A Scream and a Half: When ‘Tales From The Crypt’ Went to the Movies

In its various iterations, Tales From The Crypts gothic combination of sex, violence, monsters, and gallows humor has proven irresistible to multiple generations of juvenile delinquents. The lusty gore and gory lust of the EC Comics series helped inspire the Comics Code, created precisely to keep comic books as lurid and nasty as Tales From the Crypt out of the hands of impressionable young people; it didn’t work, then or in the decades that followed. The bloody and profane version of Tales From the Crypt that aired on HBO in the late ‘80s and ‘90s was explicitly targeted at mature audiences, which of course only made it more alluring to immature teenagers like me. And when the show was adapted for the big screen in the mid-1990s, it went without saying that the films — the first two of which have just been released on deluxe Blu-Ray editions by the nostalgia specialists over at Scream/Shout Factory — would be rated R, yet pitched unmistakably to the adolescents who worshipped the show (and particularly its wisecracking puppet antihero and host, The Crypt-Keeper).

Tales From the Crypt would have been a natural for the big screen even if it wasn’t famously executive-produced by a murderer’s row of cinematic big shots (Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill and Joel Silver); Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Creepshow all proved the commercial viability of this kind of horror anthology, and the beloved EC Comics had already been adapted into a perfectly solid British horror movie in the early 1970s. Alas, those anthologies apparently did not do well enough to convince the people behind Tales From the Crypt that the movies wouldn’t be a safer commercial bet as standalone stories with recurring elements, rather than a proper horror anthology like the British Tales From the Crypt film. Anthologies are relatively rare and unusual, and nothing scares executives and bean-counters quite like being different.

Tales From the Crypt nearly broke onto the big screen in a big way — Zemeckis contemplated making the first Tales From the Crypt movie, what would become The Frighteners (which more or less introduced American audiences to two forces that would become huge in the intervening years: CGI and Peter Jackson). But Zemeckis, a producer on Tales From the Crypt as well as The Frighteners, felt the project had too much potential to be tethered to a cheesy television show, even one as cultishly beloved as Tales From the Crypt.

Still from "ales From The Crypt Presents: Demon Knight"

After a few false starts, Tales From the Crypt made its cinematic debut with 1995’s Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight. The film makes a virtue of its limitations, budgetary and otherwise, by being the cinematic equivalent of a “bottle episode” that limits the action to a single dramatic setting. In this case, that setting is a rundown fleabag hotel in the middle of nowhere, where a desperate drifter with a mysterious past (played by William Sadler) seeks refuge while being pursued by a powerful demon (played with scenery-chewing abandon by Billy Zane at his hammy best).

Helmer Ernest Dickerson, a cinematographer on Spike Lee’s early films who made an auspicious debut with Juice, surrounds his character-actor leads with an impressive roster of underutilized familiar faces, including Dick Miller as an avuncular lush, Charles Fleisher as a lovelorn postman in disgrace, and Thomas Haden Church as the kind of creep — oddly ubiquitous in movies like these — who proposes forming a partnership of convenience with the demonic forces out to destroy them, as if that tactic has ever succeeded. If such a thing as a trustworthy demon exists, he cannot be found in Demon Knight.

Demon Knight never aspires to be anything more than a superior little B-movie, drive-in fodder rich in dark-and-stormy-night atmosphere and gleeful, inventive gore, and it succeeds. It’s a live-action horror comic that’s quietly ambitious in employing a mythology involving Jesus’ crucifixion and the never-ending battle between good and evil, God and the devil. The mythology was supposed to be ambitious enough to stretch across three proposed Tales From the Crypt movies, but when the modestly successful cult movie’s follow-up Bordello of Blood bombed, that conceit was abandoned.

The other reason Demon Knight succeeds is the enduring popularity and lovability of the Crypt-Keeper, the gothic-wordplay-crazed puppet who introduces every episode of the television show and the movies and is beloved by people like Jon Stewart and the men behind the wonderful bad-movie podcast The Flop House because he’s the closest thing horror movies have to a Catskills comedian, a schtick-slinging undead ghoul who is his own best audience. The Crypt-Keeper was a beloved part of my early adolescence and countless others. He was so popular with kids that he received not one but two separate kiddie spin-offs: an animated show called Tales From the Crypt-Keeper and a game show, Secrets of Crypt-Keepers Haunted House, in addition to a series of novelty albums. But not even the Crypt-Keeper’s appearance (opposite a mummy played by Sadler, no less) could save Demon Knight’s follow-up, or keep the franchise going strong.

Just a year after Demon Knight suggested Tales From the Crypt might have a future as a film series as well as a comic book and television show, the abysmal Bordello of Blood arrived to destroy the film series. The film opens with an endless prologue that links the film to its predecessor, but more importantly pads out this tawdry little trifle to just barely feature length, with a runtime of just over 80 minutes.

Still from "Tales From The Crypt Presents: Bordello Of Blood"

Glorified Cinemax After Dark fare despite a story from Robert Zemeckis and partner Bob Gale, Bordello of Blood is unapologetic sleaze (it’s the kind of film where the act of making love is referred to as taking the “skin express to tuna town”), but it’s all guilt and no pleasure, a muddled, non-starting combination of sketchy shamus detective comedy and lurid B-movie involving a sleazy, second-rate gumshoe (sentient smirk Dennis Miller) investigating a whorehouse with an unfortunate predilection for turning its clientele into undead ghouls.

Bordello of Blood shows distressingly little interest in being an actual horror movie, preferring instead to be a blood-soaked, T&A-clogged vehicle for the smug, sarcastic comedy stylings of Dennis Miller. If nothing else, Bordello of Blood confirms that even before he was a creepy right-wing blowhard, Miller was still a smirking, glib mediocrity. Miller hits the film’s labored meta-textual elements extra hard — this is a film in where Tales From the Crypt and Demon Knight both exist, and are clumsily referenced — and when Miller’s character says that he feels like he’s stuck in a bad episode of Tales From the Crypt, the wisecrack comes across as blunt candor rather than self-deprecation.

Tales From the Crypt was famously a television show that felt like a movie. It was classy trash, a goofy, giddy horror show with prestige and a hell of a pedigree thanks to Zemeckis, Donner, Hill, and Silver. So it’s bitterly ironic that when it made the move to the big screen the dynamic was reversed; Bordello of Blood is unusually cheap, tacky, and small for a movie.

If you were to make a Venn Diagram of my obsessions as a 13-year-old boy—boobs, Tales From the Crypt, Borsht Belt comedy, Saturday Night Live, Robert Zemeckis, Horror, Horror-Comedy — Tales From the Crypt: Bordello of Blood would fall smack dab in the center. It’s a movie that almost seems willed into existence by the collective desires of prepubescent boys, but even those boys are liable to be disappointed, if not flat-out insulted by it. It’s not fun, upscale, tongue-in-cheek trash; it’s just trash.

Few pop culture institutions had more fun with death than Tales From the Crypt in its various forms. Yet the film that more or less killed off the idea of the franchise as a viable cinematic enterprise (a third Tales From The Crypt film, a remake of I Walked With a Zombie starring Jennifer Grey called Ritual, was only released theatrically abroad, and only marketed as a Tales From the Crypt movie on home video) is no fun at all. Considering the multitude of seemingly can’t-miss elements at play, that almost qualifies as an accomplishment.

Bordello of Blood’s enormous wasted potential underlines just how much potential is left in this franchise. In a universe where just about everything gets rebooted (hell, there’s talk of a fourth cinematic iteration of The Fantastic Four), there’s seemingly no reason why Tales From The Crypt shouldn’t come roaring out of its tomb as well, in television, film, or comic book form, to corrupt and titillate a whole new generation of teens and afford The Crypt-Keeper another opportunity to ghoulishly abuse the English language to his own demented, demonic ends.