Friday, August 30, 2013

Tales From The Crypt Television Series

Tales from the Crypt TV series
Beginning in 1989, HBO telecast a gruesome horror anthology titled Tales from the Crypt, based on the popular 1950s EC Comics of the same name. The series was extremely popular and lasted seven seasons and a total of 93 half-hour episodes. The grisly little horror stories featured ghouls, vampires, werewolves, voodoo, psychopathic killers, zombies and anything you could conceive that pushed the limits. Because it was aired on HBO, a premium cable television channel, it was one of the few anthology series to be allowed to have full freedom from censorship by network Standards and Practices as a result, HBO allowed the series to contain graphic violence as well as other content that had not appeared in most television series up to that time, such as vulgarity, gore and sex. Because of this, the series is not for everyone's tastes but if you love brief horror stories with a bend toward nostalgia, this program is lots of fun.

Tales from the Crypt comic book
EC Comics was originally Educational Comics (if you can believe that) and was founded by Max Gaines, former editor of the comic-book company All-American Publications. Most of the stories featured on the television series were adaptations from one of five comic series -- the four other EC Comics of the time were Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories. With hundreds of stories written, common themes surfaced and this sometimes generated threats of lawsuits: a woman discovering a monkey's paw grants wishes was obviously "lifted" from the 1902 short story, The Monkey's Paw, by W.W. Jacobs. Gruesome versions of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel were depicted. Adaptations of Ray Bradbury science-fiction stories, which appeared in two dozen EC comics starting in 1952. It began inauspiciously, with an incident in which Feldstein and Gaines plagiarized two of Bradbury's stories and combined them into a single tale. Learning of the story, Bradbury sent a note praising them, while remarking that he had "inadvertently" not yet received his payment for their use. EC sent a check and negotiated a productive series of Bradbury adaptations.

A fourth season classic -- who's the dummy now?
The executive producers of the television series were Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis, featured on screen in the beginning of every episode. With a fondness for the 1950s, many of the episodes took place during that decade -- vintage automobiles, costumes and art deco aptly placed within the confines of the screen. In "The Secret," a young boy not only has plenty of fifties toys to contend with, but sports a Davy Crockett cap throughout most of the episode. (The same episode also featured a poster of a Buck Jones movie hanging on the wall in his bedroom.)

The ghoulish, twist-filled horror stories tinged on black humor, attracting an A-list of directors and celebrities contributing their talents. Arnold Schwarzenegger not only directed an episode from the sophomore season, but made a cameo in the same. Both Michael J. Fox and Tom Hanks did the same for their episodes as well. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood signed on to play a part of the fright fest, including Demi Moore, Kelly Preston, Dan Akroyd, Joe Pesci, Adam West, Patricia Arquette, Teri Hatcher, Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor, Bobcat Goldthwait, Elizabeth McGovern, Brad Pitt, Brooke Shields, Donald O'Connor, Margot Kidder, Isabella Rossellini, Isaac Hayes, John Lithgow, Roger Daltrey and Steve Buscemi.

The Crypt Keeper with a Tales comic book.
Jon Lovitz portrayed a struggling actor who would do anything for a part in "Top Billing," Whoopi Goldberg donned the robes of an occult priestess to practice voodoo in "Dead Wait," Mimi Rogers played the role of an aspiring actress who would literally kill for a part, Christopher Reeve and Bess Armstrong were restauranteurs who cooked up a killer recipe made of human flesh, Timothy Dalton was a werewolf hunter on a mission, Larry Drake plays a psychopath who recently escaped an asylum and, dressed like Santa Claus, terrorizes a greedy housewife, and Billy Zane and Martin Sheen played rival magicians who had it in for each other.

Your host for the evening, The Crypt Keeper.
Each episode began and closed with a horror host -- The Crypt Keeper -- an animated corpse, as opposed to the original comics in which he was a living human being. The wisecracking Crypt Keeper, who was voiced by John Kassir, introduced each episode with intentionally hackneyed puns in a similar manner to Raymond Edward Johnson, the host of radio's Inner Sanctum Mystery. In fact, having grown up with the television series when I was a child, I have always envisioned Raymond as an animated corpse when listening to the old-time radio programs. Did I mention that each episode opened with a creaking gate and a creaking door? Hmmmmmm......

Alfred Hitchcock and Forest Gump (The Crypt Keeper)
My wife and I, having spent the past eight months enjoying the series, watching a couple episodes a week, discovered a few gems among the bunch. Humphrey Bogart made a posthumous performance in the episode The episode "You, Murderer," using computer effects to digitally insert the actor into an episode. The technology was relatively new at the time, used to superimpose John Wayne into a soda commercial. The episode was directed by series producer Robert Zemeckis, who had recently directed Forrest Gump which utilized those same effects. Just for fun, Alfred Hitchcock appeared in a cameo at the beginning of the same episode, and yes, Humphrey Bogart played the starring role for a classic murder mystery. The episode also featured Isabella Rossellini parodying her lookalike mother, Ingrid Bergman, for the first (and only) time. Yes, a Casablanca reference was made.

Borrowing a plot from Tales from the Crypt (issue #31), "Korman's Kalamity" featured an employee (Harry Anderson) of a comic book company producing the Tales from the Crypt comic being investigated by an attractive policewoman, who believes his monster drawings are coming to life. (And yes, they were.) The cartoonist had to deal with the biggest monster of all, his shrewish wife. One has to question whether the plot was borrowed from a 1940s radio broadcast of Molle Mystery Theater, later reused on Suspense.

Don Rickles as a ventriloquist with a dark secret.
My three favorite episodes turned out to be "The Ventriloquist's Dummy," directed by Richard Donner, dramatizing the story of a young ventriloquist (Bobcat Goldthwait) who wants to improve his craft and seeks out help from an old hero (Don Rickles), a retired ventriloquist, but discovers his act is terrible. "You have to play the audience," Rickles explains. Ultimately, Bobcat is desperate to discover Rickles' secret and it was here, after a large build-up, I was asking myself just what kind of a twist was in store for me. After all, ventriloquist dummy stories have been done so many times on The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and of course, Inner Sanctum Mystery. Could they come up with a twist that hasn't been done before? Oh yeah.... to tell you would ruin the fun. Let's just say if you are going to watch only a few episodes of this series (DVDs are available for rental on Netflix), grab this one!

"Dig That Cat, He's Real Gone" is a great first-season episode involving a scientist who implants a cat's nine lives into a hobo, then uses each of those lives to charge tickets and see a man die -- a gruesome, chilling story that has an ending you won't see coming -- my second favorite episode.

Kirk Douglas and Eric Douglas in the episode, "Yellow."
The other pleasant surprise was the final episode of the third season, "Yellow," starring Kirk Douglas. Set in the final year of World War I, a general's son (played by Eric Douglas) is branded yellow for causing the death of a platoon under his command and sentenced to death by firing squad. The plot might not sound intriguing but trust me when I say that the treat of watching Kirk Douglas reprising another Colonel Dax from Paths of Glory (1957) is only half the fun. The surprise ending made this my second favorite. Just watching these three episodes will make you an addict for more Tales from the Crypt.


steve Z said...

What was the reason why the last season was done in England instead of the USA? I've never heard an answer about it.

Martin Grams said...

Budget reasons.

steve Z said...

I see. The ratings must have gone down enough by that point that it was cheaper to film in England. The One Step Beyond series also filmed its last 13 shows in England for budget reasons as well. Unfortunately, for both shows that turned out to be the end of the run for both shows.

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