Exploiting our Archives: My World of Flops Spookily Snorifying Case File #99 Perversions of Science
By 1997, Tales from the Crypt had ended its auspicious run in a decidedly inauspicious fashion. To save money, the show’s final season was filmed in England on the cheap, and while that gave the show access to actors like Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor, Steve Coogan, Imelda Staunton and Eddie Izzard, the change was unmistakably an act of desperation from a pop culture institution on its last legs.
Tales from the Crypt had run its course, but HBO and its five high powered Executive Producers—Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, Richard Donner, Joel Silver and David Giler—reunited for another ambitious anthology series based on Williams Gaines’ iconic kiddie-corrupter E.C Comics.
This new twist on some old favorites was entitled Perversions of Science and instead of the almighty Crypt-Keeper, one of the best and most beloved pop culture icons of all time, the show was hosted by Chrome, a poorly computer animated sex robot who delivered groan-inducing double entendres rich in alliteration in the breathy, lascivious coo of a veteran phone sex operator who can’t stop giggling seductively at her own feeble wordplay.
If the Crypt-Keeper segments enlivened even the shoddiest episodes of Tales from the Crypt, Chrome’s awful intros and abysmal outros made already muddled and cheesy episodes even worse. Crypt-Keeper to Chrome was a downgrade on par with Britney Spears going from dating Justin Timberlake to marrying Kevin Federline.
Tales from the Crypt’s irresistible icon was a combination of three great things that go great together: terrible wordplay, puppetry and horror. Perversions of Science swaps that winning trio out for the woefully misguided combo of sex, primitive computer animation and robots. I appreciate that in all 93 episodes of Tales from the Crypt, the Crypt-Keeper never once tried to give me an erection.
Alas, that seems to be Chrome’s raison d’être, as if having a boner would somehow make audiences more receptive to sub-par science fiction. She’s a sex robot who opens each episode by tweaking her metallic nipple, unleashing one of ten muddled vignettes involving robots, outer space, other dimensions, space aliens and other cliched science fiction fodder.
Perversions of Science generally peaks during its opening credit sequence, an uninterrupted shot of a camera swooping in from the outside of a typical suburban home into a living room where a similarly typical family is watching television, a la The Simpsons opening credits, an association strengthened by another Danny Elfman’s theme, which, not surprisingly, sounds an awful lot like the Tales from the Crypt theme with a lot of theremin thrown in.
We then zoom into a single kernel of popcorn and journey through inner space and then outer space before floating through a futuristic city and finally arriving at a factory for sex robots where Chrome tweaks her metallic nipple, ushering in one of her awful, awful intros.
Like seemingly every other aspect of its unfortunate existence, this is more or less exactly like Tales from the Crypt, only nowhere near as good.
Like Tales from the Crypt, Perversions of Science opens with an episode directed by Walter Hill, one of the show’s superstar Executive Producers. Tellingly, however, it’s the only episode directed by one of the high-powered Executive Producers. Richard Donner and Robert Zemeckis understandably had better things to do with their time.
“The Man Who Was Death”, the Walter Hill-directed first episode of Tales from the Crypt benefitted a surplus of grubby, Film Noir atmosphere, an elegantly simple premise and a masterful lead performance from William Sadler as an executioner who keeps on killing on his own dime and time after the government bans the electric chair.
“Dream of Doom”, which was written by David S. Goyer (the Dark Knight and Blade trilogies), is hopelessly muddled by comparison. It’s the free-associative tale of a 40 year old professor played by Keith Carradine trapped in an endless loop where he cannot stop dreaming hopelessly cliched dreams involving various female archetypes like mother, daughter, wife and Marilyn Monroe, all embodied by a frequently topless Lolita Davidovitch. If nothing else, Perversions of Science shares Tales from the Crypt’s ferocious commitment to gratuitous nudity, but since “Dream of Doom” has no grounding in reality, there are no stakes, just a Russian nesting doll of dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, none of which matter individually or cumulatively.
The third episode “Boxed In”, sets the bar prohibitively low. I’ve complained extensively about how the funny episodes of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt are less genuinely chuckle-inducing than “funny.” In the case of “Boxed In” I would downgrade that “funny” to “punishingly, egregiously unfunny.”
Ah, but “Boxed In” is something much worse and more ominous than a “funny” episode of a show that’s not supposed to be funny. It’s a “funny” William Shatner episode. It’s even worse than that: it’s a William Shatner extravaganza featuring Shatner in the director’s chair, William Shanter onscreen as a pompous futuristic admiral and even Shatner’s real-life daughter Melanie as his onscreen daughter, a loopy space cadet named Dulcine with an electronic chastity belt out of a bad late-period Mel Brooks parody. .
“Boxed In” is a ham-handed science-fiction comedy from a story by the National Lampoon’s Chris Miller (who also co-wrote the teleplay) that has the bravery to ask the eternal question, “Wouldn’t it be cool to fuck a hot robot?”, which is less a sharp satirical conceit than a popular masturbatory fantasy for geeks. The robot-fucker in question is played by Kevin Pollak, who is trying mightily not to have sex with the sexy space robot that is his only companion during an endless, lonely stint on a spaceship so that he can be pure for Dulcine. My non-enjoyment of “Boxed In” was greatly increased by imagining just how much time Pollak must have spent on set indulging his hammy William Shatner impersonation for the man himself. “Boxed In” is far from the only “funny” episode of Perversions of Science, but it could very well be the worst, despite some stiff competition in that category.
I at least give Perversions of Science credit for originality. I’ve seen lots and lots of gay panic jokes, but before “Ultimate Weapon” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them with sex aliens who accidentally not only end up canoodling, but produce a space child. LGTBQ issues are addressed with surprising regularity in Perversions of Science but with a predictably Beavis & Butthead level of maturity and sophistication. In “Ultimate Weapon”, a gay alien wedding is the dumb punchline, while in “Given the Heir” our nasty anti-heroine travels back in time so that she can fuck herself in more ways than one.
But the show’s weird obsession with trying to glean laughs from science fiction gay panic somehow goes beyond that. The heavyweight duo of director Tobe Hooper and Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) join forces for the show’s cleverest episode, “Panic”, a riff on Orson Welles and the great War of the Worlds scare that imagines a scenario where the panic-inducing radio broadcast greatly underestimates the actual threat posed to humans by alien invaders.
With a cast that includes Chris Sarandon (as the regally smug Orson Welles surrogate), Laraine Newman, a very young Jason Lee, Jamie Kennedy, Harvey Korman and Edie McClurg and some nifty period detail, the episode is a standout in a dim season without much competition but even it can’t imagine anything funnier or more transgressive than an intergalactic twist on Deliverance that finds Harvey Korman’s horny hillbilly alien eager to make the pretty extraterrestrial likes of Kennedy and Lee squeal like a space pig.
Of course no science fiction anthology would be complete without an episode where the big reveal is that someone or something is actually Hitler. “The Exile” attacks this hoary science fiction cliche from an unusual vantage point. The episode centers on a sadistic, amoral scientist played by the great Jeffrey Combs who is targeted for rehabilitation by a society that refuses to execute criminals, no matter how awful their crimes.
Combs is genuinely terrifying as a figure of more or less pure evil, who turns out to be not just a garden variety bad guy but the ultimate bad guy: Hitler himself. That’s ADOLF Hitler, in case you’re confused.
I don’t know what’s sadder: that Perversions of Science can’t go five episodes without a Hitler episode, that weirdly ubiquitous science-fiction cliche, or that, thanks to Combs’ menacingly magnetic turn, and similarly strong performances by fellow character actor giants Ron Perlman and David Warner, the space Hitler episode might just be the show’s best.
Shooting countless scenes in bare white rooms with migraine-inducing fluorescent lights doesn’t make something look futuristic and Kubrickian; it just looks cheap and generic. With some notable exceptions, like Primer and Dark Star, science fiction is a genre that’s expensive to get right. Perversions of Science suffers from low budgets just as much as Tales from the Crypt benefitted from lush production values courtesy of HBO’s deep, deep pockets.
Even when Perversions of Science does something right, it immediately sabotages itself by doing something egregiously wrong. It’s always great to see the brilliant songwriter, singer and character actor Paul Williams pop up unexpectedly, as he does in “Given the Heir”, but it’d be even more welcome if he had more screen time than a stunt casted Joey Buttafuco, who, if anything, classes up the join a little with his presence.
Perversions of Science was overtly modeled after Tales from the Crypt. But instead of the show’s flashy early seasons, it picks up where the show ended, on a note of penny-pinching, cheesiness and exhaustion. Tales from the Crypt was classy trash, vulgar pulp with A-list cinematic production values and stars up the wazoo, both in front of, and behind the camera. Perversions of Science is just cheap trash.
Perversions of Science closes as ineptly as it begins, with “The People’s Choice” yet another “funny” episode, this one a campy, clunky social satire from Highlander: The Quickening: The Renegade Version director Russell Mulcahy about a futuristic world filled with both beehive-sporting android grandmother types who excel in both domestic duties and hand-to-hand, killer combat and VCRs.
Yes, Perversions of Science offers a very 1997 conception of the future, one where robots and androids somehow co-exist with futuristic technology like CDs and the aforementioned VCRs. “The People’s Choice” begins unpromisingly and ends by stealing shamelessly from the classic The Twilight Zone episode “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in a way that invites the most unflattering of comparisons.
While Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone remain huge cult favorites, Perversions of Science has more or less disappeared. It lasted a mere one season and ten mostly feeble episodes and, as of this writing, is not available on home video in the United States in any form, though the entire run can be found on Youtube, as evidenced by the many episodes embedded here. Don't take my word on the show's suckiness: experience it for yourself if you're feeling masochistic.
Where the Crypt-Keeper puppet deserves to be in the Smithsonian (and, if there’s any justice in this sick, sad world, that is where he’s ended up), the creepily over-sexualized, breathy, perpetually giggling waste of zeroes and ones known as Chrome deserves to be deleted, alongside this whole misbegotten enterprise.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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