Friday, October 31, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Tales from the Crypt

I’ve mentioned it several times on the podcast and a few times here, but I’ve been watching Tales from the Crypt all month. Late in September I got the heads-up from Son of Celluloid that Walmart had all seven seasons of HBO’s classic horror anthology show for ten bucks apiece. That’s an incredible deal for a legendary show, so I immediately went on the hunt for them.
I found the first season in one store that didn’t have any of the others. The second store I checked had season one and seasons three through seven. And it’s the only location that had more than just the first season. I still haven’t found season two.
Granted, I could just go on Amazon and order it:
But it’s more than ten bucks! Obviously it’s worth the above price, but I was all stoked about the ten dollar price tag. Now Walmarts are already pulling down their Halloween video endcaps, so I’m not expecting to find season two there.
Update: I ended up ordering a two-pack with season 1 and season 2 because it was $17.99 versus the $21.99 for season 2 alone. Yes. Seriously. I have not, however, watched any of the second season yet.
I watched Tales from the Crypt when it first aired on HBO. I was thirteen when it debuted, so regardless of what ratings or suggestions might have preceded the show I was the target audience. I was deep into horror at that point, but the combination of horror and comedy wasn’t quite as prevalent as it is now. For example – I knew Evil Dead 2 was weird and had a different tone from other horror movies, but at the time it hadn’t really occurred to me that the comedy was intentional.
It took me a few episodes to adjust to the tone of Tales, but before long I was absolutely devoted to the show. As a youth I had always liked the concept of Twilight Zone more than the execution, and Tales was a very modern and more relatable update to the ideas. Plus, almost every episode featured at least one actor that I was familiar with and liked. That was a big advantage over Twilight Zone’s big list of William Shatner and… William Shatner.
Side Note: Yes, obviously I have become much more familiar with the celebrity faces that appeared on Twilight Zone over the years. But when I was younger I had zero interest in older media. It took a lot for me to watch a movie or TV show that predated 1970. To a certain extent I am still that way, but I know my history a whole lot more and have found numerous favorites from the black and white era.
Sitting down with these DVDs represents my first return to the world of the Crypt Keeper. There are a few episodes I saw replayed on HBO, but other than that I haven’t watched most of these since they aired. I believe one of the networks or basic cable stations played edited versions of the show, but I can’t deal with that sort of thing. I want the original cuts or nothing.
Today I just wanted to give a little rundown of my thoughts about the show.
Season 1 – The first couple of episodes had me rethinking my big Tales from the Crypt purchase. Both of them are very well done, but the stories just didn’t do anything for me. Fortunately, the final four episodes (there are only six in the first season) are fantastic and some of the best and most memorable of the show’s entire run.
For each of these season I am going to list not necessarily the starring actors, but the ones that were draws for me, personally. For this season they were William Sadler, Larry Drake, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Wuhl, Lea Thompson, and Amanda Plummer.
I noticed that the Crypt Keeper – one of my absolute favorite pop culture icons, falling just below Commander USA but well above Max Headroom – seemed much more subdued than I remembered. I was positive that his cackling and movement were both much bigger. Sure enough, in the special features John Kassir (the voice of the Crypt Keeper) mentioned that he had to tone down his performance due to the limitations of the cheaper first season Crypt Keeper puppet. Also, this first season set is the only one to contain any special features worth noting. There are a couple of retrospectives and an entire SDCC panel, as well as a menu introduction by the Crypt Keeper. Later seasons get progressively more sparse with such things.
Season 3 – I clearly recalled every single episode of this season as I was watching them. It’s a great season and each story is at least very good, with most being great. If you’re going to pick up a single season of the show, I would recommend this one (although that recommendation may change after I pick up and re-watch the tremendous second season).
The big names in this season were Andrew McCarthy (who Mrs. Troublemaker finds unwatchably creepy, which amuses me to no end), Mariel Hemmingway, Kyle MacLachlan, Teri Garr, Bruno Kirby, Michael J. Fox (directing and as a cameo), Beau Bridges, Jon Lovitz, John Astin, James Remar, Malcolm McDowell, George Wendt, Tim Roth, William Atherton, Steven Weber, Rita Wilson, Vincent Schiavelli, and Brion James.
The final episode of this season, “Yellow”, was actually the first episode of a proposed Two-Fisted Tales series that FOX turned down. Three episodes were filmed and as a result of FOX passing shoehorned into Tales from the Crypt. I know this because the tone of this episode was so jarringly different that I had to investigate. The cast is incredible – Dan Aykroyd, Lance Henrickson, Michael Douglas – but the story is an utterly straightforward war tale with no twist and no humor whatsoever. It feels like such a bizarre closer for an otherwise fantastic season. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t Tales from the Crypt. The other two Two-Fisted Tales are in the next season and I was able to pick them out easily.
Season 4 – This is a very uneven season. The good episodes are excellent, but the overall season is bogged down by the two noticeably different Two-Fisted Tales stories – “Showdown” and “King of the Road” - and several sub-par entries.
HOWEVER. This season contains my single favorite episode of Tales from the Crypt – “What’s Cookin’”, starring Christopher Reeve, Bess Armstrong, Judd Nelson, and Meatloaf. Tales from the Crypt often played actors against type with fantastic results and never was it more effective than with this episode, which exploits Reeves’ natural likeability with hilarious and chilling results. After watching this, watch the incredible movie Deathtrap, featuring Reeves and Michael Caine. Don’t read anything about it, just watch it.
The other Phantom favorites that starred in this season were Treat Williams, Tom Hanks (also directing the episode he made a cameo in), Dylan McDermott, Cleavon Little, Tia Carrere (SCHWING), Heavy D (who is EXCELLENT in his role), David Warner, Zelda Rubenstein, Robert Patrick, Joe Pesci, Joe Pantoliano (returning as a different character), Zach Galligan, and Kevin McCarthy.
I feel very strongly that the 13th and 14th episodes should have been swapped. Episode 13 is a great tale about a werewolf that stars Timothy Dalton, Beverly D’Angelo, Dennis Farina, Lela Rochon, and Charles Fleischer. It’s one of the more fun episodes of the whole series, has a huge cast, and a great twist. It would have been a fantastic way to close out the season.
Instead, season 4 ends with a bland Fountain of Youth tale that is plagued with bad pacing and the worst makeup of the entire run of the show.
Season 5 – This season came back very strong. There’s only one – “Oil’s Well That Ends Well” – that’s less than very good and most are great. The season opener features Tim Curry in three different roles and is so remarkable I watched it twice in a row. I think it’s one (three?) of Curry’s finest performances. The fifth season is worth ten bucks just for this episode. Ed Begley, Jr. is also this one and does a tremendous job of being despicable. I love Begley (I think everybody does) and it’s impressive that he can be so thoroughly contemptible.
But there’s more! There are also great stories featuring Héctor Elizondo, Sam Waterston, Adam West, Miguel Ferrer (a favorite of mine), Steve Buscemi, Ernie Hudson, Bill Paxton (another favorite), Brad Dourif (who I have grown to truly love as an actor lately after really only knowing him as the voice of Chucky and a guy under makeup for so many years), David Paymer, Vincent Spano, Wil Wheaton, Jason London(!), Keith Coogan, Billy Zane, Martin Sheen, Anthony Michael Hall, Jeffrey Jones (I love Jeffrey Jones and am delighted whenever I see him), Lou Diamond Phillips, Clancy Brown, Cheech Marin, John Stamos, and Robert Picardo.
John Kassir also makes his only on-screen appearance in the series in the aforementioned “Oil’s Well That Ends Well”.
Season 6 – This is another shaky season, but it gets off to a great start with a story featuring Catherine O’Hara and Peter MacNicol. There are a few very good stories, and I haven’t gotten to the last three yet, so the overall rating could go up a bit. Actually, the first three stories of the season are excellent, with the second – “Only Skin Deep” – being one of the single weirdest and creepiest tales of the show’s entire run. This is all the more impressive for the fact that I’m unfamiliar with any of the team that made or stared in it.
The third episode stars Rita Rudner and Richard Lewis and is a fun story about a staffer from the Tales from the Crypt comic book.
Also starring in this season are Terry O’Quinn, Esai Morales, Wayne Newton (whose name I will never be able to think of in anything other than a Balki Bartokomous voice), Corey Feldman, D.B. Sweeney, R. Lee Ermey, Miguel Ferrer, Slash, Wendie Malick, Jake Busey, Hank Azaria, Austin Pendleton, Ben Stein, Michael Ironside, Bruce Davison, John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini, and Sherilyn Fenn.
Side Note: I spelled “Bartokomous” correctly on the first try.
Those last three star in the one that incorporated Humphrey Bogart footage into the episode. I remember this being treated as a huge deal back when it aired. I also remember being fairly unimpressed with it when it aired. I was right. It was gimmicky, but it was trying not to be. The story isn’t all that engrossing and the parts that utilize the Bogart footage are awkward.

Season 7 – Sadly, the final season of the show is pretty weak. I don’t know why, but the entire production moved to the UK. I don’t feel like this was what made the season weak, though. It was just a combination of uninteresting stories and… okay, well – the British actors were often not great. Or how about this? Not to my liking.
That being said, this is still Tales from the Crypt and there were a few nuggets of joy to be had. The first two episodes were leaving me feeling kind of hopeless, but the third was a fun murder story with a great twist at the end. The fourth is another war story that left me kind of flat, but then there were three great stories in a row.
The first of those is honestly one of the best Tales from the Crypt episodes I’ve seen. It’s called “Horror in the Night”. It’s weird and gory and the acting is superb. This one pushes the limits of what the series is and is one of those that feels like a nastier Twilight Zone. Definitely worth watching.
The final episode of the season is an animated retelling of The Three Little Pigs. The animation is quite good – somewhat reminiscent of John Kricfalusi – but the story is kind of ho-hum.
So the final season wasn’t super, but it was totally worth ten dollars. And I suppose that’s the point here – keep an eye out for these DVDs. I’m sure the prices fluctuate frequently on Amazon, so when you see them for cheap, go to the Needless Things store and grab them!
Tales from the Crypt was truly something special that set the bar for horror on television. Even though it was on HBO at the time and featured content that would be unsuitable on network TV even today, the storytelling and talent involved will likely never be equaled.
Needless Things V. 31 Days of Halloween

As you may have noticed, I stopped doing this last week. I just couldn’t bear it anymore. Not just the bad things that SyFy chooses to show, but the repetition. It’s just not worth it. So this was the last year of our SyFy coverage. I’m not sure if we’ll look for a new gimmick next year – I’m open to ideas – or just stick with our month of spooky stuff.

Whatever the case, I think it appropriate to wheel out my old standard valediction:

Until next time, stay creepy.

2 comments:

  1. Man, how I loved this show as a kid. I was in second or third grade when these started to come on. If I remember correctly this was one of those shows that my parents did not initially want us to watch, but after seeing a few episodes themselves decided we were well-adjusted enough to be able to handle it (the Simpsons fell in that same category).
    My parents allowed us to watch violence in TV and movies, and a little bit of nudity was ok but not graphic sex scenes. I guess they were right about their kids being able to handle it, because as far as I know none of us have hurt or killed any human or animal.

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