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.]
None But the Lonely Heart (4.1)
“There’s a penalty for wasting my time!”
WHAT IS IT?
A gold-digging murderer is distracted from his latest conquest by a series of anonymous accusations.
This crazy ass cast is a delight. Treat Williams stars as the murderous cad, and his target is Frances Sternhagen, a great character actress who recently played the can-throwing old lady in The Mist. In smaller roles are Henry Gibson (Nashville), Tom Hanks (Dragnet), and Sugar Ray Leonard (The Fighter). Hanks also directs. This was his first foray into directing, which led to That Thing You Do! and Larry F’n Crowne. But more than that, this was his first involvement with HBO, which would eventually result in several fruitful collaborations, Band of Brothers in particular.
HOW IS IT?
I love this episode. Before these write-ups, I would have probably picked it as my favorite. It was certainly the one I had the most positive memories of. The sobering light of adulthood and direct comparison has accentuated its flaws, and I guess it has a few, but this really is a stellar example of the series and what it did. The comedy, the gruesomeness, the mean-spirited plot, hell, even the bizarro stunt casting all still work, and I strongly recommend it.
It opens with the saddest thing ever, an old woman applying makeup. This old woman is the wife of Howard Prince (Williams), a smooth-talking, nattily dressed charmer half her age. Howard has taken pains to make the night special, cooking a disgusting goo-like meal for her and seducing her with poetry. With one sip of the wine, however, she spasms and convulses, while Howard watches with a real creepy expressionless death stare. Williams has a good tack on this character, probably one of the most evil I’ve seen on the show, positively reveling in unmannered nonchalance, if such a things possible.
So yes, Howard is a con artist who romances lonely old women of means, marries them, and bumps them off, stealing their fortunes. Both a Grandmother Fucker and a Grand Motherfucker, he justifies it to his lawyer accomplice by saying it’d be much crueler to leave them alone after he’s stolen their wealth, but it’s clear he’s just a pure sociopath. Hungry for one last score, he heads to a video dating service (an incredibly dated concept, post-internet. I wasn’t even sure how describe it. A store?) run but Tom Hanks, in sleazy glasses. Scouring the profiles for old ladies with money, Howard settles on Effie Gluckman (Sternhagen), a lonely widow wearing thirty thousand dollar jewels in her video.
Sternhagen is a cagey bit of casting. She’s a talented actress, and has a lot of innate grace, which really helps her hold her own against Willaims, especially when the script doesn’t help her. It does at least allow Effie to question the motives of someone half her age responding to the date profile, and Howard comes up with a brilliant dodge: impotence! The writers do a hell of a job with Howard’s smooth talk too. It’s well constructed to give a false sense of intimacy and specific enough to be clever. Effie ends up being sexually rapacious, and it’s a credit to Sternhagen that this isn’t comically sad, but kind of awesome. She insists she can cure Howard’s wilted dick, citing her track record as a erection-causer. She takes him and fucks him, six times in one night, we find out, and even Howard seems legitimately surprised. So that’s a bit graphic, and it feels that way in the episode too, but it’s also thoughtful and unexpected. Even though Effie has to fall for Howard’s bullshit for the story to work, it doesn’t happen at the expense of the character’s dignity.
Running alongside Howard and Effie’s courtship, there’s a ongoing plot about someone anonymously sending Howard letters that claim to know exactly what he’s up to. Is it the portly lawyer accomplice? Howard murders him by shoving his tie into a paper shredder (it’s an improbably kill, to say the least). Or could it be Tom Hanks writing the letters? Howard rams his head into a television screen, in the episode’s mort protracted kill. Or perhaps most likely, it’s Effie’s suspicious creepy butler Stanhope (Gibson), who ultimately pulls a gun on Howard demanding he leave them alone. Howard kills him too, asphyxiating him by hand (awesome). Maybe it’s Gibson’s presence, but this anonymous postcard plotline reminded me of Altman’s The Player, with each new victim serving as the next David Kahane. Satisfied he’s finally killed the right person (nope), Howard steps it up and poisons Effie, ready to finish this whole thing off. He does his creepy death stare and everything, but it only pisses Effie off, who snaps right back up and attacks while Howard is calling the police. They struggle, and finally, he tosses her down the stairs.
At this point, Howard has killed every single character in the story, except for the gravedigger we saw at the beginning for two seconds. So of course he’s letter writer, and as fate would have it, he’s played by Sugar Ray Leonard! A new letter tells Howard to meet him at the graveyard, in a mausoleum. Howard really has no reason to do this, as he’s hours away from leaving for the tropics, but I guess just got curious. Once there, he meets the gravedigger, who’s got only about three lines before Howard kills him too, but man, those lines are whack-a-doo crazy. Sugar Ray Gravedigger is apparently hip to what Howard’s up to, but envies Howard’s ability to seduce old women, and wants to be taught how to do that. Howard says enough of this nonsense and shovels Sugar Ray to death. When he tries to dispose of the body in Effie’s coffin, he finds it empty.
Because Effie is standing behind him. And so are all the other old ladies he killed. They’ve been waiting for him, apparently manipulating the weird lonely gravedigger into luring him to this mausoleum so they can be with him forever, or maybe just rip him to shreds and eat his internal organs. There’s no set-up for this ending, no voodoo charm or mysterious artifact or anything, and it’s downright shocking the first time, taking such a hard right turn into supernatural horror it almost knocks the wind out of you. Even though it’s a terrific ending, and conceptually one of my favorites the show ever did, it’s a mistake that we don’t see the terrible violence inflicted on Howard. This is a dark little episode, with some harsh kills and truly gruesome make-up effects, and Williams created a character much in need of some intestine stretching. Sadly, the camera just pans up from the slaughter, leaving us with gorehound blue balls. It’s a slight demerit on an otherwise well conceived ending.
DOES IT HATE WOMEN?
The femme fatale here is played by Treat Williams. It’s the same role Demi Moore and Lea Thompson played, but if anything, he’s even more savage. Also, anything implicitly ugly about it’s treatment of the elderly is brushed aside by Sternhagen’s work. Top marks on sensitivity for None But the Lonely Heart.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*Hanks is not an obviously talented director, I must admit. I don’t like his camera placement much, and there are a couple sequences with characters talking over a series of establishing shots that I think were work-arounds for not getting enough coverage. It also seems to be horribly lit, but that might just be the transfer. On the plus side, he gets strong work out of his whole cast, and it’s fun to see him show up for fifteen seconds and get murdered.
*The make-up remains top notch. Probably one of the most consistent things on Crypt.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:
“I love a ghoul who gives you head…and let’s you keep it!”
I wish I could agree with John, but I think this is a really weak episode. It’s cool that Robert Zemeckis used his position to get his actor friends directing jobs, but it’s clear that he didn’t really trust them with the good scripts. Like Michael J Fox’s The Trap, this is a pretty rote gold-digging/fraud story with little spin to it. And what spin it does have, with it’s crazy ending, is nonsensical, pat, and, frankly, not very well-shot. I do appreciate the make-up effects here (even if they are strikingly similar to those found in other male gold-digging episode ‘Til Death) and that it didn’t go a more obvious route by having Effie kill Howard for his money (which is hinted at a couple times) but it’s not enough to redeem it. Honestly, the best thing about this episode is that it got John to write the phrase “Both a Grandmother Fucker and a Grand Motherfucker”, which is truly great.