While Tales From the Crypt is not mentioned often enough in typical discussions of cult TV (possibly because there are no remakes, reboots, or sequels currently in the works), most fans of horror – and people in general – tend to regard the famed horror anthology series with an intense fondness. It’s no wonder. Tales From the Crypt uncannily mixed gallows humor, extreme gore, a nasty twisted morality, twist endings, and an occasional generous gratuity of copious resplendent toplessness, all to form a series that was somehow historically distinguished (it was heartily nostalgic for the early days of William M. Gaines EC comics), and just an enjoyably lurid, prurient entertainment.
Tales From the Crypt started in 1989, and ran for seven seasons, leaving the airwaves in 1996. For those unfamiliar with the wonderful HBO program, each 30-minute episode was hosted by a talking rotting corpse called the Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir), who would introduce every episode. Each story was a morality tale of some sort, wherein someone would give into an extreme vice or deadly sin (usually lust, greed, or wrath), and then experience a form of cosmic (and often supernatural) retribution. I am going to attempt to come up with the five objectively greatest episodes of the show. If I omit your favorites, I apologize, but I’m trying to be scientific. Well, as scientific as a critical review can be. Which is to say: not at all. Nevertheless, I charge bravely ahead into the dark, sickening, blood-soaked, intestine-like channel of gore that is Tales From the Crypt. Hang onto your socks, kiddies. And your feet. We’re about to get messy.
7. “The New Arrival”
Season 4, Episode 7
Directed by: Peter Medak
Written by: Ron Finley
Original Air Date: 7th July 1992
Tales From the Crypt ran for 93 episodes, and has a surprisingly strong track record; unlike many classic shows that have about a 40% success rate (I think Star Trek, which ran 76 episodes, has about 30 – 35 good ones), Tales from the Crypt has very few out-and-out duds to think of. As such, a summation of the series’ seven best is a daunting chore. What’s more, fans of the show seem to skew personal, electing their own individual favorites rather than citing a list of generally agreed-upon bests; there is not one universal “greatest” episode.
So this, the seventh best episode, runs somewhat personal, as it was one of the first I saw. I didn’t have HBO in my own house, so catching it late at night – before Dream On – was something of a rebellious and subversive exercise. This episode was about a radio psychologist (David Warner), whose show is on the brink of cancellation. To boost ratings, he suggests recording a live episode from the home of one of his most frequent callers, a mother (Zelda Rubinstein) of the world’s worst child. As he and his crew stalk about the house interviewing the mother, the child – a young girl – seems to be sneaking round murdering them.
Of course, that turns out to be the case. The child really is a heartless killer. In addition, however, the child is also an undead ghoul. Eek. The episode ends with Warner being held captive, forced to act as the zombie’s shrink. This is not fun for him; he is mortified. If most episodes of Tales From the Crypt deal with cosmic retribution, then Warner is being punished, I suppose, for his pride and his lack of caring; he has the hubris to think he can cure people, when he really doesn’t care about them. When he unwittingly goes after a zombie, bad things happen. This was a surprising twist, and featured some good acting from notable cult performers. And it’s just a personal favorite of mine.
Remember, kiddies, when breastfeeding a zombie child, be sure it eats the entire thing! Nee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee heeeeehhhh.
6. “Death of Some Salesman”
Season 5, Episode 1
Directed by: Gilbert Adler
Written by: A.L. Katz & Gilbert Adler
Original Air Date: 2nd October 1993
One of the best gimmicks of Tales From the Crypt was its casting: the show featured a rotating cast of star actors, the participation of notable cult luminaries, and several unconventional cameos. Even if you’re not familiar with the show, you can probably intuit that someone like Tim Curry would eventually come to be involved. It took all the way until season 5, but Curry did appear, and he gives what might be one – or perhaps three – of his best performances in “Death of Some Salesman.” Indeed, Curry was nominated for an Emmy for this episode.
Ed Begley, Jr. plays a con man posing as a salesman, and he intends to infiltrate a rich family and steal their money. (The greedy gold-digger was a common stock type on Tales from the Crypt.) He knocks on the door of the Bracket family, a towering family of weird galoots who somehow have held onto a family fortune. Ma, Pa, and their unseemly daughter Winona are all played by Tim Curry. As transvestites go, I think Curry needs to be promoted from “sweet” to “incredible.”
The twist is pretty predictable: The family catches wise to Begley’s plan. The real highlight of “Death of Some Salesman” is clearly Curry’s virtuosic performance. Oh yes, and the truly, truly horrifying sex scene. If you think your libido is controlling too much of your life, watch this episode, and your erotic impulses will be largely nullified for at least a week.
Con men never make it out alive, kiddies. You can’t con a Curry.
5. “Top Billing”
Season 3, Episode 5
Directed by: Todd Holland
Written by: Myles Berkowitz
Original Air Date: 26th June, 1991
In “Top Billing,” John Lovitz plays a talented and aspiring actor who can’t land his big break because he doesn’t have the right “look” for any serious roles. This may be a problem that Lovitz himself may have actually faced; he’s a great comedian, but not well known for high dramatic work. Lovitz answers an ad in the paper to act in an upcoming local production of Hamlet, the most wonderful of all actors’ challenges. He finds the local production team to be a little eccentric (it’s headed up by a smirking John Astin), but is determined to have a serious role for once, happy to play the melancholy Dane to the utmost of his abilities.
There is a rivalry; his more-handsome counterpart (Bruce Boxleitner) always seem to poach roles from him, and is determined to snatch Hamlet from our hero. Which leads to murder. The parallels between Shakespeare’s classic and the episode itself are a little flimsy, but I always appreciate a good Shakespearean parallel, however tenuous. The big twist: John Astin was not auditioning the role of Hamlet, but the role of Yorick, the long-dead skull in the famous grave-digger scene. It turns out the local production company is a troupe of escaped mental patients, and they require a real skull. Ulp.
For a show that attracted so many notable actors, it’s a clever conceit to make an episode that involves acting, ambition, and a satire of the battles for roles that the show no doubt encountered. I like to think that “Top Billing” was a comment on the show itself.
So, kiddies, it looks like this Hamlet was…not to be.
4. “For Cryin’ Out Loud”
Season 2, Episode 8
Directed by: Jeffrey Price
Written by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman
Original Air Date: 22nd May, 1990
If Tales From the Crypt is essentially a series of moral lessons (i.e. man does something selfish or horrible, retribution ensues), then “For Cryin’ Out Loud” is one of the best, as it’s one of the few to directly deal with a man’s conscience. Lee Arenberg plays a rock promoter who steals a bunch of money from a benefit concert. When he is found out by a witness (Katey Sagal), he murders her with a guitar. Yes, he namechecks Pete Townshend as he does so. Incidentally, Iggy Pop also appears in the episode as himself.
Once the murder takes place, however, Arenberg is not done in by a werewolf, a haunted drum kit, or some other supernatural force, but his own guilt. He begins hearing – very clearly – the voice of his own conscience in the form of the master badger Sam Kinison. His conscience berates him, argues with him, and pokes him where it hurts. Arenberg tries to rationalize his theft and murder, but has a worse and worse time of convincing himself of his dubious triumphs. Eventually, he declares his own guilt to an full audience of people and is apprehended.
This is Tales From the Crypt by way of Dostoyevsky, with Arenberg playing the trashy modern version of Raskolnikov. The deadly sin of the week is greed – as it was for so many episodes – but that greed was tempered by the weakness of his own moral sense. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. Anything that calls to mind such classical and literary moral depths is certainly worth a mention.
Dostoyevsky? More like, DEATHstoyevsky. Sorry about that. They can’t all be winners.
3. “Easel Kill Ya”
Season 3, Episode 8
Directed by: John Harrison
Written by: Larry Wilson
Original Air Date: 17th July, 1991
“Easel Kill Ya” (and I hate the punny title) is a more notable episode of Tales From the Crypt largely because of its tone. This was a show that often banked on a lurid, playfully sadistic aspect of horror entertainment; we were meant to find a cruel pleasure in the gore and the evil cosmic justice. “Easel Kill Ya,” in contrast to most of the show, is actually dark and intense, and – get this – actually scary. Whereas most of the show was devoted to irony and gross-out moments and shock, here was an episode that actually can make the viewer feel fear.
Must of the episode’s success can be owed to Tim Roth in the lead role. Roth is a talented actor, best known for his intensity and seriousness, and he doesn’t play lightly with this role. Roth plays a painter named Jack who can’t seem to sell a painting. A wealthy patron (William Atherton) appears in his life, offering him huge amounts of money for increasingly morbid paintings. Jack soon finds that, to find the proper inspiration, he has to paint actual dead people – sometimes killing them himself. A form of possible redemption comes in the form of Sharon (Roya Megnot), a fan of his art and a woman who believes he may not be as dark as all that.
The irony: When Sharon is hospitalized, Jack wants to help her, but doesn’t have the money to hire the appropriate specialist. He runs out to the hospital parking lot to kill someone and to paint using their blood, handily selling it to Atherton for the right amount of cash. Sadly, the man he killed was the very specialist needed to save Sharon’s life. D’oh.
This was the first time that the dark irony of the show really sank in. This episode is not playful, not funny, and not gleefully sadistic. This is an episode that deals with death and murder in a hurtful, tragic fashion. And it’s great because of it.
I may not know art, but I know what I like… TO KILL.
2. “The Man Who Was Death”
Season 1, Episode 1
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill and Robert Reneau
Original Air Date: 10th June 1989
It’s rare that this happens in the history of any TV series, but some careful consideration leads me to believe that one of the best episode of Tales From the Crypt was the very first. Walter Hill’s “The Man Who Was Death” simultaneously established the show’s tone, captured the spirit of the old EC comics, and provided us with a near-classical tale of revenge and sadism. The sick gallows humor, flip approach to extreme violence, and broken carnival evil were all set up nearly immediately.
William Sadler – one of cinema’s most reliable character actors – plays a prison executioner named Niles Talbot (no doubt named after either the lead character from The Wolf Man, or after the infamous Ed Wood collaborator Lyle). Niles is good at his job, and he loves it. Being around state-sanctioned death so often has made him a cold-eyed expert; he takes pleasure in a good, just killing. When the government puts a moratorium on the death penalty in his state (it’s never established what state he’s in), he takes to the streets to electrocute those who have slipped through justice’s cracks. He’s a vigilante, but he’s no hero. Of course, Niles eventually gets caught in the midst of one of his revenge killings, and is sentenced to the electric chair himself. You goof.
There is a definite political message lurking underneath “The Man Who Was Death.” In a country that allows the death penalty, people can become jaded to the killing of human beings. They can see it as a form of business. A matter of course. This first episode was about justice, but, more than that, it was about how the modern sacrament of public execution can only damage the people around it. Heavy and heady and surprisingly deep stuff from a show about tits and blood.
Poor Niles. What a SHOCKING ending, eh kiddies? I think I may have stolen that one from the actual Crypt Keeper puns.
Season 3, Episode 14
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Gilbert Adler, A.L. Katz, Jim Thomas, and John Thomas
Original Air Date: 28th August, 1991
There was a time, in 1991, when Tales From the Crypt became so popular, it was intended to launch a spin off. That spinoff, which aired for one episode on Fox, was to be called Two-Fisted Tales, also based on William Gaines comics, all to have a wartime theme. Fox passed on the pilot, and the three episodes that were filmed made their way into Tales From the Crypt. One of those episodes, “Yellow,” is handily the best episode of the show.
“Yellow” stars the legendary Kirk Douglas as an embittered WWI general who insists on complete and utter bravery from his platoon. His son Martin (Douglas’ real-life son Eric) has been put under his command, and Martin does not show loyalty, bravery, or even common soldier-like competence. Martin is the world’s worst soldier, whose on-field fear costs the lives of his compatriots. When this is revealed in a spectacular fashion, Martin is set to be executed for cowardice.
“Yellow” is less a horror story than on a contemplation of the place of fear in a wartime setting. The general feels it to be a detriment, an impediment to any and all missions. The young soldier argues that fear is natural, and it’s war that is the human aberration. Call me a peacenik if you must, but I agree with the younger soldier. It’s not his cowardice that cost the lives of the soldiers around him, but the utter madness of war in general. Eventually, the father strikes a deal with his son: He will fake his Martin’s execution (the firing squad will fire, but not hit him), and Martin, falling into a trench, will be allowed to flee the battle site, never to be seen again. The son of course agrees to this, willing to look brave in the face of his executioners, so long as he doesn’t have to fight anymore. The twist (natch) is that the general cannot prove his son’s bravery without a body, and actually murders his own son to prove it. The monster is justified in his mind. And many might agree with him. That’s truly chilling.
For a show that was often focused on visceral shocks, “Yellow” was the only episode that was specifically about fear, the function of fear, and how true monsters require it. It was also morally ambivalent. Both the father and the son have points to make, leaving you in a thoughtful state. “Yellow” is the best episode of Tales From the Crypt.
Until next time, kiddies, the crypt is closed. Just make sure you’re not in it. Nee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee heeeeehhhh.
Previously by Witney Seibold: