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 though this fifth season sees a lot less in the way of supplements than we've seen on prior sets. Season Five isn't quite as strong as the one that came before it but there are still some killer episodes here to enjoy.
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 and twist endings 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. 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 thirteen episodes that comprise the fifth season, all of which, once again, 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:
The Death Of Some Salesman: Season five starts off with a bang as Ed Begley Jr. plays a door to door con artist posing as a salesman named Judd Campbell. He makes the mistake of trying to sell a funeral plot to Ma and Pa Breckett (both played by Tim Curry of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) who soon catch on to his scam and turn things around on him by holding him hostage and giving him to their daughter, Winona (also played by Curry). A fun twist and a great performance from Curry in three different roles makes this one of the best of the season.
As Ye Sow: Directed by Kyle MacLachlan of Twin Peaks fame, this episode tells the story of a man who believes his lovely Irish bride to be cheating on him. A private eye figures that since she hits the confessional booth every day that she's probably nailing the priest and so the husband has him put a hit out on Father Sejac (John Shea). Of course, things don't go as planned and the parable that this episode is titled after proves to be true after all. You can see the twist coming in this one but it's still got a bit of a punch at the end thanks to some clever directing and good performances. Adam West of Batman fame has a small part in the opening scene.
Forever Ambergis: Dalton Scott (played by Roger Daltry of The Who) used to be the best combat photographer in the industry until his protégé, Isaac Forte (Steve Buscemi of Reservoir Dogs) beat him at his own game. Things get complicated with Isaac introduces Dalton, who he still considers a friend and a mentor, to his foxy young wife Bobbi (Lysette Anthony), which inspires Dalton to conspire against Isaac in hopes of regaining his spot at the top of the heap and maybe getting a little play from Bobbi on the side. Not bad, but far from a classic this episode is a little predictable but it does feature some fantastic gore effects and a strong performance from Buscemi. Roger Daltry's permed mullet also provides some unintentional hilarity and Lysette Anthony looks good in her birthday suit.
Food For Thought: Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters and Penitentiary II plays Zambini, a man who makes his living as a mind control performer in a circus. His partner, Connie (Joan Chen), knows his act is the real deal even if no one else believes her and assumes she's just saying that because she's afraid he'll beat her. When she meets a nice guy named Johnny (John Laughlin) she falls for him but Zambini finds out and makes short work of the poor sod. When he tries to use his mind control powers to bring Connie back to him, well, let it suffice to say that it almost works but it doesn't go quite the way he figured it would. This episode is pretty strong thanks to Hudson and Chen who are both quite good in their roles. The twist ending is a bit of a surprise in this one and even if it isn't the most plausible, you've got to give it points for creativity.
People Who Live In Brass Hearses: Billy DeLuca (Bill Paxton of Aliens and Near Dark) is a small time crook who just got out of the joint. He and his slow brother, Virgil (Brad Dourif of The Lord Of The Rings), plan to get revenge on the ice cream man who ratted him out in the first place, Mr. Byrd (Michael Lerner), but sabotaging him at the ice cream factory where Virgil works. Their elaborate plan doesn't quite work out and they soon find out the unexpected truth behind Mr. Byrd and his ice cream business. One of the best of the thirteen episodes in this set, this one features a great mix of black humor and grisly gore effects. Dourif and Paxton make a great team and they're both very good in their parts and this one holds up really, really well.
Two For The Show: Andy Conway (David Paymer) thinks that his pretty wife, Emma (Tracy Lords) is having an affair so to get her back he kills her and sticks her in the bathtub. When the neighbors hear her scream and call the cops, he decides to hide her body by chopping it up and putting it in a trunk which he intends to send off on a train unaccompanied. What Andy doesn't count on is a nosy cop (Vincent Spano) following him to the station, essentially forcing Andy to board the train with the luggage. Andy tries to dispose of the body along the way, but it doesn't work and he soon finds out that this cop knows way more than he's letting on. This is another strong episode thanks to some fine acting and a clever premise made all the more interesting by a really solid twist ending.
House Of Horror: Les Wilton (Kevin Dillon) is the head of a fraternity that initiates their new pledges by making them run through a house that they claim is haunted to try and scare them with rigged effects and props. The latest batch seem to make it okay until it comes time for Arling (Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation) to do his thing. Maybe, just maybe, some of what's happening in there isn't a prank at all. Could it be that the house really is haunted after all? Not a bad episode with a fun twist and some nice atmosphere. Look for Courtney Gains of Children Of The Corn in a small supporting role.
Well Cooked Hams: Martin Sheen plays an aging magician named Zorbin The Magnificent who is quite content performing his illusions until one day he meets a younger magician named Miles (Billy Zane) who steals his act and leaves him for dead. Miles seems to be about to get his shot at the big time, thanks to what he learned from old Zorbin, but of course, this being Tales From The Crypt and all, nothing goes the way he had hoped it would. A decent episode with a fun performance from Sheen, but far from the best that the series has to offer.
Creep Course: Anthony Michael Hall plays Reggie, a football player who desperately needs to pass his upcoming history test. To get an edge on things, he feigns interest in Stella (Nina Siemaszko), the resident nerd. He talks her into going to Professor Finley's (Jeffrey Jones) house to get the test answers and when she shows up she's taken by surprise when Finley and Reggie lock her inside the mock tomb that he has in his house. To complicate things further, Reggie gets poisoned by Finley. When he decides to go back to see what's happened to Stella, he finds that it's not always smart to mess with the brightest girl in the class as she just might beat you at your own game. This was another strong episode with some good performances from an interesting and oddball cast.
Came The Dawn: Perry King plays Roger, an antiques dealer who is heading up to his cabin in the woods one night when he spots a woman (Brooke Shields) stranded at the side of the road. Her truck won't start and so he puts her up for the night at his place and the two seem to hit it off despite the fact that he knows she stole that truck and she knows his wife or ex-wife is still in the picture. Soon, she'll learn the truth about Roger, however, whether she likes it or not. Borrowing heavily from Psycho this one is still fairly well done and you won't necessarily see the catch coming at the end despite some tell tale clues left early on.
Oil's Well That Ends Well: Priscilla Presley and Lou Diamond Phillips are two con artists named Gina and Jerry who do in their third partner, Larry (John Kassir, the Crypt-Keeper himself) and make off with the loot. From there, they con four small town men into thinking that there's oil underneath the cemetery but when it comes time to complete the con, it turns out that Gina's the one who is caught off guard this time around. There's an interesting cast here but there's not enough suspense to make it stand out from the pack. It's not bad, and it is entertaining, but little more than that.
Half-Way Horrible: Roger Lassen (Clancy Brown) is making scads of money by way of a serum he's developed. Unfortunately, what most people don't realize, is that this serum stems back to an Amazonian tribe and it has ties to voodoo and to murder. Lassen knows this, but doesn't seem to care who he hurts or how he does it but as we all figured, his past does come back to haunt him. Cheech Marin has an amusing guest spot in this episode, but despite that a meandering plot and the weak pay off at the end keeps this one on the lower rung of the ladder.
Till Death Do We Part: John Stamos is a male prostitute who winds up getting engaged to an older woman named Ruth (Eileen Brennan). She thinks he loves her until she finds him screwing around with a younger and foxier girl behind her back, and when she catches them together, she forces him to murder her – or at least it looks that way until he decides to use the gun against her and her bodyguards. Frank Stallone has a supporting role in this episode that pays off with a nice build up and a worthy ending.
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 contained in the first two or three seasons. Things are about o par with Season Four in terms of quality.
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.
Here's where this season doesn't stack up against the earlier ones. We get some fun animated menus and episode selection options for each disc as well as chapter stops for each episode, but aside from that the only other extra is a virtual comic book reprint of the Death Of Some Salesman comic that the episode was based on. This plays out as a ten-minute slideshow and John Karris handles the narration in character as the Crypt-Keeper, which makes it fun, but unfortunately there are no interviews or retrospective documentaries here, nor are there any commentary tracks.
While there are a couple of episodes here that are really only average, there are also some excellent ones that hold up well even now, more than ten years after they were made. Tales From The Crypt – The Complete Fifth Season has all the shocks and suspense and humor you'd expect from the series as well as some fun performances and interesting casting. The audio and video isn't bad even if it could have been better, though the lack of any substantial extras is disappointing.
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.