Sunday, November 4, 2012

Episode 9: Cutting Cards

Episode 9: Cutting Cards
Original Airdate: April 21, 1990
Written By: Walter Hill, Mae Woods
Directed By: Walter Hill
Starring: Lance Henriksen, Kevin Tighe, Roy Brocksmith

Gambling used to be something frowned upon to polite society for its sleazy nature and often diabolical hold on the addicted, malfunctioned members of the community that once were called family. Las Vegas was a crater hidden in a radioactive wasteland that mere mortals without mob ties dare not invade. Atlantic City; merely an eyesore curtained only by greater sights across the Hudson and on the shores of the bright boardwalks. By today's standards, gambling transcends black-balling as an art and sport form, finding national television coverage in various formats as well as trendy infomercials that are as educational as they are enlightening. 

When one gambles on slots, cards, or in a mathematically charged game of chance, they're typically leaving the odds in favor of the house and putting their savings on the line for a string of luck. But when one gambles against a fellow gambler, they're engaging in a battle of wits and words that can leave a man battered, bloodied, and humbled. For our two leads in the desperately greedy "Cutting Cards," they'll be leaving nothing to chance: except life and limb. 

"I don't need no intro to Sam Forney." -Reno Crevice

Reno Crevice (Lance Henriksen) has stumbled back into town looking for a little good luck to send him a long way.  Crevice, a noted gambler and avid poker player, is greeted warmly by the staff at the bar but wants to make his way back to the dealer's room for a shot at Sam Forney (Kevin Tighe), a reported big shot who no man is daring enough to face heads up. No man, of course, except for Crevice, who claims to have a long history with Forney that includes several victories and more than a few bitter battle scars. 

As Reno heads to the back table, a feeling of uneasiness is cast over the club with he and Forney exchanging barbs about their rough and sorted past. Forney attempts to call Reno out on his current "down-on-his-luck" situation, but Crevice bluffs with a large sum of money that Forney's greed, and manhood simply can't resist. The first game is dice, and as simple as it may seem to leave the fate of this bet up to chance, it is only the torrid beginning. 

"They don't come around here anymore. I cleaned them all out. I guess they weren't used to my kind of competition." -Sam Forney

"Cutting Cards" found its way to the screen thanks mostly to executive producer, writer, and director Walter Hill, who absolutely adored the idea of two men waging war in a most trivial manner. Hill, who previously worked on the season one episode "The Man Who Was Death," brought his brand of simple storytelling back to the series with a slow, tension-filled ride that stars horror favorite Lance Henriksen as well.Henriksen and Hill worked together quite often, leaving Hill's work with a great feeling of impending doom (especially if the character in question is Henriksen's).

Henriksen plays wonderfully opposite to Tighe's role as Sam Forney, and even though the two men are polar opposites in regards to how they got their reputations, they each mirror each other perfectly, making rooting for one over the other a near impossibility. In this kind of high-risk game, Writer/Director Hill tries to purvey that very message by implying that these two are simply too evil, even towards each other, to ever be trustworthy or heroic. Seeing them get what they deserve in between ounces of amazing dialogue is only fitting. 

"You wanna fuck with me? You wanna duel? Alright, let's do it. Russian Roulette." -Reno Crevice

After the roll of the dice proves inconclusive, Reno loses his cool and calls for a .44-caliber pistol to settle the score. What started as a "loser leaves town" match has turned into all-out madness as Sam and Reno reconvene in the streets in an effort to blow each other away. As the tension mounts, they each take turns pulling the trigger against their own temple and brow-beating the other as only a nemesis could. This game of chicken boils over into unspeakable rage when only one shot remains with no suicide apparent.

Reno, last to act, shows how much of a man he is by pulling the trigger and revealing the final shot to be a dud. Both Sam and Reno are terribly unsatisfied, accusing each other of cheating in a game that is otherwise unbreakable. When a final, conclusive game is called for, Sam suggests the aptly-titled "Chop Poker." For those unfamiliar with the concept, it doesn't take long to understand. A dealer menacingly shuffles the deck over a meat cleaver with the intention of not only dealing out the cards for each and every torturous hand, but also the pain to the loser of such a dastardly game. 

"No chips, no pot, just play the hand and see where it falls." -Sam Forney

The game is a simple 5-card draw poker, but with one exception: the loser of each hand loses, at minimum, a finger from the blade of the cleaver. The first to quit, be it from pain or fear, will be the loser and will never be allowed to show his face again. Things start slowly, with Reno taking the upper hand (mind the pun) after showing a set of Queens to best Sam's two pair (tens and eights). With no hesitation nor remorse, Reno takes off Sam's right pinky finger. On the second hand, Reno continues his winning ways with a Full House (Aces over Sevens). 

By the third hand, Reno believes himself to be in full control until he's bested on a pair of tens by Sam's pair of Jacks. And it goes on like this. Sickly and slowly, Sam and Reno continue to destroy each other as neither are willing to relent to the other. In the final moments, we cut to the two facing off in a different sort of game: checkers. They're playing in what appears to be a hospital, each with gowns on and lacking several appendages. And unsurprisingly, they're still arguing over who stands tall, even without legs.

"I told you, I've always been a lucky kind of guy." -Reno Crevice

Parallels to the EC Source Material:
"Cutting Cards" was originally published in Tales from the Crypt #32. In this version, the names have been changed to Gus Forney and Lou Crebis, but the basics remain the same. Gus and Lou jump straight into the game of death when they play a game of high card (instead of dice), yet both come up with Aces. When the two change the game to Russian Roulette, the same outcome befalls the characters as it did in the episode. 

In a slight change, they alternated who won hands, whereas the first two in the episode belonged to Reno (named Lou in the comic). At the end of the day, however, both ended up in the same place as was originally intended, even maintaining a clever joke about passing the chewing gum for one last zing.

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-Lance Henriksen (Reno Crevice) is a popular horror and science fiction actor whose credits include Mansion of the Doomed, Damien: Omen II, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Visitor, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning and anthology film Nightmares. Of course, all of that was before his biggest breakouts in The Terminator, Aliens, Near Dark, and Pumpkinhead. In the 90's, Henriksen appeared in Alien 3, The Pit and the Pendulum, Man's Best Friend, and an episode of The X-Files. As if all that isn't enough, he continued to make waves, appearing in Scream 3, The Mangler 2, The Invitation, Madhouse, Alien vs. Predator, Hellraiser: Hellworld, and two more Pumpkinhead films. There's about a dozen films in there that weren't name, so you've got a lot of catching up to do.

-Kevin Tighe (Sam Forney) managed to avoid horror for most of his career until participating in an episode of The Outer Limits and the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red. In 2009, he returned to the genre with an appearance with the horror all-star cast of My Bloody Valentine 3D.

-Roy Brocksmith (Bartender) is making his third appearance in nine Tales episodes. In fact, by once again playing the bartender, one could infer that this story and "The Man Who Was Death" take place in the same town during the same time period.

-Diane Cary (Hostess) appeared earlier in her career in V and V: The Final Battle, keeping with television until a recurring role in Forever Knight.

-Allan Graf (Driver) made most of his keep as a stunt actor throughout his career, notably appearing in Poltergeist, RoboCop, Total Recall, and a recent episode of Supernatural

-Alisa Christensen (Blonde Woman) may have had a very brief appearance in this episode, but it's worth noting that she also made acting spots in several B-movie projects, notably Troma films Terror Firmer and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV.

-Walter Hill (Director, Writer) worked with Lance Henriksen numerous times in his career, not just this episode. He helped write Aliens, Alien 3, and is working currently on the sequel to Prometheus. As previously mentioned, Hill was also an advocate of action pictures, directing both installments of 48 Hours and The Warriors.

-Mae Woods (Writer) is more of an assistant to Walter Hill, but does have three screen credits in writing, all for Tales from the Crypt

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: Four (though his love of alliteration is at an all-time high).

In Summation: "Cutting Cards" clocks in at just over 20 minutes, making it easily the shortest episode in the Tales from the Crypt production run. But the perfection of this episode comes in the very succinctness of such short breaths. Who knows where our two lead protagonists (or is it antagonists) would be if they hadn't reached to such depths so quickly? You don't need to look too far to realize how deceptive, greedy, and deadly the game they continue to play will become. Even without limbs, they prove to be a continued danger to one another and society, so the briefer the experience around them, the better life is apart from them. You almost get the sinking feeling that this Cold War will never end, continuing with each generation of hard-headed kin like some kind of macabre Montague vs. Capulet street fight. The gun doesn't have to be loaded in only one chamber. You could easily place a bullet in all six to see what the end result for two addicted gamblers will be. 

-Benjamin M. Benya

Monday, October 29, 2012

Episode 8: The Switch

Episode 8: The Switch
Original Airdate: April 21, 1990
Written By: Michael Taav, Richard Tuggle
Directed By: Arnold Schwarzenegger 
Starring: William Hickey, Rick Rossovich, Kelly Preston, Ian Abercrombie, Roy Brocksmith

To what lengths would you go for love? Not money, power, greed, or glory, mind you, but love? For Carlton Webster (William Hickey), a wealthy geriatric living through his remaining years, he would do almost anything he had to do. Carlton is completely and totally in love with a young woman named Linda (Kelly Preston) and seems fully intent on bringing her youthful exuberance into his home with a marriage vow. Though his butler Fulton (Ian Abercrombie) warns that she may only be out for his money, Carlton has no intention of advertising just how wealthy he is, or how he will only marry her if it is true love.
When Carlton visits Linda with said proposal on the table, he deflects the value of his property and is instead scorned by Linda's all-too-obvious refrain: you look too old. In denial of his current predicament (and perhaps science and logic as well), Carlton intends to visit a plastic surgeon to remove as much of his age as is possible. But he become dissatisfied with the lack of immediate gratification he would get and pursues other options to completely rebuild his face for the youth Linda so desires. And he'll go to any lengths to capture that glory.

"Life is cheap, doctor. But youth, youth is very, very precious." -Carlton Webster

Carlton eventually finds himself a mad doctor (Roy Brocksmith) willing to perform a controversial operation wherein he will receive the face of a young man named Hans (Rick Rossovich) for a nominal fee of one million dollars. Recognizing that the overall sum could bankrupt him, Carlton is blinded by his lust and proceeds with the front to science, nature, and general decency. Thinking he has succeeded, Carlton visits Linda once more with his new features, but only stands to horrify her further thanks to his intermediate changes.
Carlton's return to the doctor's laboratory finds him even deeper in debt as he requests a new torso and an upgrade on his face. Surgery continues to be a flowing success as the doc and Hans milk the old man for all he's got whilst Carlton continues to upgrade his youth, so to speak. Now, his entire upper half is that of the ripped Hans he met earlier, and all it cost him was $3 million cash. Things with Linda begin to turn around when Carlton takes her out for weightlifting and a walk on the beach. Unfortunately, since he only covered the top half, Linda finds herself further repulsed when things get hot and heavy. 

"But your face, it's so different and bizarre, and your body is still old and decrepit." -Linda

Arnold Schwarzenegger became the first full-fledged celebrity to step behind the camera and direct an episode of Tales from the Crypt, and it feels as if he couldn't have been pegged for a better interpretation. "The Swtich" delves into a warped world where beauty equals power and money can be had from anyone willing to sell from their own devices. It isn't short on sympathetic characters or morality plays; quite the contrary, in fact.

You find yourself feeling for the lead's desperate and blinding love all around him. He'd do anything for his beloved, making William Hickey a more than appropriate fit for the role. The man reeks of sorrow and the inclusion of an almost disconnected Kelly Preston adds to the calamity. At the time of filming, Tales from the Crypt had taken off after an impressive first run to levels that made HBO quite a profit. Bringing in Schwarzenegger may have felt like a money gouge, but he did a more than serviceable job with an intriguing and almost ironic plot.

"Love conquers all." -Carlton Webster

The dark spiral continues from here on out. Carlton's continued pursuit of Linda leads him to spend more and more of his database away in an effort to make himself look and feel young. As cryptically predicted by the mad doctor just scenes earlier, the parts continue to come from Hans whilst Carlton transforms into a completely different person...on the outside. Is love as blind as Carlton Webster assumes it to be?

Linda has other ideas. His lower body becomes unsatisfactory. Then, his manhood itself is called into question. The pressure never seems to mount high enough for Carlton to think twice about his continued existence, leaving his butler Fulton to leave him after the pool he pulled his salary from runs towards a shallow demise. As the doctor continues to take from Carlton Webster, Carlton Webster continues to believe he's growing into the reflection of perfection for Linda.

"Love can also be blind, sir. I just pray you're not the only one it conquers." -Fulton

The final minutes of the episode play out like a typical cat and mouse affair. Carlton is persistent, cunning, and untamed in his quest towards the lovely Linda's heart. But with each passing hour and day, he's slipping further and further away from the reality of the situation. Carlton loses his grasp on all of reality and falls madly into a stuper that, by the time he's free to break out, he's made a grave set of decisions that there is no going back from.

When he proposes to Linda one final time, he must come to grips with the idea that her aspirations and desires have made a drastic change towards a man with financial stability and valor. That man appears to be the old Carlton, except he's introduced as Hans, and we're left to watch in horror as our fledgling romance goes down the tubes once and for all.

"You're nice, Carlton. But I needed a man of financial means who could make me comfortable for the rest of my life." -Linda

Parallels to the EC Source Material: 
"The Switch" was originally published in the EC Comics release Tales from the Crypt #45 (though it was a story from The Witch's Cauldron). And, not just to make this section shorter, but the whole story is identical to the original. The perfect companion!

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-William Hickey (Carlton Webster) portrayed various characters in four decades of film and television outside the Crypt. He appeared in both the Tales from the Darkside movie and television show as well as the film Puppet Master. Late in his career, he appeared in The Outer Limits, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and posthumously in Knocking on Death's Door. He is, however, best known for his role in Wings as another Carlton: Carlton Blanchard.

-Rick Rossovich (Hans) used his good looks to land roles in The Terminator and Spellbinder prior to his appearance in this episode. Later, he made appearances in horror/sci-fi mash-ups like Future Shock and the straight horror picture The Evil Inside Me.

-Kelly Preston (Linda) caught one of her first big breaks in the Stephen King adaptation of Christine. She had a cameo appearance in the cult classic From Dusk Till Dawn and would later appear in her husband's (John Travolta) work of Scientology science fiction, Battlefield Earth.

-Roy Brocksmith (Doctor) is making his second appearance on this list in as many seasons. He was known for appearing in both Arachanophobia and Total Recall. He also did episodes of Star Trek, Red Dwarf, and the children's anthology program, Eerie, Indiana before his death in 2001.

-Ian Abercrombie (Fulton) had hundreds of acting roles before his death, but horror fans remember him most for his part in Army of Darkness. He was also apart of Battlestar Galactica, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Catacombs, Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge, Addams Family Values, Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars television show, just to name a few projects.

-Renata Scott (Female Patient) was in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the film Stepfather II

-Mark Pellegrino (Punk) found a lot of minor horror work along the way, including an episode of The X-Files and the films The Lost World: Jurassic Park as well as The Number 23 and Fear Itself. He is probably best known, however, for playing Lucifer in the show Supernatural.

-Kendall McCarthy (Doorman) was also apart of the cast of Ice Cream Man with Clint Howard.

-Peter Kent (Muscle Beach Trainer) was good friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, thus landing him roles in nearly every Arnold movie (which is too many to list). He was also in Ragewar, Re-Animator, Dead Heat, and various made for TV horror pictures.

-J. Patrick McNamara (Dr. Thorne) was notable for having made it big over a decade before Tales with his appearance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was also in The Fury, Phantasm II, and an episode of the spinoff Freddy's Nightmares

-Arnold Schwarzenegger (Director) is a household name and doesn't need much of an introduction. To list his contributions to action and Sci-Fi would be a paltry catering to your needs, so just know that he made the apocalyptic thriller End of Days.

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: Two (though Arnold jumps in with a few as well)

In Summation: What "The Switch" lacks, if anything, is true horror and terror. The story is about normal people driven to extreme and irreverent means to get what they want. And of course, in true Tales/EC style, they find a complete irony of their situation when things go awry. Love is as blind as Ray Charles. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

-Benjamin M. Benya

Monday, October 8, 2012

Episode 7: Dead Right

Episode 7: Dead Right
Original Airdate: April 21, 1990
Written By: Andy Wolk
Directed By: Howard Deutch
Starring: Demi Moore, Jeffrey Tambor, Natalia Nogulich

If horror movies, novels, and shows have taught us anything about how to live life and go through the motions, then you must know this golden rule: Never trust gypsies. Whether they be fortune-telling sorceresses or bottom-feeding street urchins, to put your faith in these deceiving minstrels is to eliminate all hope for a better future. They are foreboding warnings of a time in which life will take a turn, most likely ironic, towards complete hellfire.
In this instance, Madame Vorna (Natalia Nogulich) is our prophetic symbol of absolute misfortune, and Cathy Finch (Demi Moore) is our not-so-innocent patsy. Cathy pays a visit to Vorna in an effort to get a simple fortune telling, but discovers that Vorna is much more than a hoax. Vorna's initial vision sees Cathy getting fired from her current job and finding a new one in the same day. A farfetched and completely outlandish premise, Cathy leaves unfazed but is late returning to work from her lunch break, leaving her boss Mr. Clayton (Earl Boen) to fire her on the spot. Sure enough, as she exits, she immediately receives an offer from Al (Troy Evans) to wait tables in his nightclub.

"Every exit is an entrance someplace else." -Madame Vorna

Surprised and curious, Cathy returns to Madame Vorna to learn more of her upcoming fate, only to hear conflicting reports that she will soon marry a man and inherit a large sum of money. Cathy's gold-digging tendencies lead her to believe these prophecies, but she is also warned that he will die violently after receiving the aforementioned dough. With the promise that she will meet him tonight, a large man approaches with an offer of absolute devotion. Enter Charlie Marno (Jeffrey Tambor), a bus of a man with a not-so-subtle appetite for all things Cathy. 

"Are you playing hard to get?" -Charlie Marno

The success of the first season of Tales from the Crypt led the quintet of executive producers to jump headfirst into a profitable second season that would premiere in the late Spring for the Home Box Office (HBO) channel. While the first six episodes made a wonderful trail with captivating and bizarre stories that stuck to their comic book source material, the producers were looking to broaden the horizons just a bit at the onset of the second season. Established television actors had been cast for most of season one, but the star power would kick up a notch with "Dead Right" and several other entries soon after. 

Howard Deutch returned to direct his second episode with headliners Demi Moore and HBO mainstay Jeffrey Tambor. Moore is an all-too-realistic gold digger that doesn't see past her own greed more than five feet. Her destiny is sealed from the moment she takes Madame Vorna's apparitions as truths and disregards any minor (or major) details that could stand in her way. Tambor, meanwhile, is the definition of diminutive and devoted, crossing the line between sleaze and slumber as a bloated buffoon. Without Tambor playing an unlikely hero twitter-pated at the very sight of his future darling, you find yourself rooting for his wretched soul in marital discourse. 

"I ain't got much now, but I got good prospects and I, um, I'm crazy about you." -Charlie Marno

Cathy may find Charlie utterly disgusting, but she presses on several dates with him in hopes that the fortune teller was right. Cathy stretches the lengths of her better judgment and decency by staying with the elephant, even creating a sense of warmth by agreeing to marry him. Charlie, ecstatic and increasingly grotesque, continues to push Cathy for more as their relationship wears as paper thin as it can. Cathy has put herself through countless dinners, dates, and awkward conversations, yet the continued guarantee of Madame Vorna's prophecy leads her to believe it is all part of the plan. 

Her agreement is predicated on the knowledge that someone in Charlie's family is rich, believing that they will soon pass and leave Charlie a great fortune. Her realization that she may have to go through with even more dedication and romance, even the act of sexual intercourse, shows what great lengths Cathy's masquerade escalate towards. The days and weeks pass by as Cathy plays housewife to her husband's insatiable delights. She cooks, she cleans, and Charlie Marno lives up to the fat slob stereotype he's been saddled with all through life. Cathy's patience has disintegrated, and now she's turning to Madame Vorna for definitive answers.

"He's just a fat, penniless pig. That's all he'll ever be!" -Cathy

Her last visit to Madame Vorna reveals that she takes a particular glee in Cathy's disposition, but warns that the prophecy of his inheritance is still very much real. And then, out of the blue, the pieces start to fall into place. Cathy's visit to the Hudson Automat cafeteria reveals that she is their one-millionth customer, giving her a prize of a cool million dollars instantly. Feeling she no longer needs to live through this charade with her new riches, she confronts Charlie with the news of not only her winnings, but her true feelings on Charlie's depressingly awful lifestyle. 

Charlie begs and pleads to keep her, acting like a puppy left out in the rain. But Cathy remains staunch in her beliefs, and her riches, leaving Charlie with few options on the matter. As she departs, he unexpectedly pulls a knife and proclaims that if he can't have her, no one will. His repeated stabs at the heart of his wife leave Charlie to receive his last rites on death row while Madame Vorna watches the reports on television in absolute vindication. 

"Vorna is right. Vorna is always right." -Madame Vorna
Parallels to the EC Source Material: 
"Dead Right" was originally published in the EC release SHOCK SuspenStories #6 (which, itself, featured one of the most controversial covers of the EC era). The story is, nearly even word for word, identical in it's adaptation for television. All characters and scenes remain the same, right down to the bitter end. In fact, the only big difference (and we're really nitpicking here) would be the name of the cafeteria where Cathy wins her riches.

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-Demi Moore (Cathy Marno) qualifies as one of the bigger names to appear on an episode of Tales from the Crypt to this point. She got her big break in 1982, starring in the horror film Parasite before getting real recognition as a late member of the Brat Pack and in the classic Ghost.

-Jeffrey Tambor (Charlie Marno) is one of the more notable character actors of television and film, appearing in hundreds of different productions since the 70's. He had a role in the spoof film Saturday the 14th, as well as the 80's version of The Twilight Zone. But his horror luster would take a backseat to his two biggest television contributions, HBO's The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development.

-Natalia Nogulich (Madame Vorna) continued the trend of television stars on Tales with various appearances in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She even did individual episodes of Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but broke free of her typecasting in the made-for-TV film Locusts.

-Troy Evans (Al) found a way to play a law enforcement officer in nearly every horror and sci-fi movie he'd been in, including Deadly Dreams, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, The Lawnmower Man, Demolition Man, The Frighteners, and the Stephen King miniseries The Stand. He even has a credit in a second episode of Tales, though not as a cop.

-Kate Hodge (Sally) may only make a brief appearance in this episode, but her horror lineage lives on with Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, The Hidden II, and the series She-Wolf of London.

-Earl Boen (Mr. Clayton) has a dizzying screen credit list that includes such sleepers as The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But as horror comes and goes, Boen found himself cast in the Troma film Chopper Chicks in Zombietown in 1989, The Dentist in 1996, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines in 2003.

-Andy Wolk (Writer) would do more directing than writing for the genre, returning in 1991 to direct a season three episode of Tales as well as dozens of other TV shows throughout the last two decades.

-Howard Deutch (Director) made this his second Tales episode behind "Only Sin Deep." He was also at the helm of an episode of the SyFy Network's Warehouse 13.

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: 2 (He mostly just jokes about himself, not that this is any better).

In Summation: What have we really learned here? If you're watching "Dead Right" for the very first time, you'll see a classic example of Tales from the Crypt ripped straight and perfectly from the pages of the EC counterpart. But what we're really focusing on here is the constant struggle curious and often times greedy folks must deal with when their contemplative prophecies become full-grown realities. Believing in your dreams is one facet of adolescence that becomes harder and harder to shed as you grow up and evolve through time. Breaking free of these trends is, in essence, the easiest way to avoid civil disappointment and see new opportunities behind every door. Maybe that's what Madame Vorna was really warning Cathy of when she mentioned that every exit is simply an entrance elsewhere. Too bad Cathy couldn't escape the malignant tumor she implanted in her head that everything would tilt in her favor if she simply saw this fortune as profit instead of doom. And perhaps that's why, by the conclusion of this grim, deceitful tale, we're left wondering just what the future holds for each of us as well. 

-Benjamin M. Benya

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Episode 6: Collection Completed

Episode 6: Collection Completed
Original Airdate: June 28, 1989
Written By: A. Whitney Brown, Battle Davis, Randolph Davis
Directed By: Mary Lambert
Starring: M. Emmet Walsh, Audra Lindley, Martin Garner

Wake up, go to work, come home, kiss the wife, go to bed. Everyday for as long as he can remember, Jonas has had the same routine in life. Day after day, month after month, year after year. 47 years going strong, in fact. But Jonas (M. Emmet Walsh) is about to hang up his boots in and go on life's next great adventure: retirement. Forced into an early settlement where his mind is free to roam instead of focus, Jonas simply doesn't feel fit enough for the departure of the hustle and bustle, and he's certainly not looking forward to every waking moment with his wife, Anita.

Anita (Audra Lindley) isn't some kind of consolation present, either. She's caring, loyal, and loving to Jonas, as well as her dozens and dozens of stray pets she welcomes into their home. In fact, the pets that give Anita the most joy have created the most agony in Jonas' mind. Every time he tries to relax or find solace in a nice place, one or more of those animals finds a way to interrupt the proceedings. Jonas may not be friendly, or kind, or even respectful of Anita's pet adoption (he snubs her "surprise party" with her several cats and dogs), but he is staunchly behind starting anew within the confines of his own home. 

"You can get rid of him now, because as of tomorrow, you won't be lonely anymore. You won't be needing any animals. I'm gonna be home all day. Right here in the god damn house I worked for all my god damn life." -Jonas

Jonas' grumpy, unkempt demeanor towards the various pets only gets worse during the infancy of his own golden years. Despite his best efforts to adopt a new way of living, Jonas becomes increasingly irritable with Anita's lifestyle, and the easy life in general. With a subtle sort of position, Anita suggests many of Jonas' mannerisms resemble that of her various pets. Advertisements of such instinctual expressions only stand to further depress Jonas, who pushes himself further and further away from his love with each passing hour. 

The examples, unfortunately, don't stop popping up as Jonas goes further into the dark. Anita fries a fantastic steak breakfast...for one of her dogs, while Jonas chokes down drivel with a sanctimonious spoon. Even his neighbor Roy (Martin Garner) pushes his buttons, suggesting daftly that Jonas take up a hobby in an effort to cure his terminal case of boredom...and possible manic depression. With the addition of model planes, Jonas would seem to have something to keep himself busy, except he reneges any efforts from all around him. Jonas simply stifles all creativity with an unwillingness to change, or to accommodate Anita's pet hoarding. 

"They keep me company. They're all I've got." -Anita

"Collection Completed" is as unorthodox as can be, and that's just the way fans of Tales from the Crypt like it. The story of a lifelong husband and wife attempting and failing to find compromise in their otherwise dismal affairs isn't new ground. But incorporating the additional plot line of animal adoption, poor judgment, and extreme, tedious boredom helps to make fools of us all. 

Lifelong horror director Mary Lambert jumped on-board this slow moving vehicle in an effort to keep the peace between to obviously inept characters. Jonas exemplifies all the poor qualities of a crotchety old man with a chip on his shoulder, where as Anita is just the kind of "crazy cat lady" middle-aged women continue to worry about being. Putting the two together is a natural fit for excruciating madness and unfortunate, somewhat timely demise for the characters around them. Too bad most of those characters are considered household strays and disregarded just as quickly. 

"I'm sorry. He reminded me of you." -Anita

The issues continue to pile up for Jonas and Anita as the days pass by. Anita likens Jonas' whooping cough to a hair ball, feeds him cat food tuna by mistake, and attempts to give him his aspirin by disguising it as food. Though Anita is completely harmless and innocent in her actions, her failure to recognize Jonas' increasing wrath and aggression becomes her own downfall. She even goes as far as to name her favorite bulldog Jonas, which exacerbates the situation to a boiling point. 

Unable to find any redeeming qualities to his retirement wasteland (including pruning after Jonas dismantles the entirety of his shrubs), Jonas reconciles that his uncomfortable conformity is due to Anita pressuring him to feel like one of the pets rather than a human being. Though he attempts to approach her with this concern, he discovers her speaking to a cat in the same manner as you would a human, finally pushing him over the edge. If he can't handle retirement without a hobby and he can't handle Anita, Jonas has to find a way to kill two birds with one stone. And the saying couldn't be much more accurate that it is about to be.

"When you start letting life pass you by, that's the day you start to die." -Jonas

Quietly and yet altogether happily, Jonas begins tinkering in the basement with what he claims is his new "hobby." Days and weeks go by while Jonas spends his days down beneath the surface, and while Anita is completely unaware as to what his new mission is, she's pleased to hear that Jonas is making such progress in life. It could have been a happy conclusion to an otherwise difficult story, but Anita's curiosity soon gets the better of her as her pets disappear one by one. 

When Anita goes looking for the same bulldog she named after her husband, Jonas reveals that he's taken up taxidermy and made her collection his first several test subjects. Jonas' psychotic claims that his adjustment to the life he'll spend with Anita includes this sort of masochistic justification makes Anita utterly sick. She scrambles frantically for the last few pets she knows have survived, only to discover the remaining victims in the basement. If a homicidal Jonas was enough to drive one mad, then Anita's revenge was equally as disturbing. She recovers her one remaining stray and, without remorse and reason, gives Jonas the same treatment he's been asking for since he took up taxidermy. 

"Oh, he's really slowed down and learned how to enjoy life." -Anita

Parallels to the EC Source Material:
"Collection Completed" was originally published in the EC release The Vault of Horror #25 (though it was the 14th issue overall, and originally a tale from The Witch's Cauldron). In this version, Anita and Jonas had only been married for 16 years, and were nowhere near retirement. Anita describes her collecting of animals as her hobby, which Jonas rebukes as the days go by. 

He takes up taxidermy and admits it to Anita from the get-go, which, while offensive, is a practice she allows until he turns her favorite cat into a stuffed ornament. And thus, the prophecy is fulfilled in the final few panels of the comic, shown below. 

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
 -M. Emmet Walsh (Jonas) made his first science fiction/horror appearance in 1971's Escape from the Planet of the Apes. He would also appear in an 80's episode of The Twilight Zone, The Hitchhiker, and the film Blade Runner. He even did episodes of The Outer Limits, The X-Files, and most recently, Night Visions. 

-Audra Lindley (Anita) was primarily a television actress, having appeared rarely in any horror production. Just months before her death she was in 1997's Relic, as well as the Jean-Claude Van Damme cult classic from 1995, Sudden Death.

-Martin Garner (Roy) appeared in the television show Alien Nation as well as various other programs as recurring characters. From the horror genre, he had a bit part in black-balled picture The Twilight Zone: The Movie.

-Mary Lambert (Director) made a career out of directing various horror pictures over the past 30 years. Notably, Lambert was at the helm for Pet Semetary and Pet Semetary II, as well as various episodes of the television program The Dark Path Chronicles. She was also behind more recent b-movie films The Attic and the incredibly tacky and low-budgeted Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: 3 (including an awful dead dog joke)

In Summation: It would be easy to simply slow down and talk about the emotional discord and disconnect a couple experiences over 40 years of separation created by the Rat Race. But that would also be boring and wouldn't make for a very good episode of Tales from the Crypt. Sometimes, we need a fulfillment of our deepest, darkest desires to overcome such a standstill. Life doesn't have to pass you by if you just start acting out your desires to take as much life as is possible. Jonas may not have killed a single person during his tyrannic post-retirement run, but that doesn't mean he wasn't worthy of the same "eye for an eye" death penalty that his loving wife bestowed. Anita felt she was truly blessed to have a man to take care of, especially one who didn't move, talk, or breathe. He could be simpler than her animals and required less tender loving care. A crazed, trophy husband can in fact be achieved with the right balance of painstaking heartache and insane triumph.

-Benjamin M. Benya

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Episode 5: Lover Come Hack to Me

Episode 5: Lover Come Hack to Me
Original Airdate: June 21, 1989
Written By: Michael McDowell
Directed By: Tom Holland
Starring: Amanda Plummer, Stephen Shellen, Richard Eden, Lisa Figus

Is there any more romantic and joyous time in life than marriage? Reportedly, marriage is the happiest time for two people in the history of human development. And though not every exchange of nuptials turns out for the best, we are led to believe that only good things can come from the union of two kindred spirits in love. That is, if they're really in love and not out for something else. 

Peggy (Amanda Plummer) and Charles (Stephen Shellen) are headed to their honeymoon as any two lovebirds would be in the countryside. Aunt Edith (Lisa Figus) has her objections however, and is quick to claim that Charles is only married to Peggy for her inherited fortune and not her mouse-like personality. Charles abruptly cuts Edith off and begins the long road ahead with the intent of spending a romantic week together with his new bride. And of course, a gun in the glove box. 

"Must be a wedding present from old Aunt Edith." -Charles

The truth is both Peggy and Charles are having a hell of a first night together. The gun in the glove box? Neither knows how it appeared, and the driving rain storm in front of them has made driving to their destination a near impossibility. What's more, Charles' attempt to seek out shelter reveals a rustic mansion in the distance. Though he left Peggy in the car during his search, he returns to another mystery: the keys have gone missing. What to do, what to do? 

Charles and Peggy attempt to find help in the mansion, but it would appear as if nobody is home...that is...until Peggy discovers a key under the front stoop that had conveniently been left for them. In the realm of odd coincidences and honeymoon turbulence, this recent string of events has to fall on the instant psychosis end. Though the house is poorly maintained from the get-go, some rooms remain in a pristine state, right down to the massive axe hanging over the mantle. 

"Was this put here for us?" -Peggy

"Lover Come Hack to Me" explores the depths of suspense and trust in a format intended to be as innocent as possible: Holy Matrimony. Both Peggy and Charles are spinning their wheels with one another and are easily leagues apart in communication and chemistry. But while what keeps them together would tear other couples apart, it is the sense of impending doom for one, if not both of them, that keeps the viewer entertained.
The story doesn't play out as traditionally as some of the flash and pizzazz episodes of Tales from the Crypt in later seasons. In fact, it is as slow moving and methodical as could be. As the time passes within the story, we wonder who is out to destroy who in this obvious case of love gone astray. Peggy's introverted, unsure personality is matched only by a timid and reserved stance on her personal preservation (translation: she's a virgin). Charles has played the field and is obviously disconnected from the love of his life, yet he's compassionate and manipulative enough to disguise it in front of her very eyes.

Michael McDowell's screenplay is exactly what you'd expect from someone who made a living on 30-minute thrillers, and it delivers thanks to some intelligent direction from fully-entrenched actor/director Tom Holland. What follows is a deceptive web of lies from both parties that leaves you wanting less and less of their love and more and more of their implosion.

"You're not really attracted to me, are you?" -Peggy

Changing scenes (and rooms), Peggy and Charles light a fire and begin to explore the house (and each other). Despite their reservations that the other may not be as pleased in this partnership as they'd hoped, they do reconcile to consummate the marriage in the master bedroom up the stairs. Despite the state of the majority of this dilapidated two-story, both the fireplace and bedroom are in absolute readiness for a night of "perfect" romance. And that word; "perfect," finds it's way into the lexicon all to familiarly. 

Charles' idea of perfection seems to be keeping the pistol he discovered in his car on the nightstand, and not just for protection. Peggy's idea of perfection? A wildly seductive makeover that is sure to arouse his senses (among other things) for her very first time. He may not be pulling his punches with an attempted murder plot, but she isn't either with her newly-found lingerie and continued use of that phrase: "Perfect." 

"I'm not gonna let time spoil our love." -Peggy

Sex is only the beginning of Charles' transformation from pain to pleasure. As the night passes and Peggy ensure him that they've made a child with their first act of carnal intercourse, Charles begins to see visions inside the house that make him realize he's not alone. In fact, he awakes in the late hours to discover another couple entering the house in a wild craze to please one another. Only problem is, the woman in this scenario is Peggy as well.

Stricken, Charles laments that even if she's cheating on him, he can still murder her for her money since the marriage was legitimate from the beginning. Though Peggy and her new beau Allen are seemingly and incomprehensibly aware of Charles' presence, they hump like wild rabbits before Charles discovers the shocking truth. What he's seeing isn't Peggy's infidelity, it's Allen's execution. The flashback being broadcast to Charles' eyeballs concludes when he realizes that this was how Peggy's mother conceived her, and also murdered Allen with the axe on the mantle.

When Charles approaches Peggy with the topic, she reveals that she plans to do the exact same thing. Though he attempts to shoot her with the pistol, he failed to load it before bedtime, indicating to a deranged Peggy that Charles really did love her after all. He wouldn't have had the gross audacity to shoot her without being blinded by his "love," so the perfect marriage can stay intact as Charles takes several mortal lops from the axe-wielding wife. As the sun rises, Peggy reunites with Aunt Edith so the cycle can begin once more. 

"And I want what my mother had: a perfect honeymoon; a perfect love." -Peggy

Parallels to the EC Source Material: 
"Lover Come Hack to Me" was originally published in the EC Comics release The Haunt of Fear #19 (though it was a tale from The Vault of Horror). Whereas most adaptations of the comic book lose something in translation when they make it to HBO, this particularly story is almost scene-for-scene identical with the printed page.

A testament to the first season of Tales (subsequent seasons would make it a point to alter some major details), both character names remained the same as did the story. The only major difference, however, was that Charles was a total innocent during the original publication. It is never implied that he intended to take all of Peggy's money nor does he equip himself with a murder weapon minutes before his own demise. If anything, he's a total patsy to Peggy's (sans Edith) plans.

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-Amanda Plummer (Peggy) didn't do much in the way of horror pictures when she landed her most memorable role as Honey Bunny in 1994's Pulp Fiction. She did, however, participate in the 1995 film The Prophecy as well as a Japanese horror production Vampire (2011). She even had a few episode of The Outer Limits under her belt before folks noticed she paid homage to herself as a voice of The Fates in Hercules (1997) and made an appearance in the aptly titled So I Married an Axe Murderer.

-Stephen Shellen (Charles) was in episodes of both The Hitchhiker and Alfred Hitchcock Presents before doing Tales from the Crypt. He manages to struggle with car trouble and murder again in 1988's American Gothic and even had a role in the offbeat horror/comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde.

-Richard Eden (Allen) made numerous appearances on television in the short-lived Freddy's Nightmares spinoff as well as the vampire series Forever Knight and the titular hero for the small-screen RoboCop. He even participated in several direct-to-television movies that have likely aired on SyFy over the years, including Killer Deal and Solar Crisis.

-Michael McDowell (Writer) wrote 11 episodes of the show Tales from the Darkside before his only Crypt contribution. In fact, his horror film credits include Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Thinner.

-Tom Holland (Director) is also an actor by trade, giving him what may be the longest link list to date on this site. Holland directed three Tales episodes as well as Fright Night (1985), Child's Play, Thinner, The Langoliers, and an episode of Masters of Horror. He added additional writing credits on several of these films, not to mention Psycho II, Scream for Help, and The Beast Within. As an actor, Holland has appeared in Psycho II, The Langoliers, The Stand, and Hatchet II, giving him an easy nod as a Kevin Bacon-esque center of the horror universe.

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: Three (though they were as drawn out as possible).

In Summation: Ever the opportunist, Charles' lust for gold proves larger than his lust for, well, lust. No matter what he did, even if he had been wildly in love with Peggy from the start of their relationship, he was destined to be murdered as a sick ritual that the family seems to concoct every generation. This tradition is so powerful, so blinding, and so completely deranged, that it would seem Charles chose his fate from the moments he insincerely professed any form of love or affection. Peggy leaves happier than she had been from the start, now with a baby girl in her tummy and her Aunt back in the saddle as the continued existence of their species (you know, psychotic, axe-wielding temptresses) lives on for the next several years of murder and mutilation. We don't often speak of how perfect marriage can seem in those first couple years, months, or days. For Peggy and Charles, it could only be so for the first couple hours, because nothing was quite as perfect as the brand of love Peggy plans to instill on her child.

Benjamin M. Benya

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Episode 4: Only Sin Deep

Episode 4: Only Sin Deep
Original Airdate: June 14, 1989
Written By: Fred Dekker
Directed By: Howard Deutch
Starring: Lea Thompson, Britt Leach, Brett Cullen, Pamela D'Pella

We've talked about greed. We've talked about death. We've event talked about murder. But combining the three is soon to be commonplace for our episode synopsis/reviews, and it all starts with "Only Sin Deep." Just walking the streets at night can be a dangerous enough experience, but for Sylvia Vane (does this count in our pun-o-meter?), it's her job. Vane (Lea Thompson) is a beautiful streetwalker and call girl looking to escape the mundane, filthy streets for a life of luxury.

But coming from street rat routes to upper class royalty isn't the easiest endeavor. After all, Vane is a 21-year-old teetering on the brink of the bourgeois and hasn't given herself too many friends in life, save for her street-walking associate Raven (Pamela D'Pella). She spends most of her time in the mirror perfect her youthful good looks; the only trait that she seemingly is concerned about in life. The proof is in the behavior that she doesn't get it when it comes to what men really want, so she's willing to do anything to find out. 

"What's she got that I ain't got?" -Sylvia Vane

Sooner rather than later, Vane shows her true colors when she picks up a local hood for business. He may identify himself as her business partner, but this pimp is far off the beaten path when she robs him and shoots him to death. A woman of no morals nor inhibitions, she's so hard up for cash that her recent indiscretions don't seem to affect her in the least. Vane is the perfect unlikable, but that fleeting hint of innocence left within the spirit makes her just a girl living in this crazy-mixed-up-world. 

When she takes her deceased boss' valuables to the local pawn shop, the broker in charge (Britt Leach) scoffs at the items and recognizes the means by which she acquired them. He's seemingly uninterested in her lies and her jewelry, but instead admires her beautiful face and offers her a much more displeasing deal. He'll pay her a devilishly large sum of money for something you can't put a price on: her beauty. Vane smacks her gum and gleefully accepts, feeling she makes off like a bandit in the process. But that's only half the story of this moralistic "preachie."

"But I can see you got something that's worth a whole lot more." -Pawnbroker

The idea of selling something that is immeasurable for a large sum of money doesn't just play on the morals and values of high society. It strikes right at the black heart of greed and consumption. The bombastic nature with which an already seedy pawn broker is interested in a woman's "beauty," not necessarily her essence or personality but her mere appearance, is frightfully unsettling. Lea Thompson plays the role of Sylvia Vane so masterfully that you're rooting, almost from minute one, for her to learn her lesson after it's already too late. 

Thompson accepted the role of Vane in the midst of a huge breakthrough of her career, wherein she was recognized for playing various incarnations of Lorraine Baines (or McFly) in the Back to the Future series. After working so heavily with director Robert Zemeckis, it seemed only natural he bring in Thompson to guest star in one of the first episodes of a series that had yet to fully take off. In Back to the Future, Lorraine exhibited tendencies of a wannabe bad girl that was simply to wholesome to be corrupted...lest it be by her own misplaced son's hand. 

That idea is more than just a scratch on the surface in Tales from the Crypt. The Sylvia Vane character is full-blown into the bad girl ideal, sacrificing common sense and basic knowledge for more money, power, and riches than one can imagine. And the idea that she's willing to sacrifice an intangible is even more hungry for extrapolation. If these are the lengths she will go to in order to have security, to what lengths will she assume to get it all back?

"There a people who play with a full deck, then there's you." -Sylvia Vane

In Sylvia's universe, she is the all-knowing and all-powerful center. But this story is much bigger than Sylvia Vane, as is proof when she leaves the pawn broker's store with $10,000 and a new lease on life. He's captured her beauty in a mold of her face, which, in all honesty is just a formality. The backroom of the Pawn Shop contains an awful lot more, including the remains of the broker's wife under heavy preservation. More on that a little later. 

Back on the streets, Sylvia is out to make herself a wealthy trophy wife. All she needs is the right pigeon and the sting can begin. Sure enough, she finds him in the form of Ronnie Price (Brett Cullen), a high-rise yuppie with eyes for our lead character. His early advances do little to wow Sylvia, but it isn't due to lack of interest. She's playing him for all he's worth, and soon, that's exactly what it takes. Ronnie showers Sylvia in the lap of luxury day in and day out. Only trick is, Sylvia notices more and more anomalies on her face that indicate she's aging rapidly. 

"What is this, the makeup counter at Macy's? You're a knockout for Christ's sake, what do you need all this junk for?" -Ronnie Price

Sylvia's attempts to delay the process are all for naught. As Ronnie leaves town on a business trip, Sylvia's on the prowl to figure out what has happened to her. Her visits to the dermatologist render old memories of the Pawn Shop and make her believe (rightfully so) that the broker has something to do with her transformation. When he rebukes her request for a refund of her beauty (the deadline had passed), she begs for him to name a price. $100,000 may seem like a steep bargain, but to Vane, who has yet to learn any of the errors in her ways, she's well on her way there. 

She destroys Ronnie's apartment looking for any cash to cover her debt, but when he returns home, he doesn't recognize the aging crone as his lover and calls the police to report a robbery. She shoots him down and takes what he has left to restore the peace, but finally meets the dilemma to end all dilemmas. The pawn broker accepts her offer but warns before completing the deal that she's wanted for murder...or at least...her young, beautiful face is. Even though he's been using women's beauty for years to preserve his wife as part of a voodoo ritual, he knows Vane can no longer damage that reputation for him. 

Stricken, she escapes with the mold of her face and attempts to piece together her life, until the mold shatters on the ground from a collision with her old (or should I say young) friend Raven. With the mold disassembled, Sylvia Vane sits in the street and mourns for all that she used to have, and all that she used to be. 

"Why don't you watch where you're going, you old, ugly, trifling bitch!" -Raven

Parallels to the EC Source Material: 
"Only Sin Deep" was originally published in the EC release The Haunt of Fear #24, though it was a story from the Vault Keeper's Vault of Horror. The lead's original name was Lorna Vanson, and much like Sylvia Vane, she too was a lady of the evening. Vanson's trip into the Pawn Shop leads to a similar offer (in the 1950's, it was $1000 for her beauty and a whole year on the deadline to return) and more impending doom. 
She picks up a bachelor by the name of Ronnie Altgeld III in the same manner as before and agrees to marry him. When she realizes her face is ravaging itself, she receives the counteroffer of $100,000 from the pawn broker and again, turns to murder. Instead of a gun, Lorna uses a brass statuette to do the job but finds herself in a similar situation, incapable of recapturing her beauty. 

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-Lea Thompson (Sylvia Vane) is best known for working with Crypt producer Robert Zemeckis on the aforementioned Back to the Future trilogy. She also made a name for herself in horror and science fiction with lambasted films like Jaws 3-D and Howard the Duck. More recently, she appeared in the theme park attraction short The Haunted Lighthouse written by children's horror author R.L. Stine.

-Britt Leach (Pawnbroker) has appeared in various television series since the 1970's, but his notable horror contributions included 80's pictures Night Warning and Silent Night, Deadly Night. He retired from acting in 1991.

-Brett Cullen (Ronnie Price) is still finding work in various films and television shows with varying role sizes. He was in the original V miniseries as well as an episode of Freddy's Nightmares and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He even did an episode of The Outer Limits and most recently had a bit part in The Dark Knight Rises. In 1997, he was the star of the independently released horror film The Killing Jar.

-Burke Byrnes (Cop) had roles in Child's Play 3 and Witchboard as an officer of the law as well. He also played a part in the 1979 monster movie, Prophecy.

-Pamela Gordon (Old Crone) made a brief cameo in this episode of Tales, but has a long horror lineage overall. She's been in two sequels in the Subspecies series as well as episodes of The X-Files and the 80's version of The Twilight Zone. Prior to her appearance here, she was also apart of the cast of Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

-Howard Deutch (Director) directed another episode of Tales in season two: "Dead Right." He is probably best known for directing Pretty in Pink but also directed an episode of SyFy's Warehouse 13 in 2012.

-Fred Dekker (Writer) was previously discussed in our analysis of "And All Through the House." He directed 80's classics Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad. This episode was his second writing credit for Tales from the Crypt

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: Four (The name of the episode itself, included)

In Summation: In an episode of the television program The Simpsons (aptly titled "Bart Sells His Soul"), the indescribable value of a priceless "object" is examined in perhaps its most notable example. If no one person controls the very fabric and foundation of how they are created and what their personal makeup is, then how can one change so dramatically via the decision to part with such an object? "Only Sin Deep" contributes a stance to the argument that is justifiably disturbing. Once you have given it all up on a whim for the "grass is always greener" conundrum, it becomes completely irrelevant as to whether or not you go back. You've made a conscious decision to do reprehensible damage to your friends, family, and anyone that would get even remotely close to you. And once you've crossed that threshold into another dimension of life, it becomes nigh impossible to undo the process. Sylvia Vane wasn't just a character deserving of an attitude adjustment, she's an example of what can and will happen if that attitude is all-consuming. In Tales from the Crypt, you don't have to have death to be truly satisfied. Sometimes, a simple look at the misery of lost opportunity and rational thought is enough to create that schadenfreude. Better her than me, says the prostitute into her pocket mirror passing by.

-Benjamin M. Benya

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Episode 3: Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone

Episode 3: Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone
Original Airdate: June 10, 1989
Written By: Terry Black
Directed By: Richard Donner
Starring: Joe Pantoliano, Robert Wuhl, Kathleen York

Carnivals are innately horrifying. Whether the traveling circus is making its way to the dirt patch in your local town or you're simply passing it by as a roadside attraction, there is nothing quite as unsettling as the purported greatest show on earth. Inside the walls of the big top, carnival barkers the world over will try to win your attention with promises of the eerie, unexplainable, and deranged. But do they outright promise you death and rebirth in the same show? This carnival does. 

Ulric (Joe Pantoliano) is the star attraction of this traveling brigade, promising the greatest performing act in history: his own death, followed by the miracle of resurrection. Billed as Ulric the Undying, the people flock from miles around to see him bite the big one, and they're paying plenty of money, too. In this terrifying stunt, Ulric is to be buried alive for a full 12 hours, thus initiating him into the world of the dead. But when they dig him up, he promises to be alive once more!

"Folks, this is an escape that Houdini himself couldn't have gotten out of!" -Barker

Burning a single candle from the inside of his comfortable coffin, Ulric recants his tale to the audience in a series of flashbacks. For you see, Ulric is more than just a man. He's a genetic mutation; a product of science gone horribly astray. Ulric was a simple, out-of-work, drunken bum who was promised fame and fortune by a mad scientist named Emil Manfred (Gustav Vintas). Manfred's plan, albeit incredibly elaborate, was to implant a gland in Ulric that matched up to that of the common house cat. 

Though seemingly trivial, Dr. Manfred hypothesized that the urban legend about the nine lives of a cat would prove true for humans if the surgery was successful. In short: he could give Ulric nine lives. Everybody got that? Ulric does, in more ways than one. The cat is offed and Ulric receives the incredible regenerative properties, first demonstrated when Manfred shoots him dead as a test of the experiment. 30 seconds later, he's up and walking again, a complete success and an affront to nature.

"But, before you stagger into the nearest bar to slurp down your money, how would you like to make 100 times more...a thousand?" -Dr. Emil Manfred

Richard Donner's directorial prowess can be felt all throughout "Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone." Little touches of gleeful enjoyment are scattered throughout what is, and always will be, a terribly grim tale. The screenplay written by Terry Black only helps to support this cavalcade of the cadaver with bits of humor inserted into each and every death. Combined, the two make death seem like late night television rather than an excruciating experience in torture. 

And that's really what all this should spell. The constant and consistent fashion in which Ulric punishes his own body for the amusement of paying customers takes shock and awe to dizzying new heights whilst only scratching the surface of the carnal desires and catharsis experienced from the viewer's standpoint. Is Ulric some kind of sympathetic martyr for the world to stand behind? Hardly. Remember, he volunteered for this project. 

"That's it. He's deader than a possum on the interstate." -Barker

And so the killing begins. Ulric finds work with a carnival barker (Robert Wuhl) in a circus that will showcase him as the feature attraction. And he dies. And dies. And dies some more. At first by water in a tank, then later via strangulation from a noose. Each stunt becomes more and more elaborate, and with this exploitation, the profits begin to pour in. Ulric becomes attracted to power, money, greed, and even his ditzy assistant Coralee (Kathleen York). Seeing all that green eventually led Ulric down the road to see red as well. 

In an effort to go solo, Ulric runs his car straight into a brick wall with Dr. Manfred as his passenger. Though Ulric wastes a life on such a venture, he's consumed by resurrection once more and back in the game with an even greater share of the gate. Even in his blind gluttony, Ulric constructs clever scams to harness more funds towards his not-so-noble cause. Tickets are sold for his execution via electrocution wherein a member of the audience can pull the switch. Then, charges to fire an arrow straight into his heart stagger up to $1000 per person. You begin to see the veil of murder somehow pulled back in favor of the indulgence of the almighty dollar. 

"But I still have one life left, and this life is gonna pay me plenty." -Ulric

Ulric falls into a comfortable position despite the fact that he's running out of time (and lives). With his increasing fortune, comes imminent betrayal. Coralee most literally stabs him in the back, costing him a precious remaining life as she heads for the hills. Left with only one more performance to retire upon, Ulric demands 100% of the profits from the carnival barker and prepares to bury himself alive. 

Only problem is, Ulric isn't a mathematician. Let's review: Shot in the head as an experimental test, drowned, hanged, injured in a car accident, electrocuted, shot with an arrow in the heart, stabbed in the back. That's seven, with only one to afford before he's on his farewell tour. What he realizes, however, during his deep soliloquy is that the original cat died during the procedure, bringing his calculations through the roof, and his survival through the floor. The single candle burns out and Ulric is left to suffocate with his fortune just outside his grasp. 

"Somebody! I don't have nine lives! Somebody! Let me out!" -Ulric

Parallels to the EC Source Material: "Dig That Cat...He's Real Gone" was originally published in the EC Comics release The Haunt of Fear #21, though it was the Crypt Keeper's contribution to the issue. The idea is almost identical, and even has direct quotes taken from the story and placed into the screenplay. Ulric and Dr. Emil Manfred were present, though the manners in which Ulric is disposed of changed throughout the tale. 

Ulric died by going over Niagara Falls, leaping out of a plane, drowning in burlap sack, and then the same way he went during the show with electrocution and betrayal. Not that this is an all-too-important detail either, but his attendant Coralee was originally written as a man who he did not fall for.

Horror Alumni Roll Call: 
-Joe Pantoliano (Ulric) didn't do much work in the horror genre before his appearance here. Pantoliano scored roles in little-known horror picture The Final Terror and the television series The Hitchhiker before starring in Tales. He would appear in an uncredited role later in the series during the episode "Split Personality," but stuck mostly to action pictures throughout his career, including prominent plays in the Bad Boys franchise and work with director Richard Donner in The Goonies. He even made numerous appearances on latter-day HBO programs like The Sopranos and Arli$$.

-Robert Wuhl (Barker) had a lot on his plate in 1989, appearing in both this episode and Tim Burton's Batman that Summer. Wuhl hardly appeared in any other horror films, save for a one-off in 1993's Sandman. He was, however, the star of HBO's Arli$$, pairing him up again with Joe Pantoliano.

-Kathleen York (Coralee) appeared in mostly comedies before she starred in Sam Raimi's Darkman alongside previously mentioned Larry Drake. She kept mostly to television, featured most prominently in the NBC drama The West Wing.

-Gustav Vintas (Dr. Emil Manfred) actually got his start in the original science fiction television series V. His other horror credits included horror-comedy The Creature of Sunny Side Up Trailer Park and Vampire at Midnight. 

-Michael Bower (Junior) has appeared in over a dozen different television shows over his career including The X-Files. But none more prominently feature Bower than Salute Your Shorts as the character Donkeylips. He was also one of the kids in 1990 horror-comedy mash-up The Willies.

-Rick Zumwalt (Workman #1) was the kind of actor who could receive roles based solely on his appearance. See one episode of the made-for-television spinoff Freddy's Nightmares and Tim Burton's Batman Returns.

-Richard Donner (Director) had an amazing directorial career before taking the helm for three Tales episodes. In the early sixties, Donner directed a handful of episodes of The Twilight Zone before giving the world The Omen in 1976. He then cranked out Superman, Superman II (originally uncredited), and the Lethal Weapon franchise whilst also creating cult-classic The Goonies.

-Terry Black (Writer) wrote six Crypt-related episodes in total (three for HBO, and three for Tales from the Cryptkeeper) after giving the world the black horror-comedy Dead Heat.

Number of puns delivered by the Cryptkeeper: Three, all of which are strung together in the final moments of an otherwise straightforward series of Cryptkeeper scenes.

In Summation: In the end, nobody is a winner when greed gets in the way of good fun. The carnival barker will be left to answer questions about his accidental homicide (or manslaughter at the least) and babes like Coralee will eventually have to answer the call of depleting funds on the run. Isn't that the way it should be? Moralistically, the two parties that willingly and knowingly tampered with nature and science found themselves victims not of a cruel irony but rather their own dysfunction. Had they simply shared the spotlight as the team, maybe they could've avoided such a calamity. If we live in a world where everyone eventually dies, then why tamper with those dynamics to experience it again and again for the sadistic public or the reckless investor? Absolutely no one will feel sorry for you if they have to bury your corpse alongside the piles of money you swindled in your endeavor. 

Benjamin M. Benya