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.]

Yellow (3.14)

“You yellow bastard!”


A cowardly soldier finds himself unable to perform during the first World War.


It’s one of the big ticket episodes. Kirk Douglas and his son Eric play the leads, also father and son. Dan Aykroyd has an incredibly distracting role as some guy that stands around and doesn’t do anything. And Lance Henriksen, returning to the series, has a nice supporting role. But most of all, Robert Zemeckis returns to the director’s chair.


It’s a completely acceptable, reasonably engaging episode, and ultimately, that’s the biggest problem. With all the things that are good about Yellow, it’s a disappointment that it never rises above good, and sometimes doesn’t even hit that, when Eric Douglas gets going. Zemeckis is, or was at the time, a very strong director, and Kirk Douglas was nominated for an Emmy for his work here. Now granted, that was probably just a bit of starfuckery, but there’s no denying the man’s gravitas. What’s more, Zemeckis and co. are clearly mounting an ambitious homage to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which the plot closely resembles, which was also features one of Kirk Douglas’s most known film roles. The budget seems greatly elevated here, with a trenches set that looks very convincing for early 90s TV, and even the Alan Silvestri score is appropriately cinematic. It’s a shame that the script never really coheres into anything but bit of potboiler intrigue, and that Eric Douglas just isn’t up to carrying something like this.

The episode opens with a bright yellow flower in the ground, from which we pull back to see a pretty expensive looking tracking shot of trench warfare mayhem, with bodies flipping through the air and explosions going off. It’s the most cinematic shot yet in Crypt, and I don’t know that they’ll ever beat it. The flower, I think, quotes All Quiet on the Western Front, which when coupled with the Paths of Glory pastiche, suggests Zemeckis is to some extent a student of film history. And even though I’ve never really pegged him that way (as opposed to, say, Scorsese or Tarantino), it makes sense that a filmmaker that’s gotten where Zemeckis has knows his shit. It’s a great first shot.

We soon find and follow Henriksen’s Sgt. Ripper (could be from the comics, but I hope it’s a straight up Kubrick/Strangelove reference) as he scours the trenches for the duty-shirking Lt. Martin Kalthrob (Eric Douglas). Once located, Kalthrob is shown to be either too scared to face the realities of war, or perhaps too much of an irritating pain in the ass to be bothered. And here’s the major problem with the episode: Eric Douglas doesn’t have a clear idea of how to play this role. The central premise is that Kalthrob doesn’t belong in War, and has been forced into the soldier’s life by his bullying hawkish father, General Kalthrob (Kirk Douglas). So while his cowardice is understandable, in a sense, it’s also getting other people killed. Unfortunately, Eric Douglas’s approach to the role is to behave like a smug asshole unworthy of sympathy, and any emotional conflict you might want to have is undercut by a general disdain for him. Eric Douglas had a tough life, by all accounts. The acting career never took off (this was easily his highest profile role), and it can’t have been simple, living in the shadow of a wildly successful father and brother. He died in 2004, of an accidental drug overdose, and Yellow remains his legacy. One might have wished he’d managed to tap in to his personal demons here, but no dice.

Adding insult to injury, Kirk Douglas is kind of great to watch. It’s a stock characterization, not too different from Patton by way of Col. Nathan Jessup, but Douglas digs in, creating a man both cold-hearted and shrewd, a terrible father but a pretty good soldier. Kalthrob fils is brought before Kalthrop pere, accused of shirking, and they strike a deal. If Kalthrob will lead a mission to repair a broken communication line, the General will transfer him to the rear, and to safety. The nighttime trench mission Kalthrob and Ripper head up is very well shot, with heavy darkness cut by occasional flashes of bright light, and another nice bit of staging by Zemeckis. It ends as expected, with Kalthrob chickening out and failing to sound the alarm, thus getting everyone else killed.

Thinking himself the only survivor, Kalthrob retreats and paints a false portrait of heroism to the General, who happily agrees to transfer him. But then a dying Ripper staggers back in and spills his guts, both literally and figuratively. So Kalthrob is court martialed, and scheduled for death by firing squad right before the troop moves out. The General pays Kalthrob a visit in the stockade and they have it out. It’s the big money scene, where each one lays out their respective grievances and disappointments with one another, and it would be damn good if Eric Douglas had found the a tone other than whiny petulance. As is, I kind of ended up on the General’s side, and I’m a big annoying pacifist lefty. Anyway, the General comes up with a scheme. He’ll load the rifles with blanks, and once the troops leave, Kalthrob can escape and start a new life, away from the War. And all he wants in return is for Kalthrob to face (fake) death like a man.

The resolution here isn’t much in doubt, this being Tales from the Crypt, but Zemeckis and the cast, even Eric, do a nice job of staging it anyway. There’s a good deal of tension over where the General’s loyalties lie, with his son or his adherence to military code. And of course, the answer is the code. Once Kalthrob delivers a brave, Shakespeare-quoting speech about duty, the guns fire, and his chest blows out, a victim of both rigid dogma and his own cowardice. It’s the right ending, simple, almost Hemingway-esque, although again, it’s a bit undercut by our lack of empathy for Kalthrob.

It’s a good episode, really. Zemeckis really has a knack for staging his scenes, and I think he might surprise people if that Denzel Washington project ever coalesces. It’s not all on Eric Douglas though. The script is all right, but it isn’t deep, and I think this story, in this format, would have been better served if it wasn’t quite so delicately neutral. Pulp isn’t always served by ambiguity (OK, a better Kalthrob might have helped that too, but I’ve piled on poor Eric Douglas enough). On the other hand, everything this episode wants to accomplish is done ten times better in that scene from Saving Private Ryan with Jeremy Davies on the staircase. Is it unfair to compare a Crypt episode to the best scene from one of the most acclaimed films of one of our greatest directors? Yep, but there it is.




*I mentioned this isn’t quite the right format, and that’s likely because Yellow was intended as an entry in a spin-off show, Two-Fisted Tales. Based on another EC comic series, it was to be a dark action show, dealing with manly pulp adventure tales rather than horror, hosted not by the Crypt Keeper, but rather William Sadler as a spectral gunslinger. It wasn’t picked up for series, and the three produced episodes (this, and two notables from Season Four) were turned into Crypt entries. This show would of course have been awesome, and it’s a damn shame it never happened. I would especially like to see the Sadler bits.

*The final Firing Squad sequence would probably have played with a lot more suspense on that show too.

*This is the longest episode of Crypt, at almost forty minutes. It doesn’t feel long or anything, but it probably could have been thirty no problem.


“I guess Martin finally learned his lesson: No guts, no gory!”



I always look most forward to episodes directed by the big three (that is, exectuive producers Richard Donner, Walter Hill and Robert Zemeckis) and this one is no exception. The show ended up being unexpectedly successful thanks to the character of the Crypt Keeper (though it seems kind of baffling, looking back now) but you get the feeling that the real reason this show exists is for these seminal directors to make pulpy short films with big stars, and what director could resist an homage to some of the greatest war movies of all time? Yellow‘s a little slower than it deserves, it doesn’t fit neatly into even the loosest idea of what Tales from the Crypt is and, as much I wish otherwise, Eric Douglas is not a good actor. That being said, I kind of love this episode. I saw the twist coming from a mile away, but I think it’s one of the most wicked in the series (so I guess it does fit SOME kind of Crypt mold, in some way). Directed differently, this could have been a story about a disappointed father trying to give his son one last shot at dignity. But with a subtle twist (Martin sees his father wince, and thus realizes his fate before it’s too late) and some expert acting by Kirk Douglas, the result is a lot darker and more cynical than that. All told, I think it’s a hell of a season finale.