In 1989 HBO debuted┬áTales 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.
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Undertaking Palor (3.9)

“What did he use as a bookmark, his dick?”

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A group of tweenage boys stumble upon a pharmacist and mortician’s nefarious plot.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

Michael Thau, who worked on multiple Richard Donner films in various roles (including being editor of the controversial “Director’s Cuts” of the first two Superman movies) directs this Goonies-flavored episode. It was written by Ron Finely who, four more episodes of Crypt aside, barely worked in Hollywood ever again. But even though Season three has proven to have had lower-wattage stars behind the camera, the stars in front of it still shine bright. Primarily, Jonathan Ke Quan (best known as Short Round, probably cast solely for additional Goonies vibes) and distinguished character actor/ham John Glover (Batman & Robin, Gremlins 2). I’d like to say that the other three kid leads (Aron Eisenberg, Scott Fults, and Jason Marsden) went on to bright and varied careers, but the truth is that of the three only Marsden went on to have any kind of career, as one of those voice actors who seems to do voices for every cartoon you can think of. Oh well. If you’re gonna be a failed actor, better it be when you’re fourteen than forty.

HOW IS IT?

It’s actually really good! Like I mentioned earlier, there’s a definite Goonies influence at work here which annoyed me at first. Like any other reasonable adult with some control over his nostalgia, I’m not really a fan of The Goonies. By the exiguous standards of kids movies it’s okay, I guess, but on all other accounts it’s a grating and obnoxious film in which nearly every line is either a bad joke or shouted at the top of the actors’ little lungs. Undertaking Palor has a fair amount of that, but it also has a fair amount of Stephen King influence as well, particularly the dialogue which has that very specific King slang that sounds like a profane kind of baby-talk. As the plot went on I began to actually like the episode’s sensibility, which plays a similar game: it gets gruesome and dark, but never leaves that kid’s movie tone.

The story opens on three tweenage boys, straight out of a Sunny Delight commercial, leaving a movie theater arguing with each other. There’s Aaron (Aron Eisenberg), “the backwards capped one”, Norm (Scott Fults) “the fat one”, and Jess (Jason Marsden) “the tough one”. As they’re arguing about whether geeks have “video vision” or not (yeah, I don’t know), they begin to be stalked by someone who, judging from their POV, actually has video vision as well a glowing red eye. They freak out and try to run away before realizing that it’s actually local rich kid Josh (Jonathan Ke Quan) with a dream of directing horror movies one day. Jess, being the tough one, says that if Josh really wants to be a horror movie director, he’s got to prove that he has the balls to withstand real horror. So they decide to sneak in to the basement of Esbrook Mortuary, a local funeral home, to videotape a dead body. It’s a set-up that almost feels like a Frank O’Connor short story or, more on point, Stephen King’s The Body.

But before any bittersweet lessons about mortality can present themselves they hear footsteps coming down the basement stairs. They quickly hide in various closets and nooks (with Norm hiding in a casket) to see the quite probably insane Undertaker Esbrook (played with delicious relish by John Glover) messing around with the corpse of a local librarian. It’s quite a sight, with him in turn lovingly courting the corpse, smashing it repeatedly in the face with a hammer (to “make it smile”), cutting it’s distended belly open to release built up gases, and finally sucking up it’s insides with a shop vac. I’ve seen enough episodes of Six Feet Under (or, for that matter, previous Crypt episode Fitting Punishment) to know that none of this is standing operating procedure and, whether or not they have HBO, the kids catch on to the same. It’s a gruesome scene, to be sure. It’d be even more gruesome if the corpse didn’t look so fake and rubbery, but what are you gonna do? The boys are almost caught when Norm sneezes in the coffin, but before the Esbrook can investigate his doorbell rings. The boys use this as a chance to escape, but Norm, being the fat kid he is, is unable to get away in time and instead hides under the coffin as Esbrook and his guest return.

While down there, he stumbles upon a fiendish plot by Esbrook and his guest, a local pharmacist rocking some truly pimp snake-skin shoes: the pharmacist, along with providing Esbrook a steady supply of opium, poisons locals to give him a boost in business in return for a cut of the profits. But, as with most criminal enterprises, it’s not an entirely happy relationship. The pharmacist is unhappy with his meager cut of the latest victim, while Esbrook complains that the victims the pharmacist is choosing aren’t rich enough to have funerals that are worth it. The pharmacist says he has that covered, and that their next victim will is “a rich man with asthma”. The next day, Norm is trying to tell his friends what he witnessed, but they don’t believe him. It isn’t until they stumble upon Josh, crying on his front steps because his dad died of an asthma attack, that they realize that Norm isn’t full of shit.

At this point, the episode turns into the found footage genre, viewed entirely through Josh’s video camera as the boys strike out to seek revenge. I think it utilizes this form a lot more effectively (and consistantly) than previous found footage flavored episode Television Terror. It gives the rest of the episode the immediacy and tension the genre’s known for, while the previous 15 minutes of plotting help eliminate the clunky storytelling that the genre is also known for. First the kids head to the drug store to identify the killer pharmacist by his sweet kicks. They end up running into him, one Dr. Grundy, outside of the store when he offers Norm a job delivering a package to Esbrook’s Mortuary. But Norm replaces the opium with battery acid and smashes the package on Esbrook’s front steps to get him to chase him, giving the other kids an opportunity to sneak in again and gather evidence. While there, they discover evidence that Esbrook has been cheating Grundy out of most of his shares. Aron runs the papers over to the drugstore while Josh hides in the basement, waiting to catch Esbrook and Grundy again, only this time on camera.

It’s not long before Grundy returns to the basement, having been anonymously given proof he’s been cheated, to confront Esbrook. Their struggle starts verbal, but ends with Esbrook beating Grundy to death with his “smile hammer” and pouring battery acid in his mouth. Again, I like that the relationship between these two, however small, was well thought-out with this violent climax foreshadowed from the very beginning. This scene is actually filmed from multiple angles, which made me think that someone goofed, or maybe a reshoot happened, but it turns out at this point all four kids step out of their hiding places with video cameras, revealing themselves to Esbrook. He tries to threaten them with a pistol but before he can do anything he trips and is impaled by the super-vac nozzle that Norm is holding. The boys cheer and high five as Esbrook’s guts are being sucked out of his body, but I do have to wonder what happens next after the episode ends. Even with video-taped evidence that they killed Esbrook in self-defense, you have to think that a stunt like this will get them grounded for two, maybe even three weeks.

HOW EVIL ARE THE WOMEN?

The only woman here is the corpse of a librarian, and the boys even make sure to point out what a nice old lady she was. This episode is clean.

ALSO WORTH NOTING:

*The movie the boys are leaving in the opening scene is Richard Donner’s 1992 film Radio Flyer. This episode first aired July 24th, 1991, which means it’s our first episode to officially take place in the future.

*I always thought Jonathon Ke Quan played up his accent for movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom & The Goonies, but it’s just a thick here, even though he’s older, so I guess those movies aren’t quite as racist as I thought.

*I’m not kidding about the King-inspired dialogue. At one point Norm even says “Bite the bag”, a phrase I’ve seen in a couple King stories and in nothing else ever.

*Another rare happy ending!

WORST CRYPT KEEPER QUOTE:

“As for the kiddies, Josh gave up making movies. Seems he didn’t have the guts. And the others, they became lawyers. Must have been the taste of blood.”

GRADE: A

JOHN SAYS:

Well, I can’t hang with an A, but I more or less agree with everything Patrick says here. This is a haunted Boy’s Adventure tale, straight out of Castle Rock by way of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, and the affection for the milieu is potent. Its only real failing is not quite reaching the high bar set by King or Bradbury, which can be the price of homage (and to be fair, the kid cast is a bit iffy). I’ve heard this ranked as one of Crypt’s worst episodes, which is lunacy. It’s really pretty good, and another addition to the seemingly endless list of horror subgenres Crypt can explore.