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.
[This entry by John B.]
Four-Sided Triangle (2.9)
”How many times I gotta tell you, George? You don’t kill the help. You beat ‘em, but you don’t kill ‘em.”
WHAT IS IT?
A retarded woman falls in love with a scarecrow, and her employer uses this to trick her into sex.
Patricia Arquette, post-Dream Warriors but pre-True Romance, plays the slow-witted farmgirl Mary Jo. Opposite her is Chelcie Ross, whom I didn’t recognize initially, but has played quite a few interesting character roles in his time, and recently had an awesome arc on Mad Men as Connie Hilton. And rounding out this teeny tiny cast is another character actor, Susan Blommaert, who plays lots judges on lawyer shows, and got on Boardwalk Empire this year as a temperance leaguer. Writing and directing is Tom Holland, who’s working out a niche for himself as the worst person Crypt employs.
HOW IS IT?
Ugh. It’s not well handled. From all appearances, this is a solid idea, with a queasily sexual premise, an appropriately nasty cast of characters, and a strong horror movie setting. In fact, the setting is phenomenal: a shadowy isolated farmhouse sixty miles away from the next person, filled with rusted machinery and rotting crops. But Tom Holland blows it big, and an episode that ought to be ugly and uncomfortable to watch just becomes inert and dull, which is the worst thing Crypt can be.
The episode begins with Luisa (Blommaert), a hobbling old crone of a farmer’s wife, beating the shit out of Mary Jo (Arquette), the sullen itinerant worker in her employ. Thus roused, Mary Jo goes out to perform her chores, while George the farmer (Ross) blatantly ogles her. A large part of this episode is devoted to ogling Arquette in George-vision, with a lot of sequences where the camera just stares. Here’s Mary Jo removing a coat to reveal she’s not wearing a bra, or here she is leaning over a stove to show her ass poking through the comical hillbilly buttflap of her jeans. If you were giving Tom Holland the benefit of the doubt, you might say this to makes the audience complicit with George’s lust, but I doubt even Tom Holland would suggest that. It’s an unrepentant pervy wallow, and it makes no excuses. It also has no real nudity, making this episode a disappointment for the masturbators as well.
Mary Jo is milking a cow when George stumbles in and gets all rapey, chasing her around the barn and threatening to turn her in to the police for some unnamed crime. Ultimately, he cracks a bottle against her head and lays her out, but before anything else can happen, Luisa staggers in to henpeck him. Mary Jo has slunk out to the cornrows, where she has a vision of the scarecrow coming off his peg to help her up. Yep, the bottle wallop has smacked her ‘tetched’, and she wasn’t exactly clever beforehand. Actually, Mary Jo’s relative cognizance pre and post is never clearly drawn, like just about every plot point in this goddamn thing.
Now the perspective shifts to George, the surprise protagonist. It’s a bold choice, switching the point of view to the sexually deviant old man, and like most choice made here, it fucks up the storytelling. As the days pass, he contends with Luisa, who does little but spit venomous insults and threaten to geld him. Or he stares dumbly at Mary Jo’s rack, and follows her out into the night to watch her make out with the clown-faced scarecrow, which she now believes to be her secret lover. Not much happens for a little while, although we are treated to one of my favorite clichés, the mistaken identity sex dream. George is making passionate love to Mary Jo, only to flip her over and find Luisa’s judgmental old woman grimace staring back. Wake up screaming! Finally, George comes up with a scheme. He dresses up as the scarecrow, so when Mary Jo sneaks out for her nightly rendezvous, he can ‘come to life’ and get it on.
And it would have worked just great too, except Luisa also wakes up, follows Mary Jo out on a tractor, and to prove the scarecrow boytoy is imaginary, stabs him over and over with a fucking pitchfork.. Distraught at the loss of her man, Mary Jo then stabs the life out of Luisa too, and promptly skips into the corn rows, presumably off to a better life, or maybe to wander around until she hurts herself and starves to death on this decrepit farm. Still tetched, after all.
This is another episode that squanders several cool ideas. I’m a fan of Southern Gothic horror, and that alone would normally be enough to give a Crypt episode unique texture. And I like the premise: it takes the familiar story of a wide-eyed innocent escaping her dark circumstances through a fantasy, and it adds the twist of those same dark circumstances using the fantasy to exploit her even further. I like the nasty farmers too; they’re an American Heartland version of Charles Dickens villains. Add in sick idea of dressing like a clown to trick a mentally challenged slave into sex, and you’ve got potential.
So what went wrong? Plenty. With all that dark shit in the hopper, it’s kind of amazing it turned out as boring as it did. It’s poorly written, from the dialogue to the structure, and the characters never develop in any way or act at all like human beings. It’s shot terribly, with no real effort to make this great set look portentous or creepy. Seriously, this is a horrible rape farm, and they can’t figure out how to make that scary. And the Achilles heel of the story is that George ought not to be the central character. Mary Jo’s story is way more interesting: it’s about emancipation and madness, while George’s is a redneck rape version of will-they-or-won’t-they. Thus, Mary Jo’s delusion is barely established, which makes it seem like it’s leading to some kind of reveal/payoff, but it’s exactly what it appears to be.
The ending doesn’t work either. I wish it really did go supernatural, into Dark Night of the Scarecrow territory, or that Mary Jo had played some active hand in the outcome. If she had manipulated the series of events to outsmart to two old people, I might have gotten a lot more out of it, because as it is, she’s never more than a sexy plot point. This one needed a script revision and a director that wanted to aim a lot higher. So eat a dick, Tom Holland.
HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?
I wish they were more evil, it would make the episode better. The shrewish wife isn’t exactly a progressive character, I guess.
*I really dislike the synthesizer scores they favor on this show. Here, it’s a bluesy banjo riff, which would be cool if it wasn’t done with bad synth. I suppose I should just make square with the fact that this was a genre TV show in 1990 and that the music must often have been an afterthought.
* Luisa is probably the best part of this, mostly because she’s a comic grotesque. Making her a cripple pays off with a couple physical comedy bits.
*So it’s been a pretty bad run of episodes here, enough to ponder why anyone would care to revisit a mediocre to bad horror anthology from twenty years back. Two things: There’s some excellent episodes on the way, starting with a nutball Richard Donner one Patrick is going to take on next week, and second, even the shitty episodes have the kind of character-murdering-kill-em-all audacity that modern horror shows, with their epic mythologies and overarching plotlines, can’t generally afford. I’d love to see the cable TV of today take on this sort violently comic grand guignol storytelling format. (Oh, wait, Masters of Horror. Damn it)
WORST CRYPTKEEPER JOKE:
“And just when George was going to reward Mary Jo for all her hard work with a big bone-us!” (I rather liked this one)
PATRICK SAYS: I watched Tom Holland’s Fright Night for the first time last Halloween (which, despite Tom Holland’s track record on this series, proves that at some point in time he was actually a talented filmmaker) and was really impressed by how sexually charged (both homo and hetero) he made the coming of age tale which is something a lot of filmmakers shy away from, especially involving younger teens. After seeing this episode I realized he’s probably just a creep. Like John says, a different director could have made it scary and sad in a legitimately interesting way. Instead, what we have here is just unpleasant in a Rob Zombie kind of way: ugly and filled with nasty characters saying and doing nasty things.