Tales from the Crypt Season One Episode Three: "Dig That Cat..He's Real Gone"
I have bad news for y’all. It seems that “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone!”, the Richard Donner-directed, Terry (of being Shane’s brother and writing Dead Heat semi-fame) Black-written third episode of Tales from the Crypt is, alas, one of the show’s funny episodes. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s one of the “funny” episodes, since one of the key distinctions of goofy episodes of Tales from the Crypt, or The Twilight Zone, for that matter, is that they’e “comic” without actually being funny or fun.
“Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone” is no exception. Don’t get me wrong: Tales from the Crypt can be a very funny show. The last two episodes have had a lot of great dark humor but when the show is winking and mugging and going for laughs, the way it is here, the result is more groan than laugh inducing, particularly when primary mirth-maker is Robert Wuhl.
Robert Wuhl is of course best known as the creator and star of the sports agent comedy Arli$$ which debuted on HBO in 1996 and, remarkably, is still on the air in an another, more indulgent dimension. Wuhl was so revered, even worshipped among athletes at the time that when they were in his presence they almost always lost their cool and became stiff and awkward, self-conscious, lumbering and painfully self-aware.
So while it might just seem like the many athletes who appeared on Arli$$ were all terrible actors with no comic timing who made already sub-par material even worse with their amateurish delivery, honestly, it was all about these titans of sports being nervous to the point of having panic attacks over the prospect of being in the company of the Clown Prince of Sports.
True, as an unscrupulous carnival barker with a never-ending string of patter, Wuhl is supposed to be obnoxious, but like the rest of the episode, he overdoes the shtick. Wuhl was hot at this point. It was the year of Batman, and a year after Bull Durham so part of the appeal of casting a hot comedian like Wuhl in a show like this lie in getting him to riff and ad-lib and improvise and Wuhlzerize the material.
At its best, Tales from the Crypt benefits from a lovingly stylized retro timelessness, that vague sense that these macabre tales took place some time in an unspecified, abstract, comic book past, and not the vulgar present. This alternately dreamy and nightmarish mood is broken by the relentlessly, tediously contemporary Wuhl riffing about Arnold Schwarzenegger or paying another character with “payola from HBO.”
But before it can break that woozy E.C Comics mood, we’re first lovingly ushered into the exquisitely sleazy comic book world of Ulric (Joe Pantaliano), a degenerate alcoholic and homeless person without anything much in the way of things to live for. So when vaguely European mad scientist Dr. Emil Manfred (Gustav Vintas) offers to perform experiments to give Ulric the ability to die and then come back to life over and over again, he’s all “Whatevs.”
Dr. Emil uses science of the maddest sort to give Ulric the proverbial nine lives of a cat. But he needs money to continue his research into playing God and cheating death, two things that always turn out well in stories like this, so he embarks upon an astonishingly sort-sighted scheme.
Rather than monetizing his newfangled, unprecedented ability to legitimately bring a motherfucker back from the dead by selling this miraculous science to a giant drug company that will pay him billions of dollars and make him the most famous person on earth, Dr. Emil instead approaches a sleazy carnival owner/barker played by Robert Wuhl and offers to pimp Ulric out as an amazing side show attraction who can literally come back from the dead after being murdered by either a helper or someone in the audience.
In the show’s clumsiest attempt at social satire, deep into Ulric the Undying’s lucrative if less than dignified career as the incredible Dying and Undying man an oafish, sausage-fingered dad tries to goad his reluctant son into being a real man and murdering Ulric for the delight of the crowd.
The father insists that he’s killed plenty of people in his time (a somewhat worrying statement, even in an episode of Tales from the Crypt) and now it’s time for that lovely rite of passage where a son fatally shoots a sideshow freak to death to prove his manhood, to himself and to society. In “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone”, life means almost nothing. Death means even less.
These scheming opportunists transform a Christ-like genius for resurrection into a cheap parlor trick, a vulgar stunt, a sideshow attraction that happens to be real magic, not just a crude simulation. In keeping with the fourth wall-breaking vibe of both the show and the comic books that inspired it, Ulric spends a lot of the episode talking directly to us a conspiratorial tone that never masks his stupidity and obliviousness.
Ulric and his collaborators sell death and resurrection cheap. Ulric’s very public deaths become tacky little productions with Wuhl delivering a never-ending stream of macabre patter, assisted by a helper who quickly becomes Ulric’s girlfriend after she asks him out by writing on a tank full of water where Ulric will soon drown to death, but not very long.
A smug Ulric brags that Wuhl’s hopelessly small-time businessman will be so eager to keep his prize attraction in the fold that he’d probably be willing to give him “part of the corndog concession” if he wanted it, just to keep him from fleeing the sideshow and using his superhuman gifts to make millions, or billions, instead of the tens of thousands he's made as the prize attraction of a third-rate sideshow.
The dark comedy here tends to be of the dad joke variety, like when we’re told that Roman Polanski wants to make a movie about Ulric’s lives—all of them, or when Wuhl’s barker tells Ulric to enjoy his lives after another successful death and resurrection.
Like pretty much all “funny” episodes of Tales from the Crypt, “Dig that Cat…He’s Real Gone” is not actually funny. And because it so nakedly sets out to make audiences laugh, it’s not scary either. It’s easily the weakest of the three episodes so far, but it still has much to recommend it. What it lacks in comedy and horror it makes us for in carnivalesque atmosphere and a perfectly cast Pantoliano as an unforgettably sleazy anti-hero. Tales from the Crypt gave nearly as many jobs to punishingly intense, macho character actors of distinction as Deadwood did, albeit on a more short-term basis. Now that I think about it, “Deadwood” would be a great name for a Tales from the Crypt episode about a killer ventriloquist.
The Crypt-Keeper ends the episode by proposing a murderously clever game show called Dying for Dollars. He sees it as a natural time-slot companion to Wheel of Misfortune and the Newly Dead Game and hypothesizes it’ll be hit “unless they buried it in the new wrong time slot!”
Now that is how you deliver a one-liner. This episode should have left the comedy to the professionals, like the Crypt-Keeper and not hammy meat bags like Wuhl.
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