Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: The Horror of the Pit of the Assassins!
As season six wore on, it became clear it wasn’t the show’s strongest season. But one thing was for sure: That didn’t have much bearing on its overall popularity in mainstream entertainment. We’ve talked about the spin-offs, and soon we’ll look at where Demon Knight fit into the season, but I’d also like to remind/introduce everyone to Doctor Dreadful, who John Kassir played in 1993. Hosting a truly adult horror show while also voicing a kid’s cartoon version of that same show at the same time made Kassir the only real choice for this kind of TOTALLY GROSS! toy commercial, and it’s such a time capsule of how strong fun, Halloween-happy American pop culture was during most of the 1990s. Enjoy.
Season 6, Episode 7: “The Pit” based on Vault of Horror #40
Directed and written by John Harrison
Originally aired: November 30, 1994
Director and writer pedigree: John Harrison returns for the last time, his other outing being season 3’s “Easel Kill Ya.” That was a great episode, and that’s what I’m going to choose to think of when I think of Mr. Harrison’s work on this show. That and his extensive work with George A. Romero is where he really shines as I gracefully tiptoe around mentioning this episode in his oeuvre more than I absolutely have to.
Other notables: The cast is wonderful, but the great fight choreography here is the real star, thanks to the late Shane Dixon, who also lent his fists, kicks and expertise to They Live, Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood and many, many more. What Dixon and the actors pull off with the schedule they had for one episode of an anthology show is incredibly impressive.
Does It Deliver?: Professional fighters Felix (Mark “Brotherhood of the Wolf and freakin’ IRON CHEF AMERICA yes it’s the Chairman himself” Dacascos) and Aaron (Stoney “Roller Boogie” Jackson) are each other’s biggest competition in the ultimate martial arts fighting arena. This flame is stoked to a deadly wildfire by their respective wives, Aubrey (Debbe “Home Improvement” Dunning) and Andrea (Marjean “Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4” Holden). The women, trained fighters themselves, hate each other as rivals on top of a general frustration at not being able to have legitimate fighting careers themselves. They take that out on their men by nagging and outright abusing them under the guise of pushing their careers forward. When Wink Barnum (Wayne Newton!) sees the personal conflict play out on TV, intensified by the competition for a leading role in the action film The Pulverizer, and he gets a billion dollar idea: use “Malaysian Death Match” rules on Pay-Per-View! (Everything was legal in the 90s if it was on Pay-Per-View if I understand HBO.) Each woman is sure their man will triumph by killing the other guy, leaving the winner a cool $10 million. A man can only be pushed so far though (especially since these fellas like each other enough out of the ring to talk gardening in their quiet moments) and both women end up regretting that they weren’t careful what they wished for.
If you’re really into fight choreography, this does deliver. If you love really cute, complimentary winks to both 20th Century Fox and HBO… weird.. those are here as well. The actors, who have varying degrees of martial arts experience, sell it ably, and they clearly made the most of their rehearsal time. Everything else, though, is a terrible mess: We don’t even get a Tales from the Crypt ending! The concluding scene just drifts off into the Cryptkeeper’s coda, and it’s a wide shot no less. I usually don’t ruin the endings, but it literally just fades off in the middle of the fight. There’s not a drop of blood spilled! No scared, furtive glances of a dawning revelation or grim acceptance of a surprise deathmatch! No satisfaction! All surrender!
It’s a really fun concept and something we don’t usually see on the show, as it departs from the show’s usual film format and uses a lot of video to represent local news feeds and Pay-Per-View, all with some chintzy Vegas flourishes, but the non-ending ending absolutely destroys all that work.
Fun fact: The comic book version contained both cock and dog fighting! The 1950s truly were a golden age of innocence.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “I guess in the end, the choke was on the girls: choke hold, that is!”
Season 6, Episode 8: “The Assassin” based on Shock SuspenStories #17
Directed by: Martin von Haselberg
Written by: Scott Nimerfro
Originally aired: December 7, 1994
Director and writer pedigree: I am so excited that I get to talk about Martin Rochus Sebastian von Haselberg because I had been unknowingly been obsessed with him since I was a child. A few years ago I finally looked him up, and #7 will SHOCK you!
Wait, sorry! Wrong format.
Anyway, are you a fan of Weird Al’s UHF? You know that fleeting scene of “The Kipper Kids” during the telethon when two muscled guys are making weird noises and wearing what basically looks like exaggerated Bruce Campbell makeup? Well, von Haselberg was one of them! (The performance art duo, including the late Brian Routh, also appeared in Richard Elfman’s wonderfully bizarre Forbidden Zone, which I definitely didn’t see as a kid.) Beyond that glowing piece of nostalgic pop culture trivia though, Mr. Bette Milder (YEP) finds his inspiration more in experimental art installations and performance art than the film world, so the fact that he directed an episode of Tales from the Crypt is the weird, unlikely and wonderful kind of thing that made me want to start this whole column in the first place.
Other notables: We’ve had a severed handful of great celebrity cameos visit the actual Crypt, but none cooler than Tales from the Crypt MVP William Sadler playing his Death character from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. A catty conversation leads Death and The Cryptkeeper to playing The Seventh Seal/Bogus Journey high-stakes game themselves, as Death adorably proclaims, “This crypt isn’t big enough for the both of us!” Shades of “Cutting Cards” sneak in too: It’s really a treat and easily one of the best Crypt segments in the entire run of the show.
Our leads in the episode improper are also a treat: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and The Lost Boys’ Corey Feldman is here, and he’s joined by action and genre movie beauty icon Chelsea Field (Masters of the Universe, Dust Devil, The Dark Half AND Death Spa? Be still our hearts!) and long-time beloved face and voice Jonathan Banks, most recently of Better Call Saul fame.
Does It Deliver?: Janet (Shelley “The Stepfather” Hack) and Jeremy McKay (Marshall R. Teague) live a picture-perfect suburban life: They’re deeply in love, he has a good job, and she keeps a beautiful home. It’s all upended one day, though, when their house is broken into and Janet’s told by three creeps (Field, Banks, and Feldman) that they’re CIA agents, her husband was a former one, and, after he defected, they’ve finally hunted him down to “tie up some loose ends.” They claim to know that he got his face altered and that Janet’s been a sap this whole time. Janet is no shrinking violet, though, and once she knows that she’s going to be killed, she’ll use exercise equipment, footwear, and shocking plot twists to get the upper hand on these home wreckers.
NOW we’re talking. Not only is a cast a knockout, but it’s also a fun script that’s a bit of “Home Alone but for adults who like to murder people.” It’s fast-paced, genuinely funny, pretty gruesome and has a completely gonzo ending: basically, the perfect Crypt. After the last episode’s non-ending ending, this one just kept heaping on more nuttiness onto its finale, and it’s exactly what I needed to get engaged with this season again. Also, if you’re a fan of very energetic first-person view shots, this one’s for you!
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Take my advice, pal: Quit while you’re a head!”
Season 6, Episode 9: “Staired in Horror” based on Vault of Horror #23
Directed by: Stephen Hopkins
Written by: Teller
Originally aired: December 14, 1994
Director and writer pedigree: Stephen Hopkins, director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Predator 2 and The Reaping, is back to direct his third and final Tales from the Crypt episode (following Abra Cadaver and Beauty Rest.) Hopkins’ keen eye for foggy yet well-lit horror and action beats has always made him a great fit for the format and tone the show demands. Well, demands for a good episode, anyway.
(Raymond Joseph) Teller with no Penn? Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: My fellow Vegas-dweller strikes out on his own in the middle of decades of boundary-pushing acts on stage and screen with Penn Jillette. (As a side note, if you ever run into the movie Penn & Tell Get Killed, see it. It’s legitimately funny and very clever whether or not you’re familiar with them, and it has one of the most violently hilarious nihilistic endings ever put to film: It really is Teller-made for Tales from the Crypt fans.)
Other notables: The wonderful Rachel Ticotin plays a (kind of) dual role here, bringing us her legacy of kicking ass in the middle of varying degrees of latex makeup and effects like she did in films like Total Recall, F/X2 (a personal favorite of mine), Falling Down and… ok, Gargoyles is voice acting, but there’s no way I’m going to leave Maria Chavez out.
The late, great R. Lee Ermey gets to do his classic yelling here even though he’s just a kind sheriff. I’m glad they worked his drill sergeant bit into him just being mad at the criminal and worried about an old lady as it adds a bit of absurd sweetness to a high concept plot.
Does It Deliver?: All Clydes are doomed to be criminals, and this one (played by D.B. Sweeney) is no exception. On the lam from both the law and angry locals after inadvertently murdering a merchant during a robbery, Clyde happens upon, and then scams his way into, a beautiful but softly decaying home that’s a bit like seeing a Southern version of Grey Gardens in its first few years of disrepair with a gauzy-lensed, hothouse atmosphere: In short, it’s great.
It’s occupied by the elderly Lilian Charbonnet (Ticotin), who’s very accommodating to the incredibly rude Clyde, who alternately tries to take her car and her life all while insulting her age. It turns out, however, her hospitality isn’t just based on the era and region she’s from: She was cursed during the Civil War and is a beautiful, young Rachel Ticotin upstairs, a lady forced to wear latex old age makeup downstairs, and she ages as the stairs progress in either direction. The curse affects not only her but any young man who’d be of sexual interest. Even with a middle ground, curses can be tricky things… especially when you’re dealing with someone as dumb as Clyde.
I hate Clyde. Rude, overly aggressive characters are a hallmark of the show, of course, but he pushes it so far that it distracts from what’s otherwise a neat little Southern gothic horror story. Lily is such an accommodating character that it’s obvious she has ulterior motives, but when you find out it’s more of a thirst trap than a death trap, the payoff is still interesting without being entirely satisfying. Still, the idea and environment are compelling enough for me to like this one fine, and I’d put it firmly in the middle of the show overall and towards the top for season six.
Best Cryptkeeper line: The Cryptkeeper goes beat poet on us!
“When I think of you my heart goes flopsy, as I contemplate your sweet autopsy
Your skin is green and blue, whatever would I do without my fine cadaver?
The love in which I know I’ll fall, starts with the unkindest cut of all.”
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.