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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Maniac At Large (4.10)

“We’re like rabbits in a warren. They panic when they’re frightened. They get all frenzied. And you know what they do then? They eat each other.”

WHAT IS IT?

A mousy librarian is left alone in a big spooky library with only reports of a serial killer and her overactive imagination to keep her company.

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

While Robert Zemeckis would appear one last time in Season 6 (mostly to play around more with special effects and techniques he’d developed for Forrest Gump), this episode marks the last time Crypt would have a truly big name director who wasn’t already involved with the show. And what a name! John Frankenheimer, more known for classic thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Black Sunday, isn’t exactly the first person you’d think to direct a show like this, but it turned out to be a great fit anyway. The episode was written by Mae Woods, who wrote Walter Hill’s previous two episodes. Makes me wonder if this was originally supposed to be a Hill episode. It stars Blythe Danner (The Prince of Tides, Meet the Parents), Clarence Williams III (The Mod Squad, Tales From the Hood), and Adam Ant (If you don’t already know who he is, just buy Kings of The Wild Frontier right now and thank me later).

HOW IS IT?

One of the things that keeps Crypt interesting is the parade of familar silver-screen faces, behind and in front of the camera, being brought down to the lowly world of cable television. After covering 50+ episodes it’s become clear that great film director does not always equal great television director. That’s why we can have lackluster episodes from brilliant filmmakers Walter Hill and William Friedkin and brilliant episodes from TV directors like David Burton Morris. But the best results come from those who have done both; those who can adapt to the fast paced high pressure world of television while still maintaining an artistic vision. This is definitely true of John Frankenheimer, who cut his teeth on anthology shows like Danger, Climax!, and Playhouse 90 long before he went into films like The Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May. And it boy does it show. While the star-power and limited sets indicate this wasn’t a big-budget episode, Frankenheimer makes the best of it with fantastic lighting, tracking shots, and all sorts of other stylistic techniques you wouldn’t think possible on a show like this, and it really makes the episode sing.

In a single glorious tracking shot (opening on a mural depicting the library as the last bastion of goodness in a dark and twisted world) we’re introduced to the world of the episode and the characters that inhabit it. We see the cavernous library main hall, with the light cascading through its large arched windows rendering it creepy even during the day. We see the creepy nerd Pipkin (Adam Ant) contently going through stacks of reference books on serial killers (much to the dismay of a nearby priest). We see the security guard Grady, seemingly viewing every patron with equal amounts of boredom and disdain. We see an old man reading about the most recent victim claimed by a serial killer. We see a HILARIOUS (more on them later) bunch of hoodlums stealing his paper, and we see head librarian Mrs. Pritchard’s (Salome Jens) blood boil as she witnesses it, calling Grady to deal with them. In the background, we can even barely see the meek and mousy librarian Margaret (Blythe Danner), clearly anxious about Mrs. Pritchard’s anger. It may seem like I’m spending a lot of time on this brief introduction, but short films (particularly genre short films) are all about economy storytelling and in the opening 2 minutes John Frankenheimer has already established location, scenario, all the characters and how they relate to each other. The rest of the episode works because of this.

As Margaret is cleaning up after the vandalous delinquents, even pocketing a switchblade they left behind, she sees the newspaper headline loudly proclaiming “MANIAC AT LARGE”, setting her even more on edge than usual. Not that she needed the help; there’s no shortage of anxiety-triggers in this spooky old library. There’s the creepy patrons (including a homeless woman singing “Old McDonald” in a childlike whisper), there’s the fact that she has to work late that night to inventory the library (apparently by herself?), and, of course, there’s Mrs. Pritchard. Mrs. Pritchard is your essential headmistress type, harsh, stern and condescending, but there’s a distinct early-90’s “fear of juvenille deliquents” flavor to it as well, that had a resurgence with the rise of gang violence in the 80’s and 90’s. But she’s nothing compared to Pipkin, who bothers Margaret as she’s stocking books. Adam Ant plays Pipkin as an Aspergers-type, with an obsession with serial-killer minutea and too socially retarded to realize how much all of it is upsetting Margaret. He’s also set-up as a clear suspect for the killer, but this episode is less about any story than it is about ratcheting up the tension on our poor lead, so it doesn’t really go anywhere with it. Either way, Adam Ant proves himself an extremely capable actor, relishing his upsetting monologues.

If the first wave of tension climaxes with Pipkin’s creepy serial killer rants, the second comes shortly after when Margaret sees the shadows of a man stabbing something in the basement. She freaks out and calls Grady to check it out, but he decides to use their time alone in the basement to drink from his secret whiskey stash and come onto her. Again, she’s not safe anywhere or with anyone. Even when she calls down a detective, already there investigating the theft of some typewriters, all he finds is a cut-up book of nude photography. Which is still pretty creepy, when you think about it. Either way, Mrs. Pritchard mostly ignores Margaret’s concerns and complaints about Grady, telling her that it’s almost impossible to fire a civil servant but that she’s decided “another way to deal with Grady”, making her killer suspect number three, after Pipkin and Grady. She goes out, to pick up some sandwiches, leaving Margaret alone in the library with Pipkin, who was accidentally locked in when the library closed. He gives another creepy monologue (laying it on extra thick, going as far to describe the killer to be physically identical to himself) before finally leaving.

Then a homeless man, played by cult actor Irwin Keyes (you may not know the name, but you definitely know the face) starts pounding on the door yelling for help. Margaret overreacts, of course, screaming and running to call the police. But the phone lines are cut! And then the power is cut! And then the backdoor starts to shake, as if someone is trying to force themselves in! And then the fire alarm goes off! It’s a pretty fun sequence that manages, through the tension already set up, to be ridiculous without feeling too much like a Naked Gun movie. Then, as suddenly as it began, it all stops and Mrs. Pritchard is at the front door trying to get in. Margaret lets her in and breathlessly tries to warn her about the killer outside, but Pritchard is having none of it. Then SHE begins to lay it on thick, admitting that she cut the phone lines (because “they’re so distracting, and we’re closed anyway”) and proposing the theory that the killer may not be a man at all, but a woman.

Margaret accuses Mrs. Pritchard of being the murderer and before Pritchard can get a chance to defend herself, they get into a struggle what ends with Margaret stabbing her to death with the deliquent’s switchblade, screaming “I’M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE!” Grady comes in to witness the aftermath as Margaret, having finally cracked, dreamily stands by the office window, giving a strange monologue about she doesn’t like living by the city so she has to give her resignation. As far as endings go, it’s a little unsatisfying. With all the talk about the serial killer, the great and spooky library set, and the significant tension already established, there was definitely a better climactic set-piece to be had than two old women grappling in an office. Even the stabbing of Mrs. Pritchard is disappointingly tame and bloodless. But it at least makes sense, which puts it one over most Crypt endings.

DOES IT HATE WOMEN?

The fact that women are overwhelmingly play the hapless frightened victim in horror films is of course sexist, but you certainly can’t say that’s Crypt’s fault. This episode’s pretty safe.

ALSO WORTH NOTING:

* That gang of hoodlums really is hysterical, like a checklist of ridiculous 90’s deliquent cliches. Backwards caps? Check. Of vaguely Asian ethnic origin? Check. Walkmen? Check. Gets their kicks from reading news articles about murder? Ok, that’s not a cliche but it’s a big check. The best part, though, is their name they carved into the table: The EC Homies. I couldn’t make this shit up.

* This episode also features a pretty good score (for once!) by Rocky composer Bill Conti.

* I guess at this point they gave up on trying to make the Crypt Keeper segments match the story in any way? Here he’s a real estate agent.

WORST CRYPT KEEPER JOKE:

“It’s a charming TOMB with a view! Think of it as your own little house on the SCARY!”

GRADE: A-

JOHN SAYS:

It’s a bit of a trip that the Brad Pitt Drag Racing Cape Fear episode was such a boring pile and this one, a one-set cheapie about a paranoid middle-aged woman, is so much more fun. I wouldn’t call it a slam dunk, exactly-the destination couldn’t be much clearer-but it’s got good writing and good direction (and as Patrick says, an honest-to-goodness good score!), so this ends up being a surprisingly enjoyable modest effort. The casting is spot on too, especially Adam Ant. It’s not just fun stunt casting, which the show always had down pat, it’s effective stunt casting, which is more of an achievement for Crypt.