Tales From the Crypt S1 Review Archive

Reviews by Nathan Smith

Tales from the Crypt 1×01 – “The Man Who Was Death”

I had no pre-existing knowledge of ‘The Man Who Was Death’ before I revisited Tales from the Crypt after they started releasing the box sets sometime in mid 2005. And that being said, it ultimately became one of my favorite episodes of the series. Who would’ve thought it so, the pilot episode, if you will, hooking you straight from the start. Isn’t that the gold standard bearer for any great series? As it stands, the episode doesn’t feel like it’s an episode of the series, especially if you watch it down the line. This one is deeply rooted in a character piece, more a melodrama than anything. But, under Walter Hill’s strong direction, it soars especially given the strong performance from it’s lead. It’s depply cinematic, it could stand alone as it’s own film given a little more fattening.

As it stands the episode itself rests all on the gaunt, haunting shoulders of the immortal William Sadler. It’s quite a performance in that most actors couldn’t even trot out on their best day, and it’s the performance he essayed in his audition that landed him the part. Even so, reportedly director Walter Hill told him he could have it, if he performed it the same way he did so in the audition. Clearly, he kept his word. It’s a performance rooted in the Travis Bickle school of open-air monologue. His soliloquies are great, and hit to the true nature of man, and the city. The world is a deep, grungy place and sometimes you have to step lightly to avoid getting all the muck on your shoes. If Emmy awards recognized genre, and that’s few and far between, he would’ve gotten it. Especially with “American Horror Story” eating all the acting accolades up.

Our entry point in the story, is that our man Sadler is an executioner in a city filled to the brim with heroin needles and prostitution and any other craving and deviant may have. After Sadler gets fired, brought on by the coaxing by the bartender that he has to constantly frequent in his off-hours, he becomes a man pushed too far, and continues scratching the itch that execution offers. It’s quite the predictor to a show like “Dexter” with the vigilante killer. There are people who do bad, bad things and skirt the law far, far too easily. So, he has the solution to take out the miscreants that have gotten away with murder.

It’s an episode coated with black humor, listen to Sadler casually talking about what a man goes through even as he’s marched down the proverbial green mile. There are character beats galore even for the prospective victims, even from the get-go as he talks up a doomed prisoners past bad deeds. And the gallows humor continues when Sadler finally gets caught, and marched to his own death, he begins to scream for the precious repreive that only the mysterious Governor can offer. It’s the only obvious humor in the episode. Actually, they never show anything of the police catching up to Sadler, they just stop his final execution and then throw away lock and key. It is an abupt ending to an episode that is quite possibly the standard bearer for character driven drama.

One additional note, Tales from the Crypt can feel like a piece out of time. Sometimes it can feel dated like the throwaway Geraldo Rivera reference. Sometimes, it can feel like a predictor of things to come. In the conversation with the bartender after he had been fired, Sadler mentions that if executions were televised, they would be Nielsen bating programs, and given the violence on television these days, it’s kind of hard to say he was wrong. In fact, he was dead right. And the Cryptkeeper wasn’t handled as broadly as he would be later on down the line, he was darkly handled, almost scary versus the over the top cartoon he would become in later seasons.

Tales from the Crypt 1×02 – “And All Through the House”

“And All Through The House” is the first episode of Tales from the Crypt I really remember. And as a kid, I watched enraptured as this jolly, jovial man whom I equated with the reason for pure indelible joy on December 25th, was now turned into the most frightening figure to be seen. Yes, I realize that he’s not really Santa Claus, per se, but really as we’ve all learned as we grew up — Santa ain’t real anyways, kiddies. But, I remember seeing this, not on HBO, but on my local broadcast which even with commercial interruption left me behind the chair in my uncle’s living room late Saturday, chattery teeth and all.

This is the first episode of Tales from the Crypt that really feels like it belongs with the others. It’s truly the epitome of the ‘just desserts’ mentality and all, and sets up the groove that all the others will follow. You know, the infidelity, murder, and the tasty, tasty comeuppance. What hits me deepest, is just how restrained the violence is in the episode. Except for the murder that opens the episode, there’s really no bloodsplatter and even at the episode’s end, when our heroine is screaming her guts (something ”Tales” creator William Gaines demanded of ace director Robert Zemeckis) out at the blubbering psychopath standing in her house, the true fear of the episode, we don’t see the actual violent act. It’s a far cry from the later seasons that ladled on the gore in crimson rivulets.

Instead, the episode lets the suspense of the sucker draw you out. It’s a one location episode and yet that doesn’t make the episode suffer, in fact it gives it a sense of the noose tightening around you. The snow blinding you constantly, and that jingle jangle of the bells somewhere in the distance. Words cannot describe just how amazing Larry Drake is in the role of the demented killer Claus. He plays with the role with nary a word (okay, three words at the end) but he really creates a creepy role with just expression and presence. It’s a killer role. Forgive the puns, please. Zemeckis plays with the murderess and the audience, with cleverly drawn out suspense sequences and tightly composed angles. He really puts you through the ringer. Alan Silvestri’s score runs up and down your spine playing it like a nervy xylophone. The screenplay by beloved genre writer Fred Dekker (his first of several scripts for the show) throws in several nods to the past writers of the brilliant comic, like the officer who calls our doomed woman named Feldstein or the episode taking place in Gaines County. It’s the little touches.

By the way, in 1972, there was a first adaptation of the comics called Tales from the Crypt. It was directed by Freddie Francis and features Joan Collins in the role that Mary Ellen Trainor plays here. I think Trainor was the stronger performance, although my memory of the British Crypt is mired by many, many years between then and now. Francis directed an episode of Tales from the Crypt in the final season, and I’ll dig into more details then.

There’s just no underlying the episode here. It flat out rocks, and the pace zips through so very quickly, you’re in and out in a flash. Already, such an iconic episode, and truly an episode to watch as the snow patters down around your house.

Tales from the Crypt 1×03 – “Dig That Cat … He’s Real Gone”

Tales from the Crypt is like visiting a carnival. You go to the peep show and see the ladies, and you run around getting startled by the roller coasters letting your guts rollick around. But, as you make your way to the ends of your journey at the carnival, you see a tent out in the middle of nowhere. And as you pull that flap back, you just know that on the other side, it’s going to be the scariest damned thing you’ll ever see. And chances are, it is. ‘Dig That Cat … He’s Real Gone,’ is another example of a show continuing to mold and manufacture a tone that it would utilize all up and down it’s seven year run. It’s the third episode, and we’re seeing a different feel for how the story is being told.

Like the pilot, it’s an episode told entirely from the lead character’s perspective, albeit one done in flashbacks. The great part about the story is that it unfurls like an onion, a layer at a time until the final act reveal. That reveal is a stinger, a poisonous twist that leaves your smirking at its brilliance. The best part is, the episode does absolutely nothing to conceal this twist. It flat out tells you right from the get-go. But, if you’re an eagle-eye viewer, you’ll pick up on it. But, the best way to approach it, is just to let it be and let the ride take you where it may. Part of this element is a testament to Terry Black’s sneaky script and Richard Donner’s ace direction. By the way, Donner briefly appears chanting out the immortal Ulric the Undying’s name. The jumpy, erratic editing gives the episode a jittery feel, like you’re allowing full immersion into this world of the carnival.

The plot is actually a tricky little snake, a real magic act. It’s a simple, and yet highly original tale about a man given a chance to live and live again by using the nine lives of a cat. It’s a device that I’d never seen before, and it’s handled pretty damned effectively. The gambit of a man literally killing himself for a hell of a show, is another thing that has resonance even today. It’s a bloodthirsty world we live, and people paying money to kill a man is quite shocking, even if he comes back. One thing that isn’t mentioned, but deserves discussing – what is the real intention of Dr. (Manfred) Mann, the scientist who gets the resurrection ball rolling. He’s clearly into experiments, and shoots Ulric (he’s never given a name) with a pistol that looks World War II era. Is this indication that he may have been a Nazi, or some criminal doctor? Who knows, but that’s a hell of an effective backstory if so.

If William Sadler’s showstopper performance was the real get from ‘The Man Who Was Death,’ then Joe Pantoliano is the showstopper here. His one man band performance as he recounts the lurid, sordid details of all his misbegotten lives is a great treat. We see him in a brief rags to riches story ala Navin Johnson. In just this short episode, he spins a dark tale of blood, betrayal and death, and we linger on every word. That’s how damned effective he is at spinning this particular yarn. And he sells the hell out of that final moment when all is revealed that he’s wasted his lives. His gasps for air, oh, it’s just flat out amazing. Equal mention must go to Robert Wuhl, who clearly improvised all of his lines. Even as he’s cutting up and showboating for his eager crowds, he still plays the part deep to the bone. He’s clearly fitting in the role of the snake charmer that he is. And this isn’t Wuhl’s last appearance on HBO, he would go on to star on the late night series, ‘Arli$$.’

I’m very happy with the way the episode turned out. It isn’t as mean-spirited as some of the episode are, it’s actually got a deep, wicked sense of humor to it, especially with anything that Wuhl says. It’s just flat-out a fun treat for everyone.

Tales From the Crypt 1×04 – “Only Sin Deep”

I have to confess, I wasn’t over the moon with ‘Only Sin Deep.’ I’d only seen it a few times before this retrospective started and it wasn’t at all representative of anything that would come later on down the line. I remember seeing it paired on VHS (and this was long before and TV series began hitting the home video circuit) with the following episode, “Lover Come Hack To Me,” and I felt even then that it was a one and doner, not anything special to come back to, save for the pretty hauntimg ending.

Sure, it’s got your average pedigree of nasty evildoer does horrible thing and gets the comeuppance in the end, but for most of the episode it just didn’t stick to my ribs in a way befitting of the early episodes this season. I really like the episode’s writer Fred Dekker, but here the writing is just not characteristic of his fun, bantery sort. Even his earlier script, ‘And All Through The House’ let loose with quips aplenty. The real kink in the hose, so to speak, is that the episode wants to be two different stories. On one hand, you’ve got the streetwalker who dreams of more, and uses her beauty to survive on the glowy, noirish streets. And the other side of things, has a story about a pawnbroker who steals beauty away from women for a quick buck. He gives them a deal, if they want it back — they can have it, but there’s a four month limit. He steals their beauty for his dessicated corpse wife, and uses it to rejuvenate her. See, what I mean? Two stories intertwining sure, but one works better for me than the other. And not to mention that the damn thing revs up so quick, it blazes by but not in a good way.

The whole thing is just too on the nose for me, there are far too many scenes of Lea Thompson lingering on her gaze. because she’s beautiful, get it? And frankly, Thompson just doesn’t sell the role of bitter prostitute, although the idea of a 21-year old streetwalker with not a heart of gold, but one that’s rotten to the core works just fine. It feels forced, the accent and the feigned tough-girl act. The direction by her husband, and “Some Kind of Wonderful” auteur Howard Deutch works to create a neon-glazed story of greed, but it isn’t as scary as it should be, but that’s not really the point of order for the episode. In an anachronistic sense, the episode reeks of the 80′s, from fashion to the overall style. It feels like a product of its time, for sure.

But, if the first half of the episode is cotton-candy fluff, then the last act is two shots of poison. I love the idea that she’ll forever sacrifice her beauty, even after getting it back because she murdered her boyfriend (?) for money, and now has to wander the streets with the bust of her face, as a tragic reminder of what once was. That is the stinger for me, that’s where the episode hits hardest for me. It becomes a dark fairytale mired in grunge. It’s by and large the clever end to a middling episode of the “Crypt.” And if anything, that poison quill ending made me very happy.

Tales from the Crypt 1×05 – “Lover Come Hack to Me”

‘Lover Come Hack to Me’ was another episode I’d only seen once upon a time, long ago. It was compiled in a VHS set that I’d found at a local Mom and Pop video store, tucked way back in the Horror section. I remember watching it when I was younger, perhaps maybe too young given the things I’ve seen in my recent re-visit, but hey, it was Tales from the Crypt. And you can’t certainly blame a tiger for its stripes. In the original viewing, I guess I didn’t remember the lethal twist that comes in the third act. Perhaps it could be a fuzzy memory on that element, but this ending stands so sharply, so sneakily compared to last week’s episode, it just gels better with the episode overall. This episode is more of a Gothic horror episode than recent episodes. I mean, check these off, dark mansion. Check. Dark and stormy night. Check. The whole thing is lit with candles and the orangey glow of a fireplace. Double check.

In a strange way, you really get two Tales from the Crypt episodes for the price of one. At first glance seems to just be a story about a greedy man marrying for money, and not love. But, there’s a stealth movement underlying this story that really shows, or rather predicates what the series would be doing for years to come, a dark and deadly twist. The ending is something that creeps up on you, not something that just waltzes out and presents itself, “Hey, here’s the twist!” It requires a thought, and yes is a little plot hole ridden (Why did they happen to go that way to where the mansion is? Who put the tree in the road, the elderly aunt?) but when all is said and done, it’s just flat-out creepy. Because it’s all about a strange family ritual, the conception of children. The idea that after the perpetual honeymoon phase is over, the marriage spoils faster than milk in the sun, so the women get what they need and dispose of the husbands. It’s actually something that works in concept fairly well.

Perhaps it could be viewed as the ultimate empowerment, take what you need and then do away with the remains. It is a little sad, though for Peggy’s father because it may have been that he loved Peggy’s mother, but we’ll never know. It certainly isn’t the case for Peggy’s beau, even if quite humorously, he seems to fall in love after their roll in the hay. The conceit or idea is a little rushed at the end, because frankly, they spent way too much time on the scenes “of marital bliss,” rather than eating away at the meat of the story which to me the ritualistic behaviors of Peggy and her family. It just felt rushed, but when it gets there, it feels fresh and clean. The actors, Stephen Shellen and Amanda Plummer are quite capable in playing their parts, either one on the end of the spectrum. He plays sneering, calculating quite well, and is even allowed to be the black comedy beating heart underneath the episode. As for Plummer, she has always played meek quite well, (and fittingly this is her first of two axe murderer roles in less than five years), but when she’s allowed to be terrifying, she nails it.

I like Tom Holland and he does great work here with candles and shadows, and parceling out the plot just letting the episode move at a brisk pace. But, the scenes of passion go on for far too long, and I remember an article in Cinemafantastique when Tales from the Crypt was first launching where comics creator William Gaines mentioned them being too much. Again, fuzzy memory on it but I can’t help but agree. They felt padded on, and that should never happen. They’re necessary to the plot but it just droned on, and that feels criminal to me, especially when it feels colorless. But, the dark twist of the script has to be credited to the great, late Michael McDowell who would write outstanding stuff like Beetlejuice, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (his standout, tragic love story, Lover’s Vow deserves a mention), and reteaming with director Tom Holland on Thinner. It’s tragic that he’s passed on, I love his voice.

Tales from the Crypt 1×06 – “Collection Completed”

‘Collection Completed’ is every animal lover’s worst nightmare. I mean, the episode is about a man, whom fed up with his wife’s doting over animals decides to taxidermy them as a hobby to fulfill his formative golden years. But, mainly it’s foreshadowing the cruler tone that “Crypt” would take in the years to come. And as vicious as it is, taxidermy fits the forte of this show like a nice pair of shoes.  Mary Lambert’s direction does admirable work, the opening credits are spooky and quite effective, even if it’s selling you the wrong thing. The rest of the episode plays out in sun-bleached light, almost bristling clarity. And in a bit of gruesome irony, Lambert would make “Pet Semetary,” another film with quite the twisted plot revolving around animals.

It’s an unbalanced episode in terms of tone, one minute it’s got off-kilter humor about the couple trying to reintegrate after years of being apart – and next, he’s killing animals, albeit off-screen. It’s not scary but does still have that regular Tales from the Crypt feel to it, especially in the ending. In fact, the episode could be viewed as a sitcom until that last bit of nastiness in the third act. It’s largely one set the whole episode, the backyard looks like it was relocated from the Brady’s backyard. The thing is, you could turn it off and picture in your head about how they all come together in the end, and he respects her decision to have these animals as a surrogate for all those lost years when he ignored her in favor of working hard and lounging away. Of course, it can’t be a sitcom because I’m pretty sure M. Emmett Walsh uses the word, “goddamn” at least 15-20 times in the course of the episode.

Walsh is a great actor but he overacts through the first two acts of the episode, he oversells Jonas’ exasperation at his wife having all these animals. It’s only in the final third when he shines, and you really feel his darkness. He sells the speech about the process of taxidermy on the animals and this is truly the epitome of the darkness that the episode puts forth rather well. It’s easy to understand his frustration at some point, after all if your wife treated you like an animal day in and out, it was get a little old. But, the reaction when he begins to kill and stuff the animals feels like the sharper end of the spectrum. It’s not easy to sympathize with him irregardless of how his wife treats him because Jonas isn’t made to be a like-able character, and that’s the point from the get-go. If they want sympathy for him, it doesn’t show through. The frustration of wanting to spend your golden years with peace and quiet is totally understandable but the moment he becomes an animal killer, the character is lost.

Audra Lindley sells the performance of the wife with too much love in her heart and one capable of still doting on her husband even when he acts like a troll. Her heartache over her animals being killed may be the most palpable moment of the whole episode. She truly sells the idea that the animals are her children, and she’d kill to protect them. When she smashes her husband over the head with that golden hammer that he worked all his life for, there isn’t a single more fulfilling capper to a “Crypt” episode in so very long, and a bit of ghoulish irony that (forgive the pun) hits you right in the head. And that final image of a stuffed up Jonas in his easy chair with his mewling enemy Mew-Mew sitting in his lap is an image that will forever stick in your brain pan for as long as you have sight. Upon further inspection, it’s quite a bit of artistry. The detailing on the stuffed body is quite nice, you can see the stuffing bursting at the stitches.

See? Genius.

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