Tales from the Crypt, Season 2, Episode 16: "Television Terror"
One of the main reasons Tales from the Crypt has aged so well is because it’s intentionally timeless. The iconic horror anthology takes its visual and thematic cues from the comic books it’s adapting, which hit shelves and racks in 1950 and enjoyed a controversial, dramatic life before publisher William Gaines, frustrated by the censorship and repression mandated by the newly implemented Comics Code, decided to cancel titles like Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Shock Suspenstories and The Crypt of Terror just a few years after launching them.
Tales from the Crypt endured in no small part due to its retro elegance but the show intermittently dated itself by virtue of its casting. That’s certainly the case with “Television Terror”, a showcase for the deafeningly loud belligerence of Morton Downey Jr., whose high-volume, theatrical brand of right-wing populism made him not just a trash TV icon but a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s.
I was a little wary of “Television Terror”, since it starred what I consider a novelty performer rather than an actor. I should not have been. If anyone knows how to smartly and subversively use human freak shows like Downey Jr., Sam Kinison or Bobcat Goldthwait it’s Tales from the Crypt. Heck, some of its best episodes have centered around freak shows and freak show performers.
Besides, when it comes right down to it, Morton Downey Jr. is not only an actor but a pretty terrific one at that. True, I would not necessarily pay good money to see Downey Jr. perform Hamlet on Broadway, particularly considering that he’s been dead for the last seventeen years but within a very narrow range, Downey Jr. could be a compelling and convincing performer.
“Television Terror” smartly typecasts Downey Jr. as Horton Rivers, an unmistakably Morton Downey Jr-like titan of tabloid TV making a good living pandering to the basest instincts of the ignorant rabble. He’s an unrepentant bottom-feeder who will do anything for ratings. That includes leading viewers on a live tour through an abandoned house reported to be the home of sinister supernatural shenanigans.
Rivers is not at the home due to any special interest in the supernatural. Instead, it’s a live stunt along the lines of Geraldo Rivera’s notorious excavation of Al Capone’s vault, which revealed nothing much beyond the desperation and sleaziness of its ambitious young host.
Rivera’s disastrous special is referenced here as analogous to Horton’s cheap stunt, which points to a bit of a plot hole. There are really only two ways this can go. Either the house is a hoax and Rivers is wasting everybody’s time wandering around a spooky old house where nothing is happening or the house’s reputation is legit and Rivers is putting his life in mortal danger. If ghosts don’t exist, which is a very big if, then Rivers’ special is a huge humiliation for everyone involved.
To increase suspense and give the whole charade an air of authenticity and legitimacy a top psychic is trotted out to attest to the remarkable level of unholy evil pervading the house. The expected move would be to make the psychic a typical phony space cadet pushing the usual hokum. Instead the episode’s psychic appears to be the real deal. The house really is evil as fuck, as evidenced by the fact that it’s at the center of a Tales from the Crypt episode. It’s Horton who is the phony, and he ends up paying a terrible price for his arrogance.
Show-business has suited Tales from the Crypt as an milieu because it’s perfect for the show’s hard-bitten cynicism, misanthropy, dark humor and keen interest in greed as a motivating force.
“Television Terror” wryly establishes that Rivers is no garden variety asshole boss but rather the kind of monster who inspires guilty dreams of murder, of vengeance, of knocking the arrogant blowhard down a peg or two. That is particularly true of a pretty young female producer who Horton, in a typical bit of flagrant jackassery, taunts shouldn’t get too confident about her job security just because she’s sleeping with him. Horton accuses his lover of being too soft, of lacking the killer instinct necessary to make it in the biz.
Needless to say, the phrase “killer instinct” comes back to haunt Horton at the worst possible time. The show’s elegantly constructed script sets up that Horton’s coworkers despise him to such an extent that they’d welcome his violent death, especially if it means boffo ratings and career advancement rather than the embarrassment of spending an evening failing to prove that ghosts exist on live television.
“Television Terror” gradually but methodically ratchets up the tension and suspense as it shifts slowly but surely from sly show-business satire about a show business monster of id and ego to straight-faced horror about less metaphorical forms of beasties. It’s a little like the meta horror film Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon in that respect. In its first half, “Television Terror” offers a funny, knowing satire of sleazy TV opportunism. In its final act it’s legitimately scary in a Blair Witch Project meets Ghost Hunters kind of way as a bullshit paranormal investigation runs smack dab into genuine paranormal phenomenon.
Downey Jr., god bless him, really commits to playing a character so loathsome, so deplorable, that you’re actively rooting for his grisly demise. Evil fuckers get what’s coming to them in the cruel yet weirdly fair world of Tales from the Crypt and even though Horton’s transgressions are relatively minor compared to those of other villains it’s nevertheless enormously satisfying to see him hanging from a noose, his tongue silenced forever by the sweet release of death.
“Television Terror” is funny and scary and, in its characteristically cynical take on reality television and the parasites and vultures who make it, even prescient. Usually Tales from the Crypt looks backwards but “Television Terror”, despite its totally 1990 star, looks forward to a strain of shock television that doesn’t need onscreen violence or death to feel creepy and exploitative.
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