In 1989, four of the biggest names in Hollywood (Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Richard Zemeckis) combined their cultural significance to pitch a program to the fledgling premium cable channel HBO, who was looking to expand beyond showing films 24/7 into airing more original programming. Their idea: to take the morally gray horror comics of the 1950s from EC Comics, and reimagine them for modern day audiences. The final result was Tales from the Crypt, one of the most influential anthology shows conceived since the Twilight Zone.
What made Tales unique over most other anthology shows is that showrunner Steven Dodd had a pretty light touch, meaning that individual episodes were allowed to stand on their own. For this reason, Tales can almost be seen as a long-running series of short horror films, rather than a holistic, complete piece like Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. This leads to some fairly wild swings in terms of tone and, to be frank, of quality from episode to episode. But it also leads to oddities, such as the directorial debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Fascinated by this series, and mostly unfamiliar with the work that came out of it, I embarked on a journey to watch and document the whole series. Once I convinced my friend Cecy Correa to join me, we created Cryptspeakers. Each week, we watch and discuss the merits of each Tales from the Crypt episode, with an eye towards filmmaker authorship and the way the different writers and directors decided to tell their individual tales.
We recently finished the six-episode first season, and as a way to celebrate we decided to rank them worst to best. You can hear our individual lists over on this week’s episode, but below is the weighted scores of the worst and the best that Tales had to offer straight out the gate. So buckle up kiddies, and peep there tales of terror!
6. Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone!
Dir. Richard Donner
Writer Terry Black
Ulric (a nervy Joe Pantoliano) is living on the streets when given a strange gift by a mad scientist: a special gland extracted from a cat that will give me nine literal biological lives! Each time he dies, he comes back to life, a special ability her puts to good use a freak show attraction. But as he gets closer and closer to his final death, the ante only raises for what his next amazing death stunt could be.
Richard Donner directed The Omen, one of the quintessential horror films that in some ways transcends the genre into just general top shelf cinema. So it come as a surprise that his first entry into the series feels like such a dud. Between off-putting editing techniques, a narrative than can get a bit repetitive and a twist that while well-executed is mostly telegraphed. Even in here though, the bottom of our ranking, there are some interesting things worth checking out, including a game lead performance from Pantoliano, and Donner sneaking in some not so subtle jabs at the psyche of horror fans in general, personified by a freak show audience with increasingly high bloodlust.
5. Only Sin Deep
Dir. Howard Deutch
Writer Fred Dekker
Lea Thompson start as a sex worker who pawns her “beauty” in an attempt to get enough money so that she can catch the eye of an upper crust New Yorker who will whisk her into her dream life. But when she neglects to pay back her money, she rapidly begins to age, causing her to act more and more erratic.
One discovery in watching a whole season of Tales from the Crypt is that as much as individual episodes can succeed on the strength of their filmmakers, some exclusively succeed on the strengths of their performers. “Only Sin Deep” is an episode we were deeply divided on, but mostly due to one of us (namely, me) finding Lea Thompson’s performance harder to stomach than my co-host. It’s all blown out accents and gesticulating, which likely wasn’t helped by the process of being directed by her husband, and playing romantic interest against a close friend in Brett Cullen. But my co-host enjoyed her performance more than me, and also saw a lot to pull out of this episode, especially around the anxieties women face regarding their increased irrelevancy in the face of old age, and also one very cool scene in the quintessential late 80s bougie set. Suffice to say, your mileage may vary on this one.
4. The Man Who Was Death
Dir. Walter Hill
Writer Walter Hill and Robert Reneau
Niles Talbot (William Sadler) is the head executioner in a city that just ended the death penalty. Unsure what to do, and frustrated with what he sees as people slipping through the cracks of the system, he takes it upon himself to become a self-appointed executioner.
This is the pilot episode of the show, and is another example of how your reaction to a performance will color your impression. Sadler is going for a big performance here, putting an exaggerated southern persona and spending a good portion of the episode talking directly to the camera with increasingly unpleasant monologues. More over, Hill really leans into what can be described as an aggressive stylized palette that worked for me as a method of emulating comics, and was distracting from the overall story for my co-host. We both agreed though is that the ultimate failure of the episode is to not communicate what the authors feelings about the death penalty is, which seems especially bizarre when they are given ample time to dig into it.
3. Lover Come Hack to Me
Dir. Tom Holland
Writer Michael McDowell
Peggy and Charles (Amanda Plummer and Stephen Shellen) are newlyweds, heading off for their honeymoon. But when they find themselves stranded at an abandoned manor, their plans quickly shift, and their wedding night is filled with mystery and deadly consequences.
Given how the whole pitch of Tales from the Crypt was that using HBO’s more lax censorship standards would allow for a horror anthology that leaned into its roots of exploitative imagery and language. Despite this, the first season of Tales feels relatively tame in its content, with most episodes feeling like a pass away from being eligible to be part of a broadcast package like Tales From the Darkside. “Lover Come Hack to Me” is the exception, as an especially bloody and horny piece of work. Which is not shocking, when you consider director Holland is responsible for schlocky horror classics like Fright Night and Child’s Play, and written by the mind behind Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas. Plus it’s one of the few episodes of Tales this season that is genuinely hard to predict where it is going, in no small part because it withholds some vital information until the very final moments. Still, for fans of cheap but slickly done thrills, this is a must watch.
2. Collection Completed
Dir. Mary Lambert
Writers Battle Davis, Randolph Davis, A. Whitney Brown
Jonas (M. Emmet Walsh) has been forced into retirement, and is having a rough go of it, in no small part because he discovers his wife Anita (Audra Lindley) has taken to caring for any and all animals in the neighborhood. In his search for something to do and a way to take care of the menagerie that has taken over his house, Jonas finds a new hobby that will kill two birds with one stone.
If “Lover Come Hack to Me” is Tales operating to its fully capacity as a straight faced horror series, “Collection Completed” is it at its silliest. It is never especially frightening, and most of the run time is spent to Walsh acting increasingly ornery about his disorganized home life. Lambert was hot off the heels of directing the surprise hit Pet Semetary, but is happy to use a more playful, almost cartoonish tone here, assisted by a very goofy script from a trio of comedy writers. The final image of the episode is fairly iconic though, and Walsh and Lindley are both game for big, goofy performances that carry the episode through to that ending.
- And All Through the House
Dir. Robert Zemeckis
Writer Fred Dekker
On Christmas Eve, Elizabeth (Mary Ellen Trainor) decides to end things with her husband, fatally. But when she has to find some way to dispose of the body, things are complicated when a mad killer dressed in a Santa suit is on the loose. Juggling a corpse, the threat of a killer nearby and her Santa-obsessed daughter, Elizabeth struggles to make it to Christmas Day.
It is hard to imagine a director who was more in the pocket than Robert Zemeckis in 1989. He is on the streak of Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Shot Roger Rabbit, and is already being lauded as the next Spielberg. The fact he not only used this newly found cache to help producer this show, but then directed the second episode, speaks a lot to his interest in this project. And this episode is a perfect example of a director who is just with it. Shot composition throughout the claustrophobic short is a masterclass in providing just the right amount of spatial awareness. Lifted by a fantastic performance by Trainor, Zemeckis’ wife at the time, this episode stands head and shoulders above the other episodes this season, and acts as an example of what the series can be when it’s firing on all cylinders.
And that’s it for the relatively short Season 1. We would love for you to check out future episodes of Cryptspeakers, with new episodes dropping every week. If you want further thoughts on this season, be sure to check out our Spooktacular, and then join us next week as we venture forth into Season 2. You can find us on all podcatchers, including Apple podcasts and Spotify. Until next time, kiddies!