HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: “Demon Knight”

The glorious 90s HBO horror anthology series, Tales from the Crypt, is a show I hold dear to my heart, so much so that I previously wrote eight extensive pieces about it in the summer of 2015 chronicling each of its seven seasons. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit that Tales from the Crypt is a flawed bit of nostalgia, with nearly as many poor episodes as there were great ones, and plenty of middling entries filling out the 93-episode order. At its highest points, however, the Crypt Keeper’s tales of the macabre remain as spectacular as ever, with some remarkable filmmakers teaming with excellent ensembles and delivering a decent number of short and sweet genre masterpieces. Only one installment — the Robert Zemeckis-helmed “Yellow” — reached above a 30-minute runtime, but was still less than half of the length of a standard feature film. In 1995, though, near the end of the series’ initial run, Tales from the Crypt would finally traverse out of the world of premium television and onto the silver screen with the criminally underappreciated horror-comedy cult classic, Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight.

Originally surfacing in 1987 (two years before the debut of the HBO series), the screenplay for Demon Knight would face multiple failed attempts at adaptation into a full production — that is, until Tales from the Crypt producer Joel Silver got a hold of it. While nearly all of Tales from the Crypt’s episodes were based on the EC Comics stories of the 1950s, Demon Knight was a wholly original script, allowing the film to be its own being while still retaining all of the fan-favorite staples that had become expected from something bearing the Tales from the Crypt moniker. A relatively unknown yet nevertheless notable director, Ernest Dickerson, commands an unlikely grouping of 90s stars and instantly recognizable character actors, including William Sadler, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Dick Miller. The true star of the film, however, is actually its antagonist. The “Collector,” played by a truly awe-inspiring Billy Zane, is a demonic being sent by the Devil in order to collect an ancient artifact that can be utilized in order to unleash Hell on Earth.

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Words an’ Pictures: The Patriots

ec-comics-logHello, fellow comic fanatics! While this is technically the second installment of Words an’ Pictures, it is the first in which I will actually be primarily discussing comics and not just rambling about myself (as I did in my introductory post). As such, I figured that it would be good to kick things off by discussing a true classic, and the first thing that came to my mind were the many fantastic comics published by E.C. (Entertaining Comics) way back in the 1950s.

For those unfamiliar, E.C. began as Educational Comics, and was run by a man named Max Gaines from 1944 up until his death in 1947. After this, E.C. was taken over by Gaines’ son, William, who not only changed the name of the company to Entertaining Comics, but also proceeded to change the world of comics forever.

E.C.’s landmark titles included Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, Two-Fisted Tales, Weird Science Fiction, and Mad, and they were written and drawn by some of the absolute best talent the medium has ever seen. These comics had such an impact, even, that there was also a cult television show produced by HBO in the 90s devoted to adapting E.C’s horror and crime stories that borrowed the Tales From the Crypt moniker (an excellent examination of which can be found in JFR Blog Editor Michael Lane’s series here).

To try to discuss all aspects of E.C. comics in one post would be insane, so instead I will focus in on one particular title this week — and it is arguably my favorite of their catalog: Shock Suspenstories. The stories contained within it proved that aside from being masters of science-fiction, brilliant humorists, and slingers of gore, the good “boils” and “ghouls” at E.C. were true patriots.

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 7

Oh, boy. After the travesty that was the mediocre sixth season of Tales from the Crypt, you could only hope that things wouldn’t get worse. Unfortunately, the seventh and final season of the beloved HBO anthology show hits an entirely new low you never could have imagined.

In a last-ditch effort to save money on production (and perhaps spice things up a bit), the production of the final season of Tales from the Crypt jumped across the pond from the US to the UK, with English actors, directors, and what have you. On paper this sounds like an interesting change of pace, and a decision that could result in some fine television. It’s unfortunate, though, that it was hard for me to even pick five “good” episodes out of the thirteen-episode season to focus on here.

I’ve noticed that most seasons of Tales from the Crypt tend to kick things off with an episode with a higher quality than what’s in store for the rest of each season, and that’s very much the case here. “Fatal Caper” focuses on an old man named Mycroft who doesn’t have much time left to live. Mycroft’s will states that if his two remaining sons can’t finish the task of finding their other brother, who left home years before never to be heard from again, then the old man’s riches will instead be donated to charity. This leads to the brothers coming up with their own plans for stealing what they believe is rightfully theirs, and these plans aren’t the least bit legal. This episode was directed by Bob Hoskins, and is a tight, suspenseful little story that features some fine character work. The twist ending is incredibly ridiculous too, but also pretty fantastic, making this an easy pick for one of the best episodes of the season.

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 6

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Oh, dear. It seems it has come to this, folks. I’d heard that the final two seasons of Tales from the Crypt take a massive dip in quality, but I couldn’t have expected this. And that’s not to say there aren’t a few good eggs within this season’s fifteen episodes, though none of the episodes come close to touching “top ten” territory (maybe not even top twenty or thirty). But there are some enjoyable, interesting, and odd stories here among the many mediocre and some terrible ones.

The premiere episode of the season is actually one of the better attempts. It’s a weird one, for sure, but “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” is an exciting tale of a hotshot lawyer who has found herself outside of her comfort zone and in court in a small town called Stueksville (pronounced Sticksville) due to a moving violation. Catherine O’Hara stars as the lawyer, a Ms. Geraldine Ferrett, and she expects to simply pay her fine and move on with her business as soon as possible. Stueksville isn’t any ordinary town, however. As Ms. Ferrett wanders around the courthouse, she comes across some pictures of how the law was handled in the past — hangings. One picture is subtitled, “Execution in 1910,” while another has the date scratched out, and shows a new model car in the background. It’s repeated throughout the episode that Stueksville is a very strict town, and it occurs to Ms. Ferrett that she may be paying more than just a simple fine. Charming, funny performances from both Catherine O’Hara and Peter MacNicol, who plays the public attorney appointed to Ms. Ferrett, make this episode a fun oddity. It’s nothing amazing, but it is definitely a fun tale with some twists to keep the audience engaged.

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 5

After what was undoubtedly the worst season to date, the producers of Tales from the Crypt struck back in October of 1993 with what is undoubtedly the best season. Thirteen episodes make up season five, and for the most part, these episodes are solid. The cast this time around features the most recognizable names and faces yet, including John Stamos, Tim Curry, Steve Buscemi, Martin Sheen, Brooke Shields…and the list goes on and on. A good cast won’t necessarily make for a good show, so I’m glad to say that the episodes also feature interesting storylines and characters. This is best illustrated in the season premiere, “Death of Some Salesman.”

“Death of Some Salesman” doesn’t even attempt to have a misleading title. Ed Begley Jr. stars as a crooked salesman who is trying to get one over on unsuspecting families in a rural community by selling them fake cemetery plots. For a while, it’s actually going well for him. He’s quite the charming, convincing door-to-door salesman. He eventually happens upon the Bracketts family farm. The Bracketts are an old couple — a particularly odd old couple — and the salesman has some difficulty selling his scam to them. Just as it seems he’s about to close the deal, Ma and Pa Brackett stop to think things over as the salesman snoops around the house. He’s quickly taken aback as he finds a dismembered head in the microwave, and now he has to con his way out of being murdered himself by the Bracketts. Tim Curry is the real star of the episode, playing not only Ma and Pa Brackett, but also their daughter, Winona Brackett. He’s absolutely brilliant in each role, making for what may be my favorite performance in any episode of the series. This episode is the best one of the season. It’s a fun ride with some great twists that lead to a memorable end. 

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 4

Premiering in the summer of 1992, the fourth season of Tales from the Crypt allows for a few high points, but gives way for far too many low points. We do see some of the biggest stars the show ever got in this season, with Tom Hanks directing the season premiere and Brad Pitt and Joe Pesci starring in their own respective episodes. But even the big names cannot save this season from mediocrity.

The season premiere, directed by Tom Hanks, is called “None But the Lonely Heart.” One of the better episodes of the season, Hanks’ first foray into directing is a strong one, as he makes this one of the more goofy and fun episodes of the series. The episode centers on a con-man named Howard Prince. Mr. Prince is a particularly low breed of con-man, the kind that marries rich old women just to kill them off and rake in their inheritance. He’s done this routine many times before, but when he starts getting blackmailed regarding the devious acts he’s been committing, he begins to panic. Who could know, though? This episode left me with a smile on my face, even during its disturbing ending. Featuring cameo appearances by Hanks himself and former champion boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, this episode is just extremely goofy and entirely fun.

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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.

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 2

After a fairly successful debut season of Tales from the Crypt, HBO was quick to order a follow-up season. This time they wanted triple the amount of episodes, though, making for an eighteen-episode second season. By just looking at the first episode of the season, it’s apparent that HBO put a little bit more money into the production of the series. The actors and directors slated for a good amount of episodes were and still are among the biggest names in Hollywood.

We have Demi Moore and Jeffrey Tambor starring together in the season opener, and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his career directing the second episode of the season. Patricia Arquette, horror movie veteran Lance Henriksen, Iggy Pop, Don Rickles, and Bobcat Goldthwait also star in their own respective episodes. It’s from here that Tales from the Crypt would become a show that would score even bigger stars to act and/or direct episodes of the series.

So let’s talk about the actual material in the second season. From here on out in this blog series, I won’t be reviewing every last episode of each season because there are just too many episodes. Instead, I will try to at least talk about the absolute best and worst episodes, and any other ones that are significant, maybe because there’s a big-name actor or director attached. Anyways, onto the second season premiere, and one of the best episodes of the second season, “Dead Right.”


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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: Season 1

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.”

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HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” Retrospective: An Introduction

3/12/16 Update: Cable network TNT is gearing up for a reboot of Tales from the Crypt with M. Night Shyamalan as a producer! This is exciting, of course.

Original Story: Having run for over seven seasons from 1989 to 1996, HBO’s horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt was a cultural phenomenon that I sadly missed in its initial run (I was less than a month old when its final episode aired).

If you have no idea what Tales from the Crypt is, then just imagine The Twilight Zone if The Twilight Zone was a horror/comedy program rated TV-MA. Then, imagine that almost every episode featured a sometimes laughable amount of fake blood, quite a bit of nudity, and every swear word your mother never wanted you to say. Also, instead of Rod Serling bookending each story, the host of the show is an undead, three-foot-tall, animatronic ghoul called the Cryptkeeper, who has one of the most distinct voices in all of television history. Yeah, Tales from the Crypt is sort of insane, and all the way awesome.

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