“Hello, Boils and Ghouls” was a typical opening salvo from The Crypt Keeper, the wraparound host (and animatronic cadaver) of HBO’s inventive, creepy and more often than not, mordantly funny salute to the EC Comics of yesteryear, Tales from the Crypt (1989 – 1996). Throughout seven seasons, viewers were subjected to as much gore, nudity, and twisted morality as we could handle. God (or his underworld counterpart) bless premium cable.
Tales ran from June 10th, 1989 to July 19th, 1996, for a grand total of 93 episodes. That’s a lot of grue to ingest, and until ratings started to slip by Season Six, horror fans found it easy to lap up. And as with any anthology series, mileage varies and quality flickers to and fro – but Tales from the Crypt’s success is anchored in the very fact that it was allowed to live, and thrive, for as long as it did.
The show was executive produced by heavy hitters: Richard Donner, Walter Hill, David Giler, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis. Hollywood movers, with ties to genre fare, but more importantly, connections to A-list talent in front of and behind the scenes. Unlike the syndicated, George A. Romero created Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), Crypt’s producers were able to entice headliners to come aboard, some with the lure of trying out directing for the first time. Over the course of its run, Michael J. Fox, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Hanks all took a shot at helming an episode – and why not? They probably grew up with the comics (Hanks has always come across as a cultural marksman), or were at least familiar with their impact on the pop landscape.
Tales arrived at the tail end of the anthology explosion; a risky proposition that most certainly wouldn’t have played without cable’s freedom to display the seedier (and steamier) side of the tube. The mid ‘80s bore The Twilight Zone revival, Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, the return of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the aforementioned Darkside. And these were all good shows; good production values, performances, etc. But what their more terror tempered episodes couldn’t achieve was what Crypt reveled in – an over the top visceral experience, where what could be shown, would definitely be shown. Not that this hindered the other shows, but Crypt wisely used its freedom as a filmmaking tool: to emphasize the punchlines.
Much like the comics, the Crypt show usually (but certainly not always) stuck to a fairly simple formula. The set up was usually fueled by greed, with one party needing to dispose of the other to attain wealth, eternal life, or something along those woozy lines. But when it came time for the denouement, the final twist (and this is really the dripping, oozing heart of the show), Crypt hit us horror fans where we lived, offering heaping amounts of the moist stuff as one big “oh yeah?” to the network shows chained to the whims of the censors. Of course, everything’s relative, and 1989’s unmentionables might be today’s TV-MA. (Definitely comparable to cable’s favorite meat munchers The Walking Dead in the gore department, but of course easily surpasses it in the sins of the flesh. Sex is still a no no.) But this was one of HBO’s first forays into original programming, in an effort to get away from showing reruns of The Last American Virgin. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) And with a leg up (or off, hehe) on the networks, they were ready to roll.
But they needed material as well. 93 half hour episodes is a lot of content, and they managed to drum up great material from not only Crypt comics, but other EC titles such as Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Vault of Horror, The Crypt of Terror, and Two-Fisted Tales. Some people may appreciate the more straight forward stories – tales of vengeance and double crossing, with little or no supernatural interference. Others (and by that I mean me) prefer the morbid, depraved, and downright hilarious twists that accompany the more outrageous episodes. And that was a big sell for the series – if one wasn’t to your liking, the next would probably shake your tree.
Another reason the show still plays so well is the creative team cannily covered their bets, every time. If a story was weak, the performances picked it up; when the story was strong, any ineffectual acting was swept along. It gives the series an overall consistency lacking in other anthology work. Everything orbited through the producers’ pull, who all chipped in with the directing chores throughout the seasons. And Tales from the Crypt boasts a varied and vast catalogue of helmers; in addition to the above we got: John Frankenheimer. William Malone. Mick Garris. Tobe Hooper. Tom Holland. Manny Coto. Fred Dekker. The list goes on – so many madmen, having a blast creating their little slice of mayhem. As for the talent in front of the camera? I just don’t have that kind of column space.
For seven seasons, The Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir) welcomed viewers into the dungeon to spin yarns of vampires, werewolves, murderous ventriloquists, zombies, voodoo priestesses, premature burials, and other fine family fare. And now, Tales from the Crypt is being resurrected by M. Night Shyamalan, who hopes to terrorize a new generation of kiddies with tales of woe and comeuppance. If it turns out to be a disappointment, just remember this: you will always have 93 graves to upend - so crack open the caskets, and bask in the moonlit glow of the joys within. Goodnight, Boils and Ghouls.
All seven seasons of Tales from the Crypt are available on DVD from Warner Home Video.Next: It Came From The Tube: TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)