Everything from graphic violence, nudity, and morbid undertones as well as lots of profanity was all a-okay by HBO and we count off some of our favorite episodes from Tales From The Crypt.
Originally running from June of 1989 until July of 1996, the seven season, 93 episode horror anthology series was based on the 1950s EC Comics series of the same name. Tales From The Crypt aired on HBO, and because of this premium cable freedom was allowed to really indulge in the naughtiness of the genre.
The series was hosted by the one and only Crypt Keeper, who popped out of his coffin with a cackling, iconic voice, and was an animatronic performed by puppeteers Van Snowden, Mike Elizalde, Franke Charles Lutkiss, Patty Maloney, Anton Rupprecht, Shaun Smith, David Stinnett, Mike Trcic, and Brock Winkless throughout the show’s run. John Kassir lent his vocal talents to the Crypt Keeper, solidifying those hackneyed, morbid puns in the minds of impressionable viewers for a generation. The Crypt Keeper would bookend each self-contained episode and featured comic book cover art by Mike Vosburg and Shawn McManus to illustrate the EC Comics origins of each story.Robert Zemeckis, the man behind such classics as Back To The Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Forrest Gump was one of the people behind the scenes of the show, and because of his reputation, the series landed a smorgasbord of star actors and directors. The list is endless, everyone from Sandra Bullock, Steve Coogan, Daniel Craig, Tim Curry, Benicio del Toro, Kirk Douglas, Brad Dourif, Whoopi Goldberg, and Brad Pitt to directors the likes of Zemeckis himself, Richard Donner, William Friedkin, Walter Hill, Tobe Hooper, and Mary Lambert. It was truly a prestige show that embraced B-movie tropes.
Without further ado, we count down the 13 best, most garish, gruesome, and downright terrifyingly fun episodes of HBO’s stellar anthology series, Tales From The Crypt.
“And All Through The House”
Season 1, Episode 2 – Original Air Date: June 10, 1989
A greedy philandering wife played by Die Hard‘s Mary Ellen Trainor kills her second husband (Marshall Bell) on Christmas Eve for his life insurance money. Upon getting rid of the body, she is unexpectedly attacked by a hideous escaped mental patient played by L.A. Law’s Larry Drake, dressed as Jolly ole’ Saint Nick, who has been going around killing women. She soon realizes that her own young daughter is in complete danger from within the horrific situation. With a standout and tension-filled fight between Trainor and the crazed Santa, this episode reaches new heights for Christmas-themed horror. The acting is very effective from Trainor, and Drake is creepy as hell as the mostly silent Santa. The episode ends with a simple albeit incredibly memorable conclusion that leaves this one of the most truly chilling tales.
“Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone”
Season 1, Episode 3 – Original Air Date: June 10, 1989
Directed by one of the series most high-profile directors, Richard Donner, “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone” is regularly mentioned as one of the best episodes of the whole show. Joe Pantoliano plays a carnival daredevil buried alive as part of his grand finale, and through flashbacks tells us, the viewer, how he got to where he was, starting out as a homeless man who underwent a doctor’s experiment in order to transfer a cat’s nine lives over to him. Throughout the episode, he shows that his abilities have allowed him to survive death-defying feats in the past, including drowning and a number of Houdini-esque extremes. His greed grows as does his status but he forgets one thing, he may be on his last life with this latest stunt. A simple premise that really keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, along with a stellar performance from Pantoliano that ends predictably but exactly how it should.
Season 2, Episode 1 – Original Air Date: April 21, 1990
Starring Demi Moore as an unscrupulous gold-digging secretary who follows the advice of a fortune teller and marries a slobbish oaf of a man (played by Jeffery Tambor) in order to strike it rich upon his death. This was Moore a little before she was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and both her and Tambor (in a great, gross fat suit) do great jobs packing in vomit inducing kisses and sordid bits of vitriol between the couple. It all feels right at home in Tales From The Crypt‘s sophomore season start. While the series often veered into supernatural territory, “Dead Rights” keeps thing considerably more human, dealing more with psychosis than otherworldly incarnations. The ending too keeps things subdued, even intelligent and strikes just the right chord. A welcome return for the Crypt Keeper as the show entered its second season.
“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”
Season 2, Episode 10 – Original Air Date: June 5, 1990
It wouldn’t be a list of the creepiest, most ghoulish, unsettling episodes of any anthology horror show without a creepy ventriloquist dummy. Here, Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist out to prove his craft by seeking help from an old hero of his, played by the late Don Rickles. Richard Donner returns to direct, lending his veteran craft to the proceedings which actually drives up some serious empathy for Goldthwait’s character. Plus, this episode was written by Frank Darabont of Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, and The Walking Dead fame who really lets these two comedy heavyweights play out his reliably great teleplay. The ending takes this story to higher extremes than say Anthony Hopkins’ Magic or any Slappy episode from Goosebumps due in part to the effects work on display, which really pushes it over the edge, with some stunning puppetry work and some nice sight gags reminiscent of Sam Raimi.
Season 2, Episode 22 – Original Air Date: July 17, 1990
Dressing an entire episode with classic horror tropes and an exaggerated parodying performance by Morton Downey Jr., “Television Terror” finds TV journalist Horton River exploring a supposedly haunted mansion that he thinks is harmless, but steeped in enough horrific history that it could drive up his ratings. As he explores the supposedly haunted abode, things turn out to be a lot more real than he anticipated. The whole thing is presented as if it were being aired live, giving it a modern twist on its classic haunted house trope and the arc between Morton and Dorothy Parke’s assistant plays out effectively well with an episode that ends on some well-earned shock value. The added benefit here is having Morton Downey Jr. essentially playing himself (having a self-titled talk show for years) not unlike his role in Predator 2.
Season 3, Episode 4 – Original Air Date: June 19, 1991
Just one year after he appeared as the villain in the 1990 blockbuster Ghost, Tony Goldwyn found himself on the opposite end of the victim board as a doctor whose brother (played by Beau Bridges) makes him the guinea pig of a new serum that mimics death. “Abra Cadaver” is a favorite for a lot of fans due in part to its first-person perspective. Directed by Predator 2‘s Stephen Hopkins, this episode is wall-to-wall style, opening with a black-and-white prologue before diving head first into an almost chamber play between the two actors. After Goldwyn’s character is put under by brother Beau’s experiments he is literally trapped within his “dead” body. We hear his inner monologue and we see what he sees. The whole episode’s concept hinges on that primal fear of being awake and not being able to move, the living dead. The episode was so successful that Robert Zemeckis more or less revisited it when he took on “You, Murderer” during the series sixth season premiere. This is a gut-churning episode (there are some suggested body horror elements in here that would make the most hardened gore hound’s stomach twist) and the ending might backpedal a bit, but all-in-all “Abra Cadaver” is one of the more ghoulish episodes from Tales From The Crypt.
Season 3, Episode 5 – Original Air Date: June 26, 1991
Directed by The Real O’Neil‘s Todd Holland and starring an uncharacteristically cast Jon Lovitz, “Top Billing” centers on Barry Blye who is a down-on-his-luck actor who loses a lot all at once. Unable to get a part in anything, Barry is willing to do anything to land the lead role in Hamlet, and by anything, we mean he murders the actor set to star, which then progresses into more and more extreme behavior that ultimately lands him in some grave circumstances. Lovitz is great here, entertaining and playing such a weird, darker role for him. Other members of the cast add to the enjoyment, including John Astin (The Addams Family) and Paul Benedict (The Jeffersons). Though Tales From The Crypt often reared to more adult audiences, the ending to “Top Billing” is particularly dark, even for this show.
“Easel Kill Ya'”
Season 3, Episode 8 – Original Air Date: July 17, 1991
A prime example of when the series was hitting it out of the park, “Easel Kill Ya” stars Tim Roth as a struggling artist who encounters a mysterious collector of artwork in the form of William Atherton (Walter “No Dick” Peck from Ghostbusters and also another Dick, Thornburg in Die Hard). Roth’s artist, Jack Craig, must keep producing ghoulish artwork in order to satisfy this morbid new customer, which soon leads him down a dark and dangerous path. Roth was pre-Reservoir Dogs when he appeared in this episode but does a wonderful job conveying the pain and moodiness of the struggling Jack. This episode takes a number of cues from one of Roger Corman’s most underrated classics, A Bucket Of Blood. Director John Harrison helmed a number of Tales From The Darkside entries, so he was right at home with the Crypt Keeper, especially when the teleplay was written by Larry Wilson, who penned five other Crypt episodes (he also had a hand in writing Beetlejuice). “Easel Kill Ya'” also ends on a darker path than some of the other episodes, punctuated by a brutal reversal of fortune that really leaves a lasting impact, and maybe another nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Season 3, Episode 11 – Original Air Date: July 7, 1991
Directed by Aussie, Russell Mulcahy, who is known for his zippy editing, tracking shots, and mood lighting brings a slow burn of an episode to life. Starring Michelle Johnson as barmaid vixen Kelly-Dickson and Brion James as a lumber camp owner Steve Dixon, who marry before Kelly realizes that Dixon has a violent streak…one she intends to exploit. Kelly sets out, seducing another lumberjack (played by Billy Wirth) in order to relieve her boredom out in the middle of the wilderness. The whole thing lands with a great payoff, and all the actors are game in what is a pretty horrifying ending. The standout of the episode is Dan Martin as Snaz, who gives a memorable little performance here.
Season 4, Episode 6 – Original Air Date: July 22, 1992
This is Christopher Reeve as audiences had never seen him before. Gone is the red cape and instead is some red meat. Reeve stars as one-half of a couple, along with Bess Armstrong, whose failing restaurant gets a huge uptick thanks in part to Judd Nelson’s mysterious drifter whom they hire and in return gifts them a steak recipe that is out of this world. Well… it’s actually from this world – it’s human flesh. Reeve and Nelson really deliver, playing optimists with some down-home charm; you actually feel bad for their circumstance. But once Reeve finds out what exactly this secret ingredient is, that’s when the horror really kicks in. This episode is also notable for its cameo appearances, which include the likes of another meat-related actor, Meat Loaf.
“The New Arrival”
Season 4, Episode 7 – Original Air Date: July 25, 1992
David Warner attempts to boost his sagging radio show ratings by doing a series of episodes from the home of a strange woman (played by Poltergeist staple Zelda Rubenstein) who wants help for her deeply disturbed child. Warner is a fly-by-night psychologist high on ego from the success of his show, but all that comes crumbling down once he meets said disturbed child, Felicity. This episode is not only one of the all-time greats of the series but stands on its own as a damn fine piece of ghoulish entertainment. The setup alone engages the viewer, but it’s once this story gets really going that you find those hooks of an unsettling nature really start digging in. First off: Felicity is one of the creepiest incarnations on any TV horror series, complete with offbeat porcelain mask. Second: the murders that transpire within the house are a cavalcade of ingenious setups and trick photography, upping the insanity of the episode. The whole thing ends as the best nightmares do, lasting, and with the feeling that you can’t trust anything you just saw. Director Peter Medak started off by directing one of the all-time great horror films, The Changeling, before going on to helm episodes of Carnivale, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, some of the best shot and directed pieces of television ever. Here, he shows he was a true talent from the get-go, and the added bonus of Rubinstein for that extra-supernatural feel, along with Joan Severance, Twiggy, and Robert Patrick, makes this perhaps the top pantheon of episodes from Tales From The Crypt.
“Death Of Some Salesman”
Season 5, Episode 1 – Official Air Date: October 2, 1993
Directed by the producer of Superman Returns and Constantine, Gilbert Adler, “Death Of Some Salesman” finds Ed Begley, Jr. playing a sneaky cemetery plot salesman who finds new victims in the form of a strange hillbilly family with a fortune buried in their basement. The twist is, the entire Brackett family, with whom Begley’s Judd Campbell is trying to con, are all played by Tim Curry. Yes, the husband, the wife, and the daughter are all Curry, and he couldn’t be better. It’s a joy to watch this episode just for that facet but seeing the tables turn as the episode unfurls is just as much a blast. The episode was written by Tales From The Crypt mainstays A.L. Katz, and Adler also ended up directing the feature-film Crypt movie Bordello Of Blood. There’s lots of backwoods stereotypes and a sex scene that when juxtaposed with the opening moments of the episode really make for a gut laugh. So far into their series, season 5 could still deliver seasoned vets and some great thrills, chills, laughs and kills.
Season 5, Episode 3 – Original Air Date: October 2, 1993
After playing second fiddle to an up-and-coming photographer named Isaac Forte (Steve Buscemi post-Reservoir Dogs but pre-Fargo), a seasoned but washed-up combat photographer named Dalton (played by The Who’s Roger Daltrey) cooks up a deadly scheme in order to take him out and get his beautiful wife (Lysette Anthony). The episode is notable for being directed by Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan and the absolutely garish and gruesome effects work, which should be enough for any horror fan to love. This one is all about the violence but stars a trio of eclectic talents. Also, the title of the episode itself is a reference to a 1947 comic story in which ambergris plays an important part in the story’s ending. However, there is no such narrative turn in this adaptation so the title makes little sense but sure sounds classy.
Did we miss one of your faves? Or perhaps there was an episode that really left its impression on you back in the day? Either way, let us know over on the official Grizzly Bomb FB page!
Sources: HBO, Warner Bros.