Exploiting our Christmas Archive: Tales from the Crypt Season One Episode Two: "And All Through the House"
When you explore strange side of the street as extensively as I do here at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, you’re continually inundated with weird coincidences and unexpected themes. For a moment there, for example, my next entries in both the Weird Accordion to Al, my song-by-song exploration of the life’s work of American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic and Spookthology of Horror, my episode by episode creep through the haunted mausoleum that constitutes Tales From the Crypt’s seven year run, both centered on the darkly comic hijinks of dudes in Santa Claus suits who decide to kill a whole bunch of motherfuckers.
The dude in the Santa suit in the Weird Accordion to Al entry, on “The Night Santa Went Crazy”, is ol’ Kris Kringle himself. In “And All Through the House”, the mangy maniac in the Santa suit is an escaped lunatic played by a crazy-eyed, cackling Larry Drake in a performance that makes his similarly iconic turn in Doctor Giggles (he portrayed the titular maniac of medicine, who was both in…sane and out…of his mind) look like a work of Bressonian restraint by comparison.
Al is famously inspired by Mad magazine, which shares a publisher (E.C comics) and a certain demented sensibility with the various comics that inspired Tales from the Crypt, including The Haunt of Fear, The Vault of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, and Two-Fisted Tales.
“The Night Santa Went Crazy” is the closest Al would come to writing a Tales from the Crypt comic book in song. It certainly has the bloodshed, vividness (motherfucker ground up “poor Rudolph into reindeer sausage” and “picked up a flamethrower and he barbequed Blitzen” for Crissakes) of a horror movie or comic. We’re even told the titular spree-killing gift-giving maniac has “slashed up Dasher just like Freddy Krueger”, making the horror movie element explicit.
There’s something inherently transgressive, if a little easy and glib about turning our culture’s ultimate nice guy into a demented maniac with a body count and a lust for blood. Tales from the Crypt, being Tales from the Crypt pushes this conceit far past the boundaries of good taste, and even bad taste, with a “Yuletide yelp yarn” as the Crypt-Keeper catchily calls it, about a lusty, scheming murderer who encounters an even blood-thirstier murderer and lives just long enough to have karma both bite her in the ass and murder her with an axe.
The sadistic, psychotic Santa in question is played by lumbering character actor Larry Drake, who first won our hearts as pure-hearted, mentally challenged Benny Stulwicz on L.A Law (where he won multiple awards for the kind of role, and performances, people win awards for) and then chilled us to our very core with his turn as bad guy Roger Durant in the Darkman trilogy, the titular demented “doc” know in Dr. Giggles and his performance here, which is one of the most remembered in show history perhaps because his appearance is the stuff nightmares are made of.
Director Robert Zemeckis, reuniting with Who Framed Roger Rabbit cinematographer Dean Cundey, and writer Fred Dekker, who had recently earned a place in the hearts of geeks everywhere by definitively answering the age-old question of whether the Wolfman has nards with his script and direction of 1987’s The Monster Squad, have no use for subtlety.
This is Tales from the Crypt, after all, where the puns and the violence tend to be about as subtle as an axe to the forehead, so Drake’s escaped lunatic is introduced cackling with demented bloodlust and attempting to kill everyone in his path, and maintains that level of intensity and theatricality until the closing frame.
But before Drake can over-act his way into Tales from the Crypt history we’re treated to some PUNishment from our old pal the Crypt-Keeper, who is dressed up as Santa Claus, complete with a doll mask that makes him more disturbing-looking than usual, for the sake of the episode and the season.
The Crypt-Keeper promises “Christmas goose”, then specifies “Goose BUMPS that is!” before screwing up and describing the story we're about watch as a “A terror tale full of holiday FEAR” before specifying that, actually, “I mean CHEER.”
Why would they keep a flub like that in? Why wouldn’t they just keep rolling on Crypt-Keeper and have him keep doing takes until he said the line correctly. I mean, I guess the Crypt-Keeper accidentally stumbled into something of a ghoulish pun, but considering the professionalism and high gloss of the rest of the production, the fact that the Crypt-Keeper keeps blowing lines seems really unprofessional.
Otherwise, the intro here is a lot more memorable than the previous episode. The show had the character nailed from the beginning. It may be one note, but it’s one note I never tire of hearing. We then segue from the Crypt to a lovely Christmas tableau that soon turns murderous when a pompous snob credited only as “Husband” and played by Marshall Bell in a funny if all too brief turn as the kind of hopeless grouch introduced humbugging Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol itself, is murdered by his philandering, greedy, horny and deranged wife (Mary Ellen Trainor).
In case you’re keeping track at home, this marks the second consecutive episode (in the show’s two-episode run) to feature an enthusiastic, even bloodthirsty murderer as its protagonist and hero/anti-hero/villain.
The show opens on an incongruously classy and sensuous note, with the velvety sounds of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” setting an appropriately festive mood enhanced by Christmas porn—a gorgeous Christmas tree with lots of slickly wrapped presents underneath.
The wife is overjoyed. She feels liberated, and in a moment of euphoria calls up her lover and tells him, “I finally did it. It’s finally ours! The money, everything. We’re free. Merry Christmas, darling.” That might seem like a stupid thing to say over the phone but she was just reading from a script from “What to Say To Implicate Yourself in A Crime”, a weirdly popular how-to manual to getting caught that was inexplicably popular at the time.
Who is this lover? Everything we need to know about him we can discern from his answering machine message: “Hey, it’s the Vic Monster. I’m out partying. Leave your name, number and MEASUREMENTS.” Weird to think that I’m not the only person with that message, or who calls himself the Vic Monster despite being older than ten years old.
The wife is so overjoyed she can help but delight in her husband’s brutal death by her hands a little. When her cloyingly sentimental little brat of a daughter asks her what she wants for Christmas she serenely, insanely insists she’s already received it. Axe-murdering an annoying husband is the ultimate gift you give to yourself.
Alas, karma comes to get the Wife in the form of Drake’s Santa, an escapee from a mental hospital who had already murdered a number of people and was prowling the streets in the Santa suit of one of his victims.
The wife soon finds herself in a dilly of a pickle. She’s terrified of being murdered by Drake’s psycho Saint Nick but if the cops come to her home they’ll make a discovery that doesn’t exactly reflect well upon her.
Just as “The Man Who Was Death” felt unmistakably like the work of its co-writer director (Walter Hill), “And All Through the House” bears the exquisitely nasty stamp of Robert Zemeckis at his 1980s peak, before exploring new technology became more important than telling good stories.
The slapstick with the corpse feels at times like a dry-run for the death-themed CGI slapstick of Death Becomes Her and turning Santa into a crazed sicko stalking a fellow murderer is a sick joke worthy of Zemeckis in his prime.
This is a relatively small, intimate story done with care, attention to detail and alternating currents of class (such prestige behind the camera! Such lush, expensive production values!) and ripe, riotous, over-the-top vulgarity.
You can tell a lot was riding on these first six episodes. Decades later I still remember the hype surrounding the show’s huge budget and star-studded cast and crew. Thankfully, the show lived up to the hype, particularly its demented host, who wraps up the action to deliver the show’s message: “Be very careful what you AXE for for Christmas. You might just get it.”
This has the benefit of being both an exquisitely dumb pun in true dead-dad-joke Crypt-Keeper tradition, and a callback to the Wife dreamily reflecting on how she’s already gotten what she wanted in the form of her annoying husband’s brutal murder. Complications ensue, of course, and not of the positive variety but so far Tales from the Crypt have given my inner 13 year old exactly what he both asked, and axed for. That’s true of the 41 year old me as well.
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