The kind of long narrative of serialized TV can be wonderfully immersive, but here at 25YL we also recognize the value of a great standalone episode. Join us as we explore horror and sci-fi anthologies old and new, along with some other standout episodes of shows you love. This week, Steve Wandling gets us started by examining an episode of Tales from the Crypt.
Tales from The Crypt is one of the most iconic pop culture references of all time. Originally published by founder WIlliam Gates’ EC Comics in the 1950s, the anthology comic series introduced an entire generation of kids to the genre. Between 1950-1955, Gaines published horror comics under the Tales From The Crypt banner along with its two sister comics Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror. During the McCarthy era, horror and pulp comics were seen as pornographic materials that aided and abetted juvenile delinquency. After a U.S. Senate Subcommittee hearing on the dangers of exposing such comic books to the nation’s youth ended with the installment of a comics code authority, Gates shut down Tales From The Crypt and its two sister series. The damage was already done to the American psyche however, as Tales from The Crypt left an indelible impression on many of its young readers who would grow up to become some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Long before the golden age of television, HBO resurrected Tales From the Crypt as a half-hour television horror anthology series in 1989. The show was a pop culture smash that ran for seven seasons and spawned two major motion pictures. The show, produced by such Hollywood heavy weights as Walter HIll (48 Hrs.), Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) sought to bring the horror comics of WIlliam Gates to life and succeeded admirably. Without having to worry about much censorship due to being a subscription channel, HBO was free to recreate all the pulpy violence and gallows humor of the original EC Comics with ease. Over the course of 93 episodes, Tales From the Crypt managed to burn through just about the entirety of Gates’ entire EC catalog.
Any good Tales From The Crypt adaptation was only ever going to be as good as its undead host. John Kassir’s voice performance as The Cryptkeepr delivered in spades. Other than Rod Serling from Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone, The Cryptkeeper is right up there with Elvira and Vampira as one of the most memorable horror hosts of all time. The mood had to be set just right for Tales From The Crypt. Audiences wanted to go on a fun little journey through the macabre, but they also wanted the gallows humor that the Cryptkeeper so expertly provided as an easy reminder that the show was all just a little bit of dark, spooky fun. The violence and gore were over the top and all of the slimy characters in every episode had to get their comeuppance in the end. Each episode opened and closed with Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas)’s iconic score bringing the viewer down through the spooky, haunted mansion and into the crypt itself for another spooky story.
In the earliest episodes, Kassir hadn’t quite nailed down the iconic voice of The Cryptkeeper. It was much more of a raspy, slightly creepier voice than the cackling ghoul that audiences would come to know and love worldwide as the show went along. Other than that, the basic template was set in the pilot and carried through almost a decade of television with two spinoff films. One of the most iconic moments from the series were always the book ends: the Cryptkeeper introduces and codas each episode with a healthy dose of gallows humor and a reveling delight in all things macabre. No matter how many celebrities guest starred on the show’s seven season run, no one was ever a bigger star on Tales From The Crypt than the Cryptkeeper.
And All Through The House
Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) really helped put Tales From The Crypt on the map at HBO right off the bat. The second aired episode “And All Through the House” may not seem that offensive now, but in 1989 bringing the comic to life caused quite a stir. Mary Ellen Trainor (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) starred as an unnamed mother on Christmas Eve who is introduced just before she wishes her husband Merry Christmas by smashing a fireplace poker through the back of his skull. The mother wants to spend all of his life insurance and start a new life with a new man that the audience only ever gets to hear over the phone. She has a young little girl who is in bed waiting for Santa Claus to bring presents.
After the mother wraps up her now dead husband’s head in a plastic bag with a festive bow on top, she proceeds to drag him out onto the snow. A news broadcast is heard cutting over the radio in the background, warning residents that a patient at the Gaines County for the Criminally Insane has escaped. He is armed with an axe and is considered extremely dangerous, having already butchered four women on his Christmas Eve killing spree. Just what could this mean for the mother as she is unknowingly about to turn from predator to prey? Tales From The Crypt “And All Through This House” has a nice lump of horror coal waiting in her stocking in the form of a deranged Santa Claus (Dr. Giggles’ Larry Drake) with an axe.
“And All Through The House” was pretty much lifted from one of Gates’ original comics from the 1950s panel to screen. It’s hard to imagine how controversial it was when initially published at EC Comics. Even today, people do not like you to fuck with their Christmas cheer. The entire tone of the episode, and the fact that it was aired so early in the series’ run shows real guts from the entire production team. There was obviously a real love for EC Comics and Tales from the Crypt that went into making the series. That’s what made the anthology work so well as that it managed to capture that balance of macabre horror and gallows humor perfectly on its best days, and it doesn’t get any better than “And All Through the House.”
The episode begins with The Cryptkeeper dressed as Santa, introducing the episode as he would do for time and again. His quips are full of puns and references to whatever twisted events were about to unfold. The Cryptkeeper knew that as an undead ghoul horror anthology host, the jokes always needed to be on him. It was okay to make the audience squirm, but at the end of every episode The Cryptkeeper would delightfully volunteer himself up for all manner of torture. He was, as they say, a good sport.
The episode itself is a twenty plus minute edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that really is quite scary. It also sticks with you long after the credits roll. One of the best things about the series that’s reflected really well in “And All Through The House,” is that many of the episodes weren’t really updated that much to fit in with a more modern era. The producers knew how Tales From The Crypt was supposed to feel and they enlisted writers and directors who also understood the language of EC Comics. The formula is pretty simple. The Cryptkeeper introduces an episode about people doing horrible things who eventually get what’s coming to them in a horrific twist of fate. They act as simple moral lessons that were outdated even by the late 80s, which made the show have a tongue in cheek aspect that was always appreciated.
The mother in “And All Through The House” would be the perfect victim to root for in 1989 if the audience didn’t meet her in the act of murdering her husband on Christmas Eve. That’s the beauty of it. When maniacal Santa Claus does show up with his axe, the episode just barrels through from one intense scenario to the next until, ultimately, she does get her what’s coming to her for murdering her husband. That’s how these all work. If she would have bested Larry Drake’s (almost) silent serial killer Santa, then there wouldn’t have been any thing for the Cryptkeeper to have taught the audience at the end of the episode. There has to be a macabre lesson at the end of each episode of terror, or else what has the Cryptkeeper taught us? He’s there to entertain and educate after all.
After trying to bury her husband in the snow and playing a half-hour game of cat-and-mouse with an axe-carrying Santa, The Woman is finally served justice by a simple mistake that came back to bite her. In the last scene, lifted straight from the panels of EC Comics, The Woman’s young daughter appears guiding Santa through the house herself. He still has the axe in one hand and he and the mother spot each other as she’s coming down the stairs to greet the fast-approaching police; but it’s too little too late, as he’s at the bottom of the steps holding her daughter’s hand. It’s such campy fun when he smiles a filthy, crooked toothless smile and asks “naughty…or nice?” as the Woman screams in horror before the show fades to black.
That’s an extremely bleak way to end an anthology horror episode, and without the Cryptkeeper to bookend and cleanse the viewer’s palette “And All Through The House” would have caused even more of a stir. The implication is that the little girl and her mom were both murdered by the deranged Santa, but in one of many witty ghoulish turns of phrase that would become a staple of the character, the Cryptkeeper croaks “not to worry, as this particular Santa preferred older women.” It’s a breath of relief as the audience realizes that the murderous woman got what she gave out, but the little girl was spared.
That’s the beauty of the Cryptkeeper. He is there to balance the scale in a way. There’s a sense of pulpy justice that is always doled out in Tales from the Crypt, illustrated perfectly in “And All Through The House.” The show would return once a week with this winning formula for the next seven years, making sure that little boils and ghouls everywhere were tucked in with just the right deadtime story.