Tales From the Crypt: A Look Back
Oh my gory glory goodness... it's that time of year again, isn't it? October. While Halloween takes on a more passive role for most adults, becoming an excuse to dress up in a funny costume and drink at a party, for others it becomes an excuse to dig out the DVDs, VHS tapes, and anything else we've got and explore the world of monsters and mayhem for a while. There's tons of films worth mentioning: the Universal monster films, plenty of 80s VHS trash, the majestic slasher movies of the 70s and 80s... then there's television. We had the cerebral but ultimately tame Twilight Zone, the regal and dignified show hosted by Mr. Hitchcock, and even some funnier ones like The Munsters.
Then there's a little series that came on HBO in 1989 and opened it all up into a bloody mess... Tales from the Crypt.
The original brain-seed for the series was one of a set of comic book series from the 1950s; Tales from the Crypt ran 27 bi-monthly issues from 1950 to 1955 that broke rules even back then. In fact, Bill Gaines (The publisher, who ran EC Comics, the imprint under which the horror comics were produced) was among those called to testify in the highly-publicized 1954 Senate Subcommittee hearings that resulted in the Comics Code Authority we know today. While gone, the comic was far from forgotten, and had a lasting influence on a generation of future storytellers. Publisher Russ Cochran has overseen several reprints of the original EC line, and EC itself eventually doubled down on another title in its repertoire... MAD Magazine.
It's worth noting that, in 1972, Amicus Films produced a Tales from the Crypt movie. While it isn't incredible, it's still pretty good, and stars Peter Cushing, Joan Crawford, and has Ralph Richardson as the Crypt Keeper. The film was a modest success; it spawned a sequel (named after another EC horror title, Vault of Horror) in 1973. For a good while afterward, the crypt was quiet. The dead slept.
Cushing as the undead Mr. Grimsdyke, Richardson as the Crypt Keeper, and the typically cheesy 70s-style titles of the 1972 film.
Then suddenly, in mid-1989, commercials began to air on pay-cable channel HBO...
I still remember these commercials chilling my young blood. My first sight of the undead host had me both horrified and fascinated... I could barely stand to look into his perfect blue eyes, but I had to know more.
On June 10th of that year, Tales from the Crypt hit cable TV and became a legend. Since it was on HBO, it was unbound by typical censorship, and the blood and gore flowed like wine. The stories from the old comics were often adapted into teleplays, though some episodes were original scripts. As we'll examine below, many of these terror-tales combined a high FX budget with black humor and surprisingly star-studded casts. All of this magic was introduced and wrapped up by the Crypt Keeper, who had doubtless aged poorly since the 1950s but was still full of life... or unlife, whatever it may have been.
On the left, you have the Crypt Keeper as he appeared from 1950 to 1955 in the comics. On the right, you have him in 1989 on the TV show. Clearly, 34 years can do a lot.
The Crypt Keeper was designed and built by Kevin Yagher, a special FX artist famous for his work on Nightmare on Elm Street 2 though 4, Child's Play, and other horror blockbusters. The puppet required a team of puppeteers to operate, including a rig to handle the intricate facial movements that made him seem all too real. The voice of the undead storyteller was provided by John Kassir, a talented voice actor whose work you've definitely heard if you've ever watched cartoons. Kassir adopted a high, rich but reedy tone for the Crypt Keeper's speech, providing an odd touch of class while remaining insidious. The end result had long lasting psychological impact on me as a kid; I found the Crypt Keeper both terrifying and fascinating due to how real he seemed, how lifelike the movements of his dead face and body looked.
Left to Right: Puppeteer Brock Winkless showing off the electronics used for manipulating CK's ghastly facial movements; a diagram showing how his body was animated; and his creator, Kevin Yagher, creeping in for a selfie with the decayed horror host.
This isn't to say the content of the show itself wasn't also amazing. There are plenty of episodes that come off as corny, but even those have value; what truly stand out are the episodes with all-star casts that tell memorable stories and contain innovative film work or FX. I'd like to note that while the ones I mention are my favorites, they are far from the only ones worth seeing; I advise anyone who hasn't had a look to seek out the DVDs or Blu-Rays... and a little bird told me some episodes might be on YouTube... there are few episodes that don't have something to like.
Season 1 starts off slow, with a few real clunkers, but two episodes deserve notice. One is actually the very first episode, “The Man Who Was Death.” It stars William Sadler as the man who pulls the switch in a penitentiary's Death Row; he loses his job due to the repeal of the death penalty and decides to keep doing his work freelance. The episode is excellent not only for Sadler's top-notch performance, but because it sets the tone for many tales to come; Without spoiling too much, the executioner gets his just desserts in a truly ironic twist of events. “And All Through the House” is another noteworthy episode, starring Mary Ellen Trainor (the mom from Goonies) as an unscrupulous wife who kills her husband, with the legendary and late Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles) as the psycho Santa who interrupts her insidious plan. These two episodes set the bar for the series moving forward.
Season 2's most notable episode is "The Switch,” directed by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. William Hickey plays an old millionaire who is deeply infatuated with a beautiful young lady (played by 80s-90s bombshell Kelly Preston). He has a doctor replace parts of his body with those of a young man named Hans when the young lady claims to like fit men; Once he's bankrupted himself to gain the bodybuilder's form, she decides she's attracted to money instead... and walks off with the now-shriveled bodybuilder, who has the millionaire's body... and his millions. Schwarzenegger makes a cameo appearance in the Crypt Keeper segments, starting a trend that would continue as stars occasionally hammed it up with the old corpse. Episode 14, “Lower Berth,” tells a tale of circus freaks, love, violence... and the origin of a certain famous horror host... It isn't particularly innovative or memorable on its own, but “Lower Berth” is still noteworthy for more great FX work.
The series began to hit its stride in Season 3, and three episodes immediately came to mind that show how versatile Tales from the Crypt was becoming in terms of the stories told. “Carrion Death” features Kyle MacLachlan as an escaped convicted killer, an unusual but well-played role for him. He and the police officer who tries to bring him in (George DelHoyo) are the only characters seen onscreen... unless you count the vultures in the desert that serves as the episode's grim setting. “Yellow,” one of my favorite episodes, could well be considered one of the best in the entire series. Set during World War I (Specifically 1918), this episode is less horror than it is a wartime morality play. Kirk Douglas plays a general whose son (Eric Douglas) is a lieutenant under him during some of the war's worst trench fighting. Sadly, the apple has fallen far from the tree, and the general must face the humiliating truth that his son is a coward. Lance Henriksen and Dan Aykroyd play supporting roles, and I don't need to tell you that the acting is superb throughout. One could even consider it supplemental viewing for the WWI drama Paths to Glory, also starring Kirk Douglas. “The Reluctant Vampire” stars Malcolm MacDowell as a bloodsucker who gets his fix by working as the night watchman at a blood bank. The episode also stats George Wendt (Cheers) as the blood bank manager and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Dr. Rupert van Helsing. It's a bit more of the black humor than the horror, but the episode is charming and hard not to enjoy.
Season 4 continues the hit parade, and its sixth episode, “What's Cookin,” stars Christopher Reeve, Judd Nelson, and Meal Loaf in a story about a restaurant owner's quest to find the perfect dish... at any costs. “Split Personality” features Joe Pesci as a con-man who pursues a pair of knockout twins by pretending to be a pair of twins himself. Let's just say it doesn't work out for him, and he finds himself torn between the lovely girls! “Werewolf Concerto” plays out a lot like a good mystery, eventually pitting a monstrous lycanthrope (Timothy Dalton) against a clever vampiress (Beverly D'Angelo) at its conclusion. This episode also stars Dennis Farina, Reginald VelJohnson, and even Wolfgang Puck as the other guests at the resort where the monster battle goes down.
The fifth season has less to offer overall, but contains two episodes worth discussing. The first, “Death of Some Salesmen,” is a testament to the versatility and talent of an actor some of us may be familiar with... one Tim Curry. Curry plays all three members of a deranged family who kidnap and eventually serve twisted justice to a crooked salesman played by Ed Begley Jr. Not only is the performance by Tim Curry the stuff of legend, but the camerawork is excellent as well, deftly maintaining the illusion that these are three separate people and not one amazingly talented actor. A cameo by Yvonne DeCarlo (The Munsters) caps this off as another of my favorites in the series. Also notable is “Oil's Well That Ends Well,” a crime story about a set of swindlers who really have it in for each other over a bit of bubbling crude. One of them has a distinctive laugh you may have heard in the series... in fact, you've heard it often.
Season 6 and 7 are when Tales from the Crypt began its decline; there were still episodes worth watching, but they became fewer and further between. One is Season 6's “You, Murderer,” which stars John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn... and Humphrey Bogart. The FX crew didn't need a shovel or a necromancer to put Bogie onscreen; the episode was an experiment in then-blossoming digital video technology. We see Bogart's face through reflections in mirrors, glass, and elsewhere... but barely do we ever see things outside his own point of view, which is how the story is framed. It's all done very skillfully, and remains an excellent example of good digital film work to this day. Lastly, Season 7 contains the only animated episode, “The Third Pig,” a much more... well, adult retelling of the classic “three little pigs” story. The antagonist, the Big Bad Wolf, is voiced by none other than Bobcat Goldthwait.
TFTC also put its name on a trio of films; two are pretty decent and one is absolutely terrible. Demon Knight, released by Universal in 1995, features William Sadler as a good guy this time, a nearly-immortal soldier keeping a sacred vial of blood safe from demons who want to rule the Earth. Billy Zane plays the human-seeming leader of these evil creatures as they lay siege to an old hotel Sadler's character has been cornered inside of. Jada Pinkett plays the young woman who eventually inherits the guardianship and ends the demon problem... for the time being. While it isn't a classic at any rate, Demon Knight is worth a watch, and has some great FX as well as a few solid scares.
Bordello of Blood (1996) is about vampire whores, and stars Dennis Miller as a private investigator trying to get to the bottom of a young man's disappearance. Erika Eleniak, Corey Feldman, and Chris Sarandon also star in the bizarre black comedy film. Aubrey Morris plays a secondary role as the mortician whose business conceals the bloodsucker brothel, and the vampires are led by none other than 90s model-actress Angie Everheart. Everheart's performance is decidedly wooden, but everyone else does a fantastic job making this one fun. Miller's style of comedy is admittedly not everyone's taste, but his co-stars make up for him by playing decent foils to his constant referential comedy. All said and done, this one bombed at the box office.
Ritual (2002) started off not even bearing the TFTC imprint. RKO's final film, it stars Tina Grey (Dirty Dancing) and Tim Curry in a clumsy jaunt through medicine, money, and the supernatural. Grey plays a medical professional who loses her license and takes a job on an island as a young man's nurse. She comes to suspect, over time, that he is under someone else's influence. Universal and Miramax bandied back and forth about who would own and release this movie, and if the Tales from the Crypt dressing would even grace it... the end result is a set of endcaps hosted by an incredibly shitty version of the puppet. He looks horrible, moves horribly, and even sounds horrible because of the affected accent. It's an atrocity. It makes me sad that this was the note RKO died on.
In July of 1996, TFTC was canceled. It was felt, perhaps rightfully, that the show had run its due course. The franchise lingered on for a while; there was a childrens' version of the show (and an accompanying line of action figures), a Nickelodeon-style game show, and even a radio show in 2000 for Seeing Ear Theater. The Crypt Keeper hosted a couple events, notably 2013's New Years Eve celebration on FEARnet (warning, pathetic)... but he wasn't his old self. The wonders of the original puppet were lost, replaced by a cheap and toylike mannequin that barely moved.
But let's not remember that. Let's remember the music video that shows him ogling a woman's ass and using turntables.
Let's remember when his friends would come to visit and cheer the old cadaver up a little bit.
Left to right: CK and Tom Hanks wonder what it must be like to be Tom Hanks; Whoopi stops in on CK's talk show to set him straight; Arnold tries to put some meat on those old bones, to no avail.
Let's remember one of CK's trademarks: His terrible, awful puns.
And let's remember that even though M. Night Shyamalan is helping himself to a legacy he has no right to disinter, we'll always have 7 seasons of delightful horror to look back on. However you want to describe him further, the Crypt Keeper, in his undead TV form, became a pop-culture fixture. His stories were chilling morality plays tinged with blood and madness, and his presence is a difficult chill to shake off. Independent publishers still occasionally produce a rag or two bearing the logo and the likeness, and who knows... maybe this new series won't be total shit. We'll wait and see. Until then, pleasant screams!