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Toned-Down 'Tales From Crypt' Starts on Fox Tonight

January 22, 1994|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A toned-down version of "Tales From the Crypt," a made-for-HBO anthology series awash in blood and body parts, will find a new audience tonight on Fox.

The network bought 65 episodes of the campy half-hour series, hosted by a rotting animatronic corpse, and will replay them in an hour block on Saturdays at 11 p.m., replacing "Comic Strip Live."

Next Friday night, "Tales" will even receive a promotional pump in prime time, preempting "The X-Files."

For those who worry the terrifying "Tales" may be too frightful, violent or profane for broadcast audiences, consider that the series has already been adapted into "Tales From the Cryptkeeper," an ABC Saturday-morning cartoon.

"Tales From the Crypt" and "Vault of Horrors" were published by William Gaines in the 1940s and 1950s as ghoulish comic books, and four decades later they are still making their way along the entertainment food chain.

After filmmakers Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis and David Giler purchased the rights to Gaines' E.C. Comics in the 1980s, they developed the "Tales" series for HBO in 1989. It was HBO's first real dramatic series and helped establish the premium cable service with original programming that routinely got higher ratings than network shows in HBO households.

The "Tales" were produced on extravagant budgets, frequently pushing $1 million for an episode, and became a forum for such first-time directors as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael J. Fox and Tom Hanks, who directed tonight's premiere episode on Fox. Top-flight stars such as Demi Moore, Joe Pesci and Whoopi Goldberg also took part before the camera, working for scale wages.

Foreign and videotape repackaging followed, and three feature films are in the works for this year.

Sources suggest that all this activity is necessary to make "Tales" pay off for its five executive producers. Episodes will continue running on HBO in their uncut form, but no more originals are being made.

HBO's license fee did not cover the full cost of production, so HBO loaned the producers money to cover the $100,000 or more deficit per episode. The eventual gold mine the producers were digging for was syndication, much like the success of "The Twilight Zone."

But the syndication market is slow, with Warner Bros. and Paramount trying to launch new TV networks. Until the dust settles, many stations are holding off on buying new programming.

The Fox deal is seen as a way for the producers to get at least some money back right now. Fox is reportedly paying no more for episodes of "Tales" than it was for "Comic Strip Live"--about $60,000 per episode, according to sources.

"There are two schools of thought on this," noted one TV executive who asked not to be identified. "On one side, it's a smart move for 'Tales From the Crypt' because they're getting real exposure, and moving it from HBO to a broadcast network will increase its syndication value."

Indeed, 17.4 million homes carry HBO, while Fox can be seen in roughly 90 million U.S. homes.

"On the other side, you could argue that they are sort of trashing the syndication value--in effect, syndicating the show to Fox," the executive said.

For HBO, the Fox deal is sweet, not scary, said Bridget Potter, senior vice president of original programming for HBO. "First, we will get some of our deficit back off this deal. Second, the Fox shows are edited for broadcast television. So HBO is still the only place you can see the authentic 'Tales From the Crypt' episodes. Third, the Fox show is called ' HBO's Tales From the Crypt.' "

So, what about all that gore and mayhem? Two versions were shot of many "Tales" scenes involving nudity, and when the actors originally filmed they looped over much of the profanity in a recording studio. Anything else will be cut.

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