“Witney Seibold is my colleague over on the Film Channel, and as I was posting my latest Best Episode Ever column, he asked me if I’d done ‘Tales From the Crypt’ yet. As I hadn’t, I asked him which episode he would pick. I liked his angle, so I asked him to write this week’s Best Episode Ever while I am busy at the Toronto International Film Festival. Ladies and gentlemen, Witney Seibold.” – Fred Topel
“Tales from the Crypt” was an odd duck. Here was a show based on an old line of obscure, gore-laced comic books whose level of violence was so extreme, it almost single-handedly caused the inception of the Comics Code Authority. It told rather simple morality tales (usually about supernatural revenge), but always with the most lurid possible edge. These were comics that were, at their core, all about lying, cheating, stealing, and the eventual zombie/ax man/mutant that would kill the doers of wrongs, all told with breathless affection toward the inevitable violence. The comics were loaded with exclamation points, and seemed to go out of their way to give young boys nightmares.
“Tales from the Crypt” (1989 – 1996), based on the titular comic, as well as other with titles like “Shock SuspenStories,” somehow managed to maintain that madman’s interest in the macabre. It was just as lurid and just as sleazy as the comics that inspired it. It aired on HBO, so the makers were allowed to push the envelope in terms of gore and violence, but also was very keen on including the occasional topless woman. This was exploitation entertainment that wanted to constantly stress that it was exploitation entertainment. The show took a certain glee – just as the comics did – in seeing just how much awful stuff they could get away with.
Even with shows like “Game of Thrones” and other equally sexual and violent programs everywhere on cable TV, it still seems miraculous that something as deliciously bloodthirsty as “Tales from the Crypt” could ever have been made in any climate. In addition, the show was hosted by a pun-flinging rotting corpse who regularly offed himself with guns, knives and electricity. And this was one of the more popular shows in HBO at the time. Looking back, the entire Crypt phenomenon seems like some sort of pop aberration. The show – twisted, green and slimy – somehow butted its misshapen head into the fame line and managed to stay happily next to the normals for seven whole seasons without anyone bothering to point out that it was eating human flesh.
Perhaps it was the show’s pedigree that kept it afloat. It was raised and reared by heavy-hitters like Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, and Richard Donner. The wattage of those directors also attracted hundreds of recognizable actors, and there was a time in the 1990s when “Tales from the Crypt” – like “Hamlet” – became the hoop through which every working actor must eventually jump.
Or maybe it was just the kick-ass theme song. Whatever it was, I adore the show to an unreasonable degree. Every skin-peeling, bad-punning, monster-mashing minute of it.
It’s ironic that the best episode of “Tales from the Crypt,” then, should be one of the episodes known less for its gore and violence and luridness, and more for its outright moralizing. Directed by Zemeckis, “Yellow” was the last episode of the show’s third season, airing on August 28th, 1991. It starred Kirk Douglas and his real-life son Eric Douglas as a pair of soldiers during World War I. Eric played a soldier named Lt. Kalthrob who, on the 49th straight day of vicious and futile combat, decides that he just doesn’t want to be in the army anymore. His father, General Kalthrob (Kirk) is shocked and ashamed at what he perceives to be his son’s cowardice.
The presence of Kirk Douglas, and the WWI setting, and the open themes of cowardice in combat should already evoke Stanley Kubrick’s early masterpiece Paths of Glory. I’m sure that this was no accident.
The General gives his son a chance to redeem himself. Sneak out of camp late at night, and repair a communication cable with some other soldiers. If he completes his job, the General will allow his son to be shipped to the back lines, well out of harm’s way. The Lieutenant bungles this amazingly, leaving his platoon (including Lance Henricksen) to be brutally killed by the Germans. The Lieutenant is to be executed for his cowardice.
“Tales from the Crypt” has always aimed to be scary, but this is one of the few episodes that deals directly with the effects of fear on the human mind. Is it really so insane, is it really so cowardly, to want to drop out of war? War is the most horrible thing in the world. What “Yellow” points out is that war changes our standards, most certainly for the worse. It’s not okay to murder someone in private life, but the wholesale murder of hundreds is considered heroic on the battlefield. And what many would consider to be sane and rational behavior in most instances (i.e. fleeing from obvious and constant danger), is actually a grievous crime in wartime.
None of these notions are new; essayists have been writing about them and elaborating on them for years. But that such sophisticated notions should come through on a show that is primarily interested in shock and sickness is awesome. That this episode should also maintain show’s lurid tone is all the more amazing.
The General condemns his own son to die. Then, in a heartfelt exchange of speeches on the ideology and virtues of cowardice versus the vices and harm of heroism, the General grants his son a reprieve. He will load the firing squad guns with blanks, and his son can merely pretend to die, fleeing into the hills with a specially prepared care package once everyone thinks he’s dead. Don’t read on if you don’t want the ending spoiled.
The Lieutenant marches out bravely, confident, and even cocky. He refuses a blindfold. To all eyes, he is acting heroic for the first time in his life. He knows he will not die, so he is unafraid. In a single devastating moment, he sees his father, at the very last second, avert his eyes. Those are not blanks. The rounds fire as planned, and the Lieutenant is executed as planned. The last line of dialogue is “My son is no coward.”
How horrible! In a show that deals with werewolves and other creepy monsters, we are given the series’ worst with this moral monster. A man so corrupted by war and twisted notions of heroism that he is willing to lie to his own son and also murder him, just so he can say that his son wasn’t a coward.
But here’s the tricky thing: The episode also has sympathy for the soldiers that the Lieutenant abandoned. Cowardice Is only ever seen as a weakness. We sympathize with the sane soldier who wants to go AWOL, but he never does anything admirable.
And we’re thinking about all of this while watching “Tales from the Crypt.” The usual Cryptian morality play, for this one episode, became infinitely more complex, more politically relevant, more touching, more awesome, and more grueling than it had been in any episode before or since. We have an antiwar polemic that’s just as moving and as powerful as Johnny Got His Gun, All Quiet on the Western Front, or even, yes, Paths of Glory.
“Tales from the Crypt” was frequently provocative, and always had a moral dimension, but for one aberrant episode, the moral quandary came before the gore. The result was the best episode ever.