In 1989 HBO debuted Tales From the Crypt, a horror-anthology show with an unprecedented amount of tits, gore, budget, and bad puns. Based on a variety of titles from EC Comics, the episodes ranged from silly to creepy to horrible. And we’re going to review every single one of them.


The Man Who Was Death (1.01)

“He’s thinking about that rubber diaper they gave him to wear. Wondering if he’ll crap all over himself when I juice him in a couple minutes. He will.”

After capital punishment is made illegal in New York, an out of work executioner continues his work on a freelance basis.

This very first episode was directed by the great Walter Hill (director of and The Warriors, Southern Comfort,Streets of Fire), and the second-rate Kevin Yagher (director of Hellraiser: Bloodline and designer of Chucky from Child’s Play). The episode was written by Hill and Robert Renau (the mind behind Action Jackson and Demolition Man).

As if to set up the gallows humor the show was all about, this first episode opens with a death row inmate Charlie Ledbetter sitting in his cell while wacky circus music plays. Executioner Niles Talbot (William Sadler) cheerfully breaks the fourth wall to tell us that Charlie is indeed a Yellow Ledbetter, and only has a few minutes left to live. Niles is our narrator, protagonist, and a huge part of what makes this episode work so well. William Sadler does a great job making Talbot a cross between a laidback country boy and a Travis Bickle-esque misanthrope.

So naturally, after New York bans capital punishment, Niles finds himself out of work and out of patience with the immoral state of his fair adopted city. Being a Bickle-esque misanthrope, he begins your standard Taxi Driver/Death Wish vigilante plot taking on guilty criminals who get off due to technicalities, with the twist of only using electricity to punish the guilty. Luckily, William Sadler’s performance and Walter Hill’s superb direction more than make up for the story’s lack of originality. Hill isn’t phoning it in, and this episode has his fingerprints all over it, especially Niles’ brief monologue about New York: “I’m a country boy, but I like the city. It’s big. It’s dirty. Let’s you know what it really is. But at night, there’s all those lights. Real pretty, isn’t it?” The entire episode has a real cinematic quality to it, setting up a series that would come to be defined in the world of anthology shows by it’s significant production budgets and real filmmaker credentials.

However, all good things must come to an end. But when Niles is inevitably caught, there’s a twist: it happens right after they reinstate the death penalty! And just as you’d expect, he goes like every other prisoner he used to mock: kicking and screaming, while wacky circus music mocks his mortality.

The episodes may vary in subject matter, tone, and quality, but one consistant factor throughout is a weird under-current of misogyny. A lot of this could be blamed on the storylines, taken from EC Comics written in the politically incorrect days of the 40’s and 50’s, which are more often than not about gold-digging women or wives murdering their husbands for their life insurance. Other times, like in this episode, it seems to come out of nowhere.

Most of this episode slips by misogyny free until, as if the producers realized the lack of sexism too late, they shoe-horn the following monologue late into the episode to get the sexist-quotient up to acceptable levels:

“They just want you to love ’em, is all. That’s all they ever want. They get that from their mamas. From all the trashy magazines they read. It’s easy to be successful with dames. Just don’t fall in love and you’re okay. You give them what you want, you fall in love, and they’ll kill ya. They can’t stand you no more. They either dump you and move on or, if they let you hang around, they’ll cut your balls off. Weird, aint it? Now as far as stratagies for getting into their panties, that’s easy too. The old rule: you treat whores like queens and queens like whores, then you got no problem. They’re on their back faster than you can say ‘Son of Sam'”

This monologue seems bizarre and out of place in this episode, but it does serve as the general approach to women for the rest of the series. These rules will come up again and again as the series goes on, as if this monologue were written in the show bible under the heading of “Issues of Gender”.

* John Kassir was still perfecting his Cryptkeeper voice this early on in the series. Here it’s more subdued, not the shrill annoyance it would eventually become in later seasons.
*I love the shot of Sadler on the overpass. Walter Hill seems to have a special ability to make the city lights look kaleidoscopic and beautiful. See also: The opening of The Warriors.
*Robert Winley, the biker in Terminator 2 who gets his ass handed to him, shows up as…a tough looking biker who gets his ass handed to him. Typecasting at work, people.

“What a SWITCH for poor Talbot!”


Season One is pretty damn good, and for my money, this first episode is the best. For all the reasons Patrick went into; the cinematic camera work, the overcooked dialogue, but especially for William Sadler. Talbot, with his direct address crazy talk, could easily have come off as a grunting Rohrschach-lite, but Sadler plays him as a friendly, low-key hayseed, even managing to wear a pork pie hat without seeming like an asshole. He’s a prolific actor, but this is still one of his more assured performances. A lot of the best Crypt episodes were made by great directors paying stylish homage to genre cinema, and that’s exactly what you get here. Hell of an way to set the tone.

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