Tales From The Crypt had it all – a fantastic roster of directorial talent, great writers, some amazing casting choices, and of course, a wise cracking undead puppet host voiced by John Kassir to open and close each episode. Steeped in the rich tradition of William M. Gaines' horror and suspense comics from the fifties - Tales From The Crypt, The Vault Of Horror and Shock Suspense Stories respectively – the series, which lasted seven seasons on HBO, has remained a fan favorite from the time its first episode aired on June 10, 1989 until it went off the air on July 19, 1996. Thankfully, once again the undead host and his friends have found new life on DVD and thanks to Warner Brothers the complete seasons of the show are now being made available completely uncut and with some interesting features as well. A whole lot of you boys a ghouls will be happy about that, as season four continues the standard of excellence set forth by the first three seasons of the show – in fact, a lot of fans consider this and the season that came afterwards to be the best of the bunch.
Just like the notorious comic books that they were based on, the episodes almost always blended a twisted sense of black humor with the gore and shock scenes that they became known for. Critics would often blast the comics for being too intense or too depraved for the younger audiences that they were aimed at, despite the fact that there was very often an obvious moral to the story and that usually the stories were quite tongue in cheek, but with the TV show they didn't have to worry about that so much. Since it aired on HBO and not on a regular network, the shows was free from the standard censorship issues inflicted on regular broadcast television and as such, the series was aimed primarily at adult viewers – just like it should have been.
The fourteen episodes that comprise the fourth season, all of which come with the full opening scene in which the camera pulls us into the crypt with Elfman's music playing overtop, are spread across the three discs in this set play out as follows:
None But The Lonely Heart: Howard Prince (Treat Williams) is a con artist who makes his money by wedding elderly ladies, getting them to sign over their bank accounts to him, and then killing them off for the inheritance money. His latest catch seems to be going well until he starts getting threatening notes. He first suspects his partner, then the guy who runs the dating service (Tom Hanks) but when it turns out to be someone else, Howard finds himself in for a rude awakening. Sugar Ray Leonard also appears as a gravedigger in this episode that Hanks directed. A nice start to the fourth season, this one has a lot of black humor, a great ending with a good twist, and some very nice make up effects towards the end. Definitely a top tier episode.
This'll Kill Ya: George Caitlin (Dylan McDermott) is a wealthy bastard who runs a pharmaceutical company that is involved in some interesting and potentially very lucrative experiments. When George makes an announcement to the press that their latest project is ready to go when nothing could be further from the truth, his two employees, Pack and Sophie, decide to use him as a guinea pig and literally give him a taste of his own medicine. This one starts off strong, drags a bit in the middle, and then really finishes with a bang. It's a rather predictable story and we can kind of see where it's all going by the half way point but it's still a lot of fun, and oh so rich with irony.
On A Deadman's Chest: In this episode directed by William Friedkin, Danny Darwin is the front man of an up and coming rock band called Exorcist (get it?). When the guitar player, Nick, gets married to a woman named Scarlet (Tia Carrere) tensions start to mount within the band. One night a groupie that Danny takes him turns him on to a weird tattoo artist named Farouche (Heavy D) who gives Danny a tattoo that explains the story that his skin wants to tell, but when that tattoo turns out to have Scarlet's face worked into it, he flips out and loses control. Greg Allman has a small supporting roll as the band's manager. The premise behind this one is interesting and it's bloodier than the majority of the episodes, but the Danny Darwin character is annoying (which is probably the point) and at times he gets tedious. The good outweighs the bad, however, and the ending is very cool.
Seance: Benny (Benny Polosky) and Allison (Cathy Moriarty) are two small time con artists who are hoping to pull of one more gig together before going their separate ways. Benny plays a lawyer who cons a well to do man named Chalmers (John Vernon) into believing that Allison is his long lost cousin and that the two of them have inherited a sizeable amount of money from a long lost relative. Allison seduces Chalmers and Benny takes pictures of them in the act but it turns out that Chalmers' wife is blind. When Chalmers falls to his death, the two cons have to hold a séance to coerce his susperstitious wife into giving over the money to Allison, but the séance doesn't quite go as planned. This one is written in the style of a forties crime noir and it works well, setting the story back in that decade. The lead actors do a fine job and John Vernon is very good in his part. Another nice twist ending makes this one enjoyable.
Beauty Rest: Any time that Drusilla (Jennifer Rubin) lands an acting or modeling gig, she always seems to lose it somehow to her roommate, Joyce (Kathy Ireland). When Drusilla finds out that Joyce slept with someone who promised her she'd win a beauty contest, she drugs her and hopes to take her place but winds up killing her by mistake. Never the less, Drusilla is smart enough to make it look like suicide and off she goes to enter the contest. She runs up against some stiff competition from a competing girl but manages to talk George (Buck Henry) into honoring the promise, though she soon finds out that this isn't the job she wanted after all. The weakest episode on the first disc, this one does benefit from a fun performance from Buck Henry and the fact that Kathy Ireland spends a fair amount of time in her underwear.
What's Cookin': Fred (the late Christopher Reeve) and his lovely wife Erma (Bess Armstrong) have been running an unsuccessful restaurant that serves only squid and unfortunately, it's not doing so well. Their nasty landlord, Chumley (Meat Loaf), is just about to toss them out into the street when a drifter named Gaston (Judd Nelson), who the couple have given part time work to, walks in and hands them the greatest steak recipe ever seen - once they start using it, business turns around completely. Fred and Erma are ecstatic with their newfound success until they figure out what happened to Chumley and what Gaston's secret ingredient is. This one was directed by Gilbert Adler who also directed the Tales From The Crypt spin off films, Demon Knight and Bordello Of Blood. This episode is completely enjoyable and played very much with tongue in cheek, even more so than a lot of the other episodes in this set. Reeve is great in his part and it's fun to see Meat Loaf and Judd Nelson show up.
The New Arrival: David Warner plays a child psychologist named Dr. Getz who has written a book and who hosts a radio call in show. When his ratings drop and he's threatened with cancellation he decides to take up one of his regular listeners, Nora White (Zelda Rubinstein of Poltergeist) on her request for a house call. When he arrives he starts to think that Zora is insane, that she's impersonating a fictitious child who doesn't really exist but when his producer, Rona (Joan Severence), is murdered in the house Getz soon realizes that there's more to this than meets the eye. Robert Patrick has a cameo in this rather unsettling episode, one of the scariest in the set (the scene with the mask is still chilling!).
Showdown: Richard Donner, best known for his three Lethal Weapon films as well as The Omen and the first two Christopher Reeve staring Superman films directs this one, based on a story by Frank Darabont, Oscar nominated screenwriter of such films as The Green Mile. Two gunslingers are involved in a dispute, and one chases the other into a creepy old ghost town out in the middle of nowhere. When the first gunman shoots to kill and finishes the duel the old fashioned way, he learns that the term 'ghost town' is more than just an allegory. Donner paces this one well and the cinematography does a nice job of capturing the creepy locations. It's a semi-predictable story, but that doesn't take away too much from the enjoyment this episode offers genre fans.
King Of The Road: This episode is fairly well known for the simple fact that it stars Brad Pitt. Directed by Tom Holland, of Fright Night and Child's Play fame, this episode tells the story of a drag racing punk who challenges a cop who used to race professionally to a speed test. The cop refuses and so the punk kidnaps his daughter and holds her hostage in order to force him into competing. Of course, the cop agrees, but his plans involve a little bit more than just driving fast – he's going to get his daughter back and make that punk pay for what he did. This one has a fun twist and it's a kick seeing Pitt show up here alongside Raymond J. Barry who is very good in his part.
Maniac At Large: It's always interesting to see who shows up in the credits in Tales From The Crypt and this episode is no exception as it was directed by John Frankenheimer, the same man who helmed Black Sunday and The Manchurian Candidate and it stars none other than Mr. Goody Two Shoes himself, Adam Ant. Margaret is a meek woman who works at the library where she obsesses over a killer on the loose, fretting that he intends to make her his next victim. She first assumes her boss is in on it, then the security guard, but the truth behind who the real maniac is comes out late one night when she gets stuck working over time. The shock ending here is well played and not as easy to spot upon first viewing as you might think. Without wanting to spoil it, this episode is a little more psychologically interesting than a lot of the other ones, but it still maintains that exquisite sense of macabre humor that the series is known for.
Split Personality: Famed producer Joel Silver gets behind the camera and into the director's seat for this episode which follows a two bit con-man named Stetson (played by Joe Pesci of Goodfellas fame) who has a specific kink – he's into twins. When he finds himself with the opportunity to date two foxy twin sisters, it seems too good to be true, but once he gets what he wants he comes up with a plan wherein he decides to marry both of them, then kill them off. Stetson doesn't realize, however, that the girls are on to him and they've come up with a plan of their own. Pesci carries this one, and he's his usual enjoyable boisterous self here. This isn't classic Tales From The Crypt material but it's a decent twenty-five minutes worth of schlocky entertainment and stands of Silver's only directorial work.
Strung Along: Kevin Yagher, best known for make up and FX work and as the man who famously had his named removed from the credits of Hellraiser: Bloodline, cut his directing chops on this episode, the first of three episodes he would go on to direct for the show. Here we learn of an older man who makes his living as a puppeteer. When he takes on a young, new assistant to school in the ways of the puppet, they soon become fast friends. The assistant learns that his mentor's wife is having an affair and so he promises to take care of the problem for him, but the wife and her lover have their own diabolical scheme in the works in which they're going to try to convince everyone that Koko the puppet is behind it all. If you hate puppets like a lot of us hate puppets and find them to be just flat out scary, this episode will get under your skin a little bit. It's not the most original story and the performances are nothing to write home about (though they fit the bill nicely enough) but some of the imagery here is just plain eerie.
Werewolf Concerto: A group of guests show up to spend some time at a beautiful, if slightly creepy, old hotel out in the middle of nowhere only to find out that the rumors of werewolf activity in the area just might not be rumors after all. Thankfully, Lokai (Timothy Dalton) is among them and being a self-proclaimed werewolf hunter, he should be able to lay their fears to rest and slay the best. It would seem, however, that much to their dismay Lokai has a secret or two of his own to deal with. Dennis Farina and Beverly D'Angelo show up in this one as well, playing two of the tourists while Wolfgang Puck has a cameo as the hotel's chef. This one is another example of how good the series could be when the right people were put in the right roles with a good script. Dalton is great as Lokai while the rest of the cast, D'Angelo in particular, are a lot of fun while supporting him. Sure, you might see the end coming, but Werewolf Concerto is still a completely enjoyable way to kill half an hour.
Curiosity Killed: Directed by Elliot Silverstein, who also did the late seventies horror 'classic' The Car, this one follows Frank (Marshall Teague) and Cynthia (Margot Kidder), an elderly couple who, with another elderly couple, head out into the woods in their motor-home, fighting with one another about nothing the entire way. Their intent is to find a fountain of youth somewhere out in the woods, but of course once they find it there's a sinister catch if they want to be young again. Sadly, this is one of the low points in the season and not the best way for the show to go out but it's still worth watching for a decent finale, even if it takes a little while to get there. Seeing Margot kidder play the older version and younger version of her character is amusing.
All in all, season four holds up really well. The producers were able to assemble a really unique roster of talent, some with roots firmly planted in the genre and others not so much, that results in a fair bit of variety throughout the set. Some focus more on the comedy, others go for splatter shocks with others still play out more psychologically. The Cryptkeeper's intros are still as corny as ever, but the moldy old puppet has lost none of his charm over the years and his bookends always make for a fun way to start and close the show.
By far the weakest part of this set is the video presentation however season four does show an improvement in quality over season three. The episodes are presented in their original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio – that's the format they were composed for and the compositions look dead on. There is still some murkiness in a couple of episodes and fine detail could have been sharper but the color reproduction looks good and the skin tones look lifelike and natural (at least when they're supposed to). Edge enhancement and mpeg compression artifacts are kept to a minimum while aliasing appears only occasionally. Tales From The Crypt doesn't look perfect on DVD but it does look better here than the earlier episodes.
Each and every episode on this set is presented in a nice English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix with optional subtitles available in English, French and Spanish. The sound on these episodes isn't exactly home theater demo material but it does the trick on this set and there aren't any noticeable problems with the audio. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Bass levels are fairly strong and the sound effects and background music is well balanced to ensure that it doesn't overpower the performers or their dialogue.
Aside from animated menus and chapter selection, the main supplements on this release is a commentary track available on the What's Cookin' episode from John Kassir in character as the Cryptkeeper, the episode's writer Alan Katz, and Tales From The Crypt chronicler Digby Diehl. This is a fun discussion with Kassir keeping things moving along pretty quickly and Katz actually providing some interesting insight into how the show was put together. Diehl puts it all into context against other episodes and explains some keen trivia. Also included on the third disc is a documentary entitled The Stars Of Season Four which is basically a collection of clips from throughout the run. While this doesn't offer anything in terms of new material as far as the show goes, the Cryptkeeper hosts it and provides his own special brand of humor throughout which makes it a fun watch though at under four minutes in length, it is pretty brief.
While the video quality still isn't perfect it is at least a step up from season three. The content is really what counts in this set, and on that level it delivers really well, and the extras, while not as plentiful as they could have been, do add some value to the set. Tales From The Crypt – The Complete Fourth Season comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.