I’ve mentioned this in many articles before, but my childhood was primarily based around the boob tube. There was TV in the morning before school, TV after school, TV while we sat and ate dinner, and TV in my bedroom before I fell asleep. Ah, the beautiful warm, blue glow from the screen. Watching cable in dark with no TV guide to assist my exploration – now that was exciting! I’ve also mentioned before that I was (am) the son of two very permissive, understanding, and cool parents. Therefore I was introduced to the good stuff early on, Tales from the Crypt being one of them. I know it aired on HBO during the weekend – I believe Saturday night – but I also think it aired once during the weeknight, too. I can’t remember exactly now. But that’s what this wonderful promo from October 30, 1993 would lead me to believe!
Tales from the Crypt ran on HBO for a total of seven seasons, 1989 to 1996 — 93 episodes in all — and I had a front-row seat for every one of ’em. It was a goldurn masterpiece. Whittling the list down to a mere 15 was no easy task, but I re-watched all of them in anticipation of writing this and can say, confidently and unequivocally, these are definitely the episodes that would crack my Top 15.
So with that little bit of history out of the way, let’s get to it: my Top 15 episodes of Tales from the Crypt, in order from least to most! Oh and CLICK THE PIC to watch the full episode!
Steve Buscemi stars as a young, talented photo journalist and Roger Daltry (yes, that Roger Daltry) is the envious, grizzled photographer whose pictures just ain’t what they used to be. With the threat of Buscemi taking his job, and after meeting Buscemi’s attractive wife – because of course a woman like that would marry Steve Buscemi – it’s just too much for the jealous Daltry to take, so he conspires to kill Buscemi. With his work competition out of the way and a beautiful, grieving widow in need of consoling on his arm, what could go wrong?
Now, Daltry’s acting is a little…stilted. But thankfully, Buscemi is solid as always. The make-up is wonderfully gross and bloody. There’s even a cameo by Coach Schneider! The episode is peppered with foreshadowing and the ending ties everything up with a perfect, vengeful twist — all things the series, much like its comic origin, would come to be known for.
This one is a slow burner with a particularly brutal pay-off, so don’t give up on it. I hate to put it so low on the list because it’s a solid one.
The episode sees an understandably suspicious and jealous husband who has recently been catching his wife in several questionable situations, made all the more suspect by her stammering, dubious explanations. Coming home late, whispered phone calls, icy distance – all the signs are there that she’s probably getting some on the side. When an old flame of hers invites both of them to his cabin in the woods for a weekend retreat, the husband hesitantly agrees. However, when he finds some lingerie in a drawer at the cabin, he is convinced these two are doing the you-know-what. He loses his shit and handles the situation like any normal human being would: murders everyone.
Like I said, the ending has a pay-off like you wouldn’t believe, so stick around and prepare to be bummed out.
So this is actually the first episode that used a story from the titular comic book — the 7 episodes up until this one had been from the other EC comic titles. But most importantly it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s directorial debut! And wouldn’t you know: it’s about an old man who trades bodies with a bodybuilder!
The late William Hickey stars as the aforementioned old codger and Rick Rossovich plays the body donor. Fun fact: Rossovich was in The Terminator. It’s like playing six degrees of big, muscly dudes.
Anyway, Hickey is a rich old man who’s in love with the young, beautiful Kelly Preston, but he doesn’t want her to know he’s rich because he’s afraid that’ll influence her opinion about him. One day he professes his love for her and, unsurprisingly, she shoots him down. Because Jesus Christ, just look at him! But the determined – and, some would say, “obsessed”, “crazy”, “stalkeresque” – Hickey decides the totally sane thing to do is replace his entire body – part by part – with that of a younger, fitter donor. He’s convinced that a younger appearance is what will change Kelly’s mind. He starts with just his face, but the young face on an old, decrepit body isn’t enough for Kelly. Unswayed, Hickey continues the process until he has the complete fit, body and the donor he received the parts from is left with Hickey’s old, useless body. You follow me? Now, Hickey, who was once rich, gave all his money to the donor for his body parts. So Hickey’s poor as Job’s turkey yet young again, and the donor is rich but old. You see what’s happening here? So finally Hickey seeks out Preston to say “Hey, look at me, I’m young, let’s do what young people do!”, but everything falls apart when he finds her in the arms of – wait for it – the old, frail donor. She confesses to Hickey that this whole time, all she truly wanted was to be financially stable, and now she can be. But my question to her is this: you saw this old dude getting tons and tons of radical plastic surgery. Wouldn’t that tip you off that he had money? Still, a great episode!
In a perfect example of art imitating life, Jon Lovitz stars as a schlubby, under-appreciated, and overlooked actor who just can’t seem to catch a break. When his nemesis, Bruce Boxleitner, a fellow actor who is far less-talented but much better looking, steals an unimpressive, local theatre role from the desperate Lovitz – just to prove he can – Lovitz snaps and gives ol’ Brucey the Million Dollar Dream.
But what of that unimpressive, local theatre part? Well, now Lovitz has a shot at the lead role, but he soon finds he’s in over his head. That’s a decapitation pun, but you’ll get it when you see the episode.
I love this one! It’s perfectly cast and it balances the horror and comedy just right. That’s something Tales really excelled at: doling out equal amounts of jokes and jolts. Plus, this one has cameos from Madonna’s ex-girlfriend, Nurse Ratched, and Gomez Addams! Alright!
Another episode with perfectly cast leads. Don Rickles stars as Mr. Ingles, a ventriloquist with a deadly secret up his sleeve – that’s another pun. I coulda wrote for TFTC! Bobcat Goldthwait stars as his protege, an aspiring ventriloquist who hopes to one day be as big as his hero. The only trouble is Mr. Ingles retired early in his career under mysterious circumstances, so it takes a little coaxing from Bobcat to bring the former entertainer out of hiding – a decision both soon come to regret.
The episode is wonderfully weird and both leads excel at doing what they do best – acting like total maniacs; Rickles with his snarky cut-downs and Goldthwait stuttering and sweating all over the place. Plus the episode was written by Frank Darabont! Great pedigree through and through.
The early EC Comics where Tales from the Crypt originated was also home to similar titles such as The Crypt of Terror, Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories and Two-Fisted Tales. What I loved about Tales from the Crypt the TV show was that each episode was inspired by the stories from any of these titles. So some episodes would be more crime drama, some were police procedural mysteries, some were straight up ghost stories, and other were romance-oriented. Variety, as they say.
“Two for the Show”, straight from the pages of Crime SuspenStories, plays just like its namesake: a crime story full of suspense. It’s ‘cat and mouse’ perfection, with a weasley David Paymer trying to outwit (and outrun) a suspicious cop played by Vincent Spano. This is another perfect episode that has you guessing until the last few minutes.
Jeffrey Tambor stars as the forlorn and repugnant Charlie Marno, world’s biggest loser. He falls madly in love with Demi Moore, a server at a bar who won’t give him the time of day – that is, until, she gets her palm read and discovers that Charlie Marno will make her rich beyond her wildest dreams.
The prototypical Tales from the Crypt-style double-cross followed by the always necessary twist. Add to the fact that this story takes place sometime during the 1950s, and it’s about as pure of a TFTC episode as you’ll come across. Tambor’s portrayal of Marno is horrifying; both in his desperation and his eventual brutality. It’s a great, great episode and Tambor gives me a major case of the willies every time I watch it.
Dig That Cat… stars the great Joe Pantoliano as a vagrant who, after receiving an experimental treatment wherein a mad doctor implanted cat cells in him, now has – wait for it – nine lives! Naturally, he joins the sideshow demonstrating his newly inherited ‘skill’ and allows patrons – for a price – to ‘kill’ him…only to bounce back a few moments later to the shock and awe of the crowd.
This episode, along with The Man Who Was Death and All Through the House, were the first three episodes of Tales to air, played in succession as sort of a 90 minute ‘pilot’. They all feel close to the source material – each one set during an ambiguous time that definitely ain’t the present. While I love the gorier, weirder episodes, I do have a soft spot for these kind, the ones that don’t stray much from the comics. And who better to play and arrogant prick who you can’t help but love than Joe Pantoliano?
A wonderfully bizarre and bloody episode with the perfect cast: Bill Paxton as a recently-released ex-con, Brad Dourif as his soft-headed brother, and Michael Lerner as the creepy ice cream man sitting on a fortune that Paxton and Dourif want. This is why Tales from the Crypt was so awesome: they got big name stars in the midst of their fame to take on these (often) creepy and unsettling parts, and play them to their fullest potential. No role was wasted in Tales from the Crypt. And, as with almost every episode, there are some incredible surprises.
Dourif is a stand out as the simple-minded “Billy”, trying his best to do right by his brother but somehow still screwing everything up. It starts out as a pretty basic story centered around robbery and revenge…but ends up being anything but basic.
It’s funny the way chance works. While I was in the midst of compiling this list — after I’d decided on which episodes and the order I was going to list them in — I had been watching a few episodes of The Twilight Zone. One of the episodes was “The Chaser”, from 1960, seen in the still below.
I couldn’t believe it: the episode was beat for beat identical to the Tales episode, “Loved to Death”, save for a few minor changes. I did a little investigating, and sure enough: it’s the same script. Written by author John Collier, it was adapted in 1951 to be a segment in an issue of Tales from the Crypt. Then, in 1960, it was adapted once more, this time for The Twilight Zone episode, “The Chaser”. And then, 31 years later, adapted once again. Ain’t learnin’ things fun!
The Tales version is a fun one: a lonely but romantic writer falls for an actress in his apartment building. Only problem is, she thinks he’s a weasel (which, to be fair, he kinda is – and who better to play that part than Andrew McCarthy.) The mysterious landlord, who watches McCarthy’s failings through security cameras placed around the apartment hallways, offers him a solution in the form of a love potion. And that’s when the fun begins.
While nearly identical, I like the Tales episode the best — it has a far superior ending!
Besides marrying gore and humor flawlessly, Tales from the Crypt was also great about having actors play against type — especially when it came to getting warm, likable and usually comedic actors to play mean-spirited shits. Over the course of its run, Tales had Ed Begley Jr. play a scumbag conman, Steven Weber play a drunken a-hole, Ernie Hudson play an incredibly vile sleazeball, and they got Catherine O’Hara to play a superbitch lawyer who winds up getting pulled over in a small town for having illegal plates on her car.
Super oddball episode with a great performance from O’Hara, as well as the always enjoyable Peter MacNicol who stars as the attorney hired to help her get out of paying for her driving infraction. And killer performance from the late Joseph Maher who stars as the unforgiving Judge.
The incredible Tim Curry, who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award, is a stand-out in this episode playing three separate roles. Not just three separate roles, but playing an entire immediate family — mom, dad, and daughter! And, because it’s the wonderfully odd and enjoyably unnerving Curry portraying the clan, he’s able to make each character more repulsive than the next, the worst being the frumpy, mouth-breathing, unbathed daughter. The make-up is truly incredible.
Ed Begley Jr. plays the scumbag conman I mentioned earlier. He goes door to door, hoping to swindle farmfolks and other like-minded yokels out of their savings through various means. But he winds up getting in way over his head when he stumbles upon the Bracket family. Begley Jr. is great, but Curry steals the show. If you’ve never watched an episode of Tales from the Crypt, this would be a good place to start — a must-see!
Much like “Three’s a Crowd” (#14 on this list), “Easel Kill Ya” is a real bummer of an episode, which is part of the reason I like it so much. Rarely anymore does horror (in any form) make me feel something, so when I see/read/hear a bit of horror that twists my insides up, even momentarily, it excites me and I make a mental note of it. “Easel Kill Ya” does just that.
A pre-Reservoir Dogs Tim Roth plays a struggling artist (and it’s hinted at he may also be a recovering addict) who leads a pretty aimless and unfulfilling life, and can’t sell a painting to save his soul. One night, after accidentally killing his downstairs neighbor, he’s reinvigorated and creates one of his best works. It attracts the attention of a local art collector who pays him handsomely and promises bigger checks if Roth can deliver more paintings. This leaves Roth at a moral crossroads as he realizes he’s only able to generate worthy art if he kills someone, and believe it or not this isn’t even the part that affects me so! It comes later, after Roth falls in love with the woman who hosts the recovery group he attends. Things get messy — literally and figuratively — and man oh man that ending.
Bonus: directed by John Harrison (Creepshow composer and Tales from the Darkside director)!
I was never a fan of the Superman films from the 80s, and I’ve never really seen Christopher Reeve in anything else so I can’t speak for his whole body of work, but man he is incredible in this episode. Reeve plays “Fred”, a cook who can’t decide on the type of cuisine he wants to offer at his diner, and it’s becoming problematic because he’s not getting any customers in the door. He runs the restaurant with his faithful but frazzled wife Erma, and they can only afford to employ one person — a drifter named Gaston, played by Judd Nelson. (Sidenote: “Gaston” is a weird name; possibly a reference to Gaston Leroux, author of “Phantom of the Opera”?)
But Gaston is their saving grace. He offers to share with Fred and Erma a secret family recipe, one that he promises will produce the tastiest steaks anyone’s ever tasted — just so long as Fred and Erma agree to split the profits with him. They agree, and soon their steaks are a hit. But where are they getting the meat from?
Aside from being just a fun, campy, gross episode, I must once again rave about Reeve’s performance. He plays the role of a well-meaning, gee-shucks husband so damn well. His performance and this episode: perfection.
The timing of this article comes attached with some unfortunate news. This list has long been completed, with “And All Through the House” coming in at #1, so it’s with a bit of sadness that just two days ago it was reported that Mary Ellen Trainor, the lead actress in the episode, had passed away last month.
The episode was directed by Trainor’s then-husband, Robert Zemeckis. This is easily one of the most memorable episodes of Tales from the Crypt, as well as one of the most memorable horror anthology episodes ever, right up there with Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone‘s “Time Enough at Last”.
The episode sees Trainor murdering her husband on Christmas Eve and trying to dispose of his body. To complicate matters, there are reports on the radio of a lunatic who’s broken out of the local insane asylum, dressed as Santa Claus. This is pure Tales from the Crypt material and was also included in the the big screen version of Tales from the Crypt in 1972, with Joan Collins playing the role of the murderous wife who gets attacked by a crazy Kris Kringle. Easily the most iconic of all the episodes of Tales, no list would be complete with out it.
Hey! For those of you still awake, you made it to the end! Wahoo! Thanks for tuning in, boils and ghouls. Let me know you favorite episodes in the comments below!