Festive Frights: 'Twas The Night Before Crypt-mas
I stumbled on to EC Comics with a textbook example of kinder trauma. Back in probably 1992, the cackling visage of the Crypt Keeper decked out in stars and stripes stumping for the Presidency frightened the shit out of me as the HBO commercial played in the Motel 6 on one of our many family road trips through the South. I remember being startled by the way Kevin Yagher’s design moved, mixed with John Kassir’s piercing laugh. I could never shake the image. As I grew older Tales From The Crypt become more palatable for a younger audience with the tween friendly Tales from the Crypt Keeper, a half hour animated version of the HBO series, and Secrets of the Crypt Keeper's Haunted House, a kids game show that took several queues from Legends of the Hidden Temple and that I still would love to be on. The Crypt Keeper was a bad ass bro that, along with bibliophile Curly The Skeleton, were my initial punny guides into the world of horror.
While Tales has many iconic stories that has been adapted over time, only one story has been adapted twice, once in the 1972 Amicus film Tales from the Crypt and the other in the popular HBO TV series of the same name, and that is William Gaines and Johnny Craig’s “...And All Through The House”. The two different takes on the tale, one from the 1972 film directed by Freddie Francis (who was David Lynch’s cinematographer for three films), and the other from the 1989 series directed by Robert Zemeckis, from a screenplay by Fred Dekker, with Cinematography by Dean Cundey (!!!). The latter has a stacked deck of creatives, to say the least. The Christmas tale is basically identical in both iterations. A disgruntled wife has had enough with her husband, so she knocks him off on Christmas Eve while a maniac is on the loose in her neighborhood. She comes face to face with Killer Clause, but not wanting to police to uncover her own crimes, she must fend for herself. The story is barebones simple, with a killer stinger that I won’t spoil here, but that’s what EC Comics was. While practically every facet of modern entertainment must be multi layered and intricate, EC Comics had only a handful of frames to tell each story so all the fat had to be cut out in favor of quick shocking imagery and gore. “...And All Through The House” gleefully gets to stretch its blood stained arms within these structures.
While both have nearly identical plots, tonally they could not be any more different. While Tales From The Crypt and EC Comics legacy have lasted generations now, the original run of all five books, Tales, Haunt, and Vault as well as Crime SuspenStories and Shock Suspenstories only ran for about four years due to being heavily policed by the Comics Code Authority and its Head Administrator Judge Charles Murphy. But after a renewed interest with the release of the omnibus The EC Horror Library in 1971, Amicus produced Tales from the Crypt. As Amicus is a contemporary of the better known Hammer, Tales has a stuffy warmth to it that will be instantly recognizable for fans of 70’s Brit Horror. Nothing screams of a bygone era like Joan Collins hand scrubbing a shag carpet in a stucco pantone yellow living room. It also feels considerably buttoned up, especially for a property that prides itself on its freedom of expression. But in 1972 it’s understandable, as the censors wouldn’t be as lenient as they would over 15 years later when Tales lands on HBO.
Clocking in at ten minutes longer, Zemeckis and company get much more room to breath and give the tale a much needed jolt of action and levity. With an audience that is craving more meat to their stories, the Crypt gang let loose replacing the slow tense pacing of the original with a zany madcap rhythm. While in the original, Joan Collins just seems stone cold AF when she kills her husband, Mary Ellen Trainor gets the added juiciness of a scumbag husband (played by the always welcome Marshall Bell) and a sleazy sounding new beau who goes by “The Big Monster” and asks you to leave “name, number, and uh...measurements” after the beep. Hey, at least we get why she’s filled with rage! And while Killer Claus is really only a minor character in the ‘72 version, he’s the star of the show in ‘89. And how can you blame them when you have consummate professional Larry Drake in the role? Drake chews his way through his scene, milking every moment to flash his blackened teeth and crazed eyes. Despite only having one spoken line, the man is a nightmare personified.
While I’m sure the big reveal of the tale has been spoiled for years, it’s a fun reminder of what you can do with little, and how much fun simplicity can be. We forget that in our Water Cooler culture, wanting the twist and turns of a show like Game Of Thrones is great, but it doesn’t have to be that way. And while M. Night Shymalan’s revival of Tales from the Crypt is sadly dead in the water, with the re-emergence of Twilight Zone under the eye of Jordan Peele and Amazing Stories with Bryan Fuller it looks like in the near future we get see a return to the golden age of anthology television.