Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: Till Death Do We Part
Allow me to go off-topic for a bit, kiddies. To put it lightly, A Nightmare on Elm Street spearheaded a blockbuster franchise. Opinions on its quality aside, the fact that Freddy was clawing his way into households every week with Freddy’s Nightmares should have been a no-brainer success: Horror-loving teens and adults adore Krueger, and kids would absolutely sneak to catch the episodes. Still, it lasted only two seasons… but it wasn’t due to low ratings. Despite Freddy’s crossover pop culture appeal, sponsors were wary about associating their brand with a burned child killer—no matter how exuberant—and the show couldn’t sustain itself financially.
Tales from the Crypt fared much better, as Freddy merely adopted television, but The Cryptkeeper was born in it, molded by it. (See the series’ rickety luck once it hit the silver screen for further proof of the home field advantage.) HBO was both protective and generous with the series, filming each episode with possible syndication edits in mind. The cartoon hit the same year FOX started rerunning the show, almost fooling advertisers into thinking the more sanitized version would keep kids away from the rough stuff. Pair that with FOX’s pledge to air the show at appropriate night times, when Freddy’s Nightmares had a constant problem of local stations sloppily airing it mid-day when kids were usually watching cartoons, and you have a solid insurance policy to keep a violent horror show in the public eye with an ever-widening cornea.
The then-recent instant success of The X-Files on FOX added even more of a protective buffer as the sci-fi show introduced nice, normal folk to creatures like The Flukeman. Mix all this up inside a weird period of highly publicized murder and maiming trials that are now being made into critical darling miniseries, and it’s clear that the cultural zeitgeist was primed for a gory show with a rough morality tale edge with dark humor mixed in. Somehow, that became an insanely marketable cultural stew.
This is where season five left us. The show was still a runaway success, 1993’s episodes were, on a whole, incredibly strong, and the cold attitude mainstream press and non-diehard fans took towards horror on the silver screen during this period seemed to free up that energy into making genre television even more appealing to most of America. With all that in mind, we have to face that we only have two more seasons left, and I still don’t have that Tales from the Crypt pinball machine. So, what happens when a red hot as a poker show starts entering its twilight years? Well, we’ll get there, but for now, grab a handful of dirt and let’s all say farewell to season five…
Season 5, Episode 10: “Came the Dawn” based on Shock Suspenstories #9
Directed by: Uli Edel
Written by: Ron Finley
Originally aired: November 17, 1993
Director and writer pedigree: Uli Edel has had an interesting career that’s mainly bolstered with TV movies. But he’s been around the block: From the kid-friendly The Littlest Vampire to the Madonna-killing-by-sex Body of Evidence to the lesser Nic Cage vehicle Pay the Ghost all the way to an episode of Twin Peaks, you can’t accuse Edel of having a boring career. In short: He’s perfect for a weird sex-centric episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Ron Finley is back in his fourth of five episodes, and it’s a head-scratcher. He wrote my favorite Tales episode of all time, “Undertaking Palor,” and an easy top 10 in “The New Arrival,” but he also wrote “As Ye Sow” from earlier this season, which I dislike the more I think about it, and this one doesn’t rank too highly. He’ll soon write the season six opener starring one of my all-time favorite actresses (who did a great Brooke Shields impression on SCTV, small world), and I vaguely remember it being a good one, so we’ll see how his overall oeuvre hits me. I sure hope the good side wins on this show for a change.
Other notables: Perry King from Class of 1984 is here as the classic yuppie! Michael J. Pollard, a fantastic character actor with a varied career but who I mainly know for breaking my heart as Herman in Scrooged, is also here!
Does It Deliver?: We open with a sexy woman (Valerie Wildman) picking up an unseen man at a restaurant before promptly getting killed by an ax by an unseen assailant right before they can have any fun. We then cut to Roger (King), a wealthy man driving up to his cabin. From a message he leaves from his very fancy early-90s car phone, we can tell whatever romantic relationship he’s in is on the rocks. On the way, he stops to help a distressed “Norma” (Shields) whose truck has broken down. With all other options off the table, he offers to let her stay at his cabin. After a stop at a convenience store gives him a few hints that she might be a bit of a lawbreaker, they continue to the cabin where things progressively get more romantic, even with Norma stealing everything she can get her hands on. Roger is spoken for, though, and the “other woman” in his life is awfully jealous…
Eh. Eh. Ok, positive side: There is some tension to be had here, and the cabin the plot centers around has great atmosphere, especially paired with the unrelenting cinematic rain. Both Brooke Shields and Perry King are great, and their uneasy chemistry keeps the interest up. Otherwise, though, there’s not much here. We got a half-baked Psycho-meets-“Lover Come Hack To Me”-plot, and the ending literally just stops. The twist is silly, and it desperately needed another layer to it. Overall, this very much felt like a filler episode that was more of a Tales from the Crypt pantomime rather than a fully fleshed out episode. I also hate that Shields’ character is built as a physically strong, capable (albeit morally bankrupt) character, but the second things get weird, she’s pouting, screaming, and immediately forgetting her motor skills. Don’t hint at a kickass fight if you’re not even going to deliver, thanks!
Best Cryptkeeper line: “They say blondes have more fun, but you have to admit: Redheads really know how to swing!”
Season 5, Episode 11: “Oil’s Well That Ends Well” based on Tales from the Crypt #34
Directed by: Paul Abascal
Written by: Scott Nimerfro
Originally aired: November 24, 1993
Director and writer pedigree: You may not know Paul Abascal by name, but you’d recognize his work on some of Hollywood’s finest action coiffures: Abascal was the hair stylist on such beloved hurly-burly-ultra-masculine films as The Last Boy Scout, Point Break, Lethal Weapon 1-3, Die Hard, Road House… the list goes on and on for the biggest, sweatiest hits of the 1980s and 1990s. He also did Madonna’s iconic hairstyle in Who’s That Girl, a movie pretty much only remembered for Madonna’s iconic look as the titular mysterious girl. Just another of the finest beauty secrets of Tales from the Crypt: Some people are multi-talented, and with a wide and weird arena like this, it’d be a crime not to open up opportunities to more than just the usual suspects.
Other than some video diaries, this was his first directing job, and Abascal continues to get steady work in television directing as recently as 2018. (No No Moore and Donna-Lou Henderson handled hair for this episode, however, and I wonder if it was more stressful or a big plus having your director know hair that well.)
Scott Nimerfro returns! Tis the season for his output to really ramp up.
Other notables: This is a big one: John Kassir appears as himself and not just The Cryptkeeper for the first time on the show! His Valley guy foul mouth in his brief appearance is pure, fine ham, but he does give us some fanservice at one point by cackling that signature laugh.
Does It Deliver?: We got ourselves a classic sexy scamming couple story! We meet Jerry (Bats’ Lou Diamond Phillips) and Gina (Priscilla Presley, best known for being photographed at my grandparent’s photography studio in the 80s) are digging up Larry (Kassir) out of a buried coffin after pulling off a scam. Larry’s talking pretty rude to Gina, though, and Jerry takes him out: The basis of any trusting relationship! We skip ahead to Gina putting on a ball-buster routine in front of a bunch of sexist yokels in a bar, all to con them into investing in a “no, really, there’s oil under the cemetery!” scheme. Well, lies turns into scams, double crosses, and just outright jerkery, all leading up the adage: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Remember that pinball machine I geeked out about a few columns ago? It makes a shameless appearance being played by the Cryptkeeper here: Talk about product defacement! Then The Cryptkeeper watched back the episode on videotape and compliments Kassir’s performance like some kind of nightmare meta Monday morning quarterbacking, and it’s so shameless it becomes a kind of beautiful performance art.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “There’s something about this tale that interests me… I think it’s this HACKtor! We’re talking a real bleeding man type! He’s a regular Gorey Cooper! A Robert Deadford! And that voice… I could wear it reminds me of someone I know…”
Season 5, Episode 12: “Half-Way Horrible” based on The Vault of Horror #26
Directed and written by: Gregory Widen
Originally aired: December 1, 1993
Director and writer pedigree: If you’re gonna go spartan with any aspect of your career, make sure that pared-down output is notable. Widen embraced this by directing only one episode of television and one film: erm, this episode, and one of my favorite biblical-but-not-like-Left Behind-but-horror-genre movies, The Prophecy. He went a different route as a screenwriter, though, by writing not only The Prophecy as well, but also a few small hits like Highlander and Backdraft, where he was able to use his experience as a firefighter. Action-genre films aren’t easy to pull off, but I think Widen has always been one of the best, and he brings that ability to balance two sinewy genres together in this episode as well.
Other notables: Like anyone with good taste and a beating heart, I’m a huge Clancy Brown fan, and he makes his long overdue starring role on Tales from the Crypt here, teaming back up with the papa of The Kurgan! Costas Mandylor, most famous for his appearances in the Saw franchise, also appears, as does Cobra Kai’s very own Martin Kove! If so many ultra-masculine men with mysteriously full lips don’t impress you, you’re already dead.
Does It Deliver?: We open in a morgue, where Roger Lassen (Brown) is shown that the CEO of his pharmaceutical company has died by taking an overdose of their new, experimental drug, Exthion-B (which everyone delightfully pronounces as X-E-OMBIE.) This drug is a super preservative that can keep apples fresh “right off the tree” two years later. Since the corpse had a note “I have not forgotten or forgiven” attached to it, it apparently also works on memories!
The formulation is being sold as the future preservation go-to for things like clothes and non-controversial items, but a series of flashbacks set years back in Brazil showed that Roger sure went through some brutal steps to secure the herb that Exthion-B is derived from, including PETA-approved human sacrifice and drug testing. Roger’s house is ransacked, with the “forgotten” message scrawled on his walls, an associate is found dead, Roger kills a few people to keep a few secrets… and the cops question of who could have a vendetta against him gets grimmer and wider while still hitting much closer to home. Bodies pile up, and we learn about the duality of man (kind of) and the undead (kind of) and karma… kind of?
Amazing cast. Freakin’ ZOMBIES. All that and… it’s a bit slow and disjointed. It’s not bad, and the second half picks up like gangbusters, but there’s a scrimmage between a half-hearted cop mystery, corporate intrigue, weird science, mysterious voodoo goings-on… really, it’s everything people accuse Dead Heat (this column’s official unofficial Tales from the Crypt movie) of being. I love a convoluted plot as much as the next guy—ok, I probably like them more—but it’s tricky business when you have less than half an hour to cram a lot of plot in.
Still, “Half-Way Horrible” taps 100% into something a lot of episodes skirt around or overlook completely: That incredibly unique tone the EC Comics had when they mixed slyness and wide-eyed desperation with operatic absurdity. Clancy Brown might be the best actor to portray a classic doomed man from the comics: He has the jawline, the slickster-smooth cadence at the start, and, later, the heaving, darting delivery of a man on the edge. You can practically see those classic ellipses between his words!
Best Cryptkeeper line: “At least, in the end, Roger knew rot from wrong—if only he learned a little FESTER.”
Season 5, Episode 13: “Till Death Do We Part” based on The Haunt of Fear #12
Directed and written by: W. Peter Iliff
Originally aired: December 8, 1993
Director and writer pedigree: Peter Iliff’s genre directing career outside of this episode extends all the way to 2012’s Rites of Passage and a documentary short, so like with Widen, we have to look to his writing for the real meat of his brain matter. Once again, we have a blockbuster action guy trying their hand at the spooky stuff: Iliff wrote Point Break, Under Suspicion, and Varsity Blues.
Other notables: Never Too Young to Die’s John Stamos appears as a character markedly less radical than Stargrove. And while Robert Picardo is well-known to Trekkies, he’ll always be Joe Dante’s left-hand man (because Dick Miller was his right-hand man, see) to me.
Does It Deliver?: The episode opens up with a classic gangster motif: a limo, a dead body wrapped in plastic, a distressed beautiful woman (Battlestar Galactica‘s Kate Vernon), and two men (one (Picardo) armed with a gun, one is Frank Stallone with an ax) arrive in a quiet forest area. As the woman is held at gunpoint and the body is chopped into pieces, we see how she got in this predicament through a series of flashbacks. See, Lucy (Vernon) had the dumb luck of falling for Johnny (Stamos) a handsome man kept by the older and violently powerful Ruth Sanderson (played by the legendary Eileen Brennan.) Lucy’s a waitress at Ruth’s bar that Johnny runs, and they have a torrid affair that includes talk of robbing Ruth blind so “they can finally be free.” Sure thing, kids. Smooth as eggs.
During a tryst, Ruth catches Lucy in her knickers in Johnny’s room, and we’re finally caught up to our current mess… or are we? Will Johnny choose true love over being a pretty boy lap dog? Will he choose the easy life by… er… murdering his lover? Will Frank Stallone catch the last few innings of the baseball game? Will anyone care?
Why Tales from the Crypt decided that ending most seasons on a weak note should be a tradition is beyond me, but they held true to it for season five. Here’s another one with no actual horror too it; it’s just a by-the-numbers violent “tainted love” gangster kind of story with a light “Choose Your Own Adventure,” uh, twist. It’s executed well and everything, but it’s also a snooze. The cast is, again, fantastic, but they can’t save this one.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “I bet she was the one on the chopping spree!”
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, writing and frequent podcast appearances on Twitter @scrawfish and at House of a Reasonable Amount of Horrors.