Tales from the Crypt: Season 2, Episode 14, "Lower Berth"
In its second season, Tales from the Crypt was riding high. The first season was a hit and a signature piece of programming for HBO. In its second season the show had the money, resources and talent on both sides of the camera to realize its sometimes modest, sometimes Herculean ambition.
This season has been full of technically and conceptually complex episodes like the darkly funny rock and roll-themed “For Cryin’ Out Loud” with Sam Kinison as the deafeningly loud conscience of a very bad man, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” with Don Rickles and Bobcat Goldthwait in the terror tale of a ventriloquist’s dummy who isn’t quite what he appears to be and last week’s “Korman’s Kalamity”, a hyper-meta exploration of life inside the Tales from the Crypt offices.
“Lower Berth” might just have them all beat. It’s a very special, very personal episode that provides an appropriately morbid origin story for its universally beloved host, mascot and rotting face.
Written by Monster Squad auteur Fred Dekker and directed by Kevin Yagher, the man behind the Crypt-Keeper and the show’s legendary opening credits sequence, “Lower Berth” takes place long ago in a rundown traveling sideshow whose only real, non completely fraudulent attraction is Enoch the Two Faced Man (Yagher).
Tales from the Crypt is not generally an empathetic show. It tends to view its characters from a icy, judgmental distance, as lust and greed-clouded monsters who get exactly what’s coming to them. Yet there is enormous, incongruous sensitivity and even tenderness in the way “Lower Berth” portrays not just poor, child-like Enoch, who just wants to love and be loved and not treated like a monster, but also his “owner” and controller, Mr. Sickles (Stefan Gierasch).
Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Sickles is a horrible human being who viciously abuses his dying meal-ticket and treats him like an animal but he is, in his own right, a victim of the cruelty and brutality of the world and the sideshow business in general but more specifically a victim of the even crueler man who owns the sordid sideshow where Enoch is the star attraction.
Then one day Dr. Zachary Cling (Mark Rolston), a dandy with a decidedly questionable past and aversion to honesty arranges for the sorry sideshow to get a second legit attraction in the form of Myrna, a purloined Egyptian mummy of a beautiful girl mummified at 16 for rejecting a pharaoh’s advances.
Poor Enoch falls madly in love with the long-dead archeological relic. You’d imagine Enoch’s impending death and Myrna the Mummy having died millennia ago would pose an insurmountable obstacle to these star-crossed lovers ever getting it on but where there’s a will there’s a way. The impossible love between a dying two-faced freak and a mummy somehow results in the Crypt-Keeper, arguably the greatest pop culture creation of the 20th century.
“Lower Berth” ends with a good long look at the Crypt-Keeper as a baby at once disgusting and oddly adorable. In baby form, he looks more than a little like Chucky, which makes sense since Yagher designed the Child’s Play villain and served as its puppeteer as well.
“Lower Berth” ends on a note at once tragic and oddly triumphant. Two outcasts are dead in each other’s arm but their illicit love produced a creature we would all come to know and love.
This very special episode exposes the heartbreak and loss behind all of the bad taste one-liners and ghoulish wisecracks. This obviously makes the Crypt-Keeper uncomfortable. He’s not used to vulnerability or exposing his brokenness and sadness to the world so he does what men often do when confronted with raw emotions and their own darkness: he deflects with humor.
Sure, the Crypt-Keeper’s closing narration—“Oh, sorry, kiddies. But that story just makes me go to all pieces. Ah Ha Ha. I was a cute little terror tyke though wasn't I? As for Enoch and Myrna, I guess you figured out by now where I get my good looks! Old Two-Face was my daddy and the mummy was my mommy! Oh, if they'd only lived long enough to see me become a star! We never even got a chance to play 'hide and go shriek together”—is appropriately glib and pun-laden but all of the screaming, cackles and compulsive joking can’t cover up the bottomless pain the Crypt-Keeper is obviously experiencing.
That’s okay, Crypt-Keeper—and yes, at this point I am speaking only to an undead fictional character—you don’t need to joke and laugh and pretend that revisiting your origins doesn’t wound you deeply. I know what it’s like to grow up without a mother and a father with difficulties and challenges of his own. I know how hard it can be so don’t feel like you need to make everything a joke for our benefit. Sometimes it’s okay to just let people feel pain or sadness or hurt without having to dress up those tough, complicated emotions with humor or attitude.
“Lower Berth” reveals the surprisingly human side of everyone’s favorite wisecracking horror host. So even though the episode isn’t particularly scary or funny, it’s immensely satisfying all the same, in no small part because it is content to be a mood piece full of texture and somber gravity rather than go for scares and laughs as well.
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