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This is series one of the cult HBO horror anthology series Tales from the Crypt. Based on the famous 1950s EC horror comics published by William Gaines, Tales from the Crypt had A-list Hollywood talent like Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill and Richard Donner involved in the production and ran for seven successful years from 1989 to 1996. This is one of the most loved of the vintage anthology shows and the tongue-in-cheek approach and very colourful "comic book come to life" look of the series still makes it a lot of fun to revisit. Season one was something of a testing the waters exercise and only includes six stories but they should leave you wanting more if you have a weakness for horror/fantasy capers in the vein of Tales from the Darkside, Night Gallery, The Outer Limits, Hammer House of Horror etc. As ever, each story is introduced by our host - the Crypt Keeper. The Crypt Keeper (voiced John Kassir) is a cheeky animatronic puppet (designed by Kevin Yagher of the "Chucky" films) with a terrible line in dreadful puns and remains a very likeable creation as our guide. "Our story tonight is about a man with nobler ambitions. He likes to kill human pests and he does it in front of an audience. Now that's entertainment. So, hang onto your hats kiddies, this one's a real shocker." The Man Who Was Death was written and directed by Walter Hill. This is a fairly solid start to the series and revolves around Niles Talbot (William Sadler), the state executioner at a prison where they still use the electric chair. Niles, who is from the country and something of a redneck and loner, worked his way up to this position and takes his grisly occupation very seriously. However, when the state legislature votes to revoke the death penalty, Niles suddenly finds himself out of a job. He decides that he will continue his work regardless and targets criminals who he believes have not been punished sufficiently for their crimes. Can Niles keep his unique brand of vigilantism a secret?
The Man Who Was Death is sort of Tales from the Crypt meets Dexter meets Wes Craven's Shocker and gains a good deal of (no pun intended) juice from William Sadler's committed performance as the electric chair obsessed Niles, who he plays as a reserved scheming good 'ole boy. Sadler breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience at times and the narration and moody score gives this quite a nice noir feel. "I'm a country boy, but I like the city. You know, it's big. It's dirty. Let's you know what it really is. But at night, there's all those lights. It's real pretty isn't it? My name's Niles Talbot. I've been the executioner in this state for the last twelve years. When I got here from Oklahoma, I caught on as an electrician, then, after a while I got a job out to the prison, taking care of the generators. I like electricity. It's dependable, you can trust it. A lot of states do it with gas or with some lethal injection. I don't take to that. It's gotta be the old electric chair for me." The direction by Walter Hall is appropriately colourful and stylish in tribute to the comics and although this is less broadly comedic than many Tales from the Crypt episodes it still has that over the top tongue-in-cheek aura one associates with this series. The major flaw with this story is that you can see the ending coming a long time before it arrives but that aside The Man Who Was Death is decent anthology hokum to begin the long running series.
"Ho, Ho, Ho, Kiddies. Just your old pal, the Crypt Keeper having a little holiday fun. Why else would I be in this get up, unless there was a Claus in my contract? In fact, I've got some Christmas goose for you. Goose bumps that is. A little terror tale, chock-full of holiday fear. I mean cheer, of course. So, get a gander of a Yuletide yelp-yarn that goes a little something like this: Twas the night before Christmas, and All Through The House..." And All Through the House was written by Fred Dekker and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Do you remember the 1972 Amicus compendium film Tales from the Crypt, that very British interpretation of some of EC's horror stories? The segment that most people remember is the one where Joan Collins is menaced in her house on Christmas Eve by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa Claus. Well, here is that story again, only this time with an American setting and Robert Zemeckis behind the camera rather than Freddie Francis. It's Christmas Eve and housewife Elizabeth (Mary Ellen Trainor) puts her young daughter (played by Lindsey Whitney Barry) to bed and then whacks her unsuspecting husband Joseph (Marshall Bell) over the head with the fireplace poker. The murderous Elizabeth is after the life insurance but she has missed a local news bulletin about a dangerous escapee (played by Larry Drake) from the asylum who is at large and dressed as Father Christmas. When Elizabeth is attacked by the escapee outside she manages to get back inside and lock the door. Only then does she realise that she left the body of her murdered husband out in the snow. It means she can't call the police and must now deal with this deranged Father Christmas alone.
And All Through the House does unavoidably lose the element of surprise if you've seen the Amicus film and I have more affection for the Joan Collins version but this is still well worth watching and is regarded by many to be one of the best Tales from the Crypt episodes. The main difference with this one is that they open it up more with some of the action taking place in the yard outside. The Amicus adaptation was strictly Joan Collins in her house and had more claustrophobia. While it looks like a slam dunk to cast Larry Drake as a murderous Father Christmas (and it is a slam dunk because Drake is great here) I do feel the Santa in the Amicus film was scarier because we hardly saw him save for a grubby bearded face at the window. Anyway, both versions are perfectly fine and this one is certainly fun too - especially if you are completely new to And All Through the House in any form. "Good evening, fiend fans, and welcome to my crawly crypt. This little drama is about one of life's unexpected pleasures: dying, that is. Most of us only get to do it once, and it's all over before you can really enjoy it. But one man did get to die again. And he liked it so much, he started doing it for a living. This is the story of Ulric the Undying. A sideshow performer who found death not only fun, but profitable. In fact, he's dying to put on a show for you. Right now!" Dig That Cat, He's Real Gone was written by Terry Black and directed by Richard Donner. This story revolves around a man named Ulric - played by the ever dependable Joe Pantoliano. Ulric is a down and out living on the streets when scientist Dr Emil Manfred (Gustvas Vintas) asks him to participate in an unusual medical experiment in return for a great deal of money.
Ulric agrees and the medical procedure involves having cells from a cat implanted into his brain. The end result? Ulric now has nine lives! This is proven without doubt when Dr Manfred shoots him and he comes back to life. So eight left. There is money to be made rom this remarkable power so Ulric sets himself up as a circus performer ("Ulric the Great") who can apparently survive anything. All seems well but Ulric would be advised to always keep a close eye on how many lives he has left. Dig That Cat, He's Real Gone isn't that highly regarded in the Tales from the Crypt pantheon but I enjoyed this episode quite a bit. Sopranos and Midnight Run star Joe Pantoliano is great value and Robert Wuhl is not too far behind as a circus honcho. We see the death defying stunts that Ulric performs become increasingly extravagant and dangerous (David Blaine has nothing on Ulric) and the circus side show atmosphere is nicely done. You'll probably see the twist coming but I don't think that tremendously detracts from what is an entertaining half hour or so of television. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fearest of them all? Looks like I just bought seven years bad luck. Speaking of bad luck, its time for another nasty little terror tale from my crawly collection and this one's got a message too. It's a story about greed, death, and a girl that learned that beauty is Only Sin Deep." Only Sin Deep was written by Fred Dekker and directed by Howard Deutch. This is regarded to be one of the weaker episodes of the truncated series one - perhaps because it eschews traditional horror and the overblown comic book Tales from the Crypt approach for a more mysterious atmosphere. One could easily imagine this as a so-so longer segment on Night Gallery or even (at a stretch) The Twilight Zone.
It's certainly watchable but it isn't the most memorable entry in this series by any means. This segment features Back to the Future star Lea Thompson as Sylvia Vane, a tough prostitute who is determined to nab a rich man and escape her hustling life on the street. When she kills her pimp (played by G Campbell), Sylvia tries to pawn his valueables but is told by the pawnbroker (Britt Leach) that the goods are too dodgy to handle. He offers a surprising alternative though and offers to buy her "beauty" for $10,000. Sylvia - assuming the pawnbroker to be mad - agrees to this eccentric offer and is told she has four months to buy it back. What will happen if she doesn't? Only Sin Deep has good production values and that dark morality tale quality you get with The Twilight Zone but it does seem somewhat second gear for Tales from the Crypt and Lea Thompson doesn't really have the charisma to carry the story and rise above the material. Her performance is irritating (it's especially hard to take her seriously as a street tough prostitute) at times but Britt Leach is at least memorable as the slightly sinister pawnbroker. All in all, this is not the best thing here. "It's good to have you back, you horror-hungry humans. You know by now who's here to feed your fear. It's me, the Crypt Keeper, with another flesh-creeping scream story for your shivering pleasure. I'm calling this bite of bitter bile, Lover Come Hack To Me. So plump up that coffin pillow and settle back your bones. We're going to take a little ride to honeymoon hell." Lover, Come Hack to Me was written by Michael McDowell and directed by Tom Holland. This is better than the previous episode and has a nice abandoned spooky house strangeness that is slightly reminiscent of Pigeons from Hell from the Boris Karloff hosted sixties anthology classic Thriller. Charles (Stephen Shellen) and Peggy (Amanda Plummer) are newlyweds and off on their Honeymoon. Charles is rather shallow and vain while Peggy is innocent, shy and eccentric.
When their car journey comes to an abrupt halt after a tree is blown acros the road in a violent storm, they find a nearby house that seems to be empty and decide to spend their wedding night there. But Charles is about to discover that the nerdy and apparently innocuous Peggy is hiding a very big family secret. This episode has a great sense of atmosphere and is shunted along by the typically unrestrained performance of Pulp Fiction star Amanda Plummer. There are a few grisly moments but the story for the most part tries to keep you guessing and works quite well in the fashion that it uses Charles as our window in to the narrative. It's a bit overblown and weird for weird's sake at times but Tom Holland gives this a good sense of style and pacing and the twist at the end is probably worth the wait. "Tonight's skin-pimpling story is about a couple with their own pet peeves. I call this chunk of chilling charnal chatter, Collection Completed." Collection Completed was written by Whitney Brown and directed by Mary Lambert. This is a fun episode to end the first season, an amusing black comedy with some enjoyable performances. It's like watching a superior Tales from the Darkside episode. After nearly fifty years, sales manager Jonas (M Emmet Walsh) has finally retired and is now at home all the time. However, while he has been working all these years, his lonely wife Anita (Audra Lindley) has filled the house with her beloved pets and animals and they take up most her day. Jonas finds living in a house full of animals rather claustrophobic and wearing. He can't seem to get a minute's peace and decides to invent a new hobby for himself - much to his wife's dismay. Who will win this domestic battle for control of the house?
Collection Completed is a fun way to end series one and quite funny at times. I saw the twist coming but it's so purely EC that it still works anyway. The best thing about this episode is the perpetually grumpy performance by veteran M Emmet Walsh. He makes a good team with Audra Lindley and Collection Completed is always entertaining with them onscreen together. Following seasons would be better (and also give you far more episodes) but Tales from the Crypt season one is an enjoyable taster for the show and should make you interested enough to continue collecting them. The high production values are evident from the start and the acting and direction is always well above average. The only shame is that the intro title with music by Danny Elfman is absent (it only appears on the DVDs from season three) but you do get it as part of the extras (if out of context of course). The other extras are a documentary on the history of the show/translation from comics to screen (this 50 minute film is very interesting and well worth watching) and then the Crypt Keeper's own personal history of season one. Tales from the Crypt is only available on Region 1 and this first series (at the time of writing) is about £15. That's a bit on the high side for only six episodes and I would recommend you look for the season 1 & 2 double-pack. This is often available at a similar price but gives you 24 episodes instead of six.