‘Tales from the Crypt’ is Grimy as Hell: a Retro-watch Project

Tales Santa

The Man Who Was Death Season 1 Episode 1

And All Through The House Season 1 Episode 2

Moved by the autumn spirit and a cover featuring a man dueling a giant rat at sea, I recently bought a reprint of the 1950’s EC Comic Tales From the Crypt. It’s insane, and reminded me of the 90’s TV show that I always wished I was allowed to watch as a kid.

I saw Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight at a sleepover and fondly remember it as the second half of From Dusk Till Dawn, but I have no memory of ever seeing the HBO anthology series that spawned it. Although it aired for seven seasons between 1989 and 1996, the premium cable juggernaut seems ashamed of the show now, leaving it off the HBOGO streaming roster that sports nearly every bit of the network’s original programming, forgotten alongside anti-prestige fare like Arliss and Mr. Show with Bob and Dave (you can get the full series on DVD for pretty cheap, though). But while Mr. Show kickstarted the careers of a bunch of today’s most nerd-loved comedians, Tales From The Crypt coincided with career declines of almost as many geek-film luminaries of the 70’s and 80’s.

The show is great, though. The first two episodes, short, manic bursts directed by Walter Hill and Robert Zemeckis, respectively, harness the crude dark comedy of the comic series that inspired the Comics Code of censorship. They aren’t scary, but I can’t tell you the last time I was really scared by even the most French of modern horror films. When I watch horror now, I hope for some combination of tension, atmosphere, imagination, ingenuity, and humor. Hill and Zemeckis spend the combined 50 minutes of their two episodes mainlining those ingredients through a rusty needle of nostalgia for these mean, wacky comic books, in turn exploiting my nostalgia for a time when filmmakers were nostalgic for that kind of thing. It works.

Hill’s series premier, adapted by Robert Reneau from an EC story, follows the exploits of a southern executioner who finds himself without a job but with no less interest in killing folks. He (a sweaty William Sadler) spends a lot of time talking directly into the camera about how much fun it is to operate the electric chair, how right he is for doing it, and just how much certain people deserve to die. Awful as that may sound, it’s all wildly entertaining, with several gruesome kills and the kind of grim morality twist that tends to define genre anthology series.

“Awful” and “wildly entertaining” are descriptors that pertain equally to the second episode, helmed by Zemeckis from an adaptation by Fred Dekker (almost all of the stories come from one of EC’s many horror labels, which is so cool). The director was fresh off Roger Rabbit and in the midst of  Back to the Future sequel-mania here, and his powers are indeed mighty. This is a christmas story that begins with a woman murdering her husband with a fireplace poker, and she’s not even the serial killer dressed as Santa Claus (there is one). The episode uses a single set, the gift of a low budget which seems to have liberated Zemeckis to just have fun with the camera, children in peril, and bloody snow. And when Robert Zemeckis has fun, audiences have fun (making Beowulf was probably kind of dull).

While Tales From The Crypt‘s unstreamability probably has more to do with legal entanglements than HBO’s shame, it’s fun to imagine the show is just too damn reprehensible for the former porn hub’s modern Emmy-happy rep. Indeed, in these first two episodes, the total indulgence of moral bleakness and the cartoon glee these master filmmakers bring to the human void makes the show inherently watchable. There are 93 of these things. You can buy them used on Ebay. I will be watching them all.

Also, the theme song is the best and the Crypt Keeper, despite his minimal action in these early shows, totally kills it.

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