Tales from the Crypt Season 1 A Tasty Sample
By Kristin Battestella
Sometimes one just gets the itch for that shrill cackle from the irrepressible Crypt Keeper as he tells his twisted little tales of warped, awry, and wicked! Fortunately, the 1989 debut season of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt is quality and quick enough to soothe your macabre mind.
Thanks to his design, puppeteers, and voice artist John Kassir combining for a solid presentation, that sassy little Crypt Keeper ghoul still makes for a well done puppet and fictitious host. His gruesome charm adds to the tongue in cheek comedy and horror camp tone of this anthology series – even if some of the puns and “boils and ghouls” demented word substitutions are a little dumb now. The Crypt Keeper winks at the audience, and the spooky old house, hidden crypt, and boney style of the show’s introduction immediately gets one in the fun midnight mood. For this Season 1, HBO and the big names behind the series – including Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), David Giler and Walter Hill (Alien), Richard Donner (Superman), and Joel Sliver (Die Hard) – add internal HBO jokes and adapt tales from classic fifties pulp comics such as Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. Despite the mid century origins and eighties production values, the plots for these six episode hold up well – although some of that 1989 hair, music, and fashion didn’t.
Horror portmanteaus in film and television are nothing new, but “The Man Who Was Death” is a very fine first half hour for Tales from the Crypt. Bill Sadler’s (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) ironic casting accents the askew angles, deathly zooms, and macabre subject matter. The black comedy, humorous breaking of the fourth wall and witticisms add personality – part of that stem’s from Sadler’s role as a down on his luck ex-executioner with a penchant for electricity. However, this style, foul language, and nudity in smart uses set the tone for the almost whimsical scares of the series, and Tales from the Crypt immediately debuts its hallmarks as a mature, morbid anthology with free reign – unlike earlier classic series like Tales from the Darkside and their hands tied G ratings. It’s surprising then, that the series’ second episode is an update of “And All thru the House,” which was previously a segment in the 1973 Amicus anthology film Vault of Horror. Direct Zemeckis ups the paced, seventies suspense with effective scares and action for then-wife Mary Ellen Trainer (Lethal Weapon) thanks to lots of snow and jump moments – not to mention a very creepy looking Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles) as a fatal, on the prowl Santa escapee.
Man with nine lives Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) and carnival ringmaster Robert Wuhl (Arliss) star in “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone” and pave the way for the more name guest stars often found on Tales from the Crypt. The audience likes the characters and thus needs to see an episode thru to the twists – even if the viewer is already counting down the lives here and looking for a deathly miscalculation. Likewise, beauty obsessed hooker Lea Thompson (also of Back to the Future) joins suave, sophisticated Brett Cullen (Falcon Crest) in Episode 4, “Only Sin Deep.” Though somewhat standard, not scary, and perhaps tough to believe, the attitude quickly changes here once voodoo, crime, and crooked pawnshops interfere. The good life will always be too good to be true on Tales from the Crypt, yet there are always morbid tokens of morality or eerie, careful what you wish for warnings here. Even when an episode may feel sub par, the kickers and irony remain memorable.
“Lover Come Hack to Me” also suffers from a slightly typical and thin premise, as meek Amanda Plummer (So I Married an Ax Murderer) and her new gold digging husband Stephen Shellen (who totally looks like Charlie Sheen!) enter an abandoned mansion to escape a storm on their wedding night. Thankfully, the excellent atmosphere, apprehension, sexy gone awry, and bloody marital bent make up the difference. Maybe it’s a bad turn, campy, or simplistic, but there’s a certain fun to this kind of ghoulishness and watchability even when you know what happens next. “Collection Completed” stars Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company!) as a crazy cat lady with a bitter retiree M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk) as her husband for even more demented domestic bliss. This couple just can’t get along now that they have all the time they desire. The dark humor and stuffy old people clichés won’t be for everyone, and major viewer warning for animal lovers!
As a macabre teen, I looked forward to watching this show and stopped for a rerun every time Tales from the Crypt was on – that opening, the Crypt Keeper, the stars of the hour, the forthcoming topper. Even the stinky ones have at least one memorable thing about them, and at 93 episodes total, it’s easy to browse, pick, and choose your favorites. Of course, the DVD presentation is a bit unusual, with basic or pointless features beyond the elsewhere available Tales from the Crypt: From Comics Books to Television documentary on Disc 2 of this Season 1 set. Although I like not having the series’ introduction with each episode or the need to skip over it, it is weird that it only plays to start the video. Sometimes you just really look forward to that creepy, cobwebbed house tour and Danny Elfman’s (Edward Scissorhands) theme to get you in the mood, so the option to skip the opening with the play all feature might have been better. Fortunately, this Season 1 is all together on a very affordable, convenient set, often packaged with Tales from the Crypt Season 2. I do wish the series were still airing on television or at the very least streaming somewhere, but for the length and price, Season 1’s six episodes make for a super sized anthology movie-esque starter sampling. It’s easy to marathon Tales from the Crypt Season 1 for a macabre evening any time of year.