Number 12: Tales from the Crypt
‘Tales from the Crypt’ ran for seven seasons, totalling 93 episodes, and was based on storylines from the fondly-remembered 1950’s EC Comic of the same name or borrowed from a range of other classic EC franchises like ‘The Crypt of Terror’ and ‘Vault of Horror’. Each week was a different short story covering a multitude of classic genre tropes, with a heavy emphasis on the macabre, ghoulish or supernatural; many of the episodes were also noted for their effective use of the twist or unexpected ending. The episodes were linked by the figure of The Cryptkeeper himself – an animated corpse who bookended each instalment, opening with a groan-inducing greeting to the audience and ending with an outro where he reflected on the week’s events.
By the end of the Eighties, television was the rising medium for the genre. The Golden Age of Horror in the Seventies and early part of the Eighties had long since disappeared and the appetite for the genre on the big screen was waning. Originally planned to be a movie following three different stories – much like 1982’s ‘Creepshow’ – the decision was made to convert the show to television amid fears that a film would bomb in such a hostile climate. Executive produced by Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis, the show was aired on premium cable channel HBO and, as a result, was largely free from the rampant censorship of the time.
The episodic nature of the show meant that there were almost no regular cast members with the exception of The Cryptkeeper himself, voiced by John Kassir. A part-decayed, semi-desiccated talking corpse, the character was the heart of the show and a large part of its appeal. Paying homage to its Fifties roots, he was a morbidly funny host and famous for his puns and deliberately out-dated, eye rolling humour. The character’s high-pitched cackling, now so iconic, was an ordeal for Kassir who frequently had to moisten and treat his vocal chords with honey both in readiness for, and in treatment after, recording his lines. The Cryptkeeper himself was a technological achievement; devised by famous Hollywood effects man Kevin Yagher – known latterly for his work on almost every iconic horror franchise to date – and operated mainly by renowned puppeteer Van Snowden, he quickly became, and remains, a star in his own right.
Originally intended to run for three seasons the show was a huge success, ultimately running for seven. Most episodes had a different director which gave the show an interesting variety as the stories themselves tackled differing themes. So successful was the show that it attracted a who’s who of directing talent; executive producers Zemeckis and Donner both helmed episodes, as well as Walter Hill, Fred Dekker, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, John Frankenheimer, and Mick Garris who also contributed. It also some other famous acting faces a taste of life behind the camera too, with Tom Hanks, Michael J Fox, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger directing episodes of the show. With the show’s runaway success, it is no surprise that some of the most famous faces of the time put in appearances in ‘Tales from the Crypt’ either, with William Sadler, Joe Pantoliano, Amanda Plummer and M. Emmet Walsh appearing in Season One alone.
With hindsight, the show’s success was never in doubt. With superb effects by Yagher, a huge range of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and even a wonderful theme tune from Danny Elfman, there was too much quality involved in its production for it to fail. Even the show’s host, HBO, allowed the show to cater to an interested adult market by providing more scope in terms of language, violence, and sexuality than almost all of its contemporary rivals. Coupled with stories drawn from a pantheon of creative and exciting source material, it is a classic example of a show that provided something for everyone. At the height of the show’s celebrity financial constraints meant that production of the show was moved to England; this meant that a switch was made to a mainly Brit-centric cast and crew. It also coincided with a tonal and stylistic shift; gone was the focus on the macabre and horrifying and in its place, a more light-hearted, film noir heavy approach. Whilst many of these episodes are solid and stand favourably when compared with those from earlier seasons, they were not nearly as well received. By the time the seventh season began, there was also a weariness in much of the audience that the same ground was being repeated and viewing figures dropped. To its credit, HBO brought the curtain down on the show before the ratings dropped to very low levels meaning that, to some extent, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ is one of the few shows on this list that went out whilst still a commercial success.
The show may have ended but efforts were made to continue the franchise with three separate movies: 1995 saw ‘Demon Knight’ hit screens but, despite a strong opening week, it was negatively received; ‘Bordello of Blood’ was released in 1996 but had originally been intended as the first of the films, and was similarly poorly reviewed; and the trilogy was finally completed with the more favourably received ‘Ritual’ in 2002. In many ways, this decision was misjudged. On television, there was little to compete and, with a dedicated following, each episode was a success. It also meant that it was simpler to disguise narrative flaws and some of the show’s more hokey elements; with a running time under thirty minutes the pace was such that audiences did not have time to find the holes therein. Once stretched out to over ninety minutes however, these shortfalls were drawn into sharper focus. Ironically, by trying to update the franchise, they left behind one of its most durable assets; the nostalgic and familiar feel. By ramping up the gore and the nudity, and by pushing it onto cinema screens, it brought the movies into competition with the standalone horror flicks of the time and they each fall unsatisfactorily somewhere between the two; on the one hand, it alienated the cult following the show had earned by abandoning the traditions is worked hard to establish on the small screen but, on the other, they simply were not solid enough to appeal to cinema going audiences. As of today, ‘Ritual’ is the final release in the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ franchise, although Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx has a long-gestating reboot apparently in the works.
Any serious horror fan will have seen at least some of the episodes of ‘Tales from the Crypt’; harder to come by in the UK than in the US, it nonetheless earns its place on this list as an important show and, in The Cryptkeeper, for its contribution to the consciousness of the modern horror faithful.