Cat Power and an Old Trick: Tales from the Crypt Retro-watch Part 2

Cat Screen

Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone Season 1 Episode 3

Only Sin Deep Season 1 Episode 4

Veteran TV director Richard Donner made his theatrical debut with the Exorcist-ripped The Omen in 1976, and followed that two years later with Superman, the first superhero blockbuster. In 1989, he got to combine his roots in television, horror and comic books as a producer and director on Tales from the Crypt. The show’s first Donner-helmed episode is the most comic-booky, the least horrific, and possibly the most fun so far.

The story, adapted by Terry Black from Haunt of Fear #21, has a deliciously EC set-up: a mad scientist (Gustav Vintas) has traced the source of a cat’s nine lives to a gland in its brain, and offers a homeless man (the fucking brilliant Joe Pantoliano) his life savings to have the gland grafted inside his own skull. After an early test demonstrates the surgery’s success, the two men hit the road to cash in on the first self-resurrecting human. This being the quaint old times of 1989 (it’s oddly not a period piece), they head to the circus run by Home Box Office superstar Robert Wuhl.

Donner’s direction keeps in line with the look established by Walter Hill and Robert Zemeckis, with theatrical lighting and a lot of wide-angle close ups, but the nature of the story gives him more room to play. Only a mighty will could decline the chance to kill Joe Pantoliano nine times, and Donner doesn’t whiff on the pitch. A Houdini-esque man-in-tank routine is particularly memorable, serving double duty as meet-cute/tension setpiece. There’s a lot of that kind of thing, and it’s grafted, like the cat’s gland, onto a Joe Thompson plot of double crosses gone doubly wrong. All this and more in 28 minutes.

The show’s fourth episode is the first not directed by a legit superstar. While Howard Deutch made three John Hughes joints before he met the Crypt Keeper, those movies are remembered for the guy who wrote them. The guy who wrote this episode is Fred Dekker, a veteran of three now-classic horror comedies and the second Crypt episode by the time he penned this one (adapted from Haunt of Fear #24). Together, they came up with the most lethargic, by-the-numbers entry in these first four episodes.

Visually, the drop in director prestige is accompanied by a proportional loss of kinetic energy. Deutch doesn’t play with the camera like Zemeckis or Donner did, and the result of his workmanlike approach is a workmanlike presentation (the best gag, the newspaper headline “Playboy Iced By Gold Digger,” was probably in the script). The best thing Deutch brought to the table was his new (and still) wife, Lea Thompson, who gamely returns to the old-age makeup of her Back to the Future days. Her performance is appropriately over the top, as a prostitute with a tough-girl accent and a way with weapons. But the predictable story, a basic faustian bargain, undercuts her flamboyant strokes and wastes her significant movie star charisma.

With its third and fourth episodes, Tales from the Crypt took its first dive into the supernatural, reaching the highest highs and lowest (though not that low) lows of its young run. I expect to find further extremes in both directions over the next 89 episodes.

See  you next time, boys and ghouls, as Tales from the Crypt wraps up its short first season and I write about that wrap-up.

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