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.
Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today (2.11)
“Joe, don’t call my wife an old lady.”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A witch terrorizes an eccentric married couple by swapping bodies with the wife.
This week we have possibly the classiest director Crypt has ever had, Randa Haines, the director of such touching dramas as Children of a Lesser God and The Doctor. It was written by Scott Nimerfro, the first of 11 Crypt scripts he would write. He’d also later go on to co-produce cult television series Pushing Daisies, which is fitting. The story is lead by wacky performances from Carol Kane (When A Stranger Calls, Scrooged), Brian Kerwin (the dad from Jack, 27 Dresses, countless miscellaneous television shows) and delightfully elderly character actress Frances Bay (Happy Gilmore, Blue Velvet).
HOW IS IT?
A lot of fun, surprisingly. I remembered this episode as being one of the weaker ones, perhaps because it’s simple and light on actual horror, but it’s not weak at all. I don’t know if, back in 1986 when former television director Randa Haines’ film Children of a Lesser God came out and was nominated for a gajillion (read: five) Academy Awards, that she ever thought her next project would be returning to a television show (and a lurid one at that), but the four following jobless years must have been a powerful motivator. Whether her four year break was self-imposed or not (I’d vote the former) she came onto this episode swinging, and gave us something really enjoyable, despite a pretty weak (and scare-free) story.
The heart of the episode is the marriage of our eccentric main characters Donald (the dashing Brian Kerwin) and the eponymous Judy (the angelic and alien Carol Kane). They’re two very odd ducks indeed and at first glance they don’t even seem like they’re right for each other. He’s a conservative gun nut who claims to be obsessed with home protection, but is likely more obsessed with how fucking cool it feels to hold firearms. She’s a flighty anglophile who’s so obsessed with the outside world’s perception of her that she insists that they both speak in English accents as often as possible. But what makes the marriage (and subsequently, the episode) work so well is their chemistry. When he can remember, her meets her halfway and speaks in a fruity English accent and she forgives how reckless he can be waving the gun around at solicitors trying to get signatures together for their (oh, irony!) anti-gun legislation group G.E.L.A.T.I.N. The latter, by the way, is probably my favorite moment of the whole episode. When asked to repeat the name of his organization, in a great understated move, the activist has to look down at his sheet half-way through to remember it. It’s a subtle and great moment.
After the incident with the peacenik, Donald is all worked up and ranting to Judy about how the world is full of maniacs ready to pounce on her and she can’t let everyone into her living room anymore. It’s unclear to him whether any of his rant sticks with Judy, but it sure does get her hot and bothered, and that’s enough for him. He kisses her goodbye and heads off to the gun club. Her listening skills are put to the test not two minutes later, however, when an elderly make-up salesman/witch shows up at her door. Judy’s resolve holds strong at first, telling the lady she didn’t schedule an appointment and that she isn’t interested. But a well-placed comment about her unsightly pores breaks down every one of her defenses and she quickly lets the saleswoman/witch in. Vanity is the folly of those with little else upon their plate. I can’t remember if it was Shakespeare or Ebert who said that, but it’s as true today as it was in 1587/1987.
Once inside, Judy makes a point to compliment the salesman/witch (I’d call her by her name but she doesn’t have one) on her hideous costume jewelry. This actually makes sense, though, because it’s very clear that Judy is into costume. Her house, decorated with more paintings of fox hunts, china dolls, knick-knacks and tea-pots, feels like one big costume. It all ties into the themes of wanting to be someone else, and adds quite a bit of resonance to them. But she covets one of the witch’s sparkly necklace in particular, with it’s ornate glowing amulet, so much that when the witch/saleslady offers for her to try it on it’s like someone getting down on one knee and giving an engagement ring to Gollum. She goes to look at herself in the mirror when the witch activates a similar second amulet she’s wearing, kicking off that most forsaken of magicks the ancients called “The Ole’ Switcharoo”. Before Judy even knows what’s happening, the saleswitch is leering at Judy’s “great ass”, which is about to be her “great ass”.
Having repeatedly fired off his phallic symbol among other men doing the same, Donald returns from the gun club happy and rejuvenated only to be confronted with a panicked old lady, so distraught you’d think someone stole her marble rye. She’s screaming that she’s his wife but he’s a little suspicious. After all, his wife had a great ass! So he does what they all do in these situations. He pins her to the ground by her neck and quizzes her on all their important marriage dates. If you ever suspect that your wife has switched bodies with someone, but you still need proof, this is definitely the way to go. I know because it’s in every one of these movies, ever. Donald almost believes her too, until he gets a phone call from his friend at a train station bar telling him that his old lady is drinking like a fish and swearing like a sailor. Donald very casually locks the old lady in the closet, grabs a handgun, and runs to the train station to catch his wife. He finds her there, smoking and primping in the mirror, but when he approaches her, she doesn’t recognize him. It finally dawns on him that something is up.
So he goes to the “what to do if you suspect that your wife’s been body swapped” playbook again, this time running an audible on plan B. He runs to the witch and pleads her not to run away because it won’t help the fact that she has a terrible terminal cancer. The witch, feeling tricked and trapped, calls upon the dark forces of Switcharoo, returning Judy to her rightful body and the witch to the closet. They rush home to hear the witch screaming and banging on the closet door. Why she doesn’t Switcharoo back again, I don’t know. Her mana pool is probably low. But Donald knows how to handle the situation. He takes out his handgun and just the sound of it cocking shuts the witch up. For a whole 4 seconds Donald seems pretty cool, but the witch then starts to growl again and scares the hell out of him, causing him to blindly fire off the gun screaming like a little girl. But when the witch falls out of the closet dead, with a bullet wound, Donald goes from little girl to little boy, spazzing out about what a rush it is to murder witches in your parlor. It gets Judy hot and bothered too, and the two make sweet and clumsy love on the floor before returning to the sobering act of burying a dead witch in your basement. I think Rob Zombie has a song about that, actually.
It’s now three months later, and Judy and Donald (all I’m asking for is last names, Crypt writers. A Mr. and Mrs. Something) have locked the amulet in a safe behind a painting, where it can do no harm. But anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings knows how that story ends, and in the middle of one fateful night Judy finds herself Smeagoling out over her precious, finally going to the safe to put it on. Upon returning she wakes Donald, who was having a bad dream about the decomposing witch corpse in his basement. He goes downstairs to get a glass of milk and clear his mind, only to be accosted by the very same corpse, who’s pleading for him to help her. He reaches into his drawer to get his revolver, all too happy to oblige, when Judy starts down the stairs with a suitcase. It doesn’t take an expert to know which is really Judy, but when you have two ladies screaming at you to kill the other one, you gotta be sure.
So Donald refers to plan C in the Switcharoo playbook, “The Fantasy Car Maneuver”. He tosses his car keys to his wife and tells her to start the Jaguar. When she smiles and heads for the driveway, he knows for sure that she’s the witch because they don’t have a Jaguar! When you’ve already exhausted Plans A and B, Plan C is a pretty good choice. This episode isn’t just entertaining, it’s edutaining as well. He tackles the Judy-witch, trying to force her to switch back again when his gun accidentally goes off into Judy-witch’s stomach. With her dying breaths, the witch switches bodies again, so they can be Judy’s dying breaths instead. Donald holds Judy closely as she gives the kind of amazing last words that would look great on a tombstone: “What does the NRA handbook suggest you do now?” After all of this, it turns out the real hero of the story is the G.E.L.A.T.I.N. man, turning the entire episode into a bizarre mirror of the CBS After School Specials that Randa Haines used to direct before she scored Children of a Lesser God. I love career symmetry.
HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?
A little. The antagonist is a foul-tempered and deceitful witch and Carol Kane is the “dumb but well-meaning housewife” stereotype, but she adds so much life to the character that it doesn’t even feel so much like a stereotype. A mere 2.1 on the Misogyn-o-meter, I’d say.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*G.E.L.A.T.I.N. stands for Gun Elimination Legislation Activists for Total International Neutrality. I know you’ve been hurting your brain working on that one.
*By the way, the actor who plays the activist is none other than Academy Award nominated writer/director Todd Fields. It’s funny, because the opening shots of this episode actually mirror the opening shots of Little Children pretty closely.
*All this talk about Carol Kane’s ass actually has me curious. Alison Porchnik, what are you hiding down there?
*According to Tarantino’s Hot Fuzz commentary, Penn Gillette used to see midnight movies with a group of friends in NYC and every time someone within the film spoke the film’s title, they’d stand up and applaud. This episode would have garnered three separate applause breaks.
WORST CRYPTKEEPER JOKE:
“You’ll be glad to know that witch gave up door-to-door sales and joined the peace-corpse.”
I have to disagree, respectfully. Part of it comes down to my own distaste for all thing Carol Kane, admittedly, but most of all, I think Haines just kind of whiffs on the tone. The actors don’t seem to be acting with each other so much as competing to bring as much pageantry to the table as possible (they all lose to the set designer). I don’t think the script really supports the broad comic tone everyone’s playing at either. Kerwin’s character, for example, is occasionally a clownish buffoon and occasionally a resourceful hero, sometimes in the same scene. And I know this isn’t the fairest criticism to level against Crypt, but this exact plot has been handled with considerably more creativity not just in the great Craig Lucas play Prelude To a Kiss, but in several Saturday Morning cartoons (I’m pretty sure Tale Spin did a version of it). Patrick’s write up got me reconsidering, but I have to admit my initial take on this was that I didn’t have much positive to say about it all.