Review Date: July 13, 2005
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 7/12/2005
Region 1, NTSC
Full Screen 1.33:1
Although the Tales From The Crypt
comics had been around since 1950, HBO drew more from their other anthology horror series, The Hitchhiker
, when it came time to adapt the Crypt Keeper to television. With each episode bookended by a morbid life lesson by the witty narrator, a liberal dosage of blood and boobs, and a collection of stars, Tales From The Crypt
took The Hitchhiker
’s successful formula and ran with it in the summer of 1989. The Hitchhiker
was always a starting place for aspiring film directors, launching the careers of many talents such as Phillip Noyce and Paul Verhoeven, but as HBO grew, they were able to rope in directors at the height of their career, and in season one of the Crypt
they got the likes of Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Howard Deutch, Mary Lambert and Tom Holland. The onslaught of big name directors coupled with the familiarity of the comics made Tales From The Crypt
substantially eclipse HBO’s previous anthology series in popularity.
Despite the success of the show, episodes were very hard to come by on home video, as HBO sought to make money from their franchise by branching out into theatrical films and staying on pay television. Up until Warner’s announcement for season one, bootlegs for the first season were a still big selling point on eBay and other markets. Warner Brothers have brought together all six introductory episodes and packaged them together with a few extras for this cheap and modest release. It has been a long wait, but was this crypt finally worth opening?
The Man Who Was Death
follows around Niles Talbot (William Sadler
), the state’s leading executioner. In lengthy monologues to the audience, he tells it like it is, from his passion for electricity to his victims’ fear of death. He’s damn good at his job – too good – and when he gets laid off after a government abolishment of the death penalty, he begins to take justice into his own hands. Through expertly rigged electrical systems, he electrocutes all those who are guilty but inexplicably set free by legal loopholes and expensive lawyers. He’s just doin’ his job, but so are the police, as they begin investigating this string of freak electrical deaths. Those who play with fire get burned…and Niles gets a healthy dose of irony come the closing credits.
Directed by action movie revisionist Walter Hill, Death
is a playful deconstruction of the American life, from their judicial system to the role of the tradesman in today’s commodified society. Hill is no stranger to playing off America’s shrewd legal system, having enjoyed teaming a black criminal with a white policeman to solve crimes in 48 Hrs.
, and neither is he a stranger to considering the worker’s role in society, analyzing the plight of the drifter in many of his neo-westerns like Last Man Standing
. Rather than just cash a check for Tales From The Crypt
, Walter Hill instead uses his episode as a further commentary on the themes that run through all his work. He makes a good case for Niles and his defense of just “doin’ his job”, since the American legal system has clearly failed him. Not only that, but he raises the question as to whether or not a man should be judged for what he does or for how good he does it. Sadler is delightful with his piercing smirk and his southern twang, and elevates Hill’s social commentary into a perversely enjoyable little character study. Bit parts by Gerrit Graham (Phantom of the Paradise
) and David Wohl (Revenge of the Nerds
) cap off this fine opening effort.
And All Through The House
builds on the most famous Tales From The Crypt
segment of the same name from the 1972 movie for another biting dose of yuletide fear. Like in the previous short, this one is about a murderous wife (Mary Ellen Trainor
) who is terrorized by a maniac in a Santa suit on Christmas Eve. Only moments after offing her husband (Marshall Bell
) for a lucrative death settlement, she becomes the prey for an escaped mental patient (Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake
) from the Pleasantville Sanitarium. As she runs around the house, her daughter lays tucked in bed waiting for Santa to come. Come he does, axing his way through the window and into their kitchen. The wife goes to call the police, but what would they think of her husband’s dead body lying out front? She is forced to thus deal with her unlawful act, as the mental patient unknowingly becomes the determiner of what is wrong and what is right.
This is a slick and slim remake of the original classic, with Robert Zemeckis in the director’s chair along with his right-hand cinematographer, Dean Cundey. As expected, Cundey’s lighting makes the modest set come to life, with his trademark blues casting a cool glow to the downpour of snow throughout. Like in Halloween
, Cundey’s usage of blues suggests a sinister underbelly to the picket-fence plainness of Pleasantville’s suburbia. Cundey’s cinematography and framing give the piece some elegance to go with the vice, with a commendable camera move through a window at the start and a deliciously macabre split-diopter framing with the dead husband in the foreground and his daughter in the background. Zemeckis keeps the whole thing polished and breezy, foregoing character development for popcorn pleasures. There are plot holes abound, and the actors don’t have much to do (Bell and Drake both have only a single line), so this is really only Cundey’s show, and thankfully he lights up a storm. Watching this throwback to the seventies original makes one yearn for Cundey’s own seventies work with John Carpenter, but it more than passes the time.
Dig That Cat...He’d Real Gone
has the clever concept of a man being able to live the nine lives of a cat. Ulric (Joe Pantoliano
) was a homeless drunk before Dr. Emil Manfred (Gustav Vintas
) offered him a tidy proposition. A thousand dollars is his if he agrees to participate in an experiment that would have a cat gland implanted in his brain and therefore give him as many lives as Fritz. The procedure works, and Ulric is given a higher stakes proposition, this time asking him to gamble his lives for big money on the freak show circus circuit. Ulric agrees, and small money quickly turns to big, just as small aspirations turn to greed. Ulric lusts for land and travel, but as Tolstoy proved with his famous short story, the only land a man requires is the six feet for his coffin.
This Richard Donner segment is a fairly routine take on greed with a little bit of right-wing critique thrown in for good measure. One of Ulric’s many deaths involves being shot in the heart with an arrow, and in this scene – the longest of the segment – a number of NRA hicks line up to kill the catman. One southerner even signs up his son to do the deed, hoping it will stop him from being a “sissy”. The whole tale is Tolstoy updated to account for America’s obsession with sensationalism and death in the media. People would rather pay to read about death than they would to prevent it through charities, and Donner picks up on this ever so mildly in Dig That Cat
. Using this short as a testing ground for feature film, he also employs a rampant editing style, full of jump cuts, hokey transitions and fast motion speed up. The editing technique, although showy, does help lend the segment a circus-like exhibitionism. Pantoliano’s scene chewing gives the short its heart, and the closing shot has a beautiful bite to it. Fun.
Only Sin Deep
is another morality play on the perils of greed, this time with beauty substituting for death. Call girl Sylvia Vane (Lea Thompson
) lives her last name to a T, always admiring her looks and trying to advance her place in life before others. While working the streets, she sets her sights on the rich bachelor living across the street, ready to do anything to live a life of luxury. It isn’t until she meets a pawnbroker (Silent Night, Deadly Night
’s Britt Leach
) that she gets the golden opportunity. All she needs to do is give a mold of her “beauty” for the pawnbroker, and she will be given all the money needed to woo the man of her dreams. She may refund the exchange in a four month window, but casually forgets about it as she womanizes her way to the top. After the four months expire, her gorgeous looks begin to wane as she ages at an accelerated rate. She fears the person she has become, but will she be able to buy back her beauty?
Although all the other directors in the first season are veterans of darker fare, Howard Deutch is the sole exception. Up until Tales From The Crypt
he was busy doing pleasant John Hughes comedies, and afterwards he was the go-to guy for shitty comedic sequels. It is a wonder, then, that he was allowed participation in this series, since his project comes off as a hammy little vanity project for his wife, Lea Thompson. We get copious shots of just how beautiful she looks, complete with a full montage of her trying on heaps of sexy clothing. Yes, Howard, your wife is gorgeous...but even that didn’t save Howard the Duck
. Thompson is really bad in this, drifting in and out of some man-ish Brooklyn accent with little believability. The skit would have worked much better had her role been in more competent hands, since Deutch directs with seductively stylish visuals, and the ending is surprisingly heartbreaking. The makeup is also notable as one of Hollywood’s most gorgeous gets transformed into Anne Ramsey. Even still, the production values cannot rise above the egotism of the project and Lea Thompson’s terrible performance. Vane, indeed.
Love Come Hack to Me
starts off as your standard haunted house story, but then gets much more twisted as things progress. Peggy (Amanda Plummer
) and Charles (Stephen Shellen
) have just been married, although Peggy’s aunt (Lisa Figis
) doubts the legitimacy of the relationship. Peggy has fallen into a large amount of money after the death of her mother, and Aunt Edith fears that Charles is merely using her for an increased inheritance. No matter, the two head off for their honeymoon. Their honeymoon comes to a hitch when a fallen tree stops their path and a storm forces them to shack up in an abandoned house. There they make love for the first time, and Charles realizes that maybe there is more to her than just the greenbacks. Peggy thinks she has conceived a child (an itty bitty one) and things get much more bizarre from there. Does the house hold secrets, and more importantly, is Peggy as pure as she seems?
This is a confused, cumbersome and ultimately stupid little short, and easily the worst of the season. Amanda Plummer radiates with her signature weirdness, but she can’t overcome the sheer stupidity of the amateur script. After a satisfying beginning, the story stagnates for the vast majority of the short runtime, and when the climax finally kicks in it is so poorly revealed and dull that it is a wonder it was ever okayed. The haunted house location is utterly wasted, and the supernatural elements of the beginning go nowhere. We then get boring sex scenes made worse by the lack of female nudity and the overabundance of male ass. The film is capped off by a truly laughable ending, where Charles experiences a Troll 2
-like epiphany, where he recites in an “Ah ha!” monologue to himself the entire plot of the story, since director Tom Holland was much too inept to ever develop the story beforehand. You needn’t look any further than the title to get the gist of this story...because “Hack” Tom Holland certainly proves himself to be with this turgid mess.
is a quirky little tale of a woman who loves her pets like she does her husband...or is it vice versa? Jonas (M. Emmet Walsh) has just retired from work on his 65th birthday, and is heading home to be with his wife, Anita (Audra Lindley). Before she can unveil her surprise party, Jonas storms off, disgruntled at being forced to retire. What Emmet didn’t know, is that the guests of the surprise party were all animals. Forced to stay at home alone her whole life while her husband worked, Anita turned to pets to keep her company, and now that her husband is home, she is finding it tough to juggle the two. She starts feeding her dog steaks and her husband cat food, and this escalates to the point where Jonas is left bellowing in his best John Merrick impression, “I’m not an animal!”
Although by far the most tame of the bunch, this is a cute and clever look at retirement and the typical old fashioned family structure. It examines the boredom faced by housewives and presupposes that in having to look after husband and home the love of a relationship is replaced by the need to be a caretaker. More than that, it expands the adage that man and woman are completely different animals to humorous extremes. Predating the retirement ennui of About Schmidt
by over a decade, it also humorously looks at man’s need to keep himself busy in retirement after having accustomed himself to doing so in routine office work for years prior. It is a rare kind of commercial picture, like Cocoon
, to consider the status of seniors in an industry all about youthful glamour. Director Mary Lambert keeps things simple, and Walsh adds yet another performance to his working-class jerk oeuvre. It is a nice little off-beat piece, and closes the season off with a playful irony that made the comics so beloved.
The short runtime and visual flash of big name directors makes this first season a for the most part enjoyable bit of horror television. Although more celebrated than The Hitchhiker
, I found the episodes to be much less creative, racy, enjoyable and as overall substantial as the previous HBO series. The Hitchhiker
was much better at tackling controversial adult subject matter with a progressive amount of sexuality and violence still surprising to this day. Tales From The Crypt
is much safer, but much less memorable. The Man Who Was Death
is the only one that really approaches brilliance, while the rest, save for the tedium that is Lover Come Hack To Me
, all aim to entertain and little more. The Crypt seems to be little more than a big budget glossing of the more independent and groundbreaking The Hitchhiker
series. The Crypt
aims to please and succeeds, but I’d rather take a ride with The Hitchhiker
any day of the week.
Warner’s The Hitchhiker
collection was plagued with inconsistent transfers and unclean prints, and thankfully this Tales From The Crypt
disc fares a little better. All six episodes look comparable in quality, all presented in their original full screen compositions. Colors are fairly well saturated, with Cundey’s blues in the Zemeckis episode coming out as vivid as the impressionist cityscapes of the Hill episode. Not everything looks as stellar, with the Hack
episode coming out a little soft and murky. Overall though, the color depth is better than The Hitchhiker
releases, which is to be expected considering this series is much newer. The most noticeable gripe is the same one that plagues The Hitchhiker
episodes, and that is the abundance of grain that turns up on all episodes. It is something that could have been remastered, but studios continue to treat television as less of a historic importance than film, and it is this mindset that continues to lead to serviceable but unsatisfying transfers. For a series as important as Tales From The Crypt
, you’d think Warner would have put a little more effort, but as it stands, the transfers aren’t likely to get a lot of complaints.
The series is presented in Dolby Surround 2.0, and actually sounds pretty good. There is some channel separation between the two front speakers, with sound effects like car crashes in Dig That Cat
and lightning in Lover Come Hack To Me
split up nicely. All the sound rings with a strong clarity, and no hissing or muddled dialogue is apparent. The quality is more than acceptable, and a nice little surprise.
Before we get into the supplements themselves, Warner Brothers has done something a little different with the presentation of these six season one episodes. Since all are located on a single disc (167 minutes worth), the WB has opted to play the opening two-minute introduction upon insertion of the disc, so they don’t have to waste bandwidth playing it over each and every episode. This shaves about ten minutes off the disc to allow for maximum video quality, but at the same time sacrifices the completeness of the episode. It is an interesting idea to have it play at the start, but completists should be given the option of turning this function on or off in the future. At least having the opening credit sequence selectable in the menus would have been a nice gesture.
Both discs feature some creative and humorous animated menus, with the crypt keeper taunting you to make a selection throughout. On to the DVD extras themselves, the first disc features a new minute-long introduction from the crypt keeper. He explains, with bad puns and all, the joys of having all six first season episodes in one ghoulish uncut package. It is short and slight, but a nice little welcoming all the same. The rest of the supplements are housed on disc two, but that is somewhat misleading. One would think that a full disc devoted to extra features would be filled with behind-the-scenes content and featurettes, since the first disc ran nearly three hours. The truth is though, there is only 55 minutes of bonus features on the second disc, a 50 minute documentary on the history of EC comics and a 5 minute promotional piece narrated by the crypt keeper.
The crypt keeper summary of the first season is too promotional to be revealing, and too tongue in cheek to be taken seriously. The crypt keeper talks as if he were the creator of the show, explaining how he roped Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis and everyone else into the prospect of a TV show. There are a few behind-the-scenes photographs that follow, and the rest of it is just clips from the movie with synopses by the crypt keeper. It is totally disposable and an utterly forgettable extra.
The meat and the only real potatoes of the set is the “Tales From The Crypt
: From Comic Books To Television” special, and it is thankfully much more comprehensive than the crypt keeper extras. It delves into the legacy of EC comics creator William Gaines, how he inherited a dying empire from his father and turned it into one of the most successful comic outfits of the fifties. Explained within is how Tales From The Crypt
was first written, from Gaines’ earlier horror efforts to his acquisition of horror artist Al Feldstein, who helped shape the memorable look and style of the comics. The controversy surrounding censorship and imitation then follows and the documentary ends with the series’ revival on television in the late-80s. More than just your typical featurette, this is exceptionally produced, with the paneled and pulpy look of the comics as a background intermingled with vintage photos and footage as well as new interviews with some of the leading proprietors of horror today.
Joining a slew of comic experts and historians are some of the granddaddies of horror on film, John Carpenter and George A. Romero, as they express how the comics shaped their careers as filmmakers. Joel Silver also talks about their influence on him, and how Gaines himself was involved in the first episodes of the influential television series. Nineties kiddie horror sensation, R.L. Stein, even turns up, telling how his “Goosebumps” line of books is directly indebted to the comics. Overall, it is a very informative piece with enough visual intrigue and diversity of opinion to make this a real pleasure to behold.
Unfortunately, that’s all she wrote for the extras on this set, which is somewhat of a cheat, since last year Warner released a two-disc set with the documentary as well as a number of other extras highlighting the comics, including extended interviews with George A. Romero and a documentary on Ray Bradbury. Considering the lack of content on the second disc, some or all of these extras could have easily been ported over, but alas. For a television series as popular as Tales From The Crypt
, it is surprising that Warner didn’t try to assemble more supplements on the show itself. Even The Hitchhiker
has much more supplemental content, with two new feature commentaries by some of the directors. Hopefully Warner Brothers elicits some new supplemental content for their upcoming release of season two.
For a show with the sizable following that Tales From The Crypt
has, the content of season one isn’t quite as groundbreaking as one would expect. The six episodes are mostly entertaining, but are too short and by the numbers to be anything wholly memorable. This DVD is about as humdrum as the rest of the series, with passable video, a nice stereo track and a limited batch of extras. The documentary is excellent, but some commentaries or extras related to the TV show itself would have been nice. Crypt fans will no doubt be satisfied with the set, as well as anyone looking for some suppertime TV viewing. Those new to horror anthologies or looking for something with a little more meat would be better going with Warner’s best-of The Hitchhiker
releases. Hopefully these Tales read better in the second season.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B
Supplements - B-
- Running time - 167 minutes
- Not Rated
- 2 Discs
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Surround 2.0
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- All-new introduction by the Crypt Keeper
- "Tales From The Crypt: From Comic Books To Television" featurette
- Crypt Keeper's history of season one