Back to the Crypt: A Retrospective

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Season 1, Episode 2: “And All Through the House”

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: And All Through the House

Airdate: June 10, 1989

Sometime between the success of 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the ’89 release of Back to the Future: Part II, and at a time when he believed in putting flesh and blood actors on the screen before embarking on the motion capture worlds of Beowulf and The Polar Express, Robert Zemeckis essentially re-imagined this “Vault of Horror” (issue #35) entry in yuletide fear.

Prior to its HBO incarnation, “And All Through the House” was conceived as chapter in director Freddie Francis and writer Milton Subotsky’s 1972 Amicus anthology horror film Tales from the Crypt. Joan Collins would star as the heavy mascara-wearin’ housewife who does wrong and is punished by a maniac in a Santa Claus suit played by Oliver MacGreevy, an Irish actor who had a modest career until it petered out in the late ’70s where his final role was a miniscule part in Flash Gordon. (Francis would later return to the Crypt and direct an episode for the series’ seventh season.)

For the ’80s update, Zemeckis – like the Francis version – stayed true to the “Vault” source material, a tasty quick-fix of Christmas evil that has its merits but is otherwise pure junk food like the candy you’d find at the bottom of a holiday stocking.

At an estimated 18 minutes in length, that’s not counting the Crypt Keeper wraparound segments, writer Fred Dekker (post-Monster Squad/Night of the Creeps) keeps the storytelling lean and mean as this episode focuses on actress Mary Ellen Trainor’s “Wife” (she’s not given a name), a seemingly well-to-do gal who’s got a lover on the side and decides to off her husband (Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 2‘s ass-assaulted Marshall Bell) with a fire poker on Christmas eve.

Juggling the duties of keeping her daughter, eager to see Santa Claus, in bed and disposing of the corpse with the punctured forehead (an amusingly convincing make-up effect by Greg Cannom), Trainor comes to learn a killer is on the loose. When this axe-wielding freak dressed in a Claus suit comes a-callin’, she knocks him out and later tries to pin her husband’s death on ol’ Santa. But that’s easier said than done.

“And All Through the House” is a mischievous and droll Crypt chapter. It reunites Dekker with an axe-murdering psychopath – shades of the opening moments of Night of the Creeps. And it gives director of photography Dean Cundey – a Zemeckis vet also known for his work in the early Halloween films – to have fun painting the portrait, albeit a grim one, of another holiday. The episode also plays it loose and with a knowing wink. “What do you want for Christmas, mommy?” asks daughter Carrie Ann (Back to the Future: Part 2‘s Hover Board girl Lindsey Whitney Barry) to which her mother, satisfaction of her husband’s death in her eyes, replies, “I already got it, sweetheart.”

It’s exchanges like this – of which there are few, leaving Trainor to spout the obvious to the audience like, “Oh my God, Carrie’s window!” as we see the killer Santa climbing a ladder to, yep, Carrie’s window – that clearly reveal Zemeckis reveling in the deliciously devious moments. But he falls victim to lackluster pacing and failed attempts at humor, particularly when Trainor is setting up her husband’s death to look like Claus buried an axe in his head. Zemeckis also makes the mistake of casting Trainor who, at the time, was his wife and frequently appeared in Zemeckis, Richard Donner and Joel Silver productions (the latter two produced “All Through the House” with Polar Express‘ William Teitler). Furthermore, Trainor also starred in Dekker’s The Monster Squad, bringing the relationships behind the camera all the closer. Needless to say, I don’t think it was difficult for her to land the role, but her ability to carry the material is weak sauce and she plays her role with such an exaggerated zeal that it robs the material of being supremely scary.

As the filthy, blood-caked, giggling lunatic Claus, actor Larry Drake knows how to work it. This is the jolly bearded fool kids shed tears over and envision when their parents whisk them away for photo opportunities with the local mall Santa. Eight years prior to shooting this episode, Drake played Bubba in Dark Night of the Scarecrow and got his freak on in ’90s fare Dr. Giggles and Darkman. From his soiled outfit to those gnarly teeth, Drake’s Claus is the stuff of nightmares, however, he’s caught in a tonal mess of an episode. To add insult to injury, Zemeckis falls short of giving Trainor her just desserts on screen. In the Freddie Francis version, Collins’ death is seen. The Crypt Keeper’s denouement assures she was doomed, however, her daughter was safe from Drake’s bloodlust. How appropriately “safe” for Zemeckis.

Somehow, they managed to make the Creep Keeper the scariest thing about this whole episode as the cackling corpse is seen in a disturbing Claus visage of his own.

Memorable for its concept (oooh, scary Santa!), the episode is not a favorite of mine; regardless of its faults, “All Through the House” is still entertaining and essential viewing when the holiday season rolls around. It’s a perfect warm-up when you’re settling down with a glass of spiked egg nog and a Black Christmas/Silent Night, Deadly Night double-feature.

Click here for “The Man Who Was Death”

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor