There's nothing cryptic about tonight's premiere trilogy of "Tales From the Crypt," HBO's anxiously anticipated horror anthology series. Perhaps befitting its garish comic-book origins, the series looks to be about as subtle as a sledgehammer--or a fireplace poker in the cranium, or an arrow in the chest, or any of the other dozen or so methods of dispatch on view in the three episodes tonight at 9:30.
Squeamish viewers should know that the comics these tales are taken from aren't the safe-'n'-sane comics of today but the R-rated EC Comics of the '50s, produced before the U.S. Senate took up an investigation of their detrimental effect on juvenile morals. These were queasy, bloody stories of karma for the kiddies that could have been subtitled "When Bad Things Happen to Bad People."
Forewarned is forearmed: When a hateful spouse lands not one but two sharp objects in her husband's forehead in one episode tonight, we get to hear the resulting thud, plus subsequent squishing sounds when she twists said objects around. Oh, and let's not forget the nudity and sailor-style language.
Isn't cable great?
Much as horror fans might revere HBO for spending good dough and hiring top-rank directors and crew members for the series, the initial results are mixed. Walter Hill's effort has the best dialogue and direction, though it's slightly hampered by a weak finish; the Robert Zemeckis and Richard Donner episodes are better conceived as horror tales but seem stylistically wrong-headed.
Hill's opening "The Man Who Was Death" features the amusing voiceover of a Southerner who likes his work--operating the electric chair--so much that he keeps it up even after being laid off. Bill Sadler plays him as a low-key, likeable reactionary, a sort of laconic "Taxi Driver," and the script by Hill and Robert Reneau gives him some great lines. Only some superfluous nudity and the not-so-surprise twist ending mar the proceedings, which are enhanced by a terrific Ry Cooder score.
Recognizable humanity begins and ends with Hill, as comrades Zemeckis and Donner go on to indulge in over-the-top comic-book film making, similar to--but not as good as--George Romero's EC-styled "Creepshow."
Next up is "And All Through the House," which has a woman methodically slaughtering her husband on Christmas Eve--only to be hampered in her cover-up efforts by an escaped lunatic dressed as Santa! It's a brilliant little narrative, and was handled with real creepy-crawly unease in a 1972 English anthology movie by Freddie Francis, also called "Tales from the Crypt," which wisely played the same story straight. Alas, Zemeckis eschews suspense to go for ugly laughs--never mind that there's already inherent humor in the idea of a homicidal Kris Kringle--and this version ends up as just another campy slasher flick.
The law of diminishing returns dictates that Donner's closing "Dig That Cat--He's Real Gone" will be the weakest, and his sudden fondness for weird angles and inexplicable jump-cutting indicates Donner had MTV more in mind than HBO. Never mind the plot holes in this story of a man with nine lives who makes his living dying at the circus; savor the few good/bad lines ("I missed you while I was dead") and try to ignore Donner's embarrassingly hip style gaffes.
Hosting the series a la Hitchcock or Serling is EC Comics' own Crypt Keeper, an animatronic wiseacre carcass brought to life by Kevin T. Yagher. ("Be careful what you \o7 axe for\f7 --you just might \o7 get it!\f7 " he cackles.) The Keeper's morbid morals-of-the-story for the "kiddies" at home serve as reminders that smart parents will keep tots well away from this "Crypt."