When Tales from the Crypt released 30 years ago on June 10, 1989, on HBO, I was seven years old. A rotting animatronic puppet we all knew as The Cryptkeeper (voiced brilliantly by John Kassir) terrified his audience once a week with a titillating tale of terror. Tales from the Crypt became a huge part of my childhood, and if it had not been for this show, I would not be as big a horror fan as I am today. It showed me that horror could be creepy AND fun, as I’m sure it did for you as well.
So when the task came to pick the 10 best episodes, it was hard for a Tales from the Crypt superfan like myself. After a lot of thinking, I managed, out of the 93 episodes produced, to widdle it down to what I consider to be the 10 best episodes of this ghoulish masterpiece, and a perfect place to start if you’re unfamiliar with the groundbreaking series.
10. The Man Who Was Death (Season 1, Episode 1)
The show started off with a bang when it came to this episode. William Sadler (Demon Knight) plays Niles Talbot, an executioner who often breaks the fourth wall in this episode, and whose life takes a most unfortunate turn. Niles lost his job when his state abolished the death penalty. After this, he takes it upon himself to be an Angel of Death and execute people that the state deemed innocent, but that Niles knew were guilty as sin. The tables turned when he was caught and convicted right as the state reinstated the death penalty.
This episode stuck with me because of the ironic turn it takes. You feel sorry for him for losing his job and do not sympathize much with the people he executes, but it is funny when the former executioner becomes the one who is executed at the end.
9. Korman’s Kalamity (Season 2, Episode 13)
Harry Anderson (1990’s IT) plays Jim Korman, artist and illustrator for the horror magazine Tales from the Crypt (get it?). He is in a marriage with a shrew that cannot be tamed. Said wife wants a family, and he is taking experimental pills to help that process along…the only thing is, those pills bring his creations to life, and they terrorize New York City much like Korman’s wife terrorizes him. Couple that with the fact he is in love with the policewoman heading up the investigation of why the monsters are terrorizing the city, and it makes for some chaotic times.
The idea of Korman writing for Tales from the Crypt, and the fact that whatever he drew came to life, has always made this episode a favorite of mine. I remember liking this episode much more as a child, but the charm of creatures coming to life and wreaking havoc has not worn off, even as a grown-up.
8. The Reluctant Vampire (Season 3, Episode 7)
Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) is a security guard who works nights at a blood bank. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. Except he’s a vampire who goes by the completely obvious name Donald Longtooth. He’s also a vampire with a conscience and chooses to feed on the blood stored at the bank rather than on innocent people. His feedings, however, cause the blood bank to run dry and cause him to return to his old ways to replenish the blood supply. If being a vampire wasn’t enough problems, he has to hide he’s a vampire from his boss, Mr. Crosswhite, his love interest, Sally, and from the vampire hunter that wants him dead, Rupert Van Helsing (played by The Hills Have Eyes’ Michael Berryman).
Though this episode is admittedly goofy and campy, it is the sweetest and most endearing one of the show. I laughed at how often Sally said Donald Longtooth was sexy. And in the end, Donald and Sally were both still a better love story than Twilight.
7. Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone (Season 1, Episode 3)
The episode starts off with Ulric the Undying, a carnival daredevil, played by Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) breaking the fourth wall, much like Niles Talbot did in the first episode of Season 1. Ulric is in a coffin, buried alive, talking to us about how a mad scientist offered him money in exchange to partake in a rather odd experiment: to have a cat’s nine lives implanted in his brain. The story is told in flashbacks, and Ulric goes over how he partnered with the doctor to use his gift to make money at a carnival, about how he killed the doctor, and about the different ways he died. This last time is to be his last big score before he retires. Suddenly, he realizes that he only has eight lives because the cat had to die for him to get the gift. But Ulric is already buried alive. And by then, it’s too late.
I love sudden “oh crap” moments in shows and movies, moments where the character finally realizes they are screwed, and this episode definitely had that. And the idea of having nine lives plays off of the wants of many a human: immortality. Well some form of immortality, at least.
6. Abra Cadaver (Season 3, Episode 4)
This is a tale of two doctor brothers: Carl Fairbanks, who played a prank on Martin Fairbanks, a prank that went too far and took away Martin’s livelihood and his chances at being a successful surgeon. Martin, years later, is a research assistant and wants to get back at his brother for what he did all those years ago. So Martin decides to play a prank on Carl to prove the success of his research…a serum that helps the brain to survive after the death, even if the body dies. He injects Carl with the serum and Carl believes he is dead. That is until Carl comes out of it and realizes it was a prank. The fear he incurred gave him a heart attack and he actually died. He learned, from this…that touch is the last sense to go.
This episode plays on one of my greatest fears: not having control of yourself and your body. You are seeing the episode through Carl’s eyes most of the time, from a first-person standpoint, and this is what made this episode all the more terrifying because I felt like I was experiencing everything myself.
5. Three’s a Crowd (Season 2, Episode 5)
Poor Richard. The guy just can’t catch a break. He and his wife, Della, are having money problems. They can’t have kids, no matter how hard they try. To make matters worse, Richard feels like his friend Alan has all the luck. On top of all that, he thinks that Alan and Della are sleeping together. His feelings and anger come to a head on Richard and Della’s anniversary, spent in the cabin Alan provided to them for the weekend as an anniversary gift. His jealousy becomes too much and he kills Alan and strangles Della. He drags her corpse to another cabin across the way, where unbeknownst to him, Alan and Della were setting up a surprise party to let Richard know the good news: he was a daddy!
Though this episode has the cliche of “husband thinks the wife is cheating on him”, I am a fan of circumstances gone horribly wrong (in fiction, at least), and Richard finds out that he wasn’t a vindicated husband…he was just an asshole.
4. Cutting Cards (Season 2, Episode 3)
Want to play Chop Poker? Reno Crevice, played by Lance Henriksen (Aliens) and Sam Forney, played by Kevin Tighe (Road House) do. These are two poker players that don’t want to play for money…they want to play for keeps. Deadly keeps. What starts out as Russian Roulette evolves into a poker game of whoever wins, the winner chops a body part off of the loser. Neither man wants to back down, which leads to gruesome, but hilarious, results.
The bizarreness of this episode is what makes this one stick out in my mind. The stubbornness of the two men, along with the dialogue they traded with each other in an attempt to get the other to back down had me laughing the entire time–in spite of the fact the two were pretty much armless and legless torsos at the end of all things.
#3. Split Second (Season 3, Episode 11)
Liz Kelly is a barmaid, but she doesn’t want to be a barmaid forever. She marries a rich lumber camp owner, Steve Dixon, and finally has the rich and comfortable lifestyle she always wanted. But she grows bored with Steve, who has a wicked jealous and violent streak. Things take an interesting turn when Ted, a young and handsome blue-collar guy comes to the camp looking for a job. Liz sets her sights on Ted and tries to seduce him. He refuses, and the husband walks in. Wrong place, wrong time for Ted, as Steve blinds him. The workers of the camp won’t have this and give Ted the chance to get his revenge in the most violent and gruesome ways.
This episode’s ending was one I did not expect when I first saw it at 10 years old (yep, I was 10) and it made me run out of the room and hide under the covers. If something can make me run out of the room and hide under the covers, it earns a spot on this list.
2. Top Billing (Season 3, Episode 5)
Jon Lovitz (Saturday Night Live) plays a struggling actor, Barry Blye, who just can’t get a part. Why? He doesn’t have the look, unlike his handsome actor friend, Winton Robbins, played by Bruce Boxleitner (Tron: Legacy). Barry gets evicted from his apartment, he loses his agent, and his girlfriend leaves him. But in his despair, he stumbles on a flyer that talks about auditions for the role of Hamlet at an obscure theater. He wants that part and he’ll do anything to get it. That includes killing Winton. Only after he kills Winton does Barry find out that the theater is not a theater. It’s a mental hospital, those inside are criminally insane, and instead of him playing Hamlet, the insane men want him to play the part of Yorick. For real.
The episode’s twist is what sells this for me. The episode itself isn’t scary to start, and you think the director and actors at the “theater” are eccentric actor types. When you find out who those actors really are, it knocks you back in the best of ways.
1. Easel Kill Ya (Season 3, Episode 8)
Artist Jack Craig, played by Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs), is the typical struggling artist who can’t sell a painting to save his life. To top it all off, he’s a tempted alcoholic, and just wants something, anything, to help ease the demons in his head. On a chance whim, he picks up a newspaper and notices there is a millionaire, Malcolm Mayflower, who buys morbid photographs and paintings…seems like the dude has a fetish for that kind of thing. After a neighbor of Jack’s falls off a balcony to his death, Jack gets the idea to paint the dead man and sell it to Malcolm. The millionaire loves it and wants Jack to paint more. To produce more paintings, Jack kills more people. The more morbid paintings Jack produces, the more rampant his demons become.
Tim Roth could be in a toothpaste commercial and bring a whole other level to it. That is how good of an actor he is. I am drawn into his performance of Jack and I love the twisted relationship Jack has with Malcolm. It is definitely reminiscent of Faust making a deal with the devil.
Well kiddies, do you agree with the list? Are there any episodes you were DYING to see on this list that didn’t make it? Let us know on Twitter, in the Hand over at the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!