Back to the Crypt: A Retrospective

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Season 1, Episode 1: “The Man Who Was Death”

Censorship tore through the Turek household like an unwanted party crasher on a summer night in 1989 when a wee version of your faithful writer sat down to watch HBO’s Tales from the Crypt – a heavily advertised new anthology horror series ripped from the pages of EC Comics’ sundry banner heads. The show’s promise of rotting ghouls and leering maniacs demanded thirty minutes of whatever precious time I had as a twelve-year-old. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get five minutes into the debut episode before my parents intervened and barked over the lurid subject matter of the story, as if whatever dark force was driving the images across our television screen was going to reach out and harm me. I’m almost certain a similar act of parental supervision played out decades prior as a young lad sat down to read an issue of EC’s “Tales from the Crypt,” “Vault of Horror” or “Haunt of Fear.” Needless to say, I wouldn’t catch up to Tales from the Crypt until years later.

When Paramount Pictures passed on an EC-themed anthology horror film in the ‘80s – which had Walter Hill, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg all attached to direct a story – Hill, rejuvenated by Russ Cochran’s EC reprints, later approached Joel Silver about reviving a Crypt-themed project. Silver acquired the necessary rights and the rest is history. Tales from the Crypt paraded its carnival of deviants, wicked delights and gut-punching comeuppances across HBO’s airwaves for seven seasons, introducing new and old talent behind and in front of the camera. Furthermore, it gave pop culture a pun-dropping, necrotic imp to embrace called The Crypt Keeper.

I would sporadically catch an episode or two during its run from ‘89 to ‘96. But now, thanks to Warner Home Video, every season is available on DVD which brings us to Back to the Crypt, a retrospective in which I’ll take you through every episode, offer up some analysis and provide some insight on the those who brought the tale to the screen. I’ve got a few favorites I’m eager to revisit and there are a number out there I’ll be seeing for the first time. So, dim the lights, save the cobweb cleaning for another time (they lend some needed atmosphere), cozy up to your favorite cadaver and cue that famous Crypt theme by Danny Elfman. Here we go…

Episode: The Man Who Was Death

Airdate: June 10, 1989

While Walter Hill directed a few episodes of Crypt, this is the story he initially wanted to tell when he embarked on that aforementioned anthology horror project he was going to spill blood on alongside the likes of Cronenberg and Carpenter. Ultimately, The Man Who Was Death was selected as Crypt‘s debut episode and for HBO subscribers it was a sinister gateway drug into a world of death, revenge and sleaze.

Hill stowed the firepower and brawn of his previous films at the time – testosterone-laden films like The Warriors, Streets of Fire (with Diane Lane lookin’ good as ever), 48 Hours and Red Heat – for this acerbic adaptation of the “Crypt of Terror” story, a profile of Los Angeles executioner Niles Talbot. He enlisted School of Joel Silver graduate Robert Reneau to co-write the script with him. Reneau’s short-lived writing career includes the slam-bang Silver-produced “films primed for sequels that didn’t quite happen” Action Jackson and Demolition Man. Hill and Reneau allow their protagonist, Talbot, to take a sledgehammer to the fourth wall and guide you by the hand through a slice of his life. Actor William Sadler (then, credited as “Bill Sadler”) slips into the role with ease, talking directly to the audience through the entire episode.

At the outset of the story, he prepares death row inmate Charley Ledbetter for the electric chair. “He’s thinking about that rubber diaper they give ‘im to wear, wondering if he’s gonna crap all over himself when I juice him in a couple of minutes…he will,” Talbot says solemnly before allowing a grin of delight to spread across his face. Sadler owns every minute he’s on screen and it’s little wonder why he was called back to play “Mr. Rush,” the presenter in Two-Fisted Tales (Crypt episodes repackaged overseas into anthology films) and later cast as the lead in Hill’s underrated Trespass and the Silver productions Die Hard 2, Tales from the Crypt‘s foray into feature films, Demon Knight, and The Hills Run Red.

Here, the actor is an instrument of death (a precursor to his role as Death in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey). His rigid looks, defined brow and intense gaze are complimented by John Leonetti’s photography, giving Talbot’s appearance an intimidating guise just before he “juices” his prisoners. Yet, it’s Sadler’s southern drawl (the word “Chevy” is more like “shhhhhevay”) that’s the cherry on top giving his character a bit of charisma.

And this is our protagonist! A blue collar country man living in the big city who waxes eloquently about what happens when a man is fried in the electric chair (“The nice thing about electricity is that it’s clean, of course I have seen a few heads smoke after it’s all over. A smoking’ head ain’t very purdy”) and has some frank viewpoints on life. The guy loves his work and you love him for it. I’d like to think if Talbot and Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle met up, they’d get along together just fine.

Talbot’s job security crumbles, however, when the death penalty is abolished. The prison doesn’t want to simply switch his position there as Talbot has amassed a notorious reputation amongst the inmates. So, Talbot goes vigilante, sitting in on public trials and executing criminals who are released. He targets a biker (Terminator 2 Robert Winley) first by rigging an electric gate, and follows that kill up by electrocuting a couple in a hot tub. Unfortunately, what goes around comes around for Talbot and his freelance justice comes to an end when he’s caught by the police. It’s all the while Talbot’s on death row himself and headed for the chair (since the death penalty is reinstated – surprise, surprise) that Hill chooses to nix the voice over and let us watch Talbot become the same blubbering mess that all of his previous prisoners had become on their way to their electrocution.

It’s clever and choice storytelling embraced in the playful score by Ry Cooder (Streets of Fire, Trespass) that takes on a schizophrenic energy (love the carnival-esque death row march theme). And Hill and Reneau palpably had a great time writing this episode. It allows them to take a few swipes at the fickleness of the government and a death-hungry nation that, as Talbot notes, would line up to watch an execution if it was shown on television.

Tales from the Crypt needed to start strong, and The Man Who Was Death proved to be the one to call on. The series would later glorify the “gore and tits” formula as seasons went on (both a welcome combo, no doubt, and there is plenty of the latter on display in this episode), but this debut is a class act that gnashes its teeth with a simmering ferocity and very little bloodshed. It’s the portrait of a man who’s had enough of the bullshit and it comes back to bite him on the ass.

Of course, you can’t comment on a Crypt without talking about the wraparounds with the Crypt Keeper (voiced with a subtle hiss by John Kassir) directed by Kevin Yagher. The intro gets right to the point as our decayed storyteller sits down next to a bug zapper. He returns for a “jolting” kicker that’s true to Crypt Keeper form.

I leave you with a few choice Niles Talbot-isms. Until next time, kiddies…

They say the electric current is so fast the brain gets cooked as soon as the switch it thrown, prisoner never feels a thing. Boy, I’d hate to think that’s true.

It’s all a big food chain. We eat shit and shit eats us.

Treat queens like whores and whores like queens.

Click here for “And All Through the House”


Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor