Tales from the Crypt aired on HBO for 7 seasons beginning on June 10, 1989. Produced by Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, and David Giler, the half-hour horror anthology series was based on EC Horror comics of the same name that ran in the 1950s. The series was one of the first to benefit from HBO being a pay channel by pushing the limits of language, gore, nudity, and good taste.
I remember staying up late to watch Tales from the Crypt when I was my daughter’s age. The Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir, aka Buster Bunny) was a terrifying presence with a dash of cheesy humor while the stories themselves were full of gore and the reminder that evil was everywhere.
I loved it. I still love it. I watched it last night.
I know that my loving it doesn’t support my assertion that it is the best series ever aired on HBO. I do have some points to back this.
1. It was nominated for 36 total awards during its run.
I’m not saying that awards make something the best, or even good (*cough*The Big Bang Theory*cough*). One should admit that 7 Emmy nominations, 3 Saturn Award nomination, 26 Cable Ace Award nominations with 5 wins, plus 10 other nominations and 5 more wins are some pretty impressive credentials.
2. It was a star-studded affair in front of, behind, and adjacent to the camera.
Tales from the Crypt feels like it may have been a playground for the famous to test out different roles, ideas, and even jobs. It boasts an impressive roster of acting stars, including Brad Pitt, Lea Thompson, Kirk Douglas, Demi Moore, Christopher Reeve, Beau Bridges, Lewis and Patricia Arquette, Teri Garr, Tim Roth, Joe Pesci, Treat Williams, Tim Curry, Beverly D’Angelo, Clancy Brown, Malcolm McDowell, Timothy Dalton, Martin Sheen, Terry O’Quinn, Eddie Izzard, Patricia Clarkson, Katey Sagal, Jeffrey Tambor, Isabella Rossellini, and more more more more.
Directors? They had tons of them too. Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Tom Holland, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael J. Fox, Bob Hoskins, Joel Silver, Mick Garris, Tom Hanks, Stephen Hopkins, Mary Lambert, Randa Haines, Tobe Hooper, John Frankenheimer, Wiliam Friedkin, Howard Deutch (he directed wife Lea Thompson in one of the first episodes, “Only Sin Deep”) and more more more.
Writers were pretty top shelf as well. Frank Darabont, Steven E. de Souza, Andrew Kevin Walker, Brian Helgeland, Fred Dekker, A. Whitney Brown, Bob Gale, and more.
3. The amazing cast, directors, and writers were able to play with ideas.
Robert Zemeckis directed the season 6 episode “You, Murderer” starring John Lithgow, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, and Humphrey Bogart. Using technology from his 1994 film Forrest Gump, Zemeckis was able to insert the long dead Bogart into the episode as its leading man.
Richard Donner, best known for Superman, Lethal Weapon, and The Goonies, was able to flex his horror muscles when he directed 3 episodes of the series.
Overall, the directors and writers had only the comics to get them started. After that point, they were able to play with the characters and the look of the story. As discussed over at The A.V. Club, writer Fred Dekker (Monster Squad) and director Kevin Yagher were able to take a bare bones comic and delve into the background of an abused freak show resident. The original comic barely longer than this paragraph.
4. The opening credits are classic and the theme song was written by Danny Elfman.
The Simpsons even parodied the opening in their “Treehouse of Horror XVII”.
5. The episodes still hold up.
I watched three or four episodes last night. The very first episode, “The Man Who Was Death”, has William Sadler as a man that flips the switch for the electric chair in state executions. Speaking directly into the camera with dead, emotionless eyes, Niles Talbot tells the audience all about his love for his job. When the state decides riding the lightning is too barbaric, Niles takes it upon himself to mete out punishment for those that slip through the cracks of justice. The final scene gives the episode a beautiful symmetry and brings to mind The Twilight Zone in its irony.
Perhaps the fashion and the technology in the episodes are archaic, but that’s not the focus nor is it the point. It’s the tale that matters and the collection of talent that brought them to life made that the focus. The stories are timeless, whether they focus on people attempting to cheat death, acquire wealth through any means, or prove themselves as the best. These are themes and desires that everyone can relate to on some level.
During “The Man Who Was Death”, I didn’t once think about the year it was made. It was Sadler’s performance, the delicious turnaround of fate, and the shades of Dexter that I focused on. I can’t help but wonder how many episodes of Tales from the Crypt inspired much of the entertainment that we watch today. From the emotionless white masks of “Only Skin Deep” to the vampire that no longer wanted to feast on humans in “The Reluctant Vampire”, I can see threads in popular movies of the recent past. That, kiddies, is why Tales from the Crypt is the best series HBO has, or may ever, air.