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Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: And Now for Something Completely Different

It’s bittersweet, finally arriving at our final season. I won’t dwell there, though, as I’m sure my final column will be enough of a weeping wound. Trust me, though, kiddies: I’m feeling it. Watching, writing, researching, and interacting with fans of the show has been both incredibly fun and far more affecting than I realized it’d be, and seeing the finish line ahead of me is kinda weird.

Ch-ch-changes! From hustling production from California over to the UK to breaking away from the show’s tradition of premiering all the first three episodes on the same night, the seventh season immediately established itself as the odd duck of the series. Mind, it doesn’t hide its new British pedigree: The season opens with shots of Big Ben and other famous British tourist stops. The Cryptkeeper frames it as an extended vacation, but we all know that, as he puts it, he’s now one of the “Crown Ghouls.” While the comic book series had blood as red as the stripes on the American flag covering its pages, the 1972 Amicus production was a decidedly British affair, and that flavor is reclaimed to a degree here—this is exemplified to the nth degree by the director of the film directing our second episode.

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It’s very much a stark contrast. We go from the usually hip, naughty tone HBO was distinctly famous for the late 1980s and 1990s to an absolutely British perspective of sleazy. The sense of humour shifts as well, and the season opens with a more traditional, moralistic horror take, a far departure from the more sloppy, gonzo, rock ‘n’ roll feeling of the American years. I’m a huge fan of Hammer, Amicus, and British horror and humour in general, though, so I’m going in open-minded. So, will God save the Queen… or the Cryptkeeper?

Season 7, Episode 1: “Fatal Caper” based on Tales From the Crypt #20
Directed by: Bob Hoskins
Written by: Gilbert Adler, A L Katz, and Colman deKay
Originally aired: April 19, 1996

Director and writer pedigree: As someone who grew up with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Super Mario Bros movie, I had no idea Bob Hoskins was British until years after my childhood. Once I heard his thick, original accent in Mona Lisa, I was both humiliated and deeply impressed. Hoskins both directs and stars here, and there’s no trace of his American influence in either role. When it comes to his short directing career, Hoskins made the most of only a few titles by being eclectic: He directed a children’s film he also starred in (Rainbow) and a war-centric drama (The Raggedy Rawney.) He was a really neat guy, that Hoskins.

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Our Crypt VIP Gilbert Adler spearheaded the move to Ealing Studios in London to keep the show from suffering rigor mortis, so it’s only fair that he scripted the first episode along with frequent collaborator Katz. The new kid, Coleman deKay, makes this his swan song.

Other notables: Daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and wife to Liam Neeson, a young Natasha Richardson stars in the episode. She made her own way and name early in her career thanks to diverse roles, however, including playing Mary Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic and heading the 1990 film adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Sadly, she died at the young age of 45 following an untreated head trauma caused by a skiing accident, which gives what should be a fun career detour like appearing on Tales from the Crypt more weight due to the robbery so many other potential roles we would have gotten from her.

Does It Deliver?: Mycroft Amberson (Leslie Phillips, who has a career that ranges from Gene Kelly films to Steven Spielberg to voicing the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter film series) is a favorite fixture of fiction: A dying rich man surrounded by a greedy family. His trusted executor (Hoskins) is retiring before he can handle his will, though, and he hands Mycroft over to the beautiful and brilliant Fiona Havisham (Richardson.) His sons are estranged, decadent, and a bore, respectively, so splitting his estate is a “pearls before swine” situation, and two sons must find the third missing one before they can inherit their fortune. As these things go, the greed and cut-throatery intensify, and it turns out only having one brother standing will suit the will just fine.

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First off, I must point out how beautiful this episode looks. Hoskins, working with cinematographer Christopher Faloona and production designer Peter Mullins, brings the velvety, warm classic British horror look home to roost in the crypt, and it’s a change that’s as startling at it is pleasing on the eyes. For all I know it’s very basic to UK folk, but as a simple American, you show me some turn of the century furniture, some drapes, and paisley and I’m impressed.

Even at the time, the “twist” ending here was considered problematic, not even getting into how it plays now. Transphobia abounds, and it turns a solid tale away from “quaint horror” right into embarrassing everyone involved. It’s a pity, because it’s an otherwise fairly delicious tale of betrayal stacking, and the ending could have even been pulled off if handled better. Rather than basically sputtering “Gore blimey, it’s a man!!” it could have been handled with more finesse, toying with the familial power structure even more, but that might be asking too much for an episode that doesn’t even have half an hour to cover anything.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “I’m already feeling right at tomb; care to join me for a little FRIGHT seeing?”

Season 7, Episode 2: “Last Respects” based on Tales From The Crypt #23 Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Scott Nimerfro
Originally aired: April 26, 1996

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Director and writer pedigree: I’m a huge fan of Freddie Francis and his work as both a director and cinematographer, and having the director of the wonderful 1972 Tales from the Crypt film do an episode of the show exceeds being a treat and becomes the full dessert cart—but you know, a SPOOKY dessert cart with skulls next to the scones. Scott Nimerfro (you’ll notice this last season relies very heavily on the most experienced of the Tales from the Crypt crew) is a perfect partner, as his scripts tend to bring fresh character moments to classic stories, and that’s a place Francis has always excelled. Directing gems like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Girly, Nightmare, The Evil of Frankenstein, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, The Skull plus working as director of photography for films such as Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Francis had a truly rare and wonderful career.

“Last Respects” indeed: This episode serves as the last directing credit for Francis. His last as director of photography followed three years later when he reunited with David Lynch (for whom he partnered with on The Elephant Man and Dune) for The Straight Story.

Other notables: I try to avoid focusing on non-horror genre roles too much, but Kerry Fox’s role as Janet Frame in An Angel At My Table is one of the top five roles that have impacted my life (though that drama is a kind of horror film as it shows the reality of how terribly mental illness can be treated, but I digress.)

This episode is another beauty, and it’s no wonder: It boasts cinematographer Alan Hume, he of many, MANY films including The Legacy, The Watcher in the Woods, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (hey!) Lifeforce, The Legend of Hell House, and a nice handful of James Bond pictures. This, the first of two episodes he’ll make for Tales from the Crypt, fell at the very end of his career, further supporting my case that this episode should be showcased in a museum.

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Does It Deliver?: We open with an elderly couple in the death throes of the madness only an enchanted, cursed monkey paw can bring, nicely bringing us straight into the action as they’re about to wish that deadly third… wish. They’re left to their fate, and we move to Mr. Finger’s House of Curios, where the three sisters Yvonne, Dolores, and Marlys run the business after the death of their father… who’s a mummified display himself right in the center of the shop. Money is tight as the interest in curios in England is apparently at an all-time low, and they have a nice, snippy, evil stepsisters vs. Cinderella dynamic between them.

Marlys is the Cinderella of the gang, and she brings in a crate that contains—you guessed it—the monkey’s paw. They all know of the “fictional” story, but desperation drives them to try it out anyway. Good news: It works! Bad news: It works! If you thought these sisters backstabbed before (well, they sure did), now they’ve expanded their catalog to include front stabbing as well!

We can rest easy as this looks like a Hammer horror production from the 1970s. From the sumptuous yet cluttered sets to the throwback fashions, this is a wonderful tribute from the actual people who were actually there.

This is another episode that falls under the “slight but appreciated” category. There aren’t any twists on the monkey paw trope, but it connects the dots in a charmingly bloodthirsty way. The chemistry between the sisters is the centerpiece, and we do get a rather lovely waterlogged corpse. It’s an entertaining and compact look back at what Francis achieved in British horror during the previous decades, and getting him on the show honestly makes the move over the pond worth it to me.

Best Cryptkeeper line: Here we go: “Greetings, infestors! I’ll be with you in a moment—I was just putting these GROSS profits away for safe keeping. You see, boils and ghouls, at Cryptkeeper Financial, we can help you get morgue for your money! Whether it’s mutual FIENDS you want or cold, horrid cash, we can guarantee you’ll CORONER the market! Hm, I bet you’re the kind who’ll be interested in boo chips…”

Season 7, Episode 3: “A Slight Case of Murder” based on Vault of Horror #33
Directed and written by Brian Helgeland
Originally aired: May 3, 1996

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Director and writer pedigree: Brian Helgeland was already a name to genre geeks thanks to him penning the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, 976-EVIL, and a personal favorite of mine, Highway to Hell. He’d follow up writing this episode with a little film called L.A. Confidential, so we really caught him at a crossroads! This was, however, his very first directing effort. Directing-wise, he’d become the premier helmer of Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossamon-starring films with A Knight’s Tale and The Order.

Other notables: From Widow of the Web in Krull to Lady Jessica in Dune, Francesca Annis is no stranger to bringing delicate beauty to genre set pieces.

Does It Deliver?: Sharon Bannister (Annis) is a successful mystery writer who’s wrapping up her latest whodunit despite constant interruptions from her fangirl neighbour, Mrs. Trask (Elizabeth Spriggs) and her besotted adult son, Joey (Patrick Barlow.) Mrs. Trask has quite the interest into getting into the thriller writing genre herself, but the manuscript she gave Bannister to review is soundly dismissed as nothing Agatha Christie’s legacy needs to worry about. Trask is just the tip of the iceberg of Sharon’s issues, though, as her estranged husband shows up waving a gun around and making demands. Soon we have a corpse, then it’s not a corpse, then another corpse… well, it turns out the mystery leapt right off the page and right into our horror show! The only question is: Will it be a BEASTseller or just another victim of a dying medium?

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Chekov’s hedge clippers, beauty shots of a typewriter, and a dark house and basement just built for violent shenanigans make this a truly cozy mystery that I really enjoyed. While this isn’t exactly a showy, blockbuster episode or especially scary or gory, it is a lot of fast-paced fun and does a good job at crafting the steps of a traditional mystery narrative with some pitch-perfect performances. If I had to make my mom sit through one of these episodes (and trust me, kiddies: I did NOT get my love of horror from her) I’d choose this one.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “You know the zodiHACK never lies: You told me you’re Sagittarius, you’re PIECES!”

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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