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John’s Horror Corner: Tales from the Crypt, Season 1 (1989), a wonderful horror anthology series that keeps it light.

May 13, 2019

MY CALL: Even watching it again 30 years later, this is still my favorite horror anthology series. The tone is generally light, the cast and director line-up will conjure wonderful nostalgia (beyond the horror genre), and the stories are cheekily executed.

MORE HORROR ANTHOLOGIES:  Dead of Night (1945), Black Sabbath (1963), Tales from the Crypt (1972), The Vault of Horror (1973), The Uncanny (1977), Creepshow (1982), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye (1985), Deadtime Stories (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), After Midnight (1989), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Two Evil Eyes (1990), Grimm Prairie Tales (1990), The Willies (1990), Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993), Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), Campfire Tales (1997), Dark Tales of Japan (2004), 3 Extremes (2004), Creepshow 3 (2006), Trick ‘r Treat (2007), Chillerama (2011), Little Deaths (2011), V/H/S (2012), The Theater Bizarre (2012), The ABCs of Death (2013), V/H/S 2 (2013), The Profane Exhibit (2013), The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), V/H/S Viral (2014), Southbound (2015), Tales of Halloween (2015), A Christmas Horror Story (2015), The ABCs of Death 2.5 (2016), Holidays (2016), Terrified (2017; aka Aterrados, which is a pseudo-anthology), Oats Studios, Vol. 1 (2017), Ghost Stories (2017), XX (2017) and The Field Guide to Evil (2018).

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) has always been my favorite horror anthology series. It has everything I could ever want: horror, satire, fun twists, a diversity of stories and styles and tones, an outstanding array of directors and guest stars, and a perfect host. The Crypt Keeper (John Kassir; Smothered) brings hilarious, candor to our episode introductions, and likewise closes each episode with puns thematic to the story. I love his Santa suit in the opening of And All Through the House, and when he electrocutes himself, giggling and gagging all the while, at the end of The Man Who Was Death.

The themes are broad and include taxidermy, holiday horror, mental patient lunatics, the death penalty, resurrection, voodoo and murderous obsession. And whereas Black Mirror (2011-2017; 4 seasons) focuses its allegory on our potential trajectories misusing, overusing, or addicting to technology and/or social media and the stories all seem take place somewhere in the near to distant future, Tales from the Crypt enjoys the simplicity of basic sins like greed (And All Through the House, Lover Come Hack to Me, Dig That Cat), pride (The Man Who Was Death) and wrath (Collection Completed), told with feisty flare in a more low-brow atmosphere.

Season 1 comprises only six episodes. Let’s review them without spoilers as I’m hoping to turn some horror fans to this old show…

Directed by Walter Hill (Undisputed, Bullet to the Head), The Man Who Was Death was the premiere episode about a death row executioner (William Sadler; Bordello of Blood, Demon Knight) who found avocational means to continue his duties after being laid off by the prison—with Gerrit Graham (CHUD II, Chopping Mall, It’s Alive III) among his victims. The story’s narration (by the executioner himself), the trajectory and the ultimate twist embrace the most classic sense of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) while infusing it with dark humor, increased horror and satire.

And All Through the House (directed by Robert Zemeckis; What Lies Beneath, Death Becomes Her, Back to the Future) tells the unfortunate holiday tale of a scheming spouse (Mary Ellen Trainor; Scrooged, The Monster Squad) who murders her husband (Marshall Bell; Total Recall, Stand By Me, A Nightmare on Elm Street part 2) on Christmas Eve with a giggly wacky escaped mental patient (Larry Drake; Dr. Giggles, Darkman) in a Santa Claus outfit making his way to her home. And with her young daughter in the house, there’s plenty of room for dark humor and dire scenarios. This delightful episode was based on the Tales from the Crypt (1972) segment of the same name.

Then in Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone (directed by Richard Donner; Superman I-II, The Omen, Lethal Weapon 1-4), Ulric “the Undying” (Joe Pantoliano; The Goonies, The Matrix, Bad Boys I-II, The Sopranos) procures the nine lives of a cat, which he uses in a circus sideshow as he is drowned, hanged and killed every which way to entertain paying crowds with his manager (Robert Wuhl; Batman, Arli$$). This episode is among the corniest in execution, but it features a great concept and a fun feisty atmosphere.

A prostitute (Lea Thompson; Jaws 3-D, Howard the Duck, Back to the Future) sells her “beauty” to a voodoo-savvy pawnbroker (Britt Leach; Silent Night, Deadly Night, Weird Science) in Only Sin Deep (directed by Howard Deutch; Pretty in Pink, The Great Outdoors, The Replacements). This is probably the most straight-faced serious of the episodes.

Lover Come Hack to Me (directed by Tom Holland; Fright Night, Child’s Play, Thinner) features a wealthy woman (Amanda Plummer; Needful Things, The Prophecy) on her honeymoon with her young handsome fop (Stephen Shellen; The Stepfather). This is the only episode of the season I specifically did not like, despite being by far the bloodiest and featuring a wonderful director.

Collection Completed (directed by Mary Lambert; Pet Sematary 1-2) is easily the most ridiculous of the episodes, but also my favorite of season 1. Struggling to fill his time in retirement, a man (M. Emmet Walsh; Critters) is driven insane by his animal-loving wife (Audra Lindley; The Relic, Spellbinder) and her numerous pets. Detached from reality with a theatrical sort of melodrama, the restless husband finds peace by embracing his insanity with a new macabre hobby.

The product of a lower budget in this first season, special effects and make-up work are pretty mild outside of the Crypt Keeper himself. Fortunately, these horror vignettes don’t rely on gore or effects—they’re great without them!

Some may describe the writing as a bit hokey, but I’d say this is often clearly deliberate to cultivate a light mood. The performances by William Sadler (The Man Who Was Death) with his stylish narration, Larry Drake (And All Through the House) with his mangled teeth and googly eyes, Joe Pantoliano (Dig That Cat) and his buried alive realization, Mary Ellen Trainor (And All Through the House) with her delightful villainy and manic screams, and M. Emmet Walsh (Collection Completed) with his temperamental mania, all push their respective episodes to excellence. You can just feel how these actors were “going for it” with every moment they had before the camera.

If you’ve never seen this wonderful show, or simply haven’t seen it in decades, I implore you to give it a chance. And with only six episodes it feels like watching an anthology horror movie.

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