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Tonight’s Terror Tale: My Top 5 Favorite Episodes of Tales from the Crypt
Happy Halloween, fright fiends!
Tales from the Crypt was an anthology series based on the classic horror comics of the 1950s, like Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Shock SuspenStories, and of course, Tales from the Crypt. It aired from 1989 to 1996 on HBO, so unlike previous anthology series that aired on network TV, this one featured graphic violence, cursing, nudity, and sex—you know, all the fun stuff. It had a creepy theme song by Danny Elfman, and it was hosted by The Crypt Keeper, a wisecracking animatronic corpse with a penchant for puns and a love of alliteration voiced by John Kassir.
Sadly, the show’s not streaming anywhere at the moment, but you can get a DVD box set on Amazon.
To me, nothing embodies the spirit of Halloween more than Tales from the Crypt. It perfectly captures the campy, fun, spooky feel of the comics with over-the-top acting, cheesy comedy, and exaggerated special effects. It was extremely difficult to choose only five episodes to review, but somehow I did it. Here are my top five favorite episodes…
#5: Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone
In its seven-season run, Tales from the Crypt included several puzzling episodes that didn’t quite get the tone of the show right. Either they were too serious, too silly, or just not spooky enough. Season one, episode three, “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone,” is an example of an episode that totally nailed it. It Stars Joe Pantoliano as Ulric, a homeless drunk who’s asked to participate in an experiment by a scientist named Dr. Emil Manfred (Gustav Vintas). Dr. Manfred has a theory that since cats have nine lives, if he transplants the pituitary gland of a cat into a person, that person will have nine lives. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but stay with me…
The experiment is a success, and Dr. Manfred and Ulric decide to use Ulric’s newfound death resistance to make some money. They create a carnival act where Ulric actually dies and comes back to life in front of an audience. The act does well, and both of them make plenty of dough, but Ulric gets greedy. He crashes a car with him and Dr. Manfred inside, killing them both. Of course, Ulric comes back to life, but not Dr. Manfred.
Ulric dates a fellow carney named Coralee (Kathleen York), who turns out to be just as greedy as he is. One night while Ulric is counting his cash, Coralee sneaks up behind him and stabs him, then takes all his money and runs. To get back some of his fortune, Ulric decides to use his last remaining life on one more big trick: he gets locked in a coffin and buried deep underground to suffocate to death and, presumably, come back to life. What happens next is for you to find out.
This episode has it all: comedy, horror, romance, and a twist ending. What I love most about it is how completely detached it is from reality. Set in a carnival, it’s a bonanza of bright colors, a mélange of madcap camera angles, and a cacophony of calliope music awash with weird people in oddball costumes. It’s shot mostly with a handheld camera, and it rapidly repeats some shots and lines, giving the whole thing a bizarre, unsettling feel.
Joe Pantoliano is hilarious as “Ulric the Undying,” putting himself in life-threatening situations while dropping one-liners, like, “I’m dying to die!” and, “It’s a good day to die!” Robert Wuhl is superb as the outrageous carnival barker. He was born to be a showman. But really everyone in this episode is fantastic, including the background actors who randomly shout things from the audience. It all comes together to create the ultimate Crypt episode.
#4: Top Billing
Jon Lovitz is always funny, so of course an episode starring him is going to make my top five. In season three, episode five, “Top Billing,” Lovitz plays Barry Blye, a struggling actor who’s tired of getting turned down for parts because he doesn’t have “the look.” Bruce Boxleitner plays his rival, Winton Robbins, who does have “the look” and likes to throw his success in Barry’s face.
After Barry gets turned down for a movie role and loses his girlfriend and his apartment all in the same day, he stumbles across an ad looking for actors to appear in a production of Hamlet. Barry is convinced that he’s going to get the role and show everyone that great acting is about talent, not looks. Winton finds out about the play and decides to audition too, thinking it’ll teach Barry that only good looking people like him can make it in showbiz.
The audition is at an address in a deserted, trash-strewn back alley, and both Barry and Winton are ready to walk away until a flamboyant weirdo named Beaks (Paul Benedict) opens the door and ushers them into a makeshift theater. Beaks introduces them to the director, Nelson Halliwell (John Astin), who immediately casts Winton because of his “high cheekbones.”
Feeling dejected once again, Barry decides to murder Winton and steal the role of Hamlet. Just before Barry strangles him to death, Winton says, “I’m not Hamlet.” Barry replies, “You got that right.” He tells Nelson that Winton left due to stage fright and volunteers himself for the role. Nelson says he can make it work if he changes his “interpretation.” Will Barry play Hamlet, wow the audience, and give his acting career a boost? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
The best part about this episode is its utter wackiness. All the actors are hamming it up, and it makes for a funny and creepy story. John Astin is perfect as the kooky director. He’s dressed like he threw on random things from a costume shop, and he has a monocle and a drawn-on mustache. He alternates between acting like a ranting lunatic and an exuberant regisseur.
Jon Lovitz and Bruce Boxleitner are great as frenemies competing against each other. Boxleitner’s smug smile and mocking tone really make you love to hate him, and Lovitz is so convincing as an actor who can’t get a break that he makes you root for him even after he commits murder.
I can’t review this episode without mentioning the music. It kicks ass. The main theme that plays through most of the episode is a very catchy synth number that will have you bobbing your head and tapping your feet. It’s my favorite score of the whole show.
#3: People Who Live in Brass Hearses
While “Top Billing” had Jon Lovitz, season five, episode five, “People Who Live in Brass Hearses,” has the man, the myth, the legend: Brad Dourif. Dourif is always entertaining in every role he plays, and this episode is no exception.
Dourif plays Virgil, a slow-witted ice cream warehouse worker who idolizes his brother Billy (Bill Paxton), a former ice cream man who did time for skimming profits and has a strange obsession with butter. Billy just got out of jail, and he’s developed a plan to rob the warehouse and get revenge on the guy who turned him in: Mr. Byrd (Michael Lerner), a popular fellow ice cream man known for entertaining the neighborhood kids with a puppet.
The heist goes all wrong when Byrd refuses to leave his truck, Virgil murders his boss, Miss Grafunder (Lainie Kazan), and the inept brothers can’t open the locked safe. Billy is devastated that his plan failed, he’s still broke, and he’s probably going back to jail. Virgil then reminds him that “the puppet man” has lots of money, so Billy decides to rob Mr. Byrd’s house.
Of course, that goes wrong too. Virgil ends up shooting Mr. Byrd in the head before he can tell them where his money is. Billy discovers the money hidden inside ice cream wrappers and calls to Virgil, but Virgil doesn’t answer. Instead, to Billy’s surprise, Mr. Byrd appears. How is he still alive? What happened to Virgil? You’ll have to watch the episode to find out.
I’m usually not big on heists, but Bill Paxton and Brad Dourif are both so funny in this episode that it still makes my top five. Their classic dynamic is reminiscent of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Paxton is excellent as the asshole ex-con who alternates between being a dick to his brother and being loving and protective of him. The usually intense Dourif expertly portrays the deceptively meek and childlike Virgil, who at any minute could fly off the handle and kill someone.
The twist ending will shock, disgust, and intrigue you. It’s very symmetrical and pleasing.
#2: Dead Right
I bet you never expected to see Demi Moore in an episode of Crypt. Me either, but it’s true. She starred in the season two premier, “Dead Right.”
The episode is set in 1950, and Moore plays Cathy, a secretary whose only goal in life is to marry a rich man. One day on her lunch hour, she visits a psychic named Madam Vorna (Natalija Nogulich), who tells her that she will get fired that day but will find a new job almost immediately. Cathy doesn't believe her because her boss is out of town, but when she gets back to the office (half an hour late), her boss is there, and he fires her just like Madam Vorna said. As she's walking home, she’s offered a job as a waitress at a strip club.
Cathy runs back to Madame Vorna, who tells her she will marry a “large man” who will inherit a lot of money and then die violently shortly after their wedding, leaving his fortune to her. Later, while she's working at her new job, Cathy meets Charlie Marno (Jeffrey Tambor), who she thinks might be the “large man” Madam Vorna said she would marry. Charlie is heavyset with a bulbous nose, messed up teeth, nasty breath, and bad BO, and Cathy is disgusted by him, but Madam Vorna confirms he’s the one.
Cathy reluctantly agrees to marry Charlie, dutifully putting up with his smell, his messes, and his constant eating. Then one day she goes to an automat and just happens to be their one millionth customer, which means she’s won one million dollars.
Cathy collects her money and tells Charlie she’s leaving him, throwing in a few savage insults with absolutely no chill for good measure. Charlie is hysterical and desperate to stop her from leaving. Will she leave? Will Madam Vorna’s prediction ever come true? Watch the episode to find out.
While Demi Moore is known for her dramatic work in films, she has no problem conveying the campy Crypt tone in this episode. She delivers her dry comedic lines like a pro. Jeffrey Tambor manages to give a convincing performance through pounds of makeup, hideous prosthetics, and a fat suit.
Their chemistry together is magical. There's one sequence where they dance to Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek” over a montage of scenes from their miserable marriage that always gives me feels. It's an episode that will have you laughing, cringing, and ultimately gasping at the surprising ending.
#1: Beauty Rest
Season four, episode five, “Beauty Rest,” is like a spiritual sequel to “Top Billing.” It stars Mimi Rogers as Helen, a struggling actress who keeps getting turned down for parts in favor of her younger, hotter roommate, Joyce (Kathy Ireland), who Helen suspects of sleeping her way to the top. When Joyce lands a part in a commercial that Helen was convinced she would get and is picked to win a beauty pageant in the same day, Helen loses it. She hatches a plan to drug Joyce with sleeping pills and take her place in the pageant.
Unfortunately, Helen uses too many pills, and Joyce ends up dead. Thinking quickly, Helen forges a suicide note from Joyce and grabs the note that designates her as the winner of the beauty pageant. When she hands the note to George (Buck Henry), the pageant host, another contestant, Druscilla (Jennifer Rubin), overhears their conversation and blackmails George to make her the winner instead. Helen kills Druscilla, making herself the guaranteed winner once again.
At the end of the pageant, George tells Helen they have to get her ready for “the big finale.” A man in a leather jacket starts haphazardly smearing makeup on her face. What happens next is up to you to find out.
Mimi Rogers is brilliant as Helen, expressing all her frustration and rage while still maintaining her phony composure when necessary. Her unwarranted, extreme hatred of Joyce radiates from her face and voice. My favorite scene is when she raids the kitchen in despair, shoving any junk food she can find into her mouth without any regard for the mess, the stains on her clothes, or the fact that all the junk food belongs to Joyce.
And the ending…wow. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just say it really proves that “it’s what’s inside that counts.”