EC Does It: EC Comics In Film And Television

A history of adaptations of the beloved, twisted horror comics.

By Diana Prince · @kinky_horror · April 29, 2021, 4:29 PM EDT
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Heh-Heh! I see you're horror-hungry again, boils and ghouls! Prepare your stomachs for another savory serving of screams! From our cauldron to your molting minds, it's a tasteless taste of history, seasoned with the most delectable ingredients: gore, ghouls and gags!

In the Fearsome Fifties, EC Comics satiated our appetite for the atrocious and rotted the brains of a generation. While the company went defunct in 1956, its lurid legacy has survived through the years. Famous fans such as Stephen King and R.L. Stine constantly spread the good word about EC, and the original yelp-yarns have been reprinted many times over. HOWL-ever, I'd argue that the secret to EC's longevity has been the numerous adaptations that have graced the screen, both small and silver.

For those who have been locked in a mausoleum, EC Comics was a comic book publisher that specialized in all manner of tawdry amusements: horror, sci-fi, crime stories, tough-guy adventures and beyond. Initially, EC was owned by Max Gaines and specialized in educational comics (which, oddly enough, is what "EC" stood for before it became Entertaining Comics). In 1933, Max Gaines created the first four-color newsprint pamphlet, which led to the creation of the modern comic. Gaines was also the co-publisher of All-American Publications, the company that introduced the world to Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the mightiest of them all, Wonder Woman. When Max died in ‘47, his son William took over and put the company on the path of putrescence. Under the righteous rule of Bill Gaines, EC became known for ironic twists, subversive humor and grisly violence. Kids adored the books; parents and squares were mortified.

In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings to determine the relationship between comic books and, well, juvenile delinquency. Bill Gaines gallantly argued on behalf of his medium, but our hero's efforts weren't enough. Soon after, the Comics Magazine Association of America and its Comics Code Authority were established, enforcing strict restrictions on content. The Comics Code Authority was created by the publishers to avoid government censorship, but it was controversial amongst creators. Gaines refused to join the association, and wholesalers refused to carry his books. With great reluctance, Gaines eventually submitted his comics for approval by the Comics Code. Alas, it wasn't enough to save the once-mighty publisher. After an experimental line of "Picto-Ficton" books (black-and-white, heavily illustrated magazines), Gaines dropped all of his titles except one: Mad. Gaines sold the company in 1960, and it was absorbed into the same company that bought National Periodical Publications (later DC). Just like that, EC was dead.

Of CORPSE, anyone who's ever read an EC comic can tell you that the dead never stay dead. Long after its purported demise, EC lingered in pop culture like the stench of an ancient tomb. For decades, EC's brand of merry-scary depravity has inspired film adaptations, television shows and a casket-full of knockoffs. Even now, we see the puns and punishment of EC referenced in programs like Shudder's exceptional Creepshow. In one form or another, the spirit of EC will forever haunt us.

In honor of EC's enduring eeriness, I, your mistress of SCARE-a-monies, will regale you with the hideous history of EC Comics in film and television! From the Crypt of Terror to the Vault of Horror, I have such FRIGHTS to show you! We'll leave no tombstone unturned! Every Tale from the Crypt will be exhumed! GORE-ge yourself on the delectable delirium I call... "EC Does It!"

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Something Fishy

We'll begin with a real shocker. In 1966, EC legend Al Feldstein attended an arthouse film fest in New York and saw a French short entitled "The Fisherman." What is "The Fisherman?" Reportedly, it's an unlicensed adaptation of Feldstein's “Gone…Fishing!” from Vault of Horror #22! Feldstein informed Bill Gaines, who contacted the producers of the film. The producers added an "adapted from EC Comics" credit, gave both Gaines and Feldstein a copy of the short, and made history with the first filmic Tale from the Crypt.

Unfortunately, the only info I can find on "The Fisherman" is from Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives by Digby Diehl. As far as I can tell, the very first EC Comics adaptation is lost and buried at sea.

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Teatime of the Dead

In a way, England's Amicus Productions had been in the business of making EC pictures since 1965. Movies like Dr. Terror's House of Horror or Torture Garden didn't borrow from any particular EC chiller, but their anthology format and O. Henry twists certainly evoked the famous funny-books. When Amicus released their official take on EC's material, it seemed as natural as a hunchback at Notre Dame. Directed by Freddie Francis (the cinematographer who would later work on The Elephant Man), Tales from the Crypt (1972) is a pulse-pounding portmanteau of micro-chillers. The five titular tales are related to a group of strangers by that most famous of all horror hosts (with apologies to Joe Bob Briggs), the Crypt Keeper. Those expecting a jovial jester with a pun for every situation will be surprised. Played by venerated thespian Ralph Richardson, this Crypt Keeper is somber and dignified, two traits I generally do not associate with the Keeper.

Richardson's Crypt Keeper is emblematic of the Amicus approach to the stories: dry and stately. Handsome production and distinguished actors like the aforementioned Richardson and Patrick Magee give the impression of sophistication... but don't let that scare you away. At its cold, desiccated heart, this is a shock-show in the classical sense. Corpses rise out of the ground, Death stalks you at every turn, wishes turn deadly, and Santa Claus slays belles! The puns are mostly gone, but black humor still colors this compendium of comeuppances. If this film appears classy on the surface, that only enhances the ghoulishness of its frights.

All five segments in Tales from the Crypt are spine-tingling, but there are two I consider to be all-timers. The first is "And All Through the House," a stocking shocker adapted from Vault of Horror #35. Joan Collins plays a woman pursued by a holly-jolly madman in a Santa suit after having murdered her husband on Christmas Eve. This roasted chestnut introduced the killer Santa to cinema, opening the chimney for Billy, Eric and all subsequent Kreep Kringles. The staging is superb, the coal-black humor is potent, and the juxtaposition of gruesome violence with cheery Yuletide tunes is wickedly witty in the EC manner. Honestly, "And All Through the House" is simply perfect. It's absolutely everything you could possibly want in an EC adaptation. The only thing that even comes close to it... is the 1989 remake from the HBO series (more on that later).

The second masterpiece here is "Poetic Justice" (adapted from Haunt of Fear #12), a vile Valentine starring the heart of Hammer, Peter Cushing. According to legend, Cushing was offered as the lead in the "Wish You Were Here" segment (adapted from Haunt of Fear #23), but he convinced the producers to cast him as Arthur Grimsdyke, the kindly widower who takes his own life and returns to destroy those who wronged him. The real-life Cushing was himself a recent widower, and the loss of his wife Helen was something from which he never truly recovered. Arthur Grimsdyke was a character Cushing related to on a profound level. All of Cushing's sorrow and grief was channeled through Grimsdyke, creating a genuinely moving figure in an otherwise pulpy picture. There may be scarier or funnier works listed in this article, but none have the pathos of Cushing's Grimsdyke. "Poetic Justice" will break your heart as it rips it out.

Amicus took another stab at EC material in 1973's The Vault of Horror, an anthology with absolutely no stories from the Vault of Horror. It's more of the same, just without the seasonal suspense of "And All Through the House” and the emotional depth of "Poetic Justice.” As agreeably spooky nonsense, it's still worth a watch. "Midnight Mass" (adapted from Tales from the Crypt #35) offers a wonderful image straight from the books: a murderer's neck is used as a drink dispenser by a group of vampires.

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MainSCREAM Success

HBO's Tales from the Crypt was a miracle seldom seen in the field of the horrific. First of all, the indomitable supergroup of Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis formed an alliance for the sole purpose of producing a series of ghastly little shriek-stories, which is rather remarkable on its own. Second, it was on HBO, which means that it was free from the butcher's blade of standards and practices. It could wallow in sex, blood and depravity, the way our lord Dracula intended! Third, it was unfathomably popular, earning praise and attention from sections of the population that normally ignored horror. In short, HBO's Tales from the Crypt was a series of morally objectionable exploitation mini-movies backed by some of the most powerful men in Hollywood and loved by the general public. What a rare and beautiful oddity of a show it was!

HBO's Crypt Keeper lacked much of what the Richardson Keeper had: dignity, refinement, elegance and a nose. What he lacked, though, is exactly what made this Crypt Keeper a multimedia pop culture sensation. With all due respect to Richardson, this wisecracking corpse-puppet (created by Kevin "Child's Play" Yagher and voiced by John Kassir) captured the very essence of EC's ghoulery. Producer Zemeckis said this about the Keeper in The Official Archives: "His attitude is, 'What are you gonna do, kill me?' It's as if he's flipping everyone off from the grave." Most importantly, the HBO Crypt Keeper brought back the sacred EC tradition of making horrible puns, which is why he is among my personal heroes.

Like the Adam West Batman and The Muppet Show before it, appearing on Tales from the Crypt became a hip thing to do in Hollywood. Among the celebrities featured on the show were Kirk Douglas, Demi Moore, Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeve, Martin Sheen, John Lithgow, Joe Pesci, Steve Buscemi, Roger Daltrey, Dan Aykroyd, and one of my very favorite scream queens, Ms. Jessica Harper. Behind the camera, you had directing efforts by folks like Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Yes, really.) In a weird way,  it's satisfying to see such prominent artists embrace something so morbid. Who says there's no glamour in gore?

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Stop the World, I Want to Spin-off:

Horror wasn't the only genre EC specialized in. After the gargantuan success of the Tales series, its makers attempted to recapture that ol' black magic with spinoffs based on EC's non-horror titles. The first of these was Two-Fisted Tales, which aired as a TV movie on Fox in 1992. Despite sharing a name with EC's action line, only one of the three tales ("Yellow") was adapted from an EC comic, and it wasn't even a Two-Fisted Tale. (It was taken from the pages of Shock SuspenStories #1.) Still, the segments are quite excellent ("King of the Road" is a favorite of mine, "Yellow" was lauded by critics), and the spectral gunslinger Mr. Rush (played by William Sadler) was a fitting stand-in for Ol' Crypty. Unfortunately, "Two-Fisted Tales" didn't garner enough attention to become a series, so the segments were all added to Tales from the Crypt as episodes, complete with new Crypt Keeper bits.

After the original series ended in 1997, HBO created Perversions of Science, based on EC's sci-fi titles. Hosted by a sexy CGI robot named Chrome, the show featured aliens, artificial intelligence and other concepts too high-tech for the Crypt. Perversions only lasted for 10 episodes, but there are a few gems to be found. I'm particularly fond of "Panic" (adapted from Weird Science #15), a fictionalized version of the bedlam that surrounded the Orson Welles “War of the Worlds" broadcast. Those who like their sci-fi with a twist of terror ought to check this series out.

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Children of the Corny

In an attempt to corrupt the youth of America, Tales from the Cryptkeeper began in 1993. This animated abomination featured an affable Cryptkeeper who was more friendly than fiendly. Horror for children is relatively rare, so it was nice to see Crypty introduce children to the way of the weird. Longtime EC fans will get a kick out of season 2, which brought in the Vault-Keeper from The Vault of Horror and the Old Witch from The Haunt of Fear. The real chills are in the original, but Tales from the Cryptkeeper is faBOOlous for kids!

Of all the shows spawned by the popularity of  the HBO series, Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House is the most peculiar. A Frankensteinian hybrid of Double Dare and Tales, Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House was a game show in which two teams of kids complete challenges inside Crypt's obstacle-ridden haunted house. Steve Saunders was your host, and Crypty was basically a one-puppet version of those cantankerous old-fart Muppets, Statler and Waldorf. There was a whole mess of CGI monstrosities, including a giant skull. An undeniable relic of the late '90s, Secrets of the Cryptkeeper's Haunted House is a fascinating example of Crypt's pop culture ubiquity. It's amusing to think that a character once decried for turning kids into delinquents became a cadaverous Bozo the Clown.

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Hooray for Horrorwood

Well, considering how hot the Tales from the Crypt show was, a major motion picture was inevitable. A trilogy of terror tales hosted by HBO's Crypt Keeper was planned, but only one of the intended entries was shot (two, if you believe a certain rumor). We did get three films: 1995's Demon Knight, 1996's Bordello of Blood, and 2002's Ritual. Both Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood began as unrelated scripts that existed long before the HBO Tales. Details on Ritual are SCARE-ce, but it's essentially an oddball reworking of I Walked With a Zombie. They're all fun films (Demon Knight is the most spectacular; Bordello has my heart), though none of them have much EC in them, save for the Crypt Keeper. 

Demon Knight's first draft was completed in 1987, two years before the HBO series premiered. Tom "Child's Play” Holland was interested in the project, hoping to cast Chris Sarandon as the villain and Tommy Lee Jones as the hero. After Holland left to helm Fatal Beauty, Mary “Pet Sematary” Lambert considered the project, eventually leaving to make Pet Sematary II. When the film was finally produced as a Tales flick, Ernest “Juice” Dickerson was its director. Bordello of Blood was written in the 1970s by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Legend has it that Zemeckis was heading to DreamWorks, so Universal put Bordello in production to convince him to stay. As for Ritual, all references to Tales were removed and then reinstated for its 2006 U.S. release.

Many other stories were considered for this franchise. Infamously, the theatrical release of Demon Knight teases Dead Easy, a voodoo chiller meant to be the second film in the trilogy. Rumor has it that the film was completed and shelved, but there appears to be no veracity to that. Body Count would've been third, and from the little info I could find, it seems that it would've been halfway between Re-Animator and Rambo. From Dusk Till Dawn and The Frighteners were also candidates, and… well, we know what became of those two.


EC Will Never Die

There have been two recent attempts to reboot the HBO Tales from the Crypt: a Keeper-less, American Horror Story- style show by Gil Adler and a more traditional take by M. Night Shyamalan. Both are six feet under, but the spirit of EC still scares on in franchises like Creepshow (the aforementioned Shudder series is practically a new Tales, even if it isn’t officially EC-related). In one form or another, EC will always be there to poison our minds. While the rights situation is complicated, I have no doubt EC Comics will stalk our screens again in the future.

Good Lord! *Choke*