Easel Kill Ya (3.8)
“I saw her life slip away. There was almost something beautiful about it.”
WHAT IS IT?
A struggling artist makes a killing from making art from making killings.
This is the first of two episodes directed by John Harrison, who cut his anthology teeth directing eight episodes of Tales from the Darkside and even directing Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. It was written by Larry Wilson, one of the men behind Beetlejuice and writer of The Addams Family, the first of five Crypt scripts he would eventually write. In front of the camera we have Tim Roth, right before Reservoir Dogs would catapult him into semi-stardom, and William Atherton (Ghostbusters, Die Hard) towards the tail end of his career as the preminant douchebag of 80’s cinema. I’ve always considered Crypt a show that detailed that awkward transition from 80’s horror to 90’s horror, so the casting seems especially fitting.
HOW IS IT?
Pretty good! The plot feels a little like a rip-off of the superior Roger Corman classic A Bucket of Blood, but the comic the story’s based off (Vault of Horror #31) predates that film’s release by six years, so it’s probably save to assume it was actually Corman, if anyone, who did the ripping off. At any rate, it’s worth comparing the two because A Bucket of Blood‘s strongest asset is also probably Easel Kill Ya‘s weakest: the lead performance. Besides a wicked sense of humor, what makes A Bucket of Blood work so well is Dick Miller’s performance as Walter Paisley, a clueless but lovable loser that you can’t help cheer for him, even as he’s murdering people for his art. Tim Roth, on the other hand, plays the main character of Jack Craig with a constant sour look on his puss like his upper lip smells bad. There’s a lot of fun to be had from a premise such a this (and to be fair, the episode does a pretty good job finding it for the most part), but unless his overly dour performance is some kind of Andy Kaufman-esque joke, Tim Roth isn’t having any fun at all.
Jack Craig is a failing artist with a dark history. It’s never explicitly stated, but it’s strongly implied at his weekly Obsessives Anonymous meeting that he at least is a recovering anger junkie and probably also murdered someone at some point. Going into recovery and quitting drinking may have taken the edge off of his life, but it also unfortunately has taken the edge off his art and he hasn’t sold anything in nearly a year. But it’s not all bad: Sharon, one of the crazies from his Obsessives Anonymous group, has chosen to turn her obsession in his direction, all but devoting her undying love to him out of the blue one day. She offers her services as a model for him (for art’s sake, of course) but it does no good. It isn’t until an argument over loud music with his downstairs neighbor that inspiration strikes. Which is to say, a falling flower-pot accidentally strikes his neighbor’s head, knocking him off his fire escape and killing him. Something about the composition of the blood around his head, or perhaps just his expression, prompts Jack to take polaroids of the scene and paint it.
He takes the painting to Malcolm Mayflower (William Atherton) collector of “morbid art” he read about in an art magazine. Malcolm pays big bucks for art depicting the horrors of the world, from Holocaust art to Eddie Adams’ infamous photo of Nguyễn Văn Lém. You wouldn’t think he’d be interested in what ultimately looks more like a Megadeth album cover than fine art but he goes apeshit over it, which puts him less in the “art collector” camp and more in the “me in seventh grade” camp. But anyway, Jack gets a cool 2,000 dollars for it and a promise of 20,000 dollars for his next work. His wallet flush with money and his heart flush with pride, he goes on the lookout for his next masterpiece, which presents itself on a silver platter in the form of his landlady. Stuck with the unpleasant task of taking her deceased tenant’s belongs to the attic, she loudly complains to Jack that it’s dangerous for a woman of her age, repeatedly mentioning how easy it would be for her to slip on the stairs and break her neck. In one of the best jokes of the episode, we then smash cut to Jack throwing her down the stairs, where she lands on a pair of garden shears. This time he goes the extra mile and collects some of her blood in a paint har, as well as taking pictures.
Just as he’s finishing the final touches on this later masterpiece (this one with a distinct cubist bent), Sharon stops by for round two of throwing her body at him. He hides the photographs and jar of blood before letting her in, and tries to push her away, her positive thoughts annoying him. But the power of positive thinking, and a horny woman determined to get hers, is not to be underestimated and before too long she and him are making hot passionate love. Things seem to be going great until out of nowhere he begins to see Malcolm Mayflower’s face on Sharon’s body, which is as good a way as any to kill the mood. It freaks him out and he almost beats her to death with an alarm clock before he stops himself. At this point Sharon should be out the door, but one of the great things about this episode is how nearly every character in it is pretty fucked up, almost like how a David Cronenberg movie starts with characters already on the edge, and documents them crossing over it. Realizing that he’s finally reached that tipping point, Jack rushes to Malcolm’s to sell his painting, promising that it’s last one. But Malcolm has his doubts and promises him a whopping 100,000 for just one final piece.
Meanwhile, Sharon is snooping around Jack’s apartment and stumbles upon the photographs and the jar of blood. Finally realizing she’s in over her head, she flees Jack’s apartment. Jack gets home just in time to try to stop her, but before he has a chance to explain himself she runs out into the street and, in a stunt pretty impressive for this show, gets herself destroyed by a speeding car. Later at the hospital, the doctor tells Jack that things aren’t looking good for her. They’ve called the best brain surgeon in the state down, but such an operation will be extremely expensive and, what’s worse, she’s uninsured. Knowing what he has to do to save her life, Eric takes to the hospital parking lot for one final work of art, the big one. He grabs the first poor schmoe he sees, a kind looking fellow carrying a suitcase, and beats him to death with a tire iron. He then drags the corpse into an alley and practically fingerpaints with it’s blood. I understand needing a model, and inspiration, for his previous paintings, but this particular one feels like it could have been accomplished with tempera.
When Malcolm sees his latest work, he completely loses his over how wonderful the little smear is, which makes me think that Malcolm is less interested in art, morbid or otherwise, and just wants Jack to be his friend. At any rate, Malcolm gives Jack the 100,000 but by the time Jack returns to the hospital, it’s too late, Sharon has already died. It would seem that the man Jack murdered was, in fact, THE GREATEST BRAIN SURGEON IN THE STATE. A pretty predictable ending, sure, but at least it’s sensical. By Crypt standards, this is about as good as you could ask for. Same goes for the rest of the episode, which really delivers on it’s interesting premise and features some pretty good gore to boot. If only Tim Roth cut loose and had fun with it, instead of scouring for a half-hour, this could have been one of the very best.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*I may be giving them too much credit, but I’m pretty sure the fact that the second painting is cubist is a reference to Marcel DuChamp’s groundbreaking “Nude Descending A Staircase”, which would be apt. Which makes me wonder if the other paintings were also high-brow art parodies that I just didn’t catch.
*The metal music that his downstairs neighbor keeps blasting is of the wonderfully out-dated hair variety. I kind of wish we saw more of the neighbor before he died, such a hammy actor.
*Of all the horribly punny titles we’ve seen so far, this has to be among the most belabored.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“What a shame she turned into such a Moan-a Lisa”
I like Roth in this, and he brings an intensity that I haven’t seen in any other episodes. He’s delivering a real acting performance, and although that’s not really called for, it’s the only thing that makes this one stand out much (well, that and some Red Shoe Diaries style fucking). It has some great moments, like the old lady jump cut and William Atherton, but the resolution kind of blows it for me. It’s entirely dependent on the bond between Roth and Sharon, but he seems to regard her as a minor annoyance that he’ll tolerate for sex. And it also sidelines the most interesting aspect, Atherton’s weirdo collector. I would have preferred a hackneyed ‘turns-out-he’s-Satan!’ twist to the out of place O. Henry one featured here.