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Tales From The Crypt – TV Series Retrospective

So far in my look at EC comics we’ve observed how William Gaines and his cohorts were largely responsible for bringing horror into the comics medium, as well as reviewing the two British 1970’s film adaptations. Soon I’ll be taking a look at how ‘Tales From The Crypt’ and its sister publications fell foul of parents and authorities resulting in court appearances and the creation of the Comics Code Authority.  But for now I’m turning my attention to the late 1980s and early ’90s and for my money what is not only the definitive screen representation of EC’s darkly comic morality tales, but possibly the greatest horror show of all-time –  HBO’s ‘Tales From The Crypt’.

For any horror fan, there’s so much to love about the series. Right from the eerie model shot opening sequence where – accompanied by Danny Elfman’s gloriously over-the-top theme music – we’re led down into the crypt itself. A coffin lid springs open and we’re confronted by the once-seen-never-forgotten crumbling visage of Kevin Yagher’s brilliantly demented puppet Cryptkeeper and his equally indelible laugh, courtesy of John Kassir. (Yagher, notably, also created Chucky from the ‘Child’s Play’ series). It is this version of the Cryptkeeper that has become ingrained as a reference point in pop culture and with his hilariously sadistic and infectious personality, it’s easy to see why.

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The shows, being as they were on premium cable, were not subject to network censorship and would frequently feature levels of gore, violence, nudity and bad language that were relatively rare on television at the time. As such, the Cryptkeeper’s function as emcee is much closer to that of his comics counterpart than that of the Amicus movies. Whatever grotesque or explicit dismemberment, revenge or messy fate we may have just witnessed, he is there to laugh it off and remind us to take it all in good fun. As simple as that idea is, it works like a charm time and time again and I’m willing to bet that many of the more grisly episodes would be easy to take as simply offensive or disturbing without the cheerfully ridiculous Cryptkeeper’s book-ending segments. With his deliberately awful puns (“Hello boils and ghouls!”) and bizarrely brilliant costumes, he stands alongside Vampira, Hitchcock, Elvira and co. as one of the all-time great horror hosts.

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The series itself was brought to the screen – with William Gaines’ blessing – by five of the most powerful men in film: Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Walter Hill, David Giler and Richard Donner.  Perhaps it was this pedigree, combined with genuine love of the source material (luckily it seems the fringes of Hollywood are filled with grown-up monster kids) that attracted such an impressive array of actors and directors to the show during its seven year run. Many were willing to work for far less than their going pay rate simply to be associated with the Crypt brand. Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger, William Friedkin and Tobe Hooper would all take turns in the directors chair, while in front of the camera we enjoyed the talents of Malcolm McDowell, Tim Curry, Joe Pesci and Demi Moore to name just a few.

It was at first, undeniably surprising to see these established and well-respected stars appear in the televised version of what was – after all, in its roots – a guilty pleasure to be read under the bedclothes by flashlight and likely confiscated by disapproving parents. As viewers, it often felt like we were in on a great joke with the program makers, a secret pact, and it gave adult viewers a chance to feel some of that giddy campfire horror story glee once more.

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Sadly it is true to say that ‘Tales’ had difficulty sustaining the impressive level of storytelling, cinematography and shocks that it established early on. Things took a particularly steep downward turn when production moved to England for the show’s final series.  Of course, it could also be said that they had already exhausted the best (or most adaptable) EC comics stories, and part of William Gaines approval for the series hinged on the condition that only original EC comics would form the basis of episodes. Perhaps Gaines didn’t foresee the series’ longevity – he died shortly after production on the first season began, so either way, he had no opportunity to recant his proviso.

We can only speculate what fresh ideas we may have been treated to if only the then-current crop of horror writers had the opportunity to write their own tales in the grand old EC style. While most of its classic episodes came early in the shows run, for several years ‘Tales From The Crypt’ was appointment viewing for anyone with a love of the macabre and a dark sense of humor.

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Join me next week when I’ll begin counting down my 20 favorite episodes, and be sure to let me know a few of your own in the comments below.