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.]
Carrion Death (3.02)
‘Sorry Birdie, this buffet’s been cancelled, but there’s a civil servant lunch over that hill”.
WHAT IS IT?
An escaped convict tries to cross the Mexican border, pursued by a cop and a buzzard.
Kyle Maclachlan stars as an evil criminal. The writer/director is the super awesome Stephen E. de Souza, who wrote the script to at least as many 80s action classics as Shane Black, including Commando, The Running Man, both 48 Hrs movies, and how about this, goddamn Die Hard, the greatest action movie ever. In the 90s, he wrote The Flintstones (also with Maclachlan), which led to a steady downward spiral of unprecedented bad: Judge Dredd, Beverley Hills Cop 3, Street Fighter, Knock Off, and Tomb Raider 2. Recently, he wrote the CGI animated Gotta Catch Santa Claus. So what the hell happened there?
HOW IS IT?
Oh, it’s quite good. One of the best, in fact. As I see it, this is a Crypt homage to the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. It’s never explicit in what it’s doing (this was pre-Tarantino, and homage/sampling was often just ripping off), but to me it resembles nothing quite so much as the lengthy desert sequences of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with Tuco and Blondie trying to screw each other over. Carrion Death mirrors that kind of desperate cat and mouse stuff, where the characters are somewhat general and are largely defined only by whatever base self-interest they’re currently chasing. It never drops any actual homages, not even in the soundtrack, but it seems clear this was the work of someone greatly enamored of Leone.
Maclachlan plays escaped death row inmate Earl Raymond Diggs, a serial killer/bank robber fleeing the scene of the crime and headed for Mexico, where he hopes to disappear. Maclachlan is odd casting for the role; he’s much more believable as the bank robber than the serial killer, especially in that he plays the whole thing with a wide-eyed youthful eagerness. He’s much more Billy the Kid than Jeffrey Dahmer. This ends up being a fun choice though, as again, Diggs isn’t so much as a character as he is a stereotypical black hat, and every time Diggs has a monologue about mutilating a woman’s corpse, it comes off about as creepy as Scrappy Doo planning to clobberize some ghosts. That said, Maclachlan’s always had some darkness under his Boy Scout image (as utilized in Blue Velvet), so it’s easy to accept that he’s a pretty evil guy and leave it at that.
The opening, with Diggs running out of a bank, shooting a guy in a cowboy hat, and heading off into the desert in a stolen car, is pure western. As Diggs drives off listening to the expositional radio news story about his offenses, a motorcycle cop comes up behind him and starts firing. There’s a game of chicken that destroys both vehicles, and Diggs and the cop head off into the desert on foot, while a giant vulture follows, waiting for something to die. This is where the Leone stuff gets thick, and the vulture becomes a very useful plot device. Not only does it represent ironic deathfate, it gives both Diggs and the unnamed cop something to bounce their various threats, boasts, and schemes off of throughout the episode (in fact, every time the vulture is absent, the characters have to explain the plot to themselves, and it kind of sucks). After a bit of cat and mouse, Diggs and the cop end up battling it out in an abandoned shack. Diggs ultimately shoots him, but not before the cop handcuffs them together and swallows the key, with a manly grunt of ‘Fuck Youuuu’ as he dies.
Now Diggs, with no food or water, must trek across the final expanse of sun-parched desert, handcuffed to a corpse, which is exactly the sort of thing that always happened to Tuco. As he gets more delirious, his vulture-ologues become even more manic, and Maclachlan pulls them off with aplomb. It culminates in a climb up a giant mesa, on the other side of which lies Mexico. Diggs gets within spitting distance when the corpse slips and drags him back down the hill. Half mad with sunstroke, Diggs decides to sharpen the cop’s badge, affix it to a stick, and chop off the dead weight. I’m actually kind of loathe to reveal how this resolves, but suffice to say, it does not pan out. While there is a slight karmic element to Diggs’ comeuppance, it’s largely overshadowed by just the sheer gruesome awfulness on display in the last five minutes. It goes from Sergio Leone to Wile E. Coyote, but without the cartoon physics. It might not be the goriest thing you’ve ever seen, but it certainly hits harder than anything I’ve seen yet on the show, enough to make me squirm a bit. And I don’t do that.
And it’s a perfect crystallization of what’s great about Tales from the Crypt. It’s horrifying, it’s gross, and it’s a bit funny too. It’s got a game movie star and a talented writer throwing themselves into a bit of audacious pulp storytelling, rife with genre riffing and a pretty sizable pair of balls. I don’t know how well this one is regarded by the fans, but I think it’s straight up one of the best episodes of the series, and if you’ve been casually following these write-ups, know that this one is worth your time.
DOES IT HATE WOMEN?
Craftily, Carrion Death employs no women to hate. It does include a Kyle Maclachlan monologue about how he at least really detests women and especially enjoyed killing them. It’s much more about how Diggs is just a really bad guy though.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*When Diggs gets up on the ridge and looks into Mexico, we never see what he sees, but he acts like it’s the gates of Heaven opening up before him. The assumption is that it’s just more desert and he’s fucked anyway, but it does create a cool sense of “Almost!”
*Perhaps another homage to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: terrible ADR.
*I had meant to call this episode “The Good, the Bird, and the Muad’Dib”, but was hard to work in naturally. Still worth sharing.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“Cook ‘em, Dano!”
Definitely one of the best episodes of the series. Everything from the writing to the direction is top notch (my favorite moment being when Diggs uses the cop as a human blanket, to protect against a dust storm). I love how the motorcycle cop isn’t just some random highway patrolman, but a total badass, telling the vulture to back off from Diggs because “he saw him first”. I kind of feel that Kyle MacLachlan was miscast, but like most Crypt miscasting, it’s more fun than distracting. MacLachlan couldn’t have maintained a character like Diggs for an entire feature, but in this it’s a lot of fun to see his attempt at pure evil, even if it’s only slightly less silly than the Twin Peaks series finale.
And some of you may be wondering why we started season three with Carrion Death. Well, as it turns out, the third season of Crypt opened with three back to back episodes on the same night: The Trap, Loved to Death, and Carrion Death. But different sources list different episodes as being the first. IMDB says that the season opened with The Trap, while the DVD set opens with Loved to Death. We decided to split the difference and open with Carrion Death, which is by far the greatest episode of the three. If you know which was the actual first episode, feel free to set us straight in the comments.