So, it looks like I’m starting off the first full week of the 31 Days of Tales From the Crypt blog-a-thon at Channel: Superhero, your source for the scrutiny of Small Screen comic-book-based properties. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 25 years or so, Tales From the Crypt is an anthology horror series that ran on HBO from 1989 to 1996. It also spun off two feature length films and an animated series called, Tales From the Cryptkeeper.
Today’s story–the Tales From the Crypt series premiere episode “The Man Who Was Death”–is taken directly from the pages of The Crypt of Terror #17. Thanks to some penny saving publishers and Post Office permit loopholes, The Crypt of Terror #17 is considered to be the very first issue of the Tales From the Crypt comic book. That’s why it’s fitting that today on day 5, in true Tales From the Crypt fashion, we’ll begin at the beginning… somewhere in the middle.
Debuting on HBO on June 10, 1989, “The Man Who Was Death” features William Sadler, who was still about a year from endearing himself to the world with is bare-butt kata in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, as Niles Talbot, a prison electrician turned State Executioner. When his state abolishes the Death Penalty, Talbot finds his job has been abolished along with it.
Now, I’m going to warn you about spoilers at this point, because I hate unwarned spoilers. But, really, this is a 26 year old episode of a TV show we’re talking about here. We’re well past the expiration date. But I implore you, if you haven’t watched this episode recently enough that you remember it… do yourself a favour, and watch it. It’s on YouTube. Go. Go now. 26 minutes well spent. Then come back and we’ll chat.
Thanks to classic TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, by 1989 the anthology show formula had already become a cliche, but right out of the gate, it works for TFtC. There’s the amazing Danny Elfman themed opening sequence, and then we’re treated to the Cryptkeeper doing something moderately relevant to the upcoming story. There’s some jokes (surprisingly few puns in the opener), there’s the book, and we open it to a pulp-style comic book cover of the featured story. The rotting puppet Cryptkeeper was something fresh and new, simultaneously silly and scary. In this episode, John Kassir hasn’t exactly found his voice yet. However, it’s not as off as, say… Season 1 Homer Simpson.
The story opens on a man sitting in a cell, praying. Credits roll while spooky, disjointed carnival music plays. As the music quietens, Talbot begins his narration. Sadler lays on some thick southern charm as he describes the hard luck situation of the soon to be executed Charley Ledbetter. The camera dollies across the prison floor as Talbot speaks, and Charley takes to screaming as he’s hauled from his cell. Slowly the camera pans up and we see the man’s man, Niles Talbot, arms crossed, looking powerfully down on us, casually explaining the ins and outs of what awaits ol’ Charley Ledbetter.
Anthology series were an amazing place to find great film making showcased in small doses. A show like this one could lend itself to so many different types of styles and stories. One of the most fascinating aspects of the series, for me, is watching the serious work that goes into telling these almost juvenile stories. In the opening scene of this story alone we just get that old-school film lover’s feeling. Someone that loves making movies is crafting this episode. Turns out someone is producer/writer/director Walter Hill (involved in films like The Getaway, Alien, Aliens, and more).
Out of the gate, the words Talbot is saying aren’t really as important as their casual delivery, and the camera tells us everything else we need to know. Of course, as he goes on, the what of what Talbot is saying becomes more important, and we’re jarred into paying attention to exactly what he says with this:
Talbot goes on to explain how every condemned man is the same. “All these big tough guys go yella,” he says, “blubbering and cryin’, ‘The governor’s gonna call,’ an’ all that.” Talbot’s general lack of empathy pours out of Sadler’s perfomance, and it comes as no surprise when Talbot confesses the love he has for looking the condemned right in the eye. As Ledbetter lays lifeless in the chair, Talbot gives him a second jolt, just for fun.
After the execution, Talbot heads out for a night on the town, where he introduces himself to us officially, and explains his backstory. At a coffee shop, he discovers his state is abolishing the death penalty, and shortly afterwards he discovers he no longer has a place at the prison. He heads to a local watering hole, where That Guy!™ Roy Brocksmith helps him drown his sorrows.
At the bar, Talbot & That Guy™ share a half drunken conversation that has been had a hundred thousand times in a hundred thousand bars. Agree or disagree… If you’ve ever had a real discussion with someone on the merits or lack thereof of the death penalty, you’ve heard or said their side of things. It’s so well written… so goddamn real. Like so many anthology series, near-cartoonish fluff has the potential to get real gears turning in your head.
After the bar, Talbot continues to school us on what’s wrong with the world, the system, and the bulk of the people in it. Slowly he builds up his inner rationalizations of his next step. After watching a biker (T2’s Robert “You forgot to say please” Winley) get away with a high profile murder on account of a technicality, Talbot delivers yet another awesome monologue, and puts his skills to good use once again, electrocuting the biker through a fence gate.
Talbot returns to the bar, noticeably happier as he and That Guy™ discuss the don’t-that-beat-all nature of the biker’s death as it’s reported on the news. After heading back to the courts to find another wrongful dismissal, this time a husband and girlfriend accused of murdering his rich wife, Talbot dispatches them in their hot tub after another monologue and their attempts to pay him to leave.
Confidient, and surprisingly happy, once again, Talbot heads to a strip club–because this is HBO and every show needs more boobies–for his next victim. As he works his way to the bar, and sits down, Talbot dispenses his down home wisdom on how to get along with the ladies.
This time it seems the girl cage dancing has gotten away with dispatching a previous boyfriend. When Talbot makes his way back stage, things begin to unravel quickly when he pulls the switch and nothing happens to the dancer. Police burst into the room and arrest Talbot. At the police station the arresting detective explains that Talbot’s actions have changed the government minds and the death penalty has just been re-instated.
And now, kiddies, it’s time for the good old anthology horror show twist. Did you guess correctly? Next we see him, the tough and stoic Talbot is being dragged “blubberin’ and cryin’ about the governor” all the way to the chair. He meets the new executioner, a man just like himself, who wants to look in his eyes, and gives Talbot a second blast just for fun.
We close the show with the Cryptkeeper, strapped to an electric chair and delivering puns like a champ.
The thing this episode has going for it is how likable Talbot is as the main character. His monologues are funny, honest, and–depending on your views–truthful. He’s an asshole, but an honest one. In a lot of ways, Talbot ends up being like Hank Hill. He’s clearly satirical… he’s not really right, but he’s not 100% wrong either. The show kind of ends up agreeing with both sides, and I think no matter what your views on the subjects Talbot covers, you walk away with your own opinions being justified.
As you can see from this episode, the people behind Tales From the Crypt had exactly what they wanted the show to be figured out from the get-go. After re-watching this episode, I realize that shows like this, and even The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits are shows I’d gladly welcome back, or should at least look into re-watching sometime.
Thanks to Bubbawheat, for the idea of–and the invitation to participate in–this blog-a-thon, and I hope you and everyone else has as much fun with the rest of it as I have. Looking forward to watching and reading the other entries!