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.
Fitting Punishment (2.12)
“Well, perhaps it’s for the best. The boy was full of youth and vigor. He would have made a miserable cripple.”
An orphaned teenager moves in with his uncle, a miserly, grasping mortician with a violent streak.
There’s a whole cast in this thing, but the actor of interest is Moses Gunn, who plays evil Uncle Ezra. Gunn, who died in 1993, had a solid career as a stage actor and appeared in dozens of TV shows, but never really got a breakout role to be remembered by. His last role was in the absolutely excellent Homicide episode “Three Men and Adena”, in which he kicks some serious acting ass as a suspected child murderer. Directing is Jack Sholder, who made some hilarious 80s cheese like the silly ass Kyle Maclachlan alien flick The Hidden, and of course the super gay Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 2. Three writers, including Michael Kahn, who was first AD on so many great 80s actioners (Die Hard 1 & 2, Lethal Weapon 2 & 3, Ford Fairlane), and Don Mancini, who wrote literally all the Child’s Play movies.
Black! At this point in the series, I believe the only black characters to have appeared on Crypt were a pimp, a whore, and a voodoo priestess. Fitting Punishment uses an entirely African American cast, setting the whole episode in an inner city funeral home, and occasionally, it resembles an August Wilson style exploration of the black experience of America, although with much more Grand Guignol. And yet, somehow, Crypt manages to do this without ever really calling attention to itself, and no aspects of the plot would change with a white cast. That said, the racial component adds tone and a hint of subtext that makes this episode stand out from the pack in a way it might not have. Or that could just be Moses Gunn.
Gunn completely destroys in this role, giving probably the best performance of Season 2. His Scrooge-ish mortician, Ezra Thornberry, is about as perfect an EC villain as you could want, a vicious cold-hearted son of a bitch, and rather than hambone around mugging, as is the custom on Crypt, Gunn plays Ezra like a actual person, albeit a really shitty one. He’s not a gleeful asshole, either, but a hypocritical prig, and Gunn is good enough that as the episode progresses, we’re able to see glimpses of the lonely hell he’s created for himself. Top marks here.
The story opens with Ezra’s teenage nephew Bobby arriving at the funeral home, humorously dressed like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and dribbling a basketball.  His parents have died, and now he’s got nowhere to turn but his dickish Uncle Ezra. Ezra grudgingly accepts, already scheming to enslave the kid. Once again, it’s a nasty Dickensian caretaker, with Ezra forcing Bobby to sleep on a corpse gurney and bitching him out for running up the bills on water and electricity. This leads to a fun sequence where Ezra shows Bobby the various ways to cut corners in a funeral home, i.e., using tap water as embalming fluid and stealing gold teeth from the dead. My favorite bit is that Ezra’s too cheap to buy buckets, preferring to just let all the blood fall directly into a drain on the basement floor.
They seem to momentarily find a bit of miserable equilibrium, until a miscommunication over a coffin order (probably Ezra’s fault) causes Ezra to lose his cool and beat Bobby handicapped with a crowbar. He’s a wild Thornberry. It’s a bit of a leap to believe the calculating Ezra would lose himself this much to dumb rage, but damned if Gunn doesn’t sell it. There’s a quick look he gets after the beating where he realizes he’s gone too far, but only inasmuch as now he’s got more shit to deal with.
Bobby’s crippled for life, due to spinal injury. In a sweet little cold-blooded moment, the doctor asks how it happened and Ezra is quick to lay the blame on the boy’s “own carelessness”. Since Bobby can’t work anymore, Ezra decides the easiest thing would be to off him, and bonus, he can use the unwanted pine coffin. So there’s a creepy little murder sequence, where Bobby slowly makes his way up the rickety cellar steps only to be knocked back down by his own basketball, right onto his neck. And since basketball-playing Bobby won’t fit into the shitty Korean pine coffin, Ezra, ever the pragmatist, chops his goddamn feet off.
At this point, everyone from the doctor to the funeral home organ player has figured out what Ezra did, but they can’t prove it, so Ezra snorts contemptuously at them. But then at night, when everyone else has gone home, something wakes Ezra up. He thinks it’s the organ player, messing with him, but no, it’s Bobby’s vengeful spirit, and best of all, the spirits of his spritely disembodied feet, which chase him around the house, kicking basketballs at him and finally booting him in the ass. He falls down the same stairs as Bobby did, gets paralyzed like Bobby did, and when the footless specter of Bobby slowly makes his way over, gets beaten with a crow bar like Bobby did.
So it’s a standard Ghost’s Revenge yarn, akin to gotcha campfire tales like the Hook Man or the Golden Arm. But just like any campfire tale, it’s not about the destination, but the journey, and Fitting Punishment delivers a very good meat and potatoes ghost story. And though the episode is superficially reminiscent of Rusty Cundieff’s Tales From the Hood, it steers decisively away from any social or cultural message. There are stray traces of a theme; Ezra abandons both family and community, which ultimately leaves him with nothing but terrifying ghost death, although this mostly just exists in Gunn’s portrayal. I think the caliber of the story, the cast, and the behind the camera team here could have allowed for them to reach a little higher with this episode, and I’d say that ultimately keeps it out of the top tier of Crypt episodes (Gunn notwithstanding). But it does everything it’s aiming at very well, and the last five minutes in particular are a lot of spooky fun.
Another episode that deftly avoids misogyny by having zero women present.
*I am surprised they didn’t do something embarrassingly reductive with regards to race in this episode. The opening Crypt Keeper bit really sets the table for it, with a bunch of jokes about playing basketball and sneakers and stuff.
*The direction is stylish here. Based on Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 2, I would have imagined Jack Sholder to fuck this up, but this is a distinct cut above TV show point-and-shoot, especially the scary sequences.
*One nice touch: the ghost first makes his presence known by running up the bill on the utilities Ezra was always bitching about. Another one: when Bobby is embalming the kid his own age, and the kid’s face twitches.
*There’s no voodoo curse or Tibetan love bracelet to explain the Bobby revenant. It just is, compelled into being by how much of a dick Ezra is. I approve of this shorthand.
I’m not sure I’m as in love with Moses Gunn’s performance as John is, but after a long string of grating and silly episodes, a straight-faced ghost story is a welcome change of pace. My favorite parts of this episode play out like a Six Feet Under pilot from another dimension (Two Feet Under?) with all the gross and unethical ins and outs of the mortuary business. If only it had a more effective ending, this could have really been something special. As is, it’s a worthy episode, and probably one of the only episodes of the series that isn’t sole dominion of the whites.