With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
Karma’s a bitch on Tales From The Crypt. It’s also a reanimated corpse, a gypsy curse, a ravenous vulture, a murderous marionette, a maniac at large, and certainly a buzzing chainsaw. For an unlikely seven seasons, HBO’s hit horror anthology doled out poetic justice in half-hour increments, letting bad people do bad things, then punishing them for it, usually in the most sadistically ironic manner imaginable. Cheaters may get what’s coming to them, but so too will the jealous lovers who send them to the grave. The innocent will suffer, but it’s nothing compared to what awaits those inflicting the suffering. An eye for an eye? Yeah, that’s one way to put it.
The average Crypt episode is equal parts Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, and the Old Testament—which is just a roundabout way of saying that the show is deeply indebted to its source material, the EC horror and suspense comics of the 1950s, from which it borrows most of its twist-punctuated stories. It wasn’t just the simple moralistic plots, nor the parents-incensing violence, that the show’s creators lifted from EC mastermind William M. Gaines. They also faithfully reproduced his macabre sense of humor, expressed most plainly in the groan-inducing puns of the wraparound segments—those bookending appearances by rotting master of scaremonies The Cryptkeeper, who’s either the jokiest cadaver of all time or the world’s oldest, most putrid Catskills comedian.
Despite its haunted-house tour of a title sequence, set to the iconic swell of a Danny Elfman score, there’s a case to be made that Tales From The Crypt was one of HBO’s first hit comedies. It was certainly one of the network’s first wildly successful forays into scripted programming. Premiering in the summer of 1989, a full three years before The Larry Sanders Show, Crypt survived well into the ’90s, attracting lots of late-night viewers with its standing promise of moonlighting Hollywood talent, uncensored violence and nudity, and that oddly beloved zombie host, brought to life through the magic of expensive, expressive puppetry and voice actor John Kassir’s raspy, theatrical delivery. It was adults-only programming with a distinctly juvenile appeal, and proof of its popularity was in the (blood) pudding: Crypt spawned three movies, three albums (including a notoriously awful Christmas collection), two failed spinoffs, a Saturday-morning cartoon series, a short-lived radio program, a kid-courting game show, and plenty of tie-in merchandise, most with The Cryptkeeper’s ugly mug plastered across it.
Part of the passing anthology craze of the mid-’80s, Tales From The Crypt distinguished itself from basic-cable predecessors like Tales From The Darkside and Monsters—as well as previous HBO omnibus experiments like The Hitchhiker and The Ray Bradbury Theater—by taking full advantage of its content liberties. The show brought a largely unprecedented amount of gore, T&A, and bad language to American episodic television. HBO’s reputation as an uncensored alternative, the place where showrunners could operate without restriction and audiences could get the R-rated experience on the small screen, began in part with Tales From The Crypt.
The show also helped collapse the historically rigid walls separating film and television, de-stigmatizing the fluid movement from one to the other and back again. (To be fair, it was probably Steven Spielberg who blazed that trail, though Amazing Stories never drew quite as many major players as its premium-channel successor.) Crypt boasted a murderers’ row of executive producers: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Joel Silver, Walter Hill, and David Giler. These Hollywood heavyweights didn’t just lend their skills to production, stepping in to direct some of the show’s most accomplished, enduring episodes. They also cajoled an endless supply of marquee talent, both behind and in front of the camera. Established filmmakers (John Frankenheimer, William Friedkin) alternated with horror mavericks (Tom Holland, Mary Lambert), while movie stars like Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, and Arnold Schwarzenegger lent their names and faces to the series for an opportunity to direct. Meanwhile, every other episode seemed to boast a present or future star, trading lines with revered character actors. Because of the anthology format, Crypt was low-commitment, allowing famous folk to make one-off contributions; it was a sandbox, a safe space to have some fun between blockbuster projects.
Like most anthologies, on television or otherwise, the show was also fundamentally uneven. Each episode didn’t just present a new, completely self-contained story, with characters audiences had never met and would never meet again. It also involved different actors, different writers, different directors, even different crews (though there were mainstays, like longtime horror cinematographer John R. Leonetti, who shot 11 episodes). Identifying Crypt’s best half-hours is often just a matter of scanning the bylines; the series’ top brass possessed both chops and first pick of stories, so naturally their episodes tend to tower over those helmed by less well-known filmmakers. The level of craftsmanship could vary wildly week to week, from top-shelf exercises in technical bravado (see: any of the three episodes Zemeckis directed) to clumsy hackwork (see: second season lowlight “Three’s A Crowd,” featuring a boom mic that dips conspicuously into frame).
For source material, Crypt pulled from several of EC’s bestselling titles, including its namesake inspiration, but also The Vault Of Horror, The Haunt Of Fear, Shock SuspenStories, Crime SuspenStories, and Two-Fisted Tales. As a result, the show extended beyond the basic boundaries of horror: While the formula remained fairly rigid—almost without fail, a ghastly comeuppance was in order—the genre was malleable. Week to week, you could be watching a miniature monster movie, a crime thriller, a whodunit, a gangster caper, a Western, or a hysterical black comedy. The sheer variety in content, if not narrative structure, is a tribute to how much Gaines and his stable of writers were able to stretch their simple storytelling template.
The make or break for a Tales From The Crypt episode is how it handles its brief running time. The best ones operate like clever contraptions of suspense, or perfectly executed jokes, building expertly and efficiently to a nasty punchline. The worst ones mark time, settling for softcore-grade titillation before dropping an obvious twist. But getting ahead of the endgame doesn’t always cripple Crypt; even predictable episodes often benefit from deliciously hammy acting, and the show usually struck a fine balance between light entertainment and Grand Guignol grotesquerie—a sweet spot that American Horror Story, to name one offspring, could stand to locate more often. As deliberately lame as they are, The Cryptkeeper’s intros and outros—those silly bits of Halloween wordplay and costume-party dress up—successfully frame the series as campy fun, despite its weekly supplies of murder and madness. They’re winks to the audience, an opening and closing reminder that none of these twisted scenarios are meant to be taken very seriously.
The following 10 episodes aren’t necessarily the cream of Crypt’s crop. They’re just the ones that demonstrate what it was usually like to spend a half hour in the warped world of the Cryptkeeper, where bad things happen to bad people, justice is tough but fair, and there’s no twist of fate so cruel that it can’t be chased with a few lousy double entendres and an ear-splitting cackle.
Tales From The Crypt came out swinging (an ax). Like every subsequent season, the show’s first one premiered with a three-episode block, in this case burning through half of its short inaugural order on one night, with back-to-back-to-back installments. It was a smart play, because Crypt’s initial three episodes, each directed by one of the show’s executive producers, are arguably its finest. (They could work as a stellar standalone anthology film—which, in a sense, is how they were packaged for home video, on a VHS tape that doubles as a best-of collection.) But while Walter Hill’s “The Man Who Was Death” and Richard Donner’s “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” are both exquisitely morbid yarns with superb twist endings, it’s Robert Zemeckis’ yuletide battle royal that feels like the Crypt ideal. Shot as the pilot, “And All Through The House” was specifically designed to be a benchmark for the whole series; it establishes the cruel-and-unusual moral logic of the show, while also offering a real-time, pressure-cooker scenario that’s perfect for the half-hour format. The Christmas-set story, previously adapted in the 1972 British Tales From The Crypt movie, concerns a philandering housewife (Mary Ellen Trainor) who murders her husband, then squares off against an ax-wielding escaped mental patient (Larry Drake) in a Santa Claus costume. The fit of screaming hysteria the episode ends on was Gaines’ (brilliant) idea, but the credit otherwise goes to Zemeckis, who wrings every ounce of suspense from the showdown, while also emphasizing the black-comic dichotomy between the cheerful holiday backdrop and the mayhem happening against it. Zemeckis would direct two more episodes over the course of the series, both tremendous. But he’d never find a better balance between grim humor and genuine scares—and nor would the series itself.
Plenty of Tales From The Crypt episodes are just twist endings that reveal themselves in slow motion, across 30 mostly perfunctory minutes. If you happen to guess that twist, there’s nothing to do but wait for the characters to catch up to your own deductive reasoning. “Dead Right” best embodies this particular EC storytelling approach, spinning the predictable tale of a gold-digging secretary (Demi Moore) romantically pursued by an overweight, penniless slob (Jeffrey Tambor), who a fortune-teller insists will die shortly after coming into possession of great wealth. It’s the kind of simple, be-careful-what-you-wish-for yarn that could have been told in maybe eight panels, and here is forced to occupy a whole half-hour of running time. But “Dead Right,” which kicked off Crypt’s second and longest season, also possesses a retroactive selling point common to the series: It stars two actors whose careers would soon balloon, both digging hungrily into heavily-caricatured roles. (Moore, just three months away from Ghost, plays her character’s money-grubbing callousness to a hilt, while Tambor, then still something of TV bit player, disappears under mounds of disgusting prosthetics.) The strange ethical calculus of the Crypt universe is likewise reinforced: Yes, we’re allowed to despise Tambor’s ugly, uncouth bachelor, but that doesn’t let Moore’s heroine off the hook for facetiously, greedily entertaining his advances. There’s intentionally no one to root for, unless one counts the twist as a character.
Revenge from the grave was a well EC Comics went to over and over again, probably in part because putting some festering fiend on the front cover moved units. (George A. Romero has spoken openly about the influence the company’s work had on his own, meaning we probably owe the current, ongoing zombie craze as much to Tales From The Crypt as to Night Of The Living Dead.) Naturally, Crypt the series didn’t go light on revived corpses either, but “Til Death,” the first of many episodes of the show to feature a zombie (or any supernatural creature, for that matter), isn’t so much a vengeance story as a cautionary tale about trying to own another person. While attempting to build a luxury resort on some unnamed Caribbean island, a deceitful playboy/white conqueror (D.W. Moffett) becomes infatuated with a wealthy aristocrat (Pamela Gien) who won’t give him the time of day. Determined to have her, he visits his ex-girlfriend (Janet Hubert), the voodoo priestess he dated and dumped when his parents didn’t approve of him seeing a black woman. She gives him a special love potion; one drop and the rich lady will marry him, two and she’ll be his forever. But what about the whole bottle? Director Chris Walas, the special-effects veteran who made The Fly II, unleashes a monster that gets more skeletal with every appearance—meaning that the episode offers several different zombie designs for the price of one. Walas also comes closer than most Crypt directors to capturing the general feel of an EC comic, from the splashes of primary color (à la Romero’s similarly EC-inspired Creepshow) to the broad characterizations to the way the episode manages to be anti-colonialism on one hand and revel in racially charged voodoo imagery on the other.
Given how often Tales From The Crypt played its macabre material for gallows humor, it’s easy to forget that it was, officially, a horror show. “Abra Cadaver” is a good reminder that the series could be downright chilling on the rare occasion that it wanted to be. Beginning with a black-and-white prologue of a mean-spirited prank gone wrong, the episode finds a bitter ex-surgeon (Beau Bridges) exacting revenge on the younger brother (Tony Goldwyn) who cost him his career. The maniacal method is an experimental serum that first kills the subject, then leaves him in a state of total paralysis, but with several of the senses still alarmingly active. Zemeckis would later essentially remake the episode with season six closer “You, Murderer,” down to the use of an extended POV shot and voice-over from the perspective of the frozen dead guy. But “Abra Cadaver” is the better episode, locking viewers into the panic and dread of this nightmare scenario, and making them as helpless to stop it—or to look away—as the victim. What goes around always comes around on Tales From The Crypt, but this is one of the few times that seeing a character get what he supposedly deserves is more disturbing than ghoulishly satisfying.
What were we saying about episodes that exist just to deliver a shocking final twist? “Top Billing” is the case for the defense, showing how a truly clever, nasty ending can dramatically elevate a Crypt installment from solid to exceptional. Emphasis here on dramatically, as the story concerns a desperate, hard-up actor (John Lovitz) who would literally kill for the part of Hamlet in a local, off-the-grid production. Tons of episodes of the series get by on the personality of their guest stars, and this one seems catered both to Lovitz’s gift for comic frustration and his background in theater. (Crypt episodes about showbiz seem to gain an extra charge of bitter humor—go figure.) But “Top Billing” really earns its standing ovation in the final few minutes, when the nature of its particular stage show—and the open part the director is attempting to cast—is revealed. A truly striking or obscene climactic image counts for a lot on Tales From The Crypt, and this one qualifies on both fronts.
In 1991, the executive producers of Tales From The Crypt attempted to launch another EC adaptation, a series loosely based on the war comic Two-Fisted Tales. A feature-length pilot was produced, featuring segments by Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, and Child’s Play director Tom Holland. The show never went to series, and the pilot aired just once as a TV movie on the USA network, to little fanfare. Eventually, to salvage the failed endeavor, the producers repurposed all three vignettes as Tales From The Crypt episodes; they don’t fit much tonally into the show that adopted them, but they do offer a good idea of what Two-Fisted Tales might have looked like, had it been given a season order. While the two other entries—an oater penned by Frank Darabont and a drag-racing thriller featuring a young Brad Pitt—are both interesting, it’s again the Zemeckis contribution that stands out. A kind of spiritual descendant of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory, “Yellow” casts that film’s star, Kirk Douglas, as a WWI general who sentences his own son (played by the actor’s actual son, Eric Douglas) to death for cowardice. Extravagantly mounted, with elaborate battle scenes and an impressive supporting cast (including Dan Aykroyd and Lance Henriksen), “Yellow” isn’t just the longest Crypt episode, but also the closest the show ever came to prestige-picture respectability. Only the cruelty of its final moment marks it as a fitting addition, though even then, the dramatic dimension of the ending is much more troubling and complicated than the show’s average upshot.
Speaking of respectability, it’s hard to think of Tales From The Crypt as awards material; it seems too gross, too violent, too proudly… genre to have earned the recognition of voters who were throwing prizes at Murphy Brown and L.A. Law around the time the HBO series was hitting its gruesome stride. But the industry clout of its creative team, as well as the sheer volume of Hollywood talent it attracted every season, made the show impossible to entirely ignore. The closest Crypt ever came to actually winning an Emmy was probably its season five premiere, “Death Of Some Salesman,” for which Tim Curry scored a nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor In A Drama Series. Slathered in tons of unflattering makeup, Curry pulls an Eddie Murphy and appears as all three members of an insane, murderous, possibly inbred family with a special hatred for salesmen; Ed Begley, Jr. is the slick shyster of an insurance agent forced to screw and marry the clan’s hideous daughter (yes, Curry) to save his own hide. Played almost exclusively for sick laughs, “Death Of Some Salesman” demonstrates the show’s regularly inspired use of game character actors—Begley, in the less showy role, is a fine match for Curry—as well as its willingness to bend the definition of horror to suit its own odd aims. Did an episode that featured dead bodies crammed into television sets and Tim Curry in a dress, grinding his way to messy orgasm, ever have a chance against Picket Fences? It was an honor just to be nominated.
Graphic violence was always part of the Crypt formula, which tested the boundaries of HBO’s hands-off censorship rules from the start. For one reason or another, though, season five really doubled down on the gore, staging such nauseating sights as a gorilla eating brains from a man’s cracked skull, a husband dismembering his wife’s body in the bathtub, and Bill Paxton getting his leg blown clean off. But for sheer over-the-top revulsion, there’s no topping “Forever Ambergris.” In many respects, it’s a typical half-hour for the show, serving up an inevitable helping of just deserts to a washed-up war photographer (Roger Daltrey) who conspires against the hotshot young colleague (Steve Buscemi) who idolizes him. Crypt conventions abound, from the appearance of a star-on-the-cusp to the addition of some gratuitous nudity to the depiction of a foreign land as an exotically primitive world. But the true distinguishing mark of “Forever Ambergris” is its outrageous, incredible gore—most notably, during a scene of a character writhing in diseased agony, until his eyeball pops out of his head. For a certain portion of the audience—let’s call them the Fangoria subscribers, in spirit if not actuality—moments like these were the reason to watch Tales From The Crypt, which brought the barf-bag spectacle of a Lucio Fulci movie to their living rooms on a weekly basis.
Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow) directed four episodes of Tales From The Crypt, and they all benefit from his dynamic touch, evident in the off-kilter compositions and the intensity of the performances he elicits. “Let The Punishment Fit The Crime” is the most boldly stylized of the bunch, a madcap legal satire about an ambulance-chasing lawyer (Catherine O’Hara) who winds up standing trial in a backward town where the pettiest, most minor crimes earn the offenders some seriously extreme sentences. As often as the show aimed for mordant comedy, it was rarely as funny as “Punishment,” which is buoyed by a cast of screwball ringers—O’Hara as the accused lawyer, Peter MacNicol as her put-upon public defender, Joseph Maher as a series of increasingly hard-ass sibling judges. At the same time, Mulcahy sustains the seasick atmosphere of a bad dream. By the sixth season, Crypt’s quality was beginning to nosedive, but fans never would have guessed that from the season premiere, which teased a vitality most of the remaining episodes couldn’t match.
In its seventh season, Tales From The Crypt skipped across the pond, as HBO farmed out its last run of episodes to British casts and crews. This could have been a cost-cutting maneuver or a last-ditch effort to inject some new life or flavor into a series that had begun to go foul, like one of the decomposing bodies around which its plots so regularly revolved. The UK Crypt continued to pull some name directorial talent, and to feature stars before they were stars (among them Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor, and Steve Coogan). But the general tone of the series felt off, and the producers seemed to have run out of first-rate EC stories to adapt. The result was an underwhelming (and unpopular) final season, low on scares, laughs, and the kind of guilty pleasure even a mediocre Tale could once inspire. “Last Respects” is a representative episode. Directed by British horror legend Freddie Francis, who made the aforementioned Tales From The Crypt movie from the ’70s, it tackles a chestnut so old you can’t believe it took the show this long to get to it: the monkey’s paw, acquired here by three squabbling sisters (Emma Samms, Kerry Fox, and Julie Cox) who learn some familiar lessons about wishing. Even at its most unhinged, the episode feels more polite, more restrained, than the American version—and that’s not necessarily the right fit for Crypt, which tended to work best when swinging for the lunatic rafters. Like most of season seven, “Last Respects” is an admirable but unexciting attempt to do something vaguely different with the format, and it looks interesting today for what it doesn’t resemble—namely, the show fans fell in love with for six uneven but mostly entertaining seasons.
And if you like those, try these: “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” (season one, episode three); “Cutting Cards” (season two, episode three); “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (season two, episode 10); “Television Terror” (season two, episode 16); “Split Second” (season three, episode 11); “Maniac At Large” (season four, episode 10); “Split Personality” (season four, episode 11); “Food For Thought” (season five, episode four); “You, Murderer” (season six, episode 15)
Availability: Tales From The Crypt is not available on HBO Go, alas. But all seven seasons can be purchased on DVD, and every single episode has made its way onto YouTube.