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Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: This Is A Strict Town

Welcome back, kiddies! It’s time for season 6(66), the only one to premiere on HALLOWEEN NIGHT! You pair that with the realization that we only have two seasons left, and this season is already off to a terrifying start.

That ain’t the whole story though, folks. Unlike a lot of shows that had one (or more) spin-off movies either in-between seasons or after the show went off the air altogether, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight was released on January 13th, 1995: two days after episode 13 of this very season, with two more episodes to air. While they probably hoped this would pump up ratings for the final episodes, what we all think of as a cult classic now had a tepid reception upon release, and that didn’t help out the future of the show. If only we knew then what we know now…

So almost everyone was wrong about Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight when it came out… maybe I’m wrong to be nervous about season 6? Through the duration of writing this column, I was repeatedly warned about the later seasons, and it started getting to me. But screw that: I should keep an open mind. Hell, even a freaking Christmas album was born during this season: “Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas” was released just one day before episode five aired! If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that a Christmas album being released means your career is doing really, really, really well. So let’s march right into this season, demand that it thrills us, and raise hell if it don’t!

Season 6, Episode 1: “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” based on Vault of Horror #33
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by: Ron Finley
Originally aired: October 31, 1994

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Director and writer pedigree: Russell Mulcahy is back for his third of four episodes, and this time I’ll skip the Highlander talk to give him props for directing easily the best movie in the “Millions of Milla Jovovichs” franchise: Resident Evil: Extinction. They put an Australian in charge of a zombie movie set in a desert, and dammit, he got results.

This is Ron Finley’s last episode of the show, and his previous scripts (including “Undertaking Palor,” my favorite, and “The New Arrival,” another dearly beloved that tends to be a childhood-scarring episode for a lot of fans) have ranged from amazing to okay. This one falls squarely in the middle, which adds a nice balance to this dark universe of ours.

Other notables: While Catherine O’Hara is a comedic goddess, from SCTV to Christopher Guest films to Schitt’s Creek and beyond, she famously played in the horror comedy world in Tales from the Crypt alums Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson’s Beetlejuice. (That’s right: We don’t recognize Tim Burton down here where he didn’t even bother doing an episode.) Speaking of horror comedy, Peter MacNicol from Ghostbusters II is here! The late, great Scott Nimerfro, Crypt All-Star, also has a small, rare acting role.

Does It Deliver?: Geraldine Ferrett (O’Hara) is an angry and pushy big city attorney who embodies every terrible stereotype of a leaching lawyer. When she gets a very bogus traffic ticket in a small town, she’s ready to talk fast and blow town even faster. There’s something strange about this courthouse, though, especially the dreaded Courtroom A. While the case looks open and shut, this court is more than a little more old-fashioned, and it doesn’t take much to piss it off. Lashes, chains… this ain’t your grandpappy’s jailhouse! Ferrett is continually given a ray of hope just to have it dashed, and it looks like the sentencing in this little town is a bit more permanent than your usual life sentence.

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Ah, so this is when the budget started getting cut. From our first terrible computer effect replacing a gory practical one (a nose getting cut off, no less. Just spiting us right to our faces!) to a “brick” wall noticeably moving when Catherine O’Hara pushes her public defender against it, season six is when Tales from the Crypt starts showing its bones. Still, the story itself is fast-paced fun, and O’Hara and MacNicol go full-tilt boogieman in their outsized performances. Tales from the Crypt, and a lot of horror in general, mines a lot of gold from the “arrogant outsider in an archaic small community” trope, but this has enough twists to make that classic just a little nastier.

Also, as we got further into the courthouse, it started reminding me of the nightmare rooms scene in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which was another plus. Schitt’s Creek fans should also take note that she wears a REALLY bad wig for a scene in this episode!

Best Cryptkeeper line: “Talk about trial and terror!”

Season 6, Episode 2: “Only Skin Deep” based on Tales from the Crypt #38
Directed by: William Malone
Written by: Dick Beebe
Originally aired: October 31, 1994

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Director and writer pedigree: I’ve been a big fan of William Malone since reading his interview years ago in Fangoria magazine where he was promoting the then-upcoming House on Haunted Hill, where he read Klaus Kinski, who he worked with on Creature, rightfully to filth. Speaking of that remake, I’ve been a champion of it since seeing it in the theaters as a young ghoul, and while there are some career missteps (Feat Dot Com), his episode of Masters of Horror is one of my favorites, and Malone has always been outspoken in his love of the genre. He’d go on to direct an episode of the Perversions of Science spin-off, and like a handful of our most trusted alumni, he directed on Freddy’s Nightmares as well. Malone was custom built for this show, and I wish he did more than one episode. He has a unique way of weaving newer, trendier techniques with old-school horror tropes, and his work always has a distinctive flavor because of it.

Dick Beebe has an amazing name, and he was the writing partner to Malone here and on House on Haunted Hill. He also wrote the much-maligned but beloved by me Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Sadly, he passed away in 2008.

Other notables: Sherrie Rose has had an interesting career, most notably in Roger Corman’s Black Scorpion TV show and… Demon Knight! This is her second appearance in the Crypt after season 4’s “On a Deadman’s Chest,” so she’s officially a Crypt MVP.

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Does It Deliver?: What could be more enticing that escaping the drama and sorrow of your life for one night by donning a mask and meeting a sexy stranger at a party? That’s what Carl (Peter Onorati) is about to find out. He strikes out with his ex at a masquerade costume party, and there’s where we see that he has both a terrible temper and a very changeable nature. Minutes later, he meets Molly, a blonde who oozes confidence and secrets: She’s sexy even in her Eyes Without A Face-meets-The Skin I Live In-meets-The New Arrival white mask.

Before you know it, flirting leads to foreplay, which leads to us seeing Carl’s butt, and their agreement on “no names, no personal information” flies out the door because Molly’s sex is just too damn good. She doggedly refuses to give up any information, though, enraging him. After a hunt around her apartment, the besotted Carl realizes that there may be a very good reason she wanted both anonymity and her face concealed. It’s just too bad he has to be a stupid brute about everything… but he’s not the only one who can handle themselves in a fight.

This is a dirty sex episode. It’s filthy and kinky and really, really cool. I think “Only Sin Deep” is generally what parents assumed Tales from the Crypt was always like, so they’d keep their kids away, and it’s probably how HBO wanted the hip, younger viewers to think the show consistently was. My vague memories of seeing this as a kid are that the mask was super spooky and I didn’t understand any of the physical stuff going on at all. Seeing it now, it’s a pretty fascinating look at how we project our weaknesses onto others, and how that ultimately makes us both shitty and weak enough to kill in a really horrific way. This is an episode that’s very emotionally dark, and the creepy studio apartment it mostly takes place in is Tennessee Williams if he was a heroin-addicted artist in 1980’s New York City and watched too many Abel Ferrara movies but still kinda liked pastel. It’s also gory as hell with a real skin peeling ending, and the wicked self-assurance Sherrie Rose has as Molly makes her one of the show’s most memorable characters.

Does this episode contain one of the earliest super-shakey-fast-motion-character horror uses? Malone would later employ it to a more polished effect in his later movies to the point that, while other films in the early 2000s would also lean heavily on it, it became a bit of a signature of his. The first movie that immediately comes to mind that used it is Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which Beebe also wrote. The plot thickens AND shakens…

Best Cryptkeeper line: “I guess that’s one way to wear a guy out!”

Season 6, Episode 3: “Whirlpool” based on Vault of Horror #32
Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Gilbert Adler
Originally aired: October 31, 1994

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Director and writer pedigree: I’m so happy this is the next episode because I often pair Mick Garris with William Malone in my head: I think it’s both their age range and majestic hair. Before his wildly successful horror podcast “Post Mortem with Mick Garris,” Garris has been one of horror’s greatest cheerleaders. From creating the Masters of Horror television show to writing Hocus Pocus, Critters 2, The Fly II to becoming the go-to director for Stephen King television miniseries and a few feature films besides, he’s an obvious choice for Tales, and he’s even continuing the horror anthology love with the recent film Nightmare Cinema. On a personal note, he also co-created the She-Wolf of London television show, which I love so much that I want to be buried with the DVD collection.

By writing yet another episode, Gilbert Adler continues to be the hardest working man in the crypt next to John Kassir, A.L. Katz, and Kevin Yagher.

Other notables: This episode is stuffed full of comedians, but Corin “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” Nemec has a supporting role. Earlier this same year, he appeared as Harold Lauder in the Garris adaptation of The Stand. Wait a second: A.L. Katz plays a supporting role here, too! What a scamp.

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Does It Deliver?: Move aside, Happy Death Day: Rolanda (Rita Rudner) had a fatally repetitive the day from hell first! Once she was at the top of the heap writing Tales from the Crypt comic book scripts, but lately, nothing has been landing. Today’s bad pitch was the final straw, and she’s humiliated and fired. This leads to her falling off the wagon and returning to her boss (Richard Lewis) with a gun, but it seems that he was waiting for her… Sometimes dead IS better, though, as she restarts the crappy day when she’d otherwise die. Sure, she gets wise to the repetition eventually, but things just end up screwy AND deathly in another way when she tries to change the pattern. Will she pull a Bill Murray and figure it all out, or is she doomed to get fired by the guy from Anything but Love… forever?

If you loved “Korman’s Kalamity,” then “Whirlpool” will be right up your alley. We return to a throwback, vintage feel, a setting based around the Tales from the Crypt comic book offices (again specifically named rather than being referred to as EC Comics), a plot where comic book logic and real life intertwine, and they even throw some hilarious shade at the episode “The Secret” from season 2. The repetitious plot is what’s borrowed from the original Vault of Horror story, but unlike in “Kamen’s Kalamity!,” there weren’t any meta in-jokes in this source material: all that’s new. It doesn’t matter, though, as the device works really well, and it’s one of the most fully realized candy-coated episodes of the series. Rudner literally throws herself into the role with gusto (or is that GUTSO?), and while there is so blood, this is a fun palate cleanser after the darkness of the previous episode.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “Talk about character assassination!”

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.

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