda I knew was coming. It’s overwrought and a bit campy, but it’s an essential episode thanks to the cast and those closing shots. Plus, the way the narration kicks back in for one final time to tie everything up adds just enough absurdity for the slower parts to be worth it.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “A good man IS hard to find… especially when he’s been chopped into so many pieces!”
Season 3, Episode 12: “Deadline” based on Shock SuspenStories #12
Director: Walter Hill
Written by: Mae Woods
Originally aired: August 14, 1991
Director and writer pedigree: The second of Walter Hill and Mae Woods’ collaborations (which we went into in a past column) and Hill’s last episode of the series, this is, unfortunately, my least favorite in his trilogy of Tales terror. There are still a lot of trademark Hill flourishes, thankfully, but at this point, I think he got what he wanted out of the show.
Other notables: While never a horror actor, not even in this episode, Richard Jordan (who would pass away only two years after this episode) fortified his impressive career with genre turns in films like Dune and Logan’s Run. (Prestige genre based on books for fancy types, you see.) We also get classy genre-flirter Jon Polito, and whether it was in the films he made with the Coen brothers or in fare like Mimic 2, he’s one of those actors you’re just relieved to see show up thanks to his familiar face and unfailing delivery. Rest in peace, fellas.
Does It Deliver?: Another episode with a down-on-his-luck reporter! If we look at “Split Second” as a lumber company making paper for newspapers, I think we can make this work.
Charles (Jordan) is a barfly who’s tanked his job as a reporter thanks to his 1940’s noir alcoholism. He’s deep into both his cup and his downward spiral until the stunning Vicki (Species and CSI’s Marg Helgenberger) walks into a bar. She’s way out of his league, but she’s kind and has a soft spot for his earnestness. After a night together, he announces he’s quitting drinking and goes back to get his old job at the newspaper… all he needs to do to earn his keep is bring back a corker of a story. While Vicki wants to keep things casual, he figures they can start something real once he pulls his life together.
After becoming increasingly desperate as his old contacts don’t pan out, Charles ends up defeated at a diner late at night. There, he overhears a heated argument, and then Nikos (Polito) tearfully tells him that he’s murdered his wife. This is the chance Charles needed, and he jumps on the scoop, making Nikos go over every detail as he scribbles furiously. Once he goes up to check the body, though, all the pieces fall into place while simultaneously falling apart.
It’s a good-looking episode that’s moody and well-acted. After the bright, outdoor colors of the episode previous, you really get a feel of what each new pair of eyes brought to their respective episodes. Unfortunately, this episode falls flat in pretty much every other way. This is a subset of episodes I’ve begun to title “Tales for people who aren’t fans of Tales.” Sure, someone dies, but nothing in the episode is made to elicit horror or a sense of fun, let alone both. It’s a “breather” episode for a medium that doesn’t require such a thing, and it’s such a slight story that it barely makes an impact. The closing shot feels so tacked on that I tend to forget it exists entirely.
Many, many episodes of the show were based on other books like “Two-Fisted Tales” and, like “Deadline”, “Shock SuspenStories.” Still, the new writers were more often than not able to branch those into the kind of thing you’d expect someone like the Cryptkeeper would find appealing to tell as a story with corpse puns. A few, however, seemed to resist the format, which may have been a catalyst for something that we’ll see in the near future: multiple attempts at spin-off shows.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Perhaps now they’ll let him write for the paper’s HORRORscope column!”
Based in the incredibly down-to-earth city of Las Vegas, NV, Stephanie Crawford is a freelance writer and co-host on The Screamcast. You can follow her hijinks at House of a Reasonable Amount of Horrors and on Twitter @scrawfish