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The Dreadful Ten: Top 10 Best “TALES FROM THE CRYPT” Episodes

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It’s a bit of a shame that the televised horror anthology has more-or-less been put out to pasture. With the CW passing on Joe Hill’s TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE pilot and the likes of MASTERS OF HORROR in our rearview, anthology horror appears as “too much of a gamble” to most broadcasters, despite the fact that there are more skilled horror directors in the independent world than ever before. And while the horror anthology series will likely rise from the grave someday, one could only hope it’ll attain zeitgeist-level relevance near the likes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT, however, is always a bit of a curious case; the fact that the show was an HBO production means it’s edited, syndicated versions don’t nearly play as frequently as they used to. Likewise, outside of the DVDs, the show is difficult to find outside of pay-per-episode purchases on Amazon Instant Video. And considering the royalties and the rights that would go with such a series, there’s also little chance of the series making it’s way to Blu-ray anytime soon (especially since the series didn’t exactly break the bank with their DVD sales).

Nevertheless, TALES FROM THE CRYPT is often regarded as one of the pinnacles in horror anthology television, and for good reason: the show was often superb. If not outright top quality horror, TALES FROM THE CRYPT ushered the ‘80s horror aesthetics well into the ‘90s, providing some of the most entertaining terror tales on television. And so to provide some much-needed love to a horror showcase that was the gold standard for horror 26 years ago, FANGORIA offers our top 10 favorite TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes for fright fans to seek out and sink their claws into…

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  1. “The Man Who Was Death” (Season 1, Episode 1)

That’s right: one of the ten best TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes of all time is its inaugural outing, directed by Walter Hill and starring ‘90s character acting staple William Sadler as a decommissioned executioner who feels his job is never quite finished. For a filmmaker whose never outright made a horror picture, aside from producing the ALIEN films, Hill proved himself to be one of the strongest assets to TALES FROM THE CRYPT in the director’s chair. His cinematic style and penchant to go bigger with every visual choice perfectly captured the EC Comics tone for the series, and with the smooth-talking, teeth-grinding William Sadler as his lurid lead, “The Man Who Was Death” is an unforgettable start for the scary series.

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  1. “Abra Cadaver” (Season 3, Episode 4)

One of the most beloved episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, Stephen Hopkins (of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 and PREDATOR 2 fame) helms this tale of a prank-prone doctor who finds himself on the receiving end of some petrifying payback. Starring Tony Goldwyn and Beau Bridges, this simplistic and voyeuristic CRYPT episode is one that straddles the line between fun frights and uncomfortable depravity, but that only makes the episode stronger by comparison. It was one of the few episodes in CRYPT’s early run that focused on making the audience squirm, which is likely why it makes such an eerie impression all these years later.

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  1. “Carrion Death” (Season 3, Episode 2)

Directed by Steven E. de Souza in his first-ever directorial outing after raking in millions as a top Hollywood screenwriter for CRYPT producer Joel Silver, “Carrion Death” is one of the more outrageous and bizarre TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes out there. But de Souza’s secret weapon comes in the form of Kyle MacLachlan, eager to break away from his “Agent Cooper” image by ramping his psychopathic and desperate performance to maximum lunacy. Combined with a ton of gory gruesomeness, a hilariously dark premise and some Western-inspired atmosphere, “Carrion Death” is a TALES FROM THE CRYPT entry that’ll keep you cringing as hard as you’re chuckling.

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  1. “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” (Season 1, Episode 3)

One of the most surefire signs that a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode is going to be memorable is when one of it’s A-list producers got behind the director’s chair, and “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is no exception. The first horror story helmed by Richard Donner since 1976’s THE OMEN, “Dig That Cat…” takes the fourth-wall breaking of Hill’s “The Man Who Was Death” and ramps up the sleaze factor considerably, going to almost cartoonish lengths to paint this story as a surrealistic horror-comedy. With an amazing cast, anchored by the one-two combo of Joe Pantoliano and Robert Wuhl, “Dig That Cat…” grips the viewer as pure, unadulterated entertainment all the way up to its creepy twist ending.

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  1. “Split Second” (Season 3, Episode 11)

Another piece of CRYPT continuity is that any episode by HIGHLANDER director Russell Mulcahy is guaranteed to provide batshit insanity, yet “Split Second” might be the most mature Mulcahy offering of his lot. Following a seductive woman (played by one-time horror IT-girl Michelle Johnson) as her desires go between her domineering lumberjack husband (one-time genre IT-villain Brion James) and a handsome newcomer (small-time genre character actor Billy Wirth), “Split Second” never quite goes explicitly into horror territory until the episode’s end. However, the storytelling here is calm and actually quite superb, which allows the louder, brutal ending to resonate with the utmost satisfaction.

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  1. “Television Terror” (Season 2, Episode 16)

A notable TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode for many reasons, including the starring role for conservative icon Morton Downey Jr. and being one of the earliest examples for “found footage” horror, “Television Terror” is also one of the most divisive for fright fans. However, director Charles Picerni’s jump from shameless parody to genuine horror storytelling over the course of “Television Terror” is a site to behold, and never gets quite cartoonish enough to fall into the campier side of CRYPT’s content. And considering that “Television Terror” is almost like a magic trick with what it can and cannot pull-off in a “found footage” style, it’s one of the few TALES FROM THE CRYPT episodes with instantaneous rewatch value.

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  1. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (Season 2, Episode 10)

Better known as “the episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT you saw at 1 a.m. on morning and never let you go back to sleep,” this Richard Donner-helmed episode features an incredible script from Frank Darabont and two comedians at the height of their talents: Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait. With Goldthwait’s nervous schtick playing incredibly well opposite Rickles’ sharp, concise delivery, the sense of foreboding that boils underneath this anxiety-striking episode is only matched by it’s climactic twist, which no CRYPT viewer ever forgets. It’s a bonafide classic of the series, and gives MAGIC a run for its money for most terrifying on-screen ventriloquist (even if CRYPT does bend the rules a bit).

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  1. “Werewolf Concerto” (Season 4, Episode 13)

Another divisive entry into the CRYPT canon, “Werewolf Concerto” nearly winds up on this list for the strength of its premise alone, employing an Agatha Christie spin on a classic werewolf tale. But while longtime Joel Silver collaborator Steve Perry doesn’t necessarily offer anything exemplary from the director’s chair, the performances on display are some of the best in CRYPT history, making the episode absolutely captivating from start to finish. And given the caliber of the cast, which includes Timothy Dalton, Beverly D’Angelo, Dennis Farina, Walter Gotell, Charles Fleischer, Lela Rochon and Reginald VelJohnson, “Werewolf Concerto” remains one of the glimmering standouts before the hit-or-miss later seasons of CRYPT came into play.

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  1. “And All Through The House” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Robert Zemeckis’ only appearance on this list, the innovative directly surely makes it count with “And All Through The House”, putting a grimy, heart-pounding twist on the previously adapted EC Comic. The late, great Mary Ellen Trainor carries her own in a rare leading role for the actress, playing the vindictive and vicious villain until a psychopathic Santa Claus (played by a silent yet horrific Larry Drake) makes his introduction. The rare horror short that absolutely compels you to scream “Don’t open the door!”, this episode is nearly CRYPT perfectly encapsulated, complete with the tragic and terrifying twist ending.

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  1. “Cutting Cards” (Season 2, Episode 3)

The end-all, be-all definitive TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode, Walter Hill makes the list yet again with this tale of bitter rivals who decide the only way to settle their differences is with much more than a pound of flesh. With undeniably incredible performances from Kevin Tighe and Lance Henriksen as well as stunning cinematography that evoked EC Comics, era-appropriate HBO and ‘80s neon-fever all at once, “Cutting Cards” has breathtaking suspense matched with a mischievously morbid sense of humor. Not only is “Cutting Cards” the hands-down best episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT ever produced, but it’s one of the strongest half-hours of horror television ever, so much so that it’s one of the few CRYPT chapters most wish ran feature length.

And without further ado, here are some honorable mentions who just missed the cut…

Something Different: “The Reluctant Vampire” / “Yellow”

How Malcolm McDowell didn’t receive a Tarantino-esque career resurgence following his zany turn in “The Reluctant Vampire” is beyond me, but goddamn did he deserve one. Ditto goes for Kirk Douglas, who absolutely crushes this contemplative TALES standout (which was originally filmed as a TALES spin-off pilot).

Clever Chillers: “The New Arrival” / “House of Horror”

While both “The New Arrival” and “House of Horror” offer genuinely strong CRYPT entries with some of the smartest twists and directorial decisions of the series, both episodes also lack that special connective tissue found in our top ten TALES.

Comeuppance: “Collection Completed” / “King of the Road”

“Collection Completed” may be one of the funniest CRYPT episodes and “King of the Road” may be one of the series most badass offerings, both revenge tales refuse to explore their more horrific elements, making them standout episodes in their own right whilst on the fringe of CRYPT’s sordid sensibilities.

To Be The Best: “Top Billing” / “What’s Cookin’”

If cheating spouses is one of the many running themes throughout the series run of TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the other might be struggling relevance, both of which inspires a hearty body count over the course of the anthology series. Out of myriad episodes in the latter category, “Top Billing” and “What’s Cookin’” are the most inspired and well-made of the bunch, yet ironically not quite ‘Best Of’ material.

Real Weird: “People Who Live in Brass Hearses” / “Death of Some Salesman”

While easily two of the best episodes of CRYPT, and likely should be in the top ten episodes on their own merits, there’s no denying that the level of weirdness that is “People Who Live in Brass Hearses” and “Death of Some Salesman” are an acquired taste, and definitely not for every horror hound. However, if they do fit your groove, CRYPT doesn’t get much better.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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