HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 3

Tales from the Crypt returned after it’s very successful second season in June of 1991 with a fourteen-episode third season. Although the second season was pretty great throughout, the third season is very top-heavy. The season leads with a fantastic first half of unique episodes before shifting to some boring, and downright uninteresting, episodes in its disappointing second half. The season is very reminiscent of the first season in that there are episodes that show off the true potential of Tales from the Crypt, but there are unfortunately a bunch of episodes that spoil it.

The debut episode, “Loved to Death,” is a fine start, but the season doesn’t really kick into gear until its second episode, leading into a fairly long stretch of fantastic episodes. “Carrion Death” stars Kyle MacLachlan as an escaped convict on the run attempting to get across the border to Mexico. Too bad for him, though, as a state trooper is on his tail. After an encounter with the trooper, MacLachlan’s character ends up handcuffed to the trooper in death, with no way to get free himself. Now he has to lug this heavy body across the border in the killer heat of the desert. Things aren’t looking good for him, especially with a vulture lurking overhead. This episode is a ton of fun with some cool action set pieces, but the quality comes mostly from MacLachlan’s performance. He plays the deranged convict-type perfectly and quite charmingly as well, almost making you root for this psychopathic killer to make it to freedom.

Michael J. Fox directs and guest stars in the next episode, “The Trap,” and it’s one of the funnier episodes of the series. It stars Bruce Mcgill and Teri Garr as unhappily married couple, Lou and Irene Paloma. Lou hatches a plan to fake his death to get his life insurance money with the help of his wife and coroner brother Billy. Unfortunately for Lou, it seems Billy and Irene want to take off with the money themselves. Tales from the Crypt goes for more comedic episodes every once in a while. It’s wonderful when these episodes really pull it off, and “The Trap” is no exception. Some funny dialogue and great comedic acting come together to create a special episode of Tales from the Crypt that is nice when surrounded by so many episodes chock-full of blood and guts and horror.

The fourth episode of the season has its blood and guts, but doesn’t pride itself on that. Instead, it becomes one of the smartest and most interesting episodes of the first three seasons. “Abra Cadaver” starts when a young doctor pranks his surgeon older brother, leading him to have a heart attack. We flash forward and the younger brother, Carl, has become a success. He has even become boss to his surviving brother Martin, who lost the ability to fully use one of his hands due to the heart attack he suffered years before. Martin was once the up-and-coming surgeon of his era before his brother took that from him, and now he believes it’s time for revenge. “Abra Cadaver” features great performances from all of its cast members, a great script, and one of those surprise twist endings that Tales from the Crypt is known for, truly making it one of the best episodes of the season.

SNL star Jon Lovitz plays the lead in the excellent following episode, “Top Billing.” Barry Blye is a struggling actor who may have the acting chops, but gets told again and again that he lacks “the look.” While auditioning for Hamlet in a shady, low-rent theater, Barry comes up against his rival, who happens to be a mediocre actor, but one who’s fortunate enough to have “the look.” When his rival lands the part, Barry murders him, but as he soon finds out, his rival may have been murdered in the play itself. Sure, this episode’s story isn’t anything too special, but just like the previous episode, this is propelled by great performances, a well-written script, and an absolutely fantastic, eerie twist ending.

After a good stretch of quality episodes, the third season of Tales from the Crypt hits its first wall with “Dead Wait.” It never really recovers until the final episode of the season, but we’ll get to that one in a bit. The episodes following “Dead Wait” are mostly just alright with some standouts in both the good and bad categories. “Mournin’ Mess,” “Easel Kill Ya” and “Split Second” are some of the better ones, while “Deadline” is definitely my least favorite episode of the series up to this point.

The final episode of the season, “Yellow,” is easily one of the best episodes of the season, if not the entire series. Starring Kirk Douglas and his real life son Eric Douglas as a father and son during WWI, along with guest stars Dan Aykroyd and Lance Henriksen, “Yellow” stands out as the longest episode of the series at 39 minutes (it’s the only episode to be over 30 minutes). But it’s not really even an episode based in horror, nor is it taken for comedy at all. It’s a war story through and through, and it’s surprising to me just how well-made the episode is. The budget in this episode must have been the highest of any in the series up to this point. Explosions tear stuntmen through the sky and quality gore effects show horrific-looking bodies that have been ripped apart by shrapnel and gunfire.

Legendary director and Tales co-producer Robert Zemeckis returned in this episode, creating a haunting war story about Lt. Martin Kalthrob (Eric Douglas), a young officer in a losing battle during WWI. Martin is seen throughout the platoon as being “yellow” and a “coward.” He makes pleas to his father (Kirk Douglas), who happens to be the General of the platoon, to let him leave the battlefield and go home. General Kalthrob is a man of honor and dignity, however, and won’t let his son be a man seen as “yellow.” So instead, General Kalthrob sends his son out on a dangerous mission along with three other soldiers to prove his worth, and only then will he be granted the opportunity to leave the frontlines.

This is truly a special episode for the series. It doesn’t even seem like it belongs, in all honesty. This could be a fantastic short film if it didn’t feature the bookending scenes with the Cryptkeeper. Going back to what I said earlier in this post, Tales from the Crypt has a lot of potential to be great, even astounding, and “Yellow” shows that. An engaging plot, fantastic acting, marvelous direction, haunting gore effects, and an especially amazing ending make this the best episode of Tales from the Crypt up to this point. I imagine it will be very hard for any episode in the following seasons to top it.

So there you have it, folks, season three is in the books. Due to some absolutely amazing episodes, and even though there are some real bad ones in there, I have to give season three a very solid 4 out of 5. Three seasons down, and only four more to go.

Join me next time as we dig into the fourth season of Tales from the Crypt.

— Michael Lane, Film Blogger

Handy links to my other retrospectives on HBO’s Tales from the Crypt:

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