“And what day is today? Is today yesterday? No. Today is today! And do you know how I know that today is today? If today were yesterday, I’d have a check in my hands.”
WHAT IS IT?
A struggling restaurant stumbles upon great success with a new secret ingredient.
Long time Crypt writer/producer Gilbert Adler directed and wrote this episode with help from A L Katz, another Crypt stalwart. But what a cast! We got Christopher Reeve (Superman, Deathtrap) a mere three years before his accident, Meatloaf (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Fight Club), Bess Armstrong (Jaws 3-D, Pecker), and Judd Nelson himself (Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire), inexplicably billed with “Special Appearance by” despite having the second largest part in the episode. One of these days I want to find out the exact rules for how actors are credited, because it often confuses me. Example: Is it in Robert Duvall’s contract that he always get the “and Robert Duvall as _____” credit, or is that just how it always seems to work out? But I digress.
HOW IS IT?
Tales From The Crypt was a show on an “adult” network, with adult language, violence and nudity. But it was by no means an “adult” show. For me, a lot of what makes Crypt stand-out among other anthology shows is it’s fairly consistant playful tone. After all, every episode except the final one is based off a comic book aimed at deliquent children. Sometimes episodes err too far into the cartoonish (Korman’s Kalamity), other times they hit that specific horror/comedy tone dead-on (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy), but What’s Cookin’ stands paradoxically as a perfect example of both. It feels like it was specifically designed for thirteen year old boys, with all that’s great and horrible about that to go with it. The casting of Judd Nelson as Gaston, a devious homeless person/busboy with a homocidal edge, is a perfect example of that. To any kid who grew up with The Breakfast Club, Judd Nelson’s John Bender was the ultimate teenage rebel, equal parts bad-ass and smart-ass. But that type-casting also crippled his career because Nelson is, in reality, a very short, very quiet, and very Jewish gentleman, and not the least bit threatening. He’s horribly miscast here, and it doesn’t help that he’s not that good an actor either. He seems to be acting in a different dimension from his co-stars, like he could break the fourth wall, Rod Serling style, at any minute.
Luckily, What’s Cookin’ features some great casting too, with the eternally optimistic and dippy Christopher Reeve as the eternally optimistic and dippy restaurant owner Fred. Fred and his wife Erma (Bess Armstrong) own a restaurant that only serves squid products. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is a total failure with even it’s lone loyal patron, police officer Phil, opting only for cups of coffee. Erma is exasperated with her husband’s stupidity and Gaston thinks they should turn the place into a barbeque, but Reeve plays Fred as the Ed Wood of restaurant owners, with such blind conviction that you really believe he thinks he can make it work. But optimism can’t pay the bills, and Fred and Erma’s landlord Chumley (Meatloaf) is on their ass, having not received a rent check in three months. Chumley confronts Fred that night, as he chops up squid, threatening an eviction if he doesn’t get his money. In an uncharacteristic (and frankly, poorly achieved) fit of rage, Fred dives at Chumley with his knife, cutting his hand. Chumley panics and flees the restaurant before Fred can apologize, while Gaston watches the whole thing from his Hooverville across the street.
The next day, Fred sadly announces the restaurant’s doom to his employees, but things turn around when Gaston reveals that he took the liberty of obtaining a couple steaks from “a supplier he knows”, which delights Fred and Erma’s sole customer Officer Phil. Over the incredibly delicious steak, he tells the couple that he found their landlord’s car in a ditch somewhere, splattered with his blood. But it’s only after Fred sees Gaston dabbing his head with Chumley’s hankerchief that he connects the two, and interrogates him in the backroom and finds out what you’ve probably already guessed: the steaks are, in fact, cut straight from the thighs of Mr. Chumley. It’s a pretty great reveal, with a realistic facsimile of Meatloaf’s flabby naked dead body, complete with a gruesome bit of business where Gaston cuts the steak right out of him. A lesser episode would have ended the story there, but What’s Cookin’ is just getting warmed up.
Fred is naturally horrified, but Gaston blackmails him into keeping quiet, saying everyone will think Fred did it, especially after they find Chumley’s blood on the knife. So they work out a deal: Gaston uses his homeless friends in the Hooverville as a free meat supply and he gets to become the restaurant’s co-owner. Fred reluctantly agrees, though his reluctance begins to fade once Gaston, Fred, & Erma’s Steakhouse becomes the hottest restaurant in town. Human flesh, as it turns out, is really really delicious, though I do question the quality of meat that can come from the starving and drug-addled bodies of the homeless. Given my druthers, I’d have made them continue killing off rich and powerful blowhards like Chumley but, then again, I’m something of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau fanboy. Anyway, one day Officer Phil, who has taken to eating all of his meals there, updates Fred on Chumley’s murder investigation, saying that they found a rare alloy, only found in a certain brand of knife, in his blood.
Paranoid that the law is on his trail, Fred begins to panic and fall apart. Worried that Fred will ruin everything, Gaston confronts Erma, telling her that all about the secret ingredient of Fred’s steaks (though conviently leaving out the fact that he’s in fact the one doing all the killing) and they make a plan to call Officer Phil and meet Fred at the restaurant. Gaston gets there first and, after a fairly limp struggle, he’s got both Fred and Erma staring down the barrel of a gun he stole from Erma’s purse earlier. But it turns out that Fred is such a dip he doesn’t even allow Erma to keep bullets in her gun, so the two easily over-power him. I must stress that Judd Nelson does NOT cut an imposing figure. It’s then that Officer Phil arrives, but weeks of delicious people-steak have turned him into a full-blown cannibal junkie, so rather than arrest the three, he decides that he’d rather eat Gaston, and take his place as a partner. Bad Liutenant style. Not a spectacular ending, but a neat one.
DOES IT HATE WOMEN?
No one, from the key players to their inadvertent cannibal customers, are what I would call “innocent”, but Erma’s probably the most innocent of them all. Not a sexist episode.
ALSO WORTH NOTING:
*Example of the episode’s juvenile sense of humor: at one point the lights on Fred and Erma’s sign go out to spell out “enemas”. Classy!
*I’m 100% sure that Meatloaf was only cast because of his name and the fate of his character. Which again, is really silly humor, but at least it’s slightly more subtle. And he’s pretty good, anyway.
*According to the episode commentary (the first commentary we’ve seen on a DVD yet!) in the entire run of Tales From the Crypt, HBO only gave them three notes. One was in this episode: They objected to Reeve calling Judd Nelson’s character “homeless”. They had to replace it with “drifter”. In all the insanely offensive shit in this show’s history, this is kind of amazing.
*See that picture of Judd Nelson up there? In the background to his right is probably my all-time favorite Crypt extra. I can’t tell if he’s supposed to be homeless or one of the fat guys from Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” video. But he almost certainly knows how many hit-points a level twenty hippogriff has.
WORST CRYPT KEEPER PUN:
“A good whine. Not a great whine, but locally groan, that’s for sure.”
I’m less generous towards the transgressions of What’s Cookin’. The Judd Nelson miscasting is pretty epic, but I don’t think anyone does much to impress here, other than Meat Loaf’s sweaty freak. It’s a remarkably grimy looking half hour too, with gross looking food that everyone keeps raving about and a greasy sheen that seems to cover everything from the set to the actor’s faces. But what I think it lacks most is anything to get much excited about. Other than the Meat Loaf related gore and overacting, it’s an awfully perfunctory and thrown together entry, and even if you love cannibals a bunch, the lack of inventiveness renders it pretty dull.