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Tales from the Crypt, sometimes titled HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, is an American horror anthology television series that ran from June 10, 1989 to July 19, 1996, on the premium cable channel HBO for seven seasons with a total of 93 episodes. The title is based on the 1950s EC Comics series of the same name and most of the content originated in that comic or the other EC Comics of the time (The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, and Two-Fisted Tales). The show was produced by HBO.
Yanked from the tasteless, imaginative, and classic E.C. comics that incited a Congressional investigation in the 1950s, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt—which premiered on June 10, 1989—was one of the few television shows where A-list Hollywood talent appeared. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) was an executive producer, along with Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman: The Movie) and Walter Hill (The Warriors). Each week, the anthology series would deal out a bloody morality tale, framed by the cackling Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir). Boils and ghouls curious about the show’s history should keep reading, or more puns will follow.
1. LETHAL WEAPON IS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SHOW.
Producer Joel Silver was on the set of 1987’s Lethal Weapon when he and director Richard Donner began talking about Silver’s failed attempts to adapt Tales from the Crypt as a feature film: the disappointing reception to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie and 1982’s Creepshow had lessened enthusiasm for horror anthologies. Unmoved by those failures, Donner said he’d be interested in joining the project. When the series idea was brought to HBO, they were intrigued that so many feature film talents were backing the idea. When Zemeckis—who was working with Silver on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—got involved, the network agreed to move forward with the show.
2. THE CRYPT KEEPER HAS CHUCKY’S EYES.
When a film or television show needs a creepy animatronic puppet, they usually call Kevin Yagher. As horror’s Jim Henson, the prolific special effects expert has been responsible for the Crypt Keeper, Chucky of the Child’s Play films, and various versions of the Freddy Krueger make-up. To create Tales from the Crypt’s decomposing host, Yagher used the clear blue eyes from his Chucky fabrication; it took six puppeteers to make him fully operational.
3. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER DIRECTED AN EPISODE OF THE SERIES.
Tales from the Crypt was famous for luring a number of noted feature directors to television at a time when it was considered a step down from movies. While having producers like Donner and Zemeckis making phone calls helped, the primary attraction was getting to shoot what amounted to a short film with minimal interference. For actors, it was also a chance to step behind the camera without the burden of an extended shoot. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was paid scale ($15,000) to direct an episode, said at the time “It was, I would say, the greatest joy I’ve ever had in the movie business.”
4. THE SERIES BROUGHT HUMPHREY BOGART BACK FROM THE DEAD.
Zemeckis’s involvement often meant that Tales from the Crypt would take any opportunity to explore new techniques for visual effects. In the episode “You, Murderer,” a career criminal murdered by his wife and best friend posthumously narrates the events leading up to his demise. When the character looks in the mirror—the show takes place from his POV—viewers see the resurrected features of Humphrey Bogart. Zemeckis used footage from Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and other Bogart films to capture footage and digitally insert it into the frame. During wraparounds, the Crypt Keeper also converses with a seemingly above-ground Alfred Hitchcock.
5. IT HELPED CREATE THE “IT’S NOT TV, IT’S HBO” TAG.
Free from the restrictions of broadcast networks, HBO had no problems pushing boundaries in its content. When the channel enlisted a new ad agency to develop a marketing campaign for Tales from the Crypt, they screened a collection of racy footage from the show along with other original programming. When the lights came up, someone said, “It’s not TV.” Another person said, “No, it’s HBO.”
6. TWO VERSIONS OF EACH EPISODE OF THE SHOW WERE SHOT.
For Zemeckis, Donner, and the rest of the show’s high-profile producers, the financial payoff was always thought to be a move to syndication. Because HBO was more permissive in terms of content, they needed to prepare for an eventual screening on broadcast TV stations. When Tales from the Crypt was bought by Fox for a late-night Saturday slot in 1994, the episodes were re-edited to include alternate takes that eliminated most of the original episodes’ gore and nudity. The show also had actors loop non-profane dialogue during shooting. While HBO normally values exclusivity, it didn’t mind the deal: uncut episodes were still an attraction and, as one executive pointed out, “The show is called HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.” Free advertising never hurt.