Welcome to the crypt, kiddies. It’s time to plunge wrist-deep into the guts of one of pop cultures most exquisite corpses with Nerdist’s new series EnCRYPTed. In this series, I will be watching and reviewing every episode of the seminal horror anthology TV series Tales from the Crypt, easily the greatest horror series of all time. If you have a strong stomach, a steely constitution, and a propensity for gore, then read on, my sick little monkeys. We’re gonna get messy.
To this day, the inception, production, and popularity of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (1989 – 1996, running for 93 episodes) seems like a minor miracle. Here was a forthrightly grotesque TV series based on a series of controversial comic books from the 1950s and ’60s (sometimes Tales from the Crypt, but also other books like Shock SuspenStories and their ilk, all published by comics deity William M. Gaines), all focused deliberately on the gut-wrenching, blood-lustful, and (in the case of the TV show) breast-displaying stories that kids secretly wanted to see. It was extreme comic books like Tales from the Crypt that led to the inception of the largely-moribund but still-used Comics Code Authority. These were books specifically geared toward giving youngsters nightmares. The makers of the TV series were determined to make something with the same playfully wicked tone as the comics. How this show merely made it off the ground, much less attracted so much talent, was a phenomenon that, I think, could never happen again.
Behind the series were well-known Hollywood big-shots like Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Walter Hill, and Joel Silver. This team attracted some of the best-known talents in Hollywood to write and/or direct episodes of the show, landing people like Russell Mulcahy, Tobe Hooper, John Frankenheimer, Tom Holland, William Friedkin, and Rowdy Harrington. I will not begin to list the famous actors who appeared on Tales from the Crypt because I’d be here all day. Needless to say, there was a time in TV history when Tales from the Crypt became the hoop through which every actor must eventually jump. I’ll be listing each famous actor and actor/director as we come to them in due course.
The first episode of Tales from the Crypt was entitled “The Man Who Was Death,” and it aired on June 10th, 1989. It was based on a “Tales from the Crypt” comic, and was directed by Walter Hill. The common theme of Tales from the Crypt was that of cosmic justice. Most episodes were about someone committing a criminal act (usually with a certain amount of calculation and a large amount of glee), and then being punished by an ironic and/or supernatural fate. The very first episode set this tone immediately. Reliable and talented character actor William Sadler plays a soulless prison executioner named Niles Talbot (no doubt a reference to The Wolf Man‘s Lyle Talbot) who, narrating directly to the camera, explains that state-sponsored execution is perhaps the most wonderful thing humanity has imagined. Niles takes care of the execution equipment, and is always sure to look his prisoners directly in the eye. He hopes they suffer.
This sort of unapologetically evil character seems rare in movies these days, and on television, they have turned into tragic figures who go from average to bad over the course of many years (I’m thinking specifically of Walter White from Breaking Bad). The unapologetically evil character will be a common trope in Tales from the Crypt, and we’ll run into people who like to torture animals and/or people, we’ll meet some cannibals, cheaters, mad scientists, and any number of plain old murderers. Many are motivated by lust and greed (try to keep a tally of the infidelity stories, and you’ll run out of energy pretty quick), but, like Niles here, most are pretty much just naturally predisposed toward chaos and violence. It’s this sick place that Tales from the Crypt gets most of its edge.
It’s never explained what state this takes place in, but it is probably a Southern state, as many western states never used the electric chair. Niles loses his job when the death penalty is rescinded in his state, leaving him at a financial and philosophical crossroads. How will he live, and, more importantly, how will he retain his livelihood when he’s not electrocuting people? It turns out he turned vigilante, and begins electrocuting people on the side, specifically people who were clearly guilty, but released into the public on technicalities. Eventually, Niles is caught and, surprise surprise, sentenced to death in the electric chair. Does electrocution hurt as bad as they say? I guess we’ll never know, kiddies. Niles is deader than dead.
As a kick-off to the series, “The Man Who Was Death” sets the tone well, and includes the profanity and nudity that has become something of an HBO trademark. The tone was straightforward, gleeful, and possessed a genuine interest in the fun part of rather extreme horror. It’s fun to be scared, to see the depth of moral depravity. The makers of Tales from the Crypt seemed to sense the carnival aspects of evil, and wanted to film it on a weekly basis. They succeeded. The gore hasn’t been ratcheted up yet, but I sense the producers were biding their time, waiting to see how far they could go.
The Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir) was the show’s host, and he was a rotten corpse who lived in the crypt of a creepy seemingly-abandoned house. He was prone to puns and cackling. In these early episodes, his voice was smoother and raspier, and the cackle had yet to be developed. He was more of an incidental presence rather than a proper mascot of the show. The Crypt Keeper’s cultural presence would eventually grow to occupy a much larger space in the pop firmament. He’s grotesque, but not necessarily scary. In these earlier episodes, he was far more mysterious. His past will eventually get explained in the second episode.
Until next week, kiddies, the crypt is closed. Join me then for “And All Through the House.”