Lance Henriksen is one of those intriguing actors who straddles the line between character actor and leading man. He’s often cast in off-beat roles, but he always manages to be playing some variation of Lance Henriksen. And I’m fully on board with that. Henriksen’s leathery face and gravelly voice always seem to make any movie he’s in better. An interesting thing about Henriksen: over the course of five decades, his characters have taken one hell of a beating. They’ve been shot, stabbed, ripped in half, shot, lit on fire, blown up, hit by a car, shot, electrocuted, and did I mention shot? This month we take a trip to the small screen for the Tales from the Crypt second season episode “Cutting Cards” in which, interestingly enough, Henriksen makes it to the end credits. But he doesn’t exactly make it through unscathed.

Tales from the Crypt was a formidable part of my horror education as a kid. One of my earliest horror memories is watching the opening credits through my fingers, dreading the end of the sequence where the Crypt Keeper would pop out of his coffin and cackle maniacally at me. But even then I appreciated Crypt’s twisted sense of humor that distilled the essence of the old EC Comics. Episodes played out like morbid O. Henry stories, with endings that usually played like a joke with a morbidly ironic punchline that left me equal parts amused and horrified. And “Cutting Cards” is the quintessential Crypt episode, providing a truly silly plot without pulling any punches on the darker notes. Before we start, let me lay down a blanket SPOILER WARNING as I can’t talk about my love of this episode without mentioning the ending.

The story follows Henriksen as Reno Crevice, a name befitting a character who comes off as Yosemite Sam with a deck of cards. But this is Tales from the Crypt, so over-the-top caricatures aren’t just allowed, they’re expected. And Henriksen is clearly relishing his chance to chew up some scenery. After a stint in Las Vegas that went sour, Crevice winds up in a seedy casino where he runs into fellow gambler and arch nemesis Sam Forney (Kevin Tighe). Tighe is perfectly cast as the kind of guy who fancies himself as sophisticated, but just winds up coming off as unseemly. He just has that face that makes you think he has all of the skeletons in his closet, and he leans into it perfectly here.

As their banter becomes increasingly hostile, the two decide that the only way to settle things is a series of wagers with increasing stakes from “loser leaves town” to “loser takes a bullet to the head.” Of course, any Crypt episode worth its salt can’t leave things with simple gunplay, so after their game of Russian roulette is foiled by a dud bullet, the men settle on playing chop poker, which is kind of like strip poker except you lose appendages instead of clothes.

Now, when I was a kid, I remember getting really into this episode because it wasn’t too scary. Sure, the finger-chopping is pretty cringe-inducing, but there was no fear of monsters waiting for me under my bed later that night. This was just a couple of guys so obsessed with their hatred for one another that they were willing to destroy themselves out of spite.

The funny thing is, as I get older I find myself paying more attention to relationships. And the last time I watched “Cutting Cards,” I noticed there was more to Crevice and Forney’s relationship beyond simple hatred. In a sense, all they really have is each other. Crevice split with his wife and only has about $100 to his name after busting in Vegas. And with Forney spending his time in the same dive casino, you can’t imagine he’s in any better of a situation.

The episode’s director, Walter Hill, is a veteran when it comes to directing buddy flicks where the leads have an antagonistic relationship. Between directing Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in both 48 Hours movies, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi in (the perhaps ill-advised) Red Heat, Hill knows his way around a story featuring antagonistic partnerships.

And while you may not be able to call what Crevice and Forney have a partnership, their rivalry seems to be what keeps them going. Like many classic love/hate relationships, they don’t want anyone butting their heads into it, as evidenced when Forney points a gun at a random casino patron after he threatens his “friend,” Crevice. Of course, they then use that gun to continue their game of Russian roulette.

Even the ending, in its own way, is a happy one. The final shot is both men playing a game of checkers. Granted, it would ring a little sweeter if they weren’t playing in a mental institution as quadruple amputees, but where’s the fun in that? And while some may see the final shot of Crevice and Forney literally butting heads as symbolic of their feud, I saw it as a touching show of physical affection in line with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman at the end of Rain Man. So yes, I think “Cutting Cards” is sort of touching in a grotesque way that only the great episodes of Tales from the Crypt could pull off.

[Image credit: Above image from Midnite Reviews.]