Hello, kiddies! It’s been 25 years since The Crypt Keeper first leapt from our TV sets and haunted our theaters in Ernest Dickerson’s Demon Knight. In celebration — or perhaps confusion — we’re revisiting our 20th anniversary commemoration in which we asked, “Whatever happened to Tales from the Crypt?” Needless to say, we still have no clear answer, even despite M. Night Shyamalan attempting a reboot.
Justin Gerber (JG): It’s time, kiddies. It’s time for the Crypt Keeper to come back.
Some readers may be wondering who or what I’m talking about, and that’s fair. We haven’t seen the Crypt Keeper since the morning cartoon New Tales from the Cryptkeeper, and even then he was animated. Before that, he was a diluted version of the character on the kids game show Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House. I couldn’t make these programs up if I wanted to, and trust me, I’d never want to.
The Crypt Keeper was the host of the early ‘90s HBO adaptation of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt and the movie spin-offs that followed (his name consisted of two words, not one). A puppet operated by Van Snowden (Child’s Play) and famously voiced by John Kassir, the Crypt Keeper would introduce and button every story with a pun-filled monologue, usually accompanied by his evil, maniacal laugh. Tales from the Crypt was excessive on every level: oversexed, extremely violent, and, most importantly, inappropriately hilarious.
What gave the project respectability were its executive producers: Richard Donner (director of The Omen, Superman, and the Lethal Weapon series), David Giler (producer of the Alien franchise), Walter Hill (director of The Warriors and 48 Hrs.), Joel Silver (producer of every big action movie from the ‘80s), and the most famous of them all, Robert Zemeckis (director of the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump). This led to appearances by big names (Demi Moore, Tom Hanks) alongside rising stars (Brad Pitt, Ewan McGregor). Hell, Arnold Schwarzenegger even directed an episode (“The Switch”, which won the late William Hickey a Primetime Emmy).
But let’s focus on the movies that followed, and the movies we can only hope will come. Demon Knight celebrated its 20th anniversary this month, and Bordello of Blood followed a year later, in 1996. Dan, what fond or not-so-fond memories do you have of the Crypt Keeper? And do you know what Ritual is without looking it up?
Dan Caffrey (DC): I have to admit, I have no idea what Ritual is…
Blake Goble (BG): You guys, Ritual was the 2002 — wait, 2006 (the straight-to-DVD premiere year) proposed closer in the Tales from the Crypt cinematic trilogy of excellence! Wait, no: It’s an awkward extension of the previous movies, wrapped up in distribution problems and features mortifying Rastafarian Crypt Keeper bookends. Actually, it’s supposed to be a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s excellent I Walked with a Zombie, but you’d never notice under the grim stereotyping. Here, it’s on YouTube for free.
But you guys didn’t come here to talk about Ritual, did you? We’re here to talk about our friend the talking corpse and his movies.
DC: I do have very distinct memories of our old FIEND, the Crypt Keeper. Sorry for the terrible joke, but I guess I’m just a glutton for PUNishment. Eee-hee-hee!
Speaking of which, that laugh. That laugh creeped me out so much that I dreaded watching the opening credits to Tales from the Crypt, where the camera zoomed through the Crypt Keeper’s haunted mansion and ended on him bursting out of the coffin, cackling to the cobwebs. It got to me every time. As for the show itself, you hit the nail on the head, Justin. Tales from the Crypt worked because it was maximalist on every level and made no bones about being violent, sexual, and downright mean. There was something about the show that felt unsafe compared to the horror stuff on network TV at the time, and to the 5-to-12-year-old in me, there was something icky yet alluring in that.
I think we can all agree that the show was pretty incredible and — dare I say — groundbreaking for the time, although I’m sure not every single episode holds up today. But like you said, Blake, let’s discuss the quality of the films that followed and why old Crippie went downhill. I actually don’t think his descent had anything to do with his characterization. Think about it. The Crypt Keeper, as scary as he looked and laughed, was always kinda cheesy by design. He was our narrator, after all, a figure that had to be a kind of safe haven for us viewers in the middle of all the wretchedness. Yeah, he was creepy, but he also cracked jokes, so you knew he was alright. You never got the sense he was actually going to hurt anyone. He was on your side.
However, because the Crypt Keeper is so self-aware, because he makes terrible puns, his monologues only work if they’re surrounded by stories that are actually terrifying. That’s where Demon Knight succeeds. The story has mystery, the skeletal demon creatures are genuinely freaky, and, most importantly, the leading man is a villain. He’s also played by Billy Zane, who already has an ominous nature about him, not to mention bona fide acting chops. The framing device can afford to be a little cheesy because the meat of the film is so unnerving.
Bordello of Blood, on the other hand, fails because it’s the exact opposite of Demon Knight. The story centers on the hero, not the villain — a hero who, like the Crypt Keeper, cracks shitty jokes whenever he’s onscreen. And while Dennis Miller has his talents, “ominous” and “acting chops” aren’t really words I associate with him. Oh, and the monsters SUCK, too. Literally! Because they’re vampires! Get it? In all seriousness, a brothel full of vampires just isn’t as interesting as the creatures from Demon Knight, which were dreamed up especially for the film.
What I’m trying to say is the Crypt Keeper is no different in Bordello of Blood than he is in the TV series or Demon Knight. He’s just surrounded by so much crappiness that his own self-aware crappiness becomes unbearable rather than charming. Would you guys agree with that sentiment, or do you think the Crypt Keeper’s characterization actually did change somewhere between the TV show and the films?
BG: Demon Knight! Holy mackerel! This thing is 20 years old?
Tales from the Crypt was the best. It was like the naughty little brother of Amazing Stories or The Outer Limits. It would air in edited form back in the ’90s on FOX late at night, and I’d stay up for it (along with The U’s Svengoolie and TNT’s Monstervision … kids stuff). It turned on the inner Chris Farley Show that was nine-year-old me. “Hey, remember when Steve Buscemi’s eye falls out after he’s scorned by Roger Daltrey? That was awesome…” “Hey, remember the murderous Santa Claus? That was crazy…” “Remember when Winston from Ghostbusters was a scary clown man? That was nuts…”
I actually screened the show in its entirety last year (winter boredom, er, curiosity), and those episodes hold up in their dopey, nasty ways. Plus, it’s like a who’s who of ’80s and ’90s genre directors in peak form (Stephen Hopkins, Gary Fleder, Mary Lambert, Russell Mulcahy, the list goes on; even Tobe Hooper and William Friedkin directed episodes). Yet I was never incredibly scared by the stories. Dan, I thought the Crypt Keeper was hysterical, another in a long line of horror movie hosts, like Elvira or Wolfman Mac or something like that. He was the master of ceremonies for salacious genre stuff. It was just like Stephen King’s Creepshow: jolty, sure, but mostly laughable and extreme.
So, naturally, I was chomping at the bit for Demon Knight, and I was so confused by the shift in tone. The shows, even when I was younger, seemed jokey, jolly, and titillating. The movie felt wrong in that regard; it was effects-heavy and way too intense. Billy Zane kept doing this knockoff Beetlejuice persona, and William Sadler and Jada Pinkett made for dull heroes. It’s more fun to secretly wish harm on nasty leads, like in the show. I liked the Crypt Keeper doing his thing (like when he yells at John Larroquette), but I thought Demon Knight was way more upsetting and gruesome than anything the show ever did. Maybe the creative team felt it would be too hard to maintain something tongue-in-cheek for 90 minutes.
Also, Dennis Miller as a hero in Bordello of Blood? Where do we even begin? It felt like such a rip-off of From Dusk Till Dawn (released months earlier), and the T&A was absurd even by young me’s standards.
By the time the movies came around in 1995, the Crypt Keeper was too big. It seemed like he was parodying himself for the sake of bloated genre fests. The show always worked within its tidy (albeit bloody) little packages. Just like the comics they were inspired by.
Demon Knight is just not fun, but as a nostalgic curiosity, it’s interesting in how out of sync it feels. It’s kind of the capper on the Crypt Keeper pop culture story, the beginning of the end. He sold out and went freaking Hollywood, with garish effects and bad scripting. That’s not to say that the demons in Demon Knight aren’t still really effective, or that there aren’t great, unnerving moments (poor Charles Fleischer as little, old Wally). Still, Demon Knight is crummy. Justin, are we being harsh for calling the Crypt Keeper a sellout (20 years too late, no less)?
JG: I have a great Tales from the Crypt/Sesame Street analogy to answer your question, but first off I must agree with Dan on his Demon Knight assessment. It’s nasty, but we’re always meant to chuckle at the arms being torn off and heads being punched in. This isn’t Saving Private Ryan. It’s a 90-minute rollercoaster. Sadler is always reliable, and while Pinkett isn’t at her absolute best, you’ve got great character actors like CCH Pounder (The Shield), Dick Miller (every Joe Dante movie, pretty much), and the aforementioned Fleischer balancing things out. Billy Zane is so perfectly over-the-top he makes the whole thing work, and that monster design still holds up today.
As for that great analogy, I believe that the Crypt Keeper went the way of Big Bird in Follow That Bird after he’s been kidnapped, painted blue, and put in a cage for all the kids to see. He didn’t sell out, but his creators sure did. I kept waiting for the Sesame Street gang to rescue our decaying friend from the depths of CBS Saturday morning games/cartoons, but they never came. I’d say they were afraid of him, but have you met Oscar the Grouch? Cat’s the worst.
Yes, I’m aware that it’s difficult for a puppet to sell out or not sell out, but that’s not really the point. The Crypt Keeper brand has been damaged, but not irrevocably so. I believe there is still a market out there in the way there appears to be one for Pee-wee Herman, whose show went off air 25 years ago. As for the mainstream horror films of today, so many are wannabe franchises jam-packed with grainy footage of unseen ghosts. We need to laugh again and not at jump scares or well-intentioned but seriously flawed stories.
I call for the return of the Crypt Keeper. It’s just time. An annual Halloween movie with a decent budget and aspiring directors. A go-to cast of character actors. Dan, are you with me?
DC: Justin, before I answer you, I want to commend you on your Follow That Bird analogy, as that remains one of my favorite scary movies thanks to one terrifying Ms. Finch.
But I digress. I second your idea about an annual Halloween Tales from the Crypt film, perhaps even an anthology one that makes use of the show’s greatest strength: its structure. Since the jury is mixed on Demon Knight, I think we can all agree that Tales from the Crypt‘s yarns are best told in a shorter-form narrative, whether it’s in the original show or the original EC Comics, where it’s worth pointing out that ol’ Crippie (does anyone else call him Crippie, or is it just me?) looks less monstrous and less scary.
In this discussion, I realize we’ve also (in our own separate ways) come to the realization that the Crypt Keeper is only as strong as the material surrounding him. For further proof, I have to point to his horrendous 1994 Christmas parody album, Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas. I believe it might be the sole piece of media that features only the Crypt Keeper with no stories involved.
That means 35 minutes of puns, puns, puns — Christmas songs galore transformed into gruesome carols! Titles like “We Wish You’d Bury the Missus” and “Twelve Days of Cryptmas” say it all. Oh, and there’s a Crypt Keeper rap, too! Having a horror icon venture into hip-hop usually spells the beginning of the end (looking at you, Freddy), but once again, the main reason this record is such a turd — even though I found it hilarious back in sixth grade — is that it’s all Crypt Keeper, all the time. Oh, and hey, it looks like he put out a metal album, too. Have either of you guys heard it?
BG: Spooky gag songs are just the worst. Ugh, we already went over The Fat Boys on the 30th anniversary of Nightmare on Elm Street. If you’ll pardon me, I’m going to set a Q-tip on fire and stick it in my ear.
As for a Crypt Keeper annual, why not? Get all those hungry, young horror directors from the V/H/S and ABCs of Death movies to helm! Or what about an HBO reboot? They brought back Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback and are planning a Mr. Show reunion. A Crypt Keeper anthology film, like everything we’ve mentioned, could be perfect.
JG: Dan, I’m afraid my dark memories of the Crypt Keeper pertain only to those CBS monstrosities, though after hearing some samples from his audio undertakings, I should be grateful. Or should I say GRAVEful?
That’s a CUT on our creature feature on the Crypt Keeper. I’d say “FANGS for the memories,” but hopefully there’s life yet in our undead keeper of the crypts. So until then, sit back and relax, kiddies! Hopefully we’ll hear something similar to what he told us in Demon Knight: “Fasten your drool cups, and ready your vomit bags! We’re going to the movies! Frights, camera, action!”