TV that time forgot: The Tales from the Crypt spin-offs
Tales From the Crypt premiered on HBO in the summer of 1989 and introduced the world to a ghastly collection of stories inspired by the EC Horror comics of the 1950s. Hosted by the grotesque but nevertheless cheerful Cryptkeeper, Tales From the Crypt lasted seven deliciously macabre seasons before signing off the airwaves in 1996. Today the series is remembered fondly for its high production value, anthology format (a format rarely used in today’s television entertainment), and its brilliant collection of cast and crew. With its gore, humor, sex and violence, Tales From the Crypt was an unequivocal success, launching three spin-off films, a horde of Cryptkeeper merchandise, two Saturday morning children’s programs, two novelty music albums and an old time radio show. Although not many people realize that this show also inspired two other spin-off anthology projects, culling from the same EC catalog of comics.
The first of these spin-off projects was a backdoor pilot for a series called Two Fisted Tales, based off of EC’s line of war, crime and Western comics of the same name. Unlike most action comics of the 1950s, Two Fisted Tales showcased a more thoughtful side to war and crime, showing real life consequences while not shying away from action and violence. Three episodes of Two-Fisted Tales were produced; “Yellow,” which is considered by many to be the best Tales From the Crypt episode ever made, was a period piece set in the midst of The Great War. Telling the story of a young Lieutenant (Eric Douglas) convicted of cowardice at the front lines of combat. The Lieutenant is sentenced to death by his commanding officer, who happens to also be his father, played by Douglas’ real life screen legend father, Kirk Douglas. This episode, adapted from a tale written by Al Feldstien in an issue of Shock SuspenStories, was lavishly produced, echoing Kirk Douglas’ starring turn in Paths of Glory. Of the three episodes created for the proposed series, “Yellow” was the best.
The second episode, “Showdown,” was written by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, The Walking Dead) and directed by series regular Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies). “Showdown” features an infamous Western gunfighter finally confronted by those who he has harmed. With its supernatural undertones, this episode was the one that fit best into Tales From the Crypt‘s format, when the trio of episodes were absorbed into the main series. Although, with its thoughtful and romantic presentation, “Showdown” plays more like a top-tier Twilight Zone episode rather than a Tales From the Crypt entry.
“King of the Road” is the weakest of the three stories, but is noticeable for featuring a very young, pre-celebrity Brad Pitt. “King of the Road” tells the tale of a former hot rod racer, now middle aged, who is called back to the blacktop when his daughter is taken hostage by a young punk wanting to race the old man. This tale diverges from the other two in that it is not a period piece. However, the episode does thoughtfully explore the ideas of age and misspent youth while at the same time offering a danger filled climactic car race. While this episode’s modern setting doesn’t harm the story, one can see it taking place in the 1950s with Pitt playing the deranged greaser goading the aging racer into one last show of machismo.
Stitching these episodes of violence and gritty action together was Mr. Rush, a wheelchair bound and foul-mouthed gunfighter played by William Sadler. Although the episodes were repurposed for use in Tales, they were also collected and distributed as a television film, including sections hosted by Mr. Rush. While I enjoy the idea of an anthology host and adore Mr. Sadler as a performer, The Mr. Rush character couldn’t hold a candle to The Cryptkeeper in terms of presence. Some of this has to do with the fact that his introductions are repetitive. “I didn’t cry. I didn’t even whimper” is a line that gets repeated over and over. One gets the sense that the producers rushed these interstitial segments to create a package film, instead of creating a distinctive host character that could do for pulp action what The Cryptkeeper did for horror. Regardless, interest in Two-Fisted Tales as a spin-off series was cooler than expected, and the episodes were repurposed for the horror anthology. Do these stories stand out from the grizzly horror usually showcased in Tales? You betcha! It should be pointed out however, that although these types of stories don’t fit with the original concept of Tales, they are well produced and do serve as odd but pleasant palate cleansers, giving viewers a reprieve from the blood-soaked supernatural horror they were often used to watching. If you’re eager to see these episodes, they are collected in the Tales From the Crypt DVD boxed sets (“Yellow” Season 3: Episode 13, “Showdown” Season 4: Episode 8, “King of the Road” Season 4: Episode 9), but you can also see the original TV movie with the Mr. Rush host segments intact on YouTube. The version posted online was likely ripped from a VHS release of the anthology film, as it has yet to see release as a package on DVD or Blu-ray.
The second Tales From the Crypt spin-off series took the form of Perversions of Science. Premiering in 1997 after Tales went off the air, this anthology series would borrow loosely from EC’s science fiction comic “Weird Science.” Featuring stories of robots, mad science, and alien invasions, Perversions of Science only lasted a single ten episode season before being cancelled, and if you’ve ever seen the show it’s not difficult to understand why. The title sequence says it all.
Echoing Tales From the Crypt’s fantastic opening credit sequence of a camera touring a haunted house, Perversions of Science begins each show hovering above a suburban neighborhood, floating into a family’s living room, zooming into a piece of popcorn that has fallen to the floor, revealing a futuristic cityscape. This credit sequence ends when we are taken into a robotic sex shop to meet our host, CGI sexbot, Chrome, voiced by Maureen Teefy. Chrome wanders about her abandoned cybernetic warehouse introducing each science fiction tale much like the Cryptkeeper or Mr. Rush had for their respective shows, albeit with more erotic double entendre. This opening sequence deserves high praise for its imagination and production value, however, everything that is wrong with Perversions of Science can be traced back to the mismatched tones in this sequence. We begin with a suburban tableau that would not be out of place in a 1980s Spielberg film, and end with an erotic mechanized sex worker who opens her breast, revealing a television screen and the title of the show. I have nothing against 1950s gee-whiz science fiction, and I certainly have nothing against science fiction erotica, but the conflicting tones in the show’s title sequence indicates that the producers couldn’t agree on what kind of show they wanted, and this leaks through the entirety of the 10 episodes.
Perversions of Science features some really great ideas; Orson Welles’ War of the World’s broadcast as a mask for a real alien invasion, a space journey that turns into a homicidal and paranoid test of protocol. Although, nothing exciting or different is really done with these ideas unless you count Will Wheaton going apeshit with a ray gun in “Snap Ending.” The original EC “Weird Science” comics featured entertaining tales, but also managed to work in stories that took on topics such as racism and social class. Unfortunately, Perversions of Science eschews this kind of material, instead offering mediocre sci-fi tinged comedies, or ribald tales involving robots and aliens, failing to be a suitable replacement for the long running Tales. The series never got a DVD release here in the States, but you might check YouTube for a glimpse of this little oddity.
The anthology format has always been a difficult nut to crack, with only a few series leaving a lasting impression. It’s a shame that Two Fisted Tales never took off given the quality of the episodes produced, and it’s also a shame that Perversions of Science never rose above the quality of a poor Outer Limits clone. Although given the recent talks of a Tales From the Crypt revival, one can dream about the possibilities of these television adaptations finding new footing in the hands of today’s writers and filmmakers.