On this day – June 10th – in 1989, HBO debuted Tales from the Crypt with the Walter Hill-directed episode "The Man Who Was Death." William Sadler starred as an executioner who, you could say, relished his job. He took things a bit too far, however, turning vigilante until he was caught by the law and sentenced to death himself, ultimately winding up in the electric chair he knew all too well. Beyond the cynical, archetypal "Crypt" twist we had become accustomed to by the time the series called it quits in 1996, the episode was significant in the fact that Sadler's character – Niles Talbot – broke the fourth wall. Sadler had this dead gaze – as he stared directy into the camera – that was hypnotic and menacing. It was only contradicted by a wry smile that would come when he was taking a swig of beer or talking about killing someone.
The subject matter was also grim and confrontational. A helluva way – and perhaps the only way – for a show like Tales from the Crypt to begin. And there I was – and I remember this like it was yesterday – sitting in front of the television, my sketchbook within arm's reach, a stack of comics on my lap, eager to dive into the latest genre series (Monsters was well underway and Tales from the Darkside had gone off the air a year prior). The Crypt Keeper amused me as he hissed his way through an introduction (John Kassir was at the early stages of finding the character's voice then) and then on came Sadler, waxing poetic about what a man's body does when the switch is lovingly flipped on the electric chair.
That's all my parents needed to turn the TV off. "Garbage," I recall my father saying, "that's too much." At that very moment, I knew what a kid felt like when his "Tales from the Crypt" comic book was taken away from him and pitched into the trash. (Needless to say, I found my ways of seeing Tales from the Crypt and I've been a fan ever since.)
Tales from the Crypt was a unique experiment. Here you have Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Gil Adler and Walter Hill coming together to produce (sometimes direct) a weekly horror show, hosted by a talking corpse, that welcomed a wide range of major talent in front of and behind the camera. It was a celebration of the macabre and no one was "stooping low to do a horror story" here, no sir. Not when you had Arnold Schwarzenegger directing or Demi Moore starring. This was fun. Sure, it was grotesque at times, but everyone involved knew what they were on board for. When Tales from the Crypt wasn't wooing A-listers at the time (or recreated old ones like Humphrey Bogart for "You, Murderer" in 1995), it was giving great character actors an opportunity to chew the scenery, like the aforementioned Sadler, for instance, or Lance Henriksen, Marshall Bell, Larry Drake, William Hickey, John Glover… Seriously, the list goes on and on and on. The directors and writers that contributed to the series raises eyebrows, too, ranging from cinema vets to newcomers who would go on to have directing careers – in and out of the genre – on their own.
Regardless of how good or bad some episodes were, it's pretty insane what Tales from the Crypt accomplished during its time on the air. And not just in the talent-wrangling arena. Living on HBO, the show was allowed to push some boundaries in both the sex and violence department. FX shops were kept busy and we got to see some cool creations on the screen. "Horror on television" did a lot of growing up when Tales from the Crypt debuted. And, of course, it should be noted that it spawned a series of films that eschewed the anthology horror film format and just told one-shot feature-length stories under the "Tales from the Crypt Presents…" banner (Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood and Ritual – The Frighteners was almost fell under that umbrella).
There were talks of a Tales from the Crypt revival a few years back, spearheaded by producer Gil Adler, but nothing has come about. If there was any time to resurrect this series, it would be now with the recent horror boom on TV. Imagine: An anthology series pulling from today's talent pool, with today's FX and today's new benchmark for what you can get away with on the small screen. It seems like a no-brainer to me.
Until the show is exhumed, take heart in knowing that HBO did release every season of Tales from the Crypt on DVD that you can reach for when you need a fix.