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Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: The Late Late Report

Over the years, I’ve heard a good deal of bemoaning about the seventh season, most condemning it as a complete write-off. As I marched closer to watching and writing about it here, my apprehension grew. The seventh season was my one blind spot: the only season where I hadn’t seen a single episode. Visions of no-budget sets shaking when actors walked by and careless scripts from jaded writers danced frightfully in my head.

Now that I’m here, I’m deeply disappointed in those who tore this one down so enthusiastically. Not only because I’d have preferred to not be told something I had to really dig into was going to be irredeemable, but also because it’s absolutely fine as a Tales from the Crypt season! It’s not an exemplary season, sure, but the quality ratio is the same or even slightly better than the past two seasons. Was it the accents? Did you not like the accents? Did the short foray into Hammer-inspired territory seem stuffy?

Of course, you’re allowed to hate any season you’d like, and I’m not one to try and shame anyone just because I disagree. I live by a few tenets when it comes to pop culture and multimedia in general that I’m not even pretending are noble or brilliant, but a few of them I think are good enough to catch on more. One is that, unless it’s something so foul, artless, hateful, and devoid of any level of meaning, I shouldn’t go around telling everyone that something “sucks” just because it wasn’t my cuppa. I’m happy to share why I thought something was tripe, but I’ve had far too many successful interactions that involved me recommending something I didn’t dig working like gangbusters for a friend for me to ever give that mindset up.

I’m off my soapbox now, I promise! Here’s an extra-large deadition for you… “extra large” meaning “there’s four episodes instead of three!” Also, no biggie, just a heads-up: The next column will be our last. Please, think about “Exhuming” when writing up your will, and read on… read as if it’s your next-to-last-time you’ll ever read this again!! Forever!!!!

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Season 7, Episode 7: “The Kidnapper” based on Shock SuspenStories #12
Directed by: James H. Spencer
Written by: John Harrison
Originally aired: June 7, 1996

Director and writer pedigree: Season seven now, officially, firmly, in perpetuity, ad infinitum, et cetera, et cetera, has a trend of veteran film artisans in OTHER filmmaking departments finally hopping in the directing chair. (Don’t believe me? Read on and meet Tom Sanders!) What James H. Spencer lacks in being the big cheese director he makes up for in being… other types of… big cheese. He was a production designer on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, Joe Dante’s Innerspace and The ‘Burbs, both of the Gremlins pictures and was a second unit director on Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

Someone with those credentials and that kind of experience taking a rare foray onto this show to do something they were probably curious about, but obviously isn’t their primary passion, is one of the reasons why I originally wanted to cover Tales from the Crypt like this. These tiny horror parties being scattered over so many filmmakers’ careers made me intensely curious about who actually ended up making all the shows.

We touched on John Harrison in the last column, and “The Kidnapper” will be his last appearance either writing or directing on Tales from the Crypt. I love that someone so intrinsically involved with Tales from the Darkside and other George Romero works became a returning creative here, and I’m excited that someone who had a real impact on this show will be bringing a bit of that spirit in Shudder’s Creepshow anthology. He takes chances and isn’t afraid to get weird and experimental in a short format.

Other notables: This one is a treat more for British comedy fans than horror. Lucky for me, I’m a sucker for British humour, and seeing Saffy (Julia Sawalha) from Absolutely Fabulous work against Alan Partridge himself, Steve Coogan, was a lot of fun. Fun that dorks like. Thankfully, they’re also strong actors and didn’t bring an inappropriate or grating tone here.

Does It Deliver?: Danny Skeggs (Coogan) is a young, lonely man lacking in socialisation skills. One day, a homeless, heavily pregnant woman named Teresa (Sawalha) comes into his shop to try to pawn some items. After a bit of talking, Danny is able to convince Teresa he’s harmless, and she can move in with him and feel safe with her baby. It does shockingly go well—besides Danny being convinced they’re in love and Teresa constantly having to dodge away from his attempts at affection—until the baby is born. Now Danny wonders where all the fun went, why everything is about the baby now, and how much better things would be if the baby just… wasn’t a factor any longer.

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Here’s the thing: I was absolutely terrified when this episode started. From infants being manhandled to a vulnerable pregnant woman being manipulated by an obviously emotionally disturbed man, these are the plot threads my personal nightmares are made of. The episode pulls back from that level of unrelenting horror, however, by adding enough comedy elements to keep it at a comfortable “television-level dark humour creepfest.” By the end, the story takes on a more light-hearted tone, but the scenes with Teresa and Danny when things get uncomfortable are just as unsettling for the viewer. Hey, rigid awkwardness is a TYPE of horror! Change the score a bit on Curb Your Enthusiasm and you have one hell of an unrelenting, neurotic horror story, I swear.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “At least, in the end, he did the writhe thing.”

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Season 7, Episode 8: “Report from the Grave” based on Vault of Horror #15
Directed and written by William Malone
Originally aired: June 14, 1996

Director and writer pedigree: This is a William Malone fan space, and this is also Malone’s second and final job on the show. While he’s seemed to quiet on his career in moviemaking in recent years, I’ll always consider him one of the most stylistic and interesting directors in the flood of “hip” horror that threatened to drown us all in the late ‘90s and early aughts.

As an aside: When it comes to adapting the actual stories from the comic book issues, all levels of liberties have been taken, but “Report from the Grave” is easily one of the biggest “In Name Only” episodes. (If they ever do bring the show back, I demand to see the Vault Keepers!)

Other notables: James Frain is a familiar face who’s appeared in everything from Star Trek Discovery, the latest iteration of The Twilight Zone, Gotham, True Detective, and countless other respected nerd and fancy franchise properties. He’s definitely a modern-day journeyman character actor, and that’s the backbone of this industry, dammit.

Does It Deliver?: We open to one of the greatest among great macabre openings: two people tromping through a graveyard, loaded down with equipment. Arianne (Siobhan Flynn from Malone’s Feardotcom. She was also in something called “Two Germs One Cup” and I just don’t wanna know about that project, no thank you.) and Elliot (Frain) have been doing intensive research into accessing and recreating the memories of dead people. They have a big blooping machine and lots of research; they just need a subject: Serial Killer Valdemar Tymrak (Game of Thrones’ Roger Ashton-Griffiths) should be a perfect subject because what could possibly be a more welcoming, nurturing place for study than a killer’s noggin?

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Things are already tense between Elliot and Arianne, and when he sees some papers in her bag that he thinks cements his suspicions that Arianne’s trying to peddle his work as her own so she can make money off them, he instantly reacts in rage and turns their resurrection machine up to 11 as she’s testing it. Seeing as how you wear it as a helmet… this has instant, terrible results. So she wasn’t stealing the research (in fact, she was seeking an opportunity for Elliot) but even if she was, she wouldn’t deserve the microwave brain treatment. Now she’s dead but sending chilling messages to Elliot that hint that she may just be somewhere in-between worlds…

If this isn’t the proto-House of Haunted Hill, then I’ll buy a hat and eat it. The ultra-shaky head effect is back; ultra-fast split-second cuts; silent communication through a visual recording device; scary, ancient medical set-ups are a go; sexy women in spooky, expression-less white masks abound… Ok, that one is more a callback to his “Only Skin Deep” episode more than anything, but Malone definitely has his visual tropes that he’s lashed himself to, and bless him for it. I’ve made no bones about being a fangirl for him, and I loved seeing his familiar fingerprints all over this. This is a very romantic episode as well, but it also delivers on a lot of great horror aesthetics and a solid haunted atmosphere. Despite the aforementioned effects, this is actually a fairly subtle and quiet episode, and it’s one of my favorites of the season so far.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “He thought his field was physics; turned out it was DIEology!”

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Season 7, Episode 9: “Smoke Wrings” based on Vault of Horror #34
Directed by: Mandie Fletcher
Written by: Lisa Sandoval
Originally aired: June 21, 1996

Director and writer pedigree: This is the first and only episode both written and directed by women. Mandie Fletcher is an award-winning director of pretty mostly comedy programmes outside of this episode. A dark comedy that fits perfectly in this world, however, is her film Deadly Advice, starring recent Tales cast member Jane Harrocks being guided by the ghosts of famous murderers on how best to kill and dispose of her mum. Neat!

Lisa Sandoval is a member of Latter-Day Crypt Royalty. Since season six, she worked as both a script supervisor and associate producer on every episode. After assisting on Bordello of Blood and W.E.I.R.D. World (a William Malone release that is very hard to find any information about, let alone a copy of) it seemed like all she wanted out of Hollywood was the Cryptkeeper, and that’s beautiful.

Other notables: I’d be remiss to not mention that yes, we have another James Bond join us on the show: 28-year-old Daniel Craig stars! This was in the very early days of his career, but he already looks like Daniel Craig and is completely self-assured. Gayle Hunnicutt also appears, the sharp-as-a-tack beauty who appeared in some great British horror and thriller classics like Fragment of Fear, The Legend of Hell House, and Strange Shadows in an Empty Room.

Does It Deliver?: We open at a high-powered advertising office called Touchstone Edwards, which has that classic early ‘90s vibe of ultra-beige furnishings and ultra-babe employees. They’re hiring, and after a montage of dud interviews, in comes Barry (Craig) with a smooth voice and slicker ideas. He sells Jacqueline (Ute Lemper) on hiring him even though he has zero experience. He immediately makes waves, however, by going all alpha on Frank (Denis Lawson) and his big account.

We soon find out that Barry is directly working with Mr. Touchstone himself, who’s now a bit mad and living in the basement of his old company, plotting to get revenge thanks to him getting screwed over and having his company stolen. He invented a device that can make people imagine anything, be it an intense craving or a complete nightmare. He paid ex-con Barry to use the device on his ex-partners, first to impress them into investing in it as an advertising tool, then for darker ideas… but things aren’t always as they seem. The customer may always be right, but the guinea pig rarely is.

This is strong and interesting until the twist at the end, which, while a somewhat interesting reveal, makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. This is not an uncommon trait on this show, honestly, but it was such a fun, rat-infested light science fiction/vengeance story until then that it does feel a bit like a cheat. Overall, this is an energetic episode thanks to some outlandish performances, and Craig fans have a treat here as he’s in nearly every scene.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “That’s why they call me the offer you can’t refuse!”

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Season 7, Episode 10: “About Face” based on Haunt of Fear #27
Directed by: Tom Sanders
Written by: Gilbert Adler & A.L. Katz and Larry Wilson
Originally aired: June 28, 1996

Director and writer pedigree: This is Tom Sanders sole directing gig. He’s an accomplished production designer who’s worked on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, and a host of Mel Gibson films, including Braveheart and Apocalypto. We’ve already talked a bit about how well Peter Mullins has done as production designer on this season so far, but I think working with a director who speaks his specific language really paid off: This is easily one of the best-looking episodes of the entire series, and it may very well be in the top spot.

Other notables: A young Anna Friel stars, who later would become one of the best parts of Bryan “Hannibal” Fuller’s television show Pushing Daisies. The late Tales from the Crypt superstar Scott Nimerfro also wrote and produced for Pushing Daisies, so if you want a ground zero for one of the best canceled-too-early shows, ta-freakin’-da!

Another Harry Potter franchise alum shows up! Imelda Staunton, who played the primly sadistic Dolores Umbridge, shows her range by being tragically sympathetic and a bit pathetic in this episode.

Does It Deliver?: Jonathan is a hypocritical minister who carries on constant affairs, mainly with very young and very vulnerable women. His actions lead us to a difficult secret labor taking place in a brothel. Fast forward sixteen years when beautiful young Angelica (Friel) shows up on the minister’s doorstep, announcing that she’s his lost daughter. Jonathan’s long-suffering wife, Sarah (Staunton), is scandalized but still mostly kind to Angelica. Dear old dad, however, sees it as an opportunity to shine up his reputation a bit by taking in a “lost child.” We soon find out that there is a sister: Leah (also Friel) who has severe facial scarring and, unlike her passive, appeasing sister, is a Bible-quoting ball of rage who’d rather get revenge on daddy than spend Christmas at the manor. Will this crazy family make this new arrangement work, or will secrets, lies, hatred, and a giant house full of secret entrances end badly?

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A slight spoiler on this ending: It’s fantastic when it comes to practical effects, and it is fairly emotional. The big negative, however, is that the bad guy doesn’t die! While he did show some emotion and sincerity in one, single relationship, we don’t get that cleansing fire of satisfaction this show is famous for. This one is fine, and I do like that it’s a bit of a nod to earlier seasons’ fixation on different kinds of twins, but it’s a bit too uneven to be a favorite. Still, the whole episode is a looker and just as beautifully acted, especially Friel in her dual role.

Best Cryptkeeper line: “Invites his daughters to stay with him and ends up aghast in his own home! I guess he knows now that he’ll never TERROR them apart…”

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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