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.]
Top Billing (3.05)
“This is Hamlet! How can you cast that asshole?”
WHAT IS IT?
A struggling actor kills off his more attractive rival to win a role.
Jon Lovitz is well cast in the lead role. The supporting cast is crazy stacked with character actors. Bruce Boxleitner, Jon Astin, Sandra Bernhard, and Louise Fletcher appear, as well as a couple of familiar faces from the lower tier, Paul Benedict (the fake Guffman in Waiting for Guffman) and Kimmy Robertson (Lucy on Twin Peaks). The director is Todd Holland, a TV guy that worked on a ton of great shows, most prominently The Larry Sanders Show for 51 eps (not to be confused with Tom Holland, who makes shitty Crypt episodes). And the writer is Myles Berkowitz, known only for the loathed documentary 20 Dates, which I haven’t seen but sounds just terrible.
HOW IS IT?
Jon Lovitz recently gave an interview with the AV Club in which he came across as bruised, disappointed, and a little angry about his professional career in Hollywood. When he talks about projects like Mom and Dad Save the World or Trapped in Paradise, there’s a distinct frustration that creeps in. I don’t mean to suggest he’s become some crazy bitter asshole; he had more than a few triumphs and recognized them as such. But the way he nurses slights, wears his heart on his sleeve, and excoriates some famous names unable to recognize their good fortune speaks volumes on the true nature of the acting industry, where for every success story, there are probably a hundred thousand crushed dreams.
He mentions his work on Tales From the Crypt briefly, mostly explaining how he agonized over his weight while shooting it, but also states that it was very nice to play the lead, a sentiment his character here might share. It’s likely he was cast in the role of struggling, self important would-be actor Barry Blye as an in-joke, referencing his SNL Master Thespian character. But it ends up being a bit of alchemical genius, taking a solid episode to nearly great.
Barry is a failure, a lumpy sad-sack wanna-be actor living off subsistence in New York. Continually passed up for roles because of his, let’s be generous, average looks, Barry’s passively watching his dreams fade away as his dickish rival Winton (Boxleitner) coasts into plum commercial roles based on nothing but a telegenic face. We’re led to believe Barry’s a pretty talented actor, but that the industry just doesn’t reward ugly talent, no matter how much he howls in angry protest. Indeed, the first ten minutes are simply a gauntlet of humiliation for Barry (and Lovitz) as every other character in the sight tells him over and over that he’s too ugly, his hopes and dreams are pathetic, and that he should really just give up. And shoot himself, if you’re reading between the lines. Louise Fletcher’s agent is especially nasty, flossing while telling him she’s letting him go as a client.
Barry trundles sadly along, wallowing in ineffectual anger, until he sees one last chance at redemption: a not-for-profit community theater production of Hamlet. As a NYC resident, I’ll mention now that there are approximately seven or eight free productions of Hamlet going on in Manhattan alone every single week, so it’s actually extra sad. Upon arriving at the theater in the ass end of the city (Canal and Ave D!), Barry runs into Winton, who has decided to audition for Hamlet too, for no reason other than to humiliate Barry further, and teach him a lesson for thinking art mattered, which is a fantastically prickish thing to do. The theater troupe is an eccentric bunch, headed by Nelson Halliwell (erstwhile Gomez Addams John Astin), who minces about dressed as a pasha, shouting flamboyant theater artist clichés (he’s basically playing Lovitz’s Master Thespian), and he’s actually pretty damn funny. Also funny is Paul Benedict as the fey, creepy major domo. The brazen lunacy on display here should probably raise a few red flags for Barry and Winton, but I give it a pass-they’re theater people, after all.
Despite Barry’s confidence in his art shining through, Winton is cast on the spot because he has the right look. Even though Winton was only there to crush Barry’s spirits, he’s willing to take the role, all 1,438 lines of it, just to further drive home the point. That’s championship dickery, Winton. Finally, Barry’s thus far impotent rage becomes engorged, and he chokes Winton to death in a fit of pique. Barry explains to Halliwell that Winton got stage fright, but he can save the day by playing the part! So they give it to him, and it’s only too late that Barry figures out they’ve already cast Hamlet. Barry will be playing Yorick, which if you know your Shakespeare, you’ll recall is just a decomposing skull. You see, the twist is this isn’t an actual theater troupe so much as it’s an asylum for the criminally insane, and they’ve run amuck and murdered all the doctors. It’s one of the more effective horror sequences too, coming out of the blue and making a lot more internal logic than this type of twist usually did. So they axe murder Barry, pluck out his viscera-caked skull for their middling production, and toss his useless faceskin out the window, where a dog eats it. And there’s your fucking ending.
It’s a strong episode in many respects, without any big flaws. The usual MO on Crypt was to make the protagonist an out and out villain, with no recognizable human traits, but Barry is something different. He’s an actual human being, who’s been worn down to nub of resentment and anger by a cruel and uncaring world. His artistic pretensions aren’t presented as vainglorious or ridiculous, just pathetic, and his fate is the result of swift karmic retribution for one out-of-character sin of passion. This is a funny episode, with Astin and his crew hamming it up delightfully, but the surprise is that noted funny person Jon Lovitz isn’t remotely humorous. He plays it straight and full of empathy, as a mirror reflection of the classically trained actor he started out as before joining up with the Groundlings. The fact that Lovitz’s star quickly faded in reality gives this character a bit of blithe poignancy too. It might be the first Crypt episode with actual sadness at its heart.
HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?
The opening ten minutes feature Lovitz getting rejected by three women in a row: Sandra Bernhard the casting director, Louise Fletcher the agent, and Kimmy Robertson as his cheating girlfriend. They’re not all that evil, more like people trying to separate themselves from the sinking anchor of failure that is Lovitz, but it’s notable that its three women with power over him while his male rival Winton exists on his own level. Not woman hate, per se, but an interesting sexual dynamic.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*OK, so Lovitz isn’t exactly great in this episode. It’s a bit of a shallow performance. But I like that he never hams up the actorly pretensions, and his lumpy visage, squat flabby carriage, and slumped shoulders give him “the look”. Paul Giamatti from the future might have made this one of the all time best of the series, but the casting is inspired and it works.
*The Crypt Keeper opens with some actual iambic pentameter. Kudos?
*The mover helping Kimmy Robertson leave him calls him a loser twice and steals his chicken dinner. Brutally funny!
*Check out Tron’s package!
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“Get me my agent! What? He’s taking a beating?”
When I read the premise and saw Jon Lovitz as the lead, I was worried this was going to be a half-hour of The Master Thespian mugging. So this episode was a really pleasant surprise. It’s packed with great supporting talent (a little Sandra Bernhard goes a long way) and is one of the few episodes that balances genuine humor with some truly gruesome moments. Seeing Jon Lovitz bloody face-skin lying in a dirty alley is a hell of a way to close any episode.