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Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television

Other // Unrated // October 31, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted March 8, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Of all the items in popular culture, none have had the rollercoaster ride of the comic book. Getting its start at the beginning of the 20th century, it was almost exclusively humorous until the stock market crash of 1929. As a result of such a financial catastrophe, the business end understood that it had to move away from the funny and find another genre to explore and exploit. Action and adventure soon became the archetype, and the 40s saw the birth of the venerable standard – the superhero story. Soon, Superman and Batman were taking the place of Mutt and Jeff and Little Nemo in the hearts of regular readers. Until the start of the 1950s, it looked like the sky was the limit for these little ten cent treasures.

But when Max Gaines sold his interest in Dell, a publishing house responsible for such titles as The Green Lantern, The Flash and The Justice Society of America to start his own company, little did he know that Educational Comics – nicknamed EC – would become an industry giant... and pariah. After his untimely death in 1947, it was left to Gaines's son, William to shepherd the family company away from the brink of bankruptcy. Seeing that there was really no market for the Bible stories and historical comics the company put out, William changed the name from Educational to Entertainment, and along with editor Al Feldstein, decided that the shocking and the scary would become their bi-weekly bread and butter. Almost overnight, the horror comic became a phenomenon, eagerly anticipated by thousands of fans around the country.

Along with the sudden success came a firestorm of controversy. A citizenry rabid for reasons why juvenile delinquency was on the rise, took a questionable report by a so-called expert, added the weight of the United States Government behind it, and effectively shut down EC and its ilk after only a few short years at the top. It wasn't until the mid-80s when titles like Tales from the Crypt crept back into the pop part of the cultural pantheon. Thanks to a well-liked HBO series, and a nostalgic air over past indiscretions, the gruesome greatness created by Gaines and Feldstein has finally taken its rightful place as the creative, cutting edge material it was. And thanks to a new to DVD documentary, we can trace the saga of Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television.

The DVD:
Filled with dozens of amazing factoids, and just a small amount of filler, Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television is a nice little overview of the EC story. Beginning with Max Gaines' rise to prominence, and ending with the development of the HBO series, this 60 minute scrapbook of interviews, archival footage and colorful recreations is a perfect introduction to the insane world of comic book publishing. Long before the "graphic novel" would redefine the genre, and in direct contrast to the most popular titles of the time – i.e. superhero and adventure comics – EC's desire to delve into the dark and morbid, the fanciful and the fantastic was a true benchmark era in the evolution of the industry. It proved to be the medium's biggest boon, as well as its most untimely curse. In many ways, the pop culture marketplace has never quite survived the 1950s witch hunt that EC brought about. Even a half century later, we are still looking for entertainment scapegoats (videogames, violent movies) as a way of explaining abhorrent juvenile behavior.

In retrospect, it is easy to see why EC was targeted. Aside from popularity, which by its very nature gets you attention both warranted and unwanted, publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein were tapping into the post WWII zeitgeist of a planet at Cold War with itself. As the movie houses and drive-ins were filling up with teens looking to escape the nuclear realities with sensational tales of horror and science fiction, Gaines and Feldstein merely fed an already hungry mob mentality. They didn't inspire the fever for such material so much as add their own idiosyncratic fuel. By the time the United States Government decided to crackdown on EC and its string of gore-drench funny books, such reactionary rationales felt like nothing more than a Band-Aid over a massive and gaping wound. And although the Feds ended up successfully killing the horror comic market, they merely opened the doorway for other avenues of so called 'evil' expression – like television, music and film.

But one of the interesting things we learn throughout the running time of Tales from the Crypt is that Gaines and Feldstein had bigger fish to fry than the monsters and macabre that stoked their sales figures. During EC's famed days, the pair put out a series of socially relevant comics – "Preachies" they'd call them – which dealt with such hot button issues as racism, injustice and patriotism. In addition, the company expanded into the realm of science fiction, giving voice and laying the foundation for the renaissance in the genre that would come in the 1960s. Indeed, throughout its brief running time, Tales from the Crypt focuses less on that infamous title, and its Vault of Horror/Haunt of Fear brethren, and more on the overall career arc of Gaines, Feldstein and the clan of creative geniuses that visualized their most vicious ideas (believe it or not, Gaines and Feldstein created virtually all the plots themselves, compelled by the publishing schedule to come up with one certifiable "story" a day).

If there is a minor quibble with this otherwise compelling overview, it's that the artists themselves, legendary names like Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Al Williamson and Wallace Wood, don't get enough air time. As the individuals who gave Crypt and Horror and Fear their trademark look and design, you'd figure they'd be the main focus of the feature. Instead, they are occasionally paraded out, asked a couple of softball questions, and then shuttled into the background. You do, however, get to see a great deal of their amazing artwork, brought to vivid, modern technological light in vibrant montages and re-enactments. Anyone who's only ever seen the old EC comics in their reprinted black and white form (this critic owns the complete Crypt and Horror in a bound, monochrome collectors set that came out in the 80s) will marvel at the meticulous visualization of EC's electric color chaos for these recreations. And any chance to see one of Stephen King's all time favorites – the body as baseball fodder "Foul Play" – is every horror buff's bonanza.

Indeed, one of Tales from the Crypt's biggest selling points is seeing such famed terror titans as George Romero, John Carpenter and kid's author R.L. Stine discuss the impact and influence of EC on their own careers. Romero hints that many of Night of the Living Dead's more lurid and inventive moments were direct lifts from the comics' clever angles and scene compositions. Stine suggests that EC is the basis for the modern, twist-based horror story. And Carpenter just loves to revel in the shocking, antiestablishment bent of the entire genre. Surprisingly, Tales from the Crypt does pay some likeable lip service to other publishers who road the coattails of EC to fame, fortune and...gory, but this is really Gaines and Feldstein's showcase. Though he passed away more than a decade ago, Gaines is here in spirit (including some sensational archival material of his testimony before Congress), yet it is up to Feldstein to carry the mythos solo. And he does a very good job, describing in detail how a seat of the pants publishing ideal became both a benefit, and a detriment, to EC's economic and social fortunes.

Another thing that Tales does well is that it finds the sources for all the fear mongering and free speech squelching in the 1950s. While other forces fought to keep EC and the like from warping the minds of overly impressionable youth, it was an Ivory tower idiot, a psychiatrist named Dr. Fredric Wertham, who labeled comic books the new "pornography" and wrote a scathing tome condemning all such scandal sheets as, more or less, the sole cause of juvenile delinquency. It was his testimony that prompted the Congress, and eventually lead to the content killing creation of the Comics Code. This dictatorial organization, more than the flawed MPAA, basically told publishers what they could and could not print. Words like "horror", "weird" and "terror" were banned outright, and companies had to pass a corrupt inspection process, or loose the commercially coveted coding, and therefore space at the newsstand. Yet as with most reactionary responses, the result was to push the comic further underground, making it an even more appetizing prize for the vulnerable mind of its minions. While he was successful in wiping out most of the industry, EC had the far more lasting impact on the world at large than this disgruntled German émigré.

It was thanks to a British film company, Amicus, who created an anthology-style movie based on both Crypt and Horror that gave EC back its cultural street cred. By the mid-80s, the title was popular enough to peak the interest of Hollywood heavy hitter Joel Silver. Along with directors Richard Donner and Robert Zemeckis, a weekly series was pitched to HBO, and Tales from the Crypt, along with the shrill shriek of its host, the Cryptkeeper, are now back as part of the mainstream lexicon. Tales from the Crypt doesn't go overboard in paying publicity homage to the Hollywood-ization of the EC heritage. No, this is not some subtle shill for a DVD or syndication release (though this made for TV special originally aired on American Movie Classics in a truncated form). What writer/director Chris Selby wants to do, and what he does manage magnificently, is to teach a generation raised on Silver's version of these sensational stories that there is an equally compelling history behind their horrors. And, indeed, that's what Tales from the Crypt does best.

With a subject as far reaching and broad in scope as the rise and fall of horror comics in the 1950s as its basis, there was a real threat that Tales from the Crypt would be too general to matter, to hit or miss to make its many points. But thanks to the talent and the storytelling ability of the people in front of the lens – as well as the research and recreation of EC's gloriously gratuitous ideals - Tales from the Crypt is a sensational and serious overview. While more depth and detail would be welcome (and the DVD presentation more or less cures this complaint) this is still an amazing narrative that needs to be told. Though we like to think that basic civil rights like free speech are safe and sound in our far more enlightened modern day society, we are still faced with fear mongers who point to everything, from rap music to PS2 players, as the reason for all of our most misguided ills. Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, or so the maxim goes. Hopefully, Tales from the Crypt can be the salient lesson, not only on how this amazingly influential company rose to prominence, but on how it was ultimately gutted by irrationality.

The Video:
CS Films, relatively new to the DVD game, has released Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television is an amazingly beautiful 1.33:1 full screen transfer. Featuring an image so garish and colorful that it practically leaps off the TV screen, the comic-based creation looks even more magnificent in direct to digital clarity. The primary pigment patina to all the sequences is eye candy ingenious and we never grow tired of seeing the sensational art of the era recaptured and clarified for all time. With lots of loving detail and a wealth of visual wonders, this is one impressive picture.

The Audio:
Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television also boasts an incredibly dense Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that incorporates a lot of ambient elements into what is basically a talking head presentation. We get spooky music, various groans and screams, and some nice separation in the channels throughout the course of the presentation. While this is not some manner of immersive masterwork, this is still a very fine, nearly pristine aural offering.

The Extras:
Where this DVD really excels is in the most important issue facing a subject as far removed from the present as EC comics and its controversy, and that's supplemental content. Indeed, the added features on this DVD are almost BETTER than the main material they support. Divided over two discs, we get a chance to hear from literary giant Ray Bradbury, a few of the EC artists, and even some additional footage with that Dead dude, Romero. Disc 1 is where you will find the Martian Chronicles creator, as he sits down with EC editor Al Feldstein to look over the artwork that accompanied some of the adaptations that the magazines did of his classic stories. While there is a lot of personal and anecdotal information provided, we also get what is a very nice (if overly long, it is nearly 55 minutes in length) and occasionally stirring tribute to a great author.

Disc 2 houses the rest of the extras, including extended interviews with several of the EC icons (including Jack Davis, Al Williamson and Jack Kamen). Varying in length and level of interest, it is still pretty remarkable to hear these creative geniuses discuss the inspiration, and the ultimate disgust they felt at some of their own imagery. Kamen in particular invites us to view some specific works, and comic book historian Roger Hill walks us through one of EC's most notorious instances of "self censorship" – the famous severed head cover at the center of the Congressional hearings. While much of this material is informational and kind of repetitive, we still get an amazing amount of context from which to view the rest of the presentation.

Final Thoughts:
It's interesting that, over the years, the horror comic has been harangued as contributing to delinquency, and the decay of moral fiber, while another EC entity, the ultimate expression in sensational subversion, Mad Magazine, become a sacred cultural icon. It could be that, in general, we cotton to comedy a lot more quickly than we do to terror and suspense. Maybe the lack of provocative material, Mad's sexually scandalous suggestiveness aside, was the reason why it was embraced. Possibly Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear were just way ahead of their time, speaking to a more modern mindset that truly didn't exist in a post-war world. Whatever the case may be, from a sense of vigilante social justice to the decidedly craven concept at its core, William Gaines and Al Feldstein, along with the staff of EC, managed to survive their brush with entertainment exile, and their byproduct has long outlasted the critics who called for their unconscionable heads. Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television, does a remarkable job of explaining this story for those to young to remember it firsthand. As a piece of history, as well as a celebration of some enormously skilled showmen, this is a fascinating, fact filled film. While Congress and the dictators may have won the battle, EC and its legacy won the war. Tales from the Crypt is documentary proof of such a clever conquest.

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