Fangs cruelly for dropping in for more tales of Tales from the Crypt, kiddies! If you tuned in last time, you saw that we started off strong with a terrifying trilogy of terror. For the back half of season one, things lightened up a bit when the show decided to serve us up some choice slivers of its funny bone. Let’s crawl back in to see what horror the crew and cast brought—or didn’t bring—to each episode.
Director and writer horror pedigree: We finally have our first director who’s completely divorced from genre filmmaking! Deutch is probably best known for his John Hughes-penned films: Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, and The Great Outdoors. He did some big-name sequels with between numerous TV directing credits, but the closest he’s come to horror work beyond “Tales” is a stint directing on True Blood and various episodes of American Horror Story.
Horror luminary and The Predator co-scribe Fred Dekker returns from episode 2’s “And All Through the House.”
Other notables: Lea Thompson (Deutch’s wife) is beloved for starring in a very popular trilogy, sure, but she’s vastly underrated as a scream queen. In a single movie she both made love to a humanoid duck and faced off with a terrifying Jeffrey Jones, yet somehow she’s never mentioned among the great horror actresses. Anyway, here she chews the scenery as hard as she chews her character’s ever-present gum, and it looks like she’s having a blast.
Does It Deliver?: Listen: This episode has a makeover montage. And no, it’s not a scary one where an excited serial killer tries on different organs. we have a sparkling pop soundtrack backing our main gal trying on outfits and even funny hats. Lea Thompson plays a lady of the night who decides to risk her moneymaker (no, not that one) for $10,000; all she has to do is let a strange pawn broker take an impression of her “beauty.” All goes well with seducing her way into riches, until it doesn’t, and soon our scheming beauty is wishing she took the time to read the fine print.
The landing is soft and a bit melancholy, and the horror mostly comes from a gun death and “uglying up Lea Thompson” makeup. Makeup that, frankly, just makes her look like an elderly lady, and there’s some unintentional humor in how that’s sold as being REALLY horrifying. While “Sin Deep” doesn’t deliver the scares even a little bit, it has a plucky charm about it.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Just goes to show ya… if you want to sell yourself, look in the mirror first! (checks himself out in the mirror) Eggh.”
Director and writer horror pedigree: This is the kind of thing that really gets horror geeks excited: Tom Holland himself directing a story straight from the gruesome EC Comics archive. From directing Fright Night to Child’s Play to penning Psycho II and so much more, Holland is so true-blue horror that he gives Howard Deutch some street cred just by having his episode aired next to his.
Writer Michael McDowell was a fascinating man. A widely respected writer’s writer of paperback horror in the 1980s, along with being an accomplished screenwriter, McDowell was tragically struck down by AIDS before he could see his 50th birthday. He made an incredibly memorable impact, though, and gave us the script for Beetlejuice and worked on many episodes and the movie of Tales from the Darkside before later teaming back up with Holland for Stephen King’s Thinner.
Other notables: Amanda Plummer is always incredible even without a wealth of genre films in her CV, and I don’t think she gets nearly enough credit for being one of the best scream-yellers in Hollywood. Location-wise, the honeymoon house was filmed at the Chateau Bradbury Estate, which among many other productions was Sarah’s house in The Craft.
Music is provided by Oscar-winning rock ‘n’ roll legend Joe Renzetti, who works regularly with Holland as well as Frank Henenlotter, and that’s not even including gems like The Executioner or Dead & Buried!
Does It Deliver?: McDowell turned in what’s the first of an enduring trend among “Tales” episodes: the excessively cruel motivation angle. We join a newlywed couple where the groom is almost comedically open about his sole intention for marriage is that he’s after his new wife’s fortune. Once they get to a spooktacular abandoned mansion for their honeymoon, though, things take a turn for the ghastly and ghostly.
Even with its more supernatural plot, the blood and violent deaths pay off in spades—or axes. With the aforementioned overt douchiness of the groom making sure we’re really hoping he gets it in the end, “Lover” has that unique, uneven tone that still satisfies: It was a feeling that “Tales” cultivated into a unique signature. Still, despite the classically spooky locations and some horror silhouettes that would have felt at home in a Val Lewton film, this one falls a bit flat for me. I think the balance of the aggressive acting styles paired with a classic ghost story format didn’t completely gel in tone for me here, but it’s still a fun ride.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Beware of skeletons… unless they’re yours truly!” (cue laughter)
Director and writer horror pedigree: We have our first female filmmaker involved in the show! Best known to horror hounds as the director of Pet Sematary (released the same year as this episode), Lambert also has extensive experience in music videos, which is obvious with the manically kinetic feel of this episode.
While this is Battle Davis’ sole writing credit, he’s an accomplished editor who worked on The Ninth Configuration and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark and beyond. A. Whitney Brown will be known to Saturday Night Live diehards, and neither he nor Randolph Davis have any kind of horror background. Once you see the episode, that will become clear.
Cinematographer Peter Stein also worked on a few genre gems you may have heard of: Friday the 13th Part 2, C.H.U.D., Graveyard Shift, and Pet Sematary with Lambert. Editor Tom Finan came over from the cemetery o’ pet himself, as well as its sequel.
Does It Deliver?: Watcher beware, you’re in for a… well, maybe a chortle. For season one’s swan song, they somewhat controversially went full comedy. M. Emmet Walsh— the still-busy acting legend who I can’t even begin to pull out notable credits for without filling this page—is forced into early retirement. Now he has ample time to spend his days with his lovely but slightly detached pet-obsessed wife, played by sitcom favorite Audra Lindley. While she’s delighted at first to have time with him, he neglected her so much during his working years that he’s completely baffled by her, and she assumes she needs to hide his medication in his food like he was a dog. His new hobby should bring them closer together in a sick way… but will he appreciate her own take on it?
“Collection Completed” is the first of a sprinkling of “Tales” episodes that are technically horror only because of its goofy, gruesome twist. Until then, it plays pretty much like a sitcom; we even have Martin Garner as a goofy neighbor. While it may fall under “black humor,” that ignores how sunny and light the majority of the episode is. This one is for hardcore fans who enjoy it when “Tales” goes off the rails. It’s a bit of a strange closer to a short, strong first season, but it does let the audience know that it’s not afraid to be absurd or even downright daffy. The SNL writer on the script is felt a lot more than Lambert is here.
Best Cryptkeeper Line: “So until next time, I want you to sit… stay… and play dead. Good boy! (cue laughter)
The first season of Tales from the Crypt was an effective little sampler of what was to come. The balance of horror royalty with established “mainstream” talent and a sprinkling of newer writers among veterans gave the show two important things: legitimacy as an appointment-worthy TV show and a feeling of freshness. In 1989, the show found a way to dive into decades-old comic books and make them hip for an entirely new generation while still seducing those who read the comics as kids back into the crypt.
You also got a solid taste of the future superstar that is The Cryptkeeper, voiced by John Kassir and designed and built by the legendary Kevin Yagher. Yagher, who’s had a hand in and on some other memorable characters like Chucky, Freddy Krueger and so many more, also directed the Cryptkeeper’s wraparound intro and outro sequences. While the quality of the episodes absolutely had to deliver, it was the keeper of the crypt that truly catapulted the show into mainstream pop culture conversations and brand recognition. He was a legitimate superstar, and the importance of his clever-corny jokes, the absolute demented joy he got from the tales he shared and his big-budget ghoul look cannot be understated when it comes to the show’s success.
The first six episodes all aired within June of 1989, and viewers had to wait almost a year for the show’s second season. Luckily, reruns, word-of-mouth, and the strong originality and content of the episodes kept it alive until then. Until the last season, the first three episodes of each season would all premiere on the same night, giving its marquee value even more strength.
I hope you’ll join us again in a few weeks when we’ll start dissecting season two: It’s filled with stars, sex, and severed limbs. Be there or be scare, kiddies!
Exhuming TALES FROM THE CRYPT: The First Three Came Home
Nearly 30 years after its first airing, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt continues to be known for many things: pushing the boundaries of sex and blood’s marriage on television, memorable special effects not often seen on the small screen at the time, a conveyor belt of famous faces, and puns. So many puns. Another big thing was the star-studded talent behind the scenes. Masterminded by a crew of superstar producers, Tales from the Crypt made its nasty genre fare—which could range from brilliant to downright terrible—attractive to both writers and directors from every film and television genre.
With the likes of Joel Silver (pre-The Matrix but already a massive action-movie-producing powerhouse), Walter Hill, David Giler, Richard Donner, and Robert Zemeckis executive producing, it was clear from the start that this show wasn’t going to be some cheap, fly-by-night one-season run. This was something special, different, and weird: the kind of thing that could infect the zeitgeist and pull conversation out of a Saturday night airing and into Monday’s water cooler conversation.
Genre creatives had a hell of a fun time on this new playing field, and many had fond memories of pawing through the EC Comics as children, giving the grue and gore a nostalgic glow. Tales also attracted a good number of luminaries (and maybe a few not-so-luminaries) who hadn’t worked in horror before or since, however, making the outlet both more democratic to different visions and possibly more uneven overall.
In this column, I’ll be revisiting each episode of Tales from the Crypt with an eye to the boils and ghouls behind the screams! Which is to say: Is there a marked difference between the episodes made by the horror kids vs. the ones who are usually too cool to sit at our messy table? Settle in, kiddies…
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Man Who Was Death” based on Crypt of Terror #17 (#1)
Director: Walter Hill
Written by: Robert Reneau and Walter Hill
Originally aired: June 10, 1989
Director and writer horror pedigree: Light on horror but heavy—nay, legendary—on the genre film front. Walter Hill was one of the producers who worked to bring Tales from the Crypt to television, and his thrill-heavy filmography only helped. From directing The Warriors to producing multiple Alien films, he’s about as bonafide as you can be without actually being known as a “horror guy.” Anyone who’s seen Streets of Fire or 48 Hours knows that Hill is as skilled at handling action as he is guiding actors through unusual plot twists.
Robert Reneau was an interesting name to see paired up with Hill’s here, as his filmography barely fills a light handful, with his most well-known projects being the screenplays for Demolition Man and Action Jackson. Still, two years prior to Tales, he co-wrote an episode of The Hitchhiker (aka Deadly Nightmares), another anthology television series that dealt in the strange and unusual. His entry, “Joker,” is more irritating than chilling, but it has enough disturbing beats that I can see why it worked in his favor in getting this job.
Other notables: As an OG Roswell fan, I will never neglect to give William Sadler as many props as I reasonably can. I could fill this page with a focus on his varied and fascinating career, but I’ll stick to pointing out that he’s technically the most die-hard, true-blue one involved in this episode, as he went on to appear in the Tales from the Crypt movies Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood.
My beloved Gerrit Graham of Terrorvision and Phantom of the Paradise and so many other wonderful projects also appears, blessing this episode forever.
The director of photography, John R. Leonetti, went on to work on a huge amount of horror films, most notably with James Wan, including directing the recent Annabelle and Wish Upon.
Does it deliver?: In a real low-key, neo-noir way, it sure does. A classic villain-protagonist turn villain-antagonist plot, Sadler’s prison executioner loses his job thanks to changing laws. Instead of just moving to Texas or Florida, he turns to street justice to mete out the penance that the law failed to deliver. While you can see exactly where it’s going, the acting, pacing, and moody cinematography make it an entry that ends up on a lot of fan’s top 10 lists. Less a morality tale (and more of a GOREALITY tale!) than a look at what happens when someone takes a Manifest Destiny approach and appoints themselves judge, jury, and executioner, this set the stage beautifully for the signature blend of horror folktales slam dancing harmoniously with HBO’s 80s-to-mid 90s “ultra-hip” view of sex, violence, and dark humor.
Best Cryptkeeper line: Nothing memorable in this first outing, but his spirited skill in using an electric chair on himself more than makes up for a lack of one-liners.
Season 1, Episode 2: “And All Through the House” based on Vault of Horror #35 (#24)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Fred Dekker
Director and writer horror pedigree: Much like Walter Hill, Zemeckis is beloved by genre fans while not exactly being tied to horror—although he did go on to develop the story for Bordello of Blood. No, Robert visited the spooky stuff when he needed his break from his Roger Rabbits and Back to the Futures with producing for Dark Castle Entertainment along with Joel Silver, which began in the late 1990s to remake old William Castle movies before expanding their releases. Still, he did direct the terrific Death Becomes Her, which is just about as fine a horror comedy as you can get. Also, whether or not nepotism was involved, Zemeckis hiring then-wife Mary Ellen Trainor was a great choice: She knew just how to balance playing a sleazy character we’d still end (kind of) rooting for.
Fred Dekker is no stranger to horror fans, thanks to Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. If anyone could sell a scary and slightly cartoonish killer Santa, it’s Dekker.
Other notables: Being shot by Dean “Halloween and The Thing and endless other legendary projects” Cundey is about as flawless a pedigree as you can get. (Is it just me, or would Nothing but Trouble, which Cundey was also the cinematographer for, be a great Tales from the Crypt movie?) Marshall Bell, aka “the gym teacher in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge,” appears and disappears. The real standout, however, is scary Santa, played by Durant and Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake. He’s absolutely unhinged and terrifying, and I’d put him up against any other horror Santa out there… except The Cryptkeeper itself, who hosts in an unsettling latex Santa mask.
Does It Deliver?: Santa always delivers! Seriously, there’s a reason why this is a favorite (the story also appears in the 1972 Tales from the Crypt film), many even assuming it was the first episode of the series thanks to its impact. From a graphic poker to the head in its opening minutes to Drake’s completely gonzo performance in makeup that says “melted meth head,” “All Through the House” remains one of the creepiest and most fun entries, even with years of the show following to compete against. This is truly the Crypt at its best: creepy, gory, morally judgmental, and an absolute scream.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “Be very careful what you AXE for on Christmas… you might just GET IT!” (cue laughter)
Season 1, Episode 3: “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” based on the Haunt of Fear #21
Director: Richard Donner
Written by: Terry Black
Originally aired: June 10, 1989
Director and writer pedigree: While Richard Donner is deservedly well-known for directing the Christopher Reeve Superman along with Lethal Weapon and The Goonies (viciously pit this episode against “And All Through the House” if you’re one of those weird Goonies vs. Monster Squad kids!), he also directed The Omen, one of my very favorite horror films.
Terry Black has a place in my heart for writing the much-maligned but holy shit do I love it Dead Heat. With that kind of background, you can get an idea of the horror/comedy well the producers were drawing from when getting people to write these scripts. Black went on to write mostly in television, including the Tales from the Cryptkeeper cartoon show, which I remember less than I remember the very strange and VERY 90s Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House game show, which I desperately wanted to compete on as a kid. Anyway, as Saint Shane Black’s older brother, Terry offers proof that screenwriting may be a hereditary trait.
Other notables: Donner brings in The Goonies alum Joey “Pants” Pantoliano, who’s obviously best known for the 1983 slasher The Final Terror.
Does it deliver?: In my humble opinion, this is where Tales really hits its stride and sets the tone for the rest of the series, and what a feat to get that done by the third episode. The comedy is wicked and just this side of too cheesy, and we have a lead who we can’t wait to get served their just desserts. The camerawork is purposely disorienting, and the punishment for hubris (this one preying on a fear that 99.9% of the population absolutely has to share) is satisfying. There’s also a “nine lives” theme that gets played shamelessly here, and I have to give a shout-out to the sound department for going all the way with it.
Best Cryptkeeper line: “… though Dying for Dollars could have been a popular game show. They could have put it between Wheel of Misfortune and The Newly Dead Game! Unless they bury it in the wrong timeslot… (cue laughter)”
Overall, we have a mighty strong batch of episodes welcoming us into the crypt. Thanks to the high quality of the first season, the success of the show was pretty much assured. Of these three, although I enjoy them all quite a bit, my personal favorite goes to “And All Through the House” as I’m a sucker for the classics. We have a nice balance of those with horror experience collaborating with people who are known predominantly for being good filmmakers, and that may just be the winning combination. Still, this is early days, so tune in next SLIME for some more IN-DEPTH AUTOPSIES of TALES… FROM THE CRYPT!
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