By the late 1980s, plenty of horror anthology television shows had already graced the airwaves. Very few of these, though, made quite as much of an impact as HBO’s first season of Tales from the Crypt. The morbid and often gory content of the show, along with its sexual content and adult language, already set it apart from other horror anthology shows. Add in the goofy nature of the Cryptkeeper and the often comedic tone of the show, and what you have is one of the most wholly original horror anthology shows ever made.
On the show’s premiere date (June 10, 1989), HBO presented viewers with not only one episode of Tales from the Crypt, but three separate half-hour episodes. The three debut episodes set the stage in grand fashion for not only the rest of the six-episode debut season, but for the rest of the series as well. The three premiere episodes didn’t feature much in the way of big name actors or actresses, but each episode was directed by one of the five producers on the show — all with successful directing backgrounds — with Walter Hill directing the shocking “The Man Who Was Death,” Robert Zemeckis at the helm of the Christmastime chiller “And All Through The House,” and Richard Donner on the ever-so-fun episode “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone.”
The first episode to air was “The Man Who Was Death,” and it stars the recognizable character actor William Sadler (whom you may know from The Shawshank Redemption or The Mist). William Sadler’s character, Niles Talbot, is an executioner at the local prison who absolutely gets off to his job…until the state shuts down prison executions. Instead of just giving up the job, however, Niles decides to take “justice” into his own hands and begins to creatively murder those who should have been executed.
This episode isn’t just memorable as the first one to air, but also as the only episode of Tales from the Crypt in which the main character breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the viewers in a narration style. It’s a very noir-ish idea that is more interesting than most modern day interpretations of the noir genre, seeing as how Niles is a murderous psychopathic “country boy,” as he refers to himself, instead of the typical noir detective. The narration is an interesting idea that sets it apart from other episodes in the series, even when this is an episode that I’d say is just one step above middling. It’s an alright debut, if only because the setup is interesting and the ending pays off — even if it is a bit predictable. From this first episode, though, it’s evident that Tales from the Crypt shows promise. It’s in the second episode, “And All Through The House,” that we see that this show not only has promise, but that it can definitely deliver on, and exceed, said promise.
“And All Through The House” was directed by Robert Zemeckis, whom I believe is one of Hollywood’s greatest directors (with Back to the Future, Cast Away, and Forrest Gump all under his belt). He puts forth one of the absolute creepiest — and yet still fun — episodes of the series. It’s Christmas Eve, and Mary Ellen Trainor plays an unnamed wife who murders her husband on-screen within minutes of the episode. As she lies to her daughter about what’s happened to her father, a radio broadcast can be heard in the background raising awareness about an escaped mental patient who has been murdering families in the vicinity…in a Santa costume, no less.
This episode turns into a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse between the wife and the disturbing Killer Santa that ultimately ends in a most satisfying way. There’s some amazing cinematography in this one as well, as it should be with such an experienced director behind the camera. After watching this one, you’ll think twice before you murder your spouse on Christmas Eve when there’s a crazed loony on the loose.
The final episode to be shown on the premiere date is my second favorite of the first season. “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is about Ulric, “The Man With Nine Lives!” Ulric is a sideshow at a carnival, but unlike any you’ve ever heard of before. He literally dies at every show and, only minutes later, is revived with no medical assistance. There are some really fun death scenes in this episode, as Ulric’s boss tries to think of more clever ways to kill Ulric to gain more profit before Ulric’s nine lives are up. This episode is the only of the three that debuted that night that showed the lighter, more comical side of Tales from the Crypt — a side that would come up more often than not in the remainder of the series. This is perhaps the most fun episode of the first season, even if it’s still not as good as “And All Through The House.” Still, I do have to give this one the award for most surprising ending.
So, after the premiere night, Tales from the Crypt shambled on like any other television series, airing just one episode per week, with the fourth episode, “Only Sin Deep,” up next. “Only Sin Deep” stars the actress who played the mom in Back to the Future — Lea Thompson — as Sylvia Vane, a hooker who has had enough of the street life. She decides she wants to instead marry rich and forget about having to earn a living. She comes across a pawn shop, and the creepy clerk behind the counter offers to “buy” her beauty by making a mold of her face, and she agrees for $10,000. So she’s just made $10,000 and snagged a rich guy and everything is looking good…everything but herself that is, as her face begins to age rapidly.
To rate this one, I’d put it in the same category as “The Man Who Was Death.” It’s neither good nor bad, neither thrilling nor boring. It’s an interesting premise but it doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular with said premise. It provides just enough entertainment to be simply okay, and that’s alright. You quickly come to the realization with this show that not every episode can be amazing.
“Boy, do I really wish that every episode could be amazing and not absolute garbage,” is what I think to myself when I’m finished watching the penultimate episode of the first season, “Lover Come Hack To Me.” In what is the worst episode of the first season, newlywed couple Peggy and Charles are forced to spend their honeymoon at a remote, rundown house in the middle of nowhere when their car gets stuck nearby. Charles is a scumbag who is only marrying Peggy for her money, but it appears he won’t be getting her money after all, when increasingly odd occurrences begin to happen in the house.
I have to say that this one is simply a drag. It’s slow and produces no real satisfying payoff, even though this is the goriest episode of the first season. That at least proves that there aren’t many boundaries in this show. We also see that sex isn’t going too far for Tales for the Crypt either, as there’s a fairly long sex scene in this episode. The scene goes on for an almost unbearable amount of time and makes you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a mid-90s softcore porno on Cinemax at two in the morning.
Thankfully, however, the final episode of season one is a complete gem, and really there is no other episode like it in the series. “Collection Completed” is the first episode to be directed by a woman, and it stands out from the rest in that it’s strictly a dark comedy that doesn’t rely much on horror at all. Mary Lambert directs the tale of Jonas and Anita, an old couple who has rarely spent time together over the past 40-some odd years, since Jonas has spent most of their marriage working six days a week, 52 weeks a year to support them. Also, Anita has an overbearing love of animals.
Jonas happens to be retiring, however, and this isn’t a joyous occasion for him or Anita. Jonas has nothing to do all day, and Anita is tired of him getting in the way of her taking care of her only friends: the multitudes of animals she keeps around. It turns into a hilarious battle over control of the house between Jonas and Anita that ends in morbid, although fantastic, style. It’s worth noting here, too, that the performances by M. Emmet Walsh and Audra Lindley are absolutely amazing as Jonas and Anita. Perfect chemistry.
Overall, the first season of Tales from the Crypt is enjoyable, while having a few missteps. Half of the episodes — “And All Through The House,” “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone,” and “Collection Completed” — are easily some of my favorite episodes of the series, but the rest of season one is almost entirely forgettable. Still, it’s a worthwhile debut season to what is one of the most exciting anthology television series of all time.
I’m going to rate each season as we go along with this feature. For season one, I’d say a solid 2.5 out of 5 suits it best. Of course, join me next time as we rummage through the ups and downs of Tales from the Crypt’s 18-episode second season (hopefully more ups than downs!).
— Michael Lane, Film Blogger