Tales from the Crypt, Season One, Episode Four: "Only Sin Deep"
Tales from the Crypt is nothing if not consistent. “Only Sin Deep”, for example, is only the fourth episode of the iconic fright fest but it’s also the fourth episode to feature a murderer as its protagonist/anti-hero.
Alas, while previous episodes have been blessed with perfect casting and terrific performances, “Only Sin Deep” is sunk pretty much out of the gate by astonishing miscasting and a performance so bad and screamingly unauthentic it single-handedly ruins the episode.
“The Man Who Was Death” benefitted from a revelatory, career-making turn from the great, gritty, grubby character actor William Sadler, beautifully cast as a man who takes his job as an executioner way too seriously. Its follow-up, “And All Through the House” offered a similarly iconic role for the great, demented character actor Larry Drake.
The third episode, “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone” was the weakest of the lot but at least afforded a young Joe Pantoliano a juicy opportunity to die over and over and over again onscreen as a death-defying sideshow attraction with a dark secret.
Our streak of great performances from terrific, world-class tough-guy character actors comes to a screaming halt, however, with the fourth episode, “Only Sin Deep.” The episode makes the fatal mistake of miscasting the hopelessly pleasant and freshly-scrubbed Lea Thompson as a gum-smacking, tough-talking, pimp-killing small-time street walker with a thick, if wavering Noo Yawk accent.
To make things worse, Thompson’s character is supposed to be twenty-one years old, and while Thompson is certainly a lovely and well-preserved actress, the revelation of the lead character’s age should not produce an episode’s biggest belly-laugh.
Thompson is as hopelessly miscast as Sadler, Drake and Pantoliano were perfectly cast in their episodes. Where the aforementioned character actors feel like they were born into this world, Thompson seems more like a tourist from the straight world in a Halloween costume. You’ve heard of slutty nurses, slutty Bat-Girls and slutty notary publics? Thompson’s character adds a whole new element to this trope: slutty sex-worker.
Yes, Thompson’s Sylvia Vane is a working girl, albeit of a much different variety than the one she played in Caroline in the City. Instead of working in an office, Sylvia ekes out a meager living growling, “Wanna date?” at potential johns like she’s Frankenhooker or something.
One particular grim evening in the sex trade, Sylvia decides to kick her criminality up a notch by killing a vicious black pimp who had been treating one of her colleagues with a disconcerting lack of civility. Sylvia is as bad a criminal as Thompson is an actress in this, so she brings her ill-gotten gains to a spooky pawnshop (is there any other kind?) where the owner offers her the kind of Faustian bargain that never pan out well, but that are ubiquitous in genre fare like this, particularly in Tales from the Crypt.
The pawn shop owner makes her a ghoulish offer: for 10,000 dollars the pawn shop owner offers to buy Thompson’s “beauty”, with the caveat that she has exactly four months to come back and retrieve her beauty before it’s lost forever.
Like every protagonist so far, poor Sylvia isn’t much of a deep-thinker. She’s even less of a long-range strategist so she happily agrees to the sinister stipulation. To her, like everyone else, beauty is an all-important but abstract and non-transferable quality, as impossible to swap with another human being as intelligence or taste.
Sylvia is not without guile, however, so she uses the money from the pawnshop to buy expensive new clothes to seduce Ronnie Price (Bret Cullen), a Patrick Bateman type so creepy for a moment I thought the twist would be that the rich yuppie Prince our anti-heroine has her sights on is an even bigger creep than the murderous prostitute intent on winning his heart, and more importantly, gaining access to his fortune.
Incidentally, in 1989 Cullen guest starred in Tales from the Crypt but also Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Freddy’s Nightmares. Apparently he told his agent to only send him out for auditions for horror and suspense anthologies.
Sylvia wins the cavalier playboy’s heart a little too easily, but soon discovers, to her shock and horror, that, astonishingly, an insane pawnbroker’s offer to buy her “beauty” has a downside. Quicker than you can sinisterly whisper “thinner” Sylvia discovers that her beauty is fading rapidly, along with her youth.
In each successive scene, the actress’ old-age make-up becomes thicker and more caked-on and less convincing. Sylvia notices that she’s aging in a freakishly premature fashion and, despite not being the sharpest tool in the shed, is somehow able to piece together that losing her looks in a seemingly supernatural fashion and having sold her beauty to a weird pawnbroker might possibly be related.
In “Only Sin Deep”, this is treated as an important, dramatic revelation but how stupid do you really have to be to not suspect there might be a connection between selling beauty and losing beauty?
Sylvia kills her beau and then, when she tries to go back and retrieve her beauty, discovers that she’s wanted for Ronnie’s murder and that for her to show her true, young, beautiful face anywhere would be tantamount to giving herself over to the police.
Like all of the episodes I’ve written about so far, this doesn’t really have a twist. A career criminal commits murder, then enters into a Faustian bargain, then commits a second murder and ends up paying price for her terrible crimes. The big difference is that this really could have used a twist to redeem what is otherwise a tawdry little tale undone by egregious miscasting and a terrible lead performance.
Let’s just say that Thompson played a 1950s woman desperate to fuck her time-traveling son in Back to the Future and a rock star maybe trying to fuck a humanoid space duck in Howard the Duck and was way more convincing in both roles than she is here.
Where the first three episodes were directed by heavy-hitters who were also Tales from the Crypt Executive Producers (Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis and Richard Donner), this was directed by Howard Deutch, the man behind The Odd Couple II, Grumpier Old Men, The Whole Ten Yards and several John Hughes collaborations.
I wouldn’t describe Deutch as a particularly distinguished filmmaker, let alone a Frightmaster. This episode only reinforced those feelings. Deutch (who, incidentally, is married to Thompson) has retreated back to television in recent years and while his most recent credit, Young Sheldon, represents an unmistakable horror, it’s of a much different, much lesser variety than the kind found on Tales from the Crypt during its Golden Age.
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