#1 "The Man Who Was Death"
Welcome, boys and ghouls, to the very first entry in Spookthology of Terror, the new feature where I watch, and write about all ninety-three episodes of the cult HBO anthology Tales from the Crypt in chronological order. Why? Because I want to, and the beautiful thing about Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, beyond me mostly being able to make a living and feed my family off it, is that there is no one to tell me not to follow every last whim or lustily pursue any passion project, no matter how self-indulgent.
I’ve always loved Tales from the Crypt. I’m that one Gen-Xer who regularly tests his wife’s patience by regularly sliding into the endlessly punning persona of The Crypt-Keeper, something that has only gotten worse since I became a devoted listener of the equally Crypt-Keeper-obsessed podcast The Flop House.
It’s hard to overstate my nostalgic attachment to Tales from the Crypt. I was thirteen years old when the series debuted on June 10th, 1989 with the Walter Hill co-written and directed “The Man Who Was Death”, the perfect age for the series’ trademark combination of gothic horror, comic book stylization, morbid humor, willfully excessive violence, macabre attitude and, this being HBO, naked boobies.
“The Man Who Was Death” contains all of those elements but it’s nevertheless an offbeat episode of Tales from the Crypt, particularly for a series-opener. It’s not that scary or suspenseful, for starters, nor is it particularly funny. It’s overflowing with pitch-black humor, but devoid of genuine laughs. The twist isn’t much of a twist and when the story begins properly we segue from our host the Crypt-Keeper addressing the camera and talking directly to the audience in a ghoulish voice full of gallows humor to our anti-hero Niles Talbot (the great character actor William Sadler, perfectly cast) addressing the camera and talking directly to the audience in a ghoulish voice full of gallows humor.
Over the course of the episode’s twenty-five minutes or so, Niles seldom stops talking directly to the camera, and by extension, us. Niles, you see, is something of a philosopher. He’s got a whole lot of ideas about how the world works, and the fundamental nature of society gleaned from his job as the man who throws the switch on the electric chair sending its inhabitants from the land of the living to the great beyond.
While it is generally a wonderful thing to love your job, it’s possible to love your job entirely too much. That is unfortunately true of the dead-eyed, sinisterly drawling Niles, who clearly loves killing people in the name of the state way too goddamn much. In narration that never ends, and seldom even stops, Niles walks us through the horrifying details of flipping a switch that sends a fatal dose of electricity into a condemned man’s body with terrifying matter-of-factness.
Niles is a Southern gentleman with an accent dipped in poisoned honey but he’s also a sociopath, a man who has no problem whatsoever looking an inmate in the eye before executing him. Niles wonders aloud if the prisoner he’s set to execute, one Charlie Ledbetter, will “crap all over himself when I juice him in a couple of minutes” and pooh-poohs the idea that when you’re executed “your eyeballs pop out” and “black blood comes out of your mouth.”
Needless to say, the Crypt-Keeper is not the only person for whom death, the more gruesome and violent the better, is a source of unending laughter. When our hero/anti-hero/villain kills someone with the active encouragement of the state, all he feels is the satisfaction of a job well done.
I vaguely recall watching Tales from the Crypt from the first episode on. Hell, I vaguely remember “pressuring” my father to get HBO solely so that I could watch Tales from the Crypt and all the other shows on HBO involving naked boobies. I can imagine fewer episodes of television less appropriate for my 13 year old self than the Tales from the Crypt premiere and consequently fewer things I’d want to see more.
The first episode of Tales from the Crypt feels as rooted in the world of hard-boiled paperbacks and the bleakly funny tough guy oeuvre of people like Jim Thompson as it is in gothic horror comics. As a 13 year old, one of the things that excited me most about Tales from the Crypt was the gaudy talent on display both in front of, and behind the camera.
We’re talking huge names like Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Richard Donner and the aforementioned Hill. “The Man Who Was Death” is vintage Hill—tough as nails made of diamonds, darkly funny, about as macho as you can get without crossing into self-parody and made with a connoisseur’s appreciation of a distinctly Southern form of brutality. Three years after this episode’s release, Sadler would re-team with Hill for the terrific urban thriller Trespass. Two years later he’d revisit his role here when he played Death itself in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. A few years later he starred in the pretty terrific Tales from the Crypt movie Demon Night. Needless to say, Sadler seems almost disconcertingly at home here.
Unfortunately for Niles, something tragically comes between him and a job that’s more like an existential identity when a bunch of bleeding heart politicians go ahead and revoke the death penalty. Niles is displeased for reasons above and beyond the loss of steady income. He believes in the death penalty more than is healthy or sane so when he’s no longer legally able to make a living killing people, he decides to become a freelance executioner.
Actually, he decides to become judge, jury and executioner of clearly guilty people who’ve gotten off on technicalities, including a wife-killing yuppie degenerate played by Bud the C.H.U.D himself, Gerrit Graham. Even the bit players have class in a trashy kind of way. From the very beginning, Tales from the Crypt was blessed with a purposeful timelessness. “The Man Who Was Death” is ostensibly a contemporary tale but nothing about it says “1989.” Hill and cinematographer John R. Leonetti give the story the exaggerated angles and extreme close-ups of its comic book source material and a tough, hard-boiled look that could take place anywhere between the 1950s and 1970s.
“The Man Who Was Death” lovingly establishes that Tales from the Crypt will be a deliberately, sometimes transcendently fucked-up endeavor that glories in offending the delicate sensibilities of the kinds of moralistic busybodies who instituted the Comics Code that killed the original comic book version of Tales from the Crypt and its offspring/sister publications.
So it’s gloriously unsurprising that deep into his freelance killing spree, our quietly terrifying protagonist/villain decides to execute, via his beloved electricity, an evil stripper whose crimes may or may not exist outside Niles’ diseased mind. There is nothing remotely sexy, or sensual about the strip club sequence but the 41 year old me was obscenely happy for the 13 year old me that of course the first episode of Tales from the Crypt has naked boobies of the most gratuitous variety.
You do not need to be Frightmaster M. Night Shyamalan, the master of the twist, nor Chubby Checker, the man who famously recorded “The Twist”, to figure out what the semi-twist in “The Man Who Was Death” is: a dude who loves executing people via the electric chair, following a series of murders, will end up in the electric chair himself. I’m not even sure if that qualifies as a twist, yet I found “The Man Who Was Death” strangely satisfying all the same.
If “The Man Who Was Death” is short on scares and outright laughter, it is long on atmosphere and dread and blessed with a revelatory lead performance by Sadler, who is so convincing and so real in the exceedingly challenging lead role that it’s hard to believe that this is one of his first big roles in TV or film.
Thanks to Hill and Sadler, “The Man Who Was Death” feels as much like a gritty character study of a brutal man who receives an appropriately grim comeuppance as it does a conventional horror shocker. It’s a surprising, unexpected yet strong kick-off to such a distinctive series, in no small part because it’s so willing, even eager, to defy expectations.
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