Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: Doctor Horror’s House of Surprises
It may seem like it’s a more recent trend, but television has a long, storied history of having difficulty sticking the landing. If you’re familiar with Tales from the Crypt, you’re aware that some seasons tend to run out of steam towards the end. As someone who’s been watching these chronologically and consistently, I’ve found the handful of episodes leading up to the final stories usually gives a bit of a hint on how bad it’ll be. In my, ahem, “expert” opinion, season six is on track to mimic season five’s uneven climax… save for one outlier.
Next column, we’ll be tackling one of the biggest events in the history of the show along with the finale of season six, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of energy that rot—er, wrought—out. So for now, pretend that Google doesn’t exist and ignore that there’s a very good chance that you’re very familiar with this over-25-year-old show, and let yourself enjoy these ornery hors d’oeuvres for the morbid little morsels they are…
Season 6, Episode 10: “In the Groove” based on Crime SuspenStories #21
Directed by: Vincent Spano
Written by: Jack Temchin and Colman deKay
Originally aired: December 21, 1994
Director and writer pedigree: You know Vincent Spano! Yeah, Vinnie! Well, you know his face, anyway, as he made his name in acting and this is his sole directing credit. You know, beyond horror and sci-fi, I’m not always sure what credits to mention because I don’t know what you kids have seen. You a Rumble Fish fan? Oscar? The Prophecy 3: The Ascent do it for you? Well, he’s been in them all!
Jack Temchin has written only this episode and “Judy Miller, Come on Down” from Freddy’s Nightmares. This is about radioland, the Freddy’s Nightmares episode was about game shows… Temchin really did have exactly two things to say about the media in the early 1990s. Colman deKay (who has the absolute perfect last name for the crypt) worked on the recent “Staired in Horror” with Teller, and he’ll go on to write a few more episodes, including the very next one! Now, my theory was they brought him in to help out less experienced writers, but his final episode is with our two most prolific writing Crypt boys, but I still think this holds because that was probably his reward for helping the new kids out. Anyway, you’re all lucky you don’t have to see the Crypt conspiracy theories I don’t put in this column.
Other notables: The late, legendary, absolutely wonderful Miguel Ferrer returns one more time. Wendie Malick is as recognizable for her face as much as for her parallel-to-Lauren-Bacall smoky voice in both television and film, but I mainly remember her from Just Shoot Me! and Fraiser, which is a role I’m sure she got thanks to her radio experience in this episode. Actress Rusty Schwimmer not only has the greatest name of all time, but she also recently graced The Belko Experiment and Mr. Mercedes with her presence. Oh, and she’s in American Fable, which is one of my favorite folk horror films of the last few years, and I’ll take absolutely any opportunity to sing its praises.
Does It Deliver?: Gary (Ferrer) is a “shock jock” (ask your great grandparents), part of a radio dynasty who’s had past success, but his ratings are drying up and he’s running out of ideas. He hates his boss, who also happens to be his sister, but it looks like she’s finally given him a bright spot for a change in a beautiful young woman named Valerie (Linda Doucett.) She’s brought in to help his show, and while Gary is resistant at first, her silky, sexy voice and ratings-boosting topic ideas have the show climbing the… charts? Shares? Whatever radio shows do. One night they get a little too deep into Gary’s intense hatred of his mother during a live broadcast, though, and his sister dooms him to obscurity since he aired some not FCC friendly language. Gary’s finally feeling empowered, though, and he won’t take this lying down… or off the air.
Do you think I enjoy this? Do you think I like getting my hopes up that I get to see Ferrer on Tales from the Crypt again but it’s for a subpar episode? Well I don’t! This is ramshackle nonsense. It should have been gonzo greatness with Ferrer weirdly phone sexing an entire city before blood starts flying, but instead, it’s just… kind of community theatre. You know what else I thought of? Ben Stiller’s incredible one season sketch show had a great and mean take-off on Tales from the Crypt and a few other horror anthology shows of the ’90s, and I’ll be damned if my mind didn’t go straight there.
Not even a cameo from Slash himself could save this. It’s just sad.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Looks like he’ll be the mourning man after all!”
Season 6, Episode 11: “Surprise Party” based on Vault of Horror #37
Directed by: Elliot Silverstein
Written by: Tom Lyons and Colman deKay
Originally aired: December 28, 1994
Director and writer pedigree: Aw, it’s Elliot Silverstein’s last episode! If you’re just now joining us, he had previously directed three episodes in addition to directing screen gems like The Car and Cat Ballou plus episodes of the original The Twilight Zone. Sadly, this episode also looks to have been his retirement from the directing game altogether and serves as his final screen credit. His episodes always have a lot of humor and a stylish quirkiness to them, and I’m glad one of the later seasons got just a little bit of his magic.
Like I mentioned just up above, deKay seemed to help out the greener screenwriters as this is Tom Lyons sole writing (or anything!) credit. With Howard Brookner, deKay wrote the successful Bloodhounds of Broadway, which also juggled a big, star-studded cast, so he does seem like the ideal pinch hitter for Tales from the Crypt.
Other notables: We have a full deck to deal out at this party, but first, I have to ask you: Baby, can you dig your man? The Stand’s Adam Storke stars as the son of Rance Howard, real-life father of our favorite Hollywood boys, Clint and Ron Howard, all while having an astonishing acting career that dates back to the 1950s. Anyone who can appear in both a Marilyn Monroe movie and The Kroll Show in one lifetime deserves our respect. We also get another member of Hollywoodland royalty: The Frighteners’ Jake Busey!
The episode also serves as Walter Werzowa’s last time scoring, with three episodes in all (including “Curiosity Killed” and “Well Cooked Hams.”) He also worked as a composer on such genre fare as Cherry Falls, Mimic 2 (which is everyone’s favorite, right?) and Hellraiser: Inferno.
Does It Deliver?: In a pretty interesting flashback sequence that plays out mostly as a projection over a windshield as our lead Ray Wells (Storke) drives in the rain, we find out that his father (Howard) was on his deathbed with a grave warning. See, Ray expected to inherit a sizable house in his father’s will, but he’s warned that he’s being done a big favor with the house being scheduled to be destroyed rather than passed on to him. That doesn’t sit right with Ray, so he speeds up the Grim Reaper’s work a bit and fudges some documents to ensure he does get that crash pad.
Once he arrives at the home to assess things, he finds that there’s some kind of 1960’s themed party going on. His confusion gives way to horniness, but he’s in for a shocking twist: Showing up at a spooky house with a weird party going on may portend some grave events: It’s his happening and it freaks him out! Will the sins of the father be visited upon the son? Can you really trust any party with a Busey in it?
This one is a bit uneven for me. On one hand, the cast is fantastic, and the house is pretty great. Much like the ones featured in “House of Horror,” “Lover Come Hack to Me,” “The New Arrival” and “Television Terror,” you can’t accuse Tales from the Crypt of having shoddy damned houses and remain an honest man. On the other severed hand, the pacing is kind of labored, and Ray is a weird guy to follow. We know he’s a complete asshole, fine, but then we kind of arrive at the party with him like a reluctant friend, so we can’t fully revel in his demise and we can’t sympathize with him either. Beyond all that, there are some great gore effects here, and we’re delivered a classic EC Comics-style ending that is way too rare in season six.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Now that’s what I call agony of de feet!”
Season 6, Episode 12: “Doctor of Horror” based on Vault of Horror #13
Directed and written by Larry Wilson
Originally aired: January 4, 1995
Director and writer pedigree: Great news: The Addams Family and Beetlejuice scribe Larry Wilson is back in the crypt, and this serves as the one and only episode he both writes and directs! Bad news: We only have one more episode after this one, so we must treasure this nasty nugget as best we can. Wilson is one of my favorite standbys as he understands that Tales from the Crypt is at its best when it’s scary with a sense of humor with a touch of goofiness. Spoiler alert: I also think he did a great job directing, and I wish we could have had him pull double duty more often.
Other notables: My alarm bells (lightly) went off when I saw a comedy cast assembled here. We have Bueller, Bueller Ben Stein, classic “Oh, that guy!” actor Austin Pendleton, who’s appeared in everything from Short Circuit to The Muppet Movie to my personal favorite from childhood, the horror comedy My Boyfriend’s Back. Starring, though, is The Simpsons superstar Hank Azaria, whose accomplishments include tangling with a fake American Godzilla and being one of the Mystery Men, so respect. Even among these funny fellows, we have an outlier: country music superstar Travis Tritt. And this isn’t your standard Tales from the Crypt stunt casting, oh no—he’s a real main character with an arc and everything!
Does It Deliver?: Charlie (Tritt) and Richard (Azaria) are two night watchmen at a morgue who fulfill the classic “scheming asshole and bumbling, weak-willed sweetie pie” buddy dynamic we need to keep the Earth rightfully on its axis. Both are insulted and threatened by boss Ben Stein (It’s really, really hard to see him as a character other than Ben Stein) so they’re jonesing for a better opportunity. One night, they run into the fatefully named Dr. Orloff (Pendleton), a real-life “body snatcher!” Before they call the cops, he takes them down below the morgue and shows them his work.
See, he’s trying to capture the essence of the lifeforce from corpses so he can “unlock the deepest secrets of the human condition,” but he’s had no luck. He flashes some cash and recruits our two geniuses to help him out with procurement, and with most dirty deals on this show, things tend to escalate to murder and backstabbing. The problem with stealing a soul is that you’ve now created a soulless being. Who told these guys playing God would be easy?
“The better the soul, the stronger the light.” This delivers so much that it basically picks up for the slack for… let’s say… three lackluster season six episodes. The ending basically turns in The Re-Animator, and it’s pure, gory, bonkers glory. Even among a strong cast filled with experienced actors, Tritt completely steals the show. This one is a real throwback to when the original comic book series got full-tilt boogieman, and it’s definitely one of my top picks for one to put into your Halloween rotation.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “He went on to open a chain of private clubs for dismembers only!”
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.