Tales from the Crypt Season Two, Episode Three "Cutting Cards"
The Walter Hill-directed and co-written masterpiece “Cutting Cards” is easily one of the shortest episodes of Tales from the Crypt so far, if not the single shortest, with a runtime that barely passes twenty minutes. It’s also easily one of the best episodes so far, if not the single best episode of the series that we’ve covered so far.
The succinctness and greatness of “Cutting Cards” are inextricably intertwined. The episode is a masterpiece of stripped-down minimalism that hacks everything down to its essential core. It’s an episode devoid of wasted moments, fat-free and devoted to making the most of every bad-ass moment.
It’s the perfect fusion of the simpatico sensibilities of cult hero Walter Hill and Tales from the Crypt, which he Executive Produced alongside writing and producing partner David Giler and a team of cinematic heavyweights in addition to occasionally taking on writing and directorial duties, as he did on the terrific debut “The Man Who Cheated Death”, which would makes for a perfect companion piece to “Cutting Cards.”
A never-better, perfectly cast Lance Henrickson stars as Reno Crevice, a professional gambler whose cowboy boots, big-ass country belt buckle, cowboy hat, leathery skin and cigarette gives him the look of the Marlboro Man’s asshole ex-con older brother.
Reno is ornery as a rattlesnake and twice as mean. His only real joy seems to come from winning but even that’s not enough. No, he’s the kind of miserable son of a bitch who isn’t content unless someone else is not only losing but being humiliated in the process.
So when he enters a regular haunt and learns that a sausage-fingered old nemesis named Sam Forney (character actor Kevin Tighe, whose name may not look familiar but whose face you'd probably recognize) is in a private back room, he angrily challenges Sam to gamble even though he’s down to his last one hundred dollars.
“Cutting Cards” is a fascinating exploration of toxic masculinity as seen through the prism of two macho assholes who would literally risk certain death than let a hated rival put one over on them. So these two awful, awful men decide to play Russian Roulette, with the loser agreeing to leave town immediately and never come back.
There’s an unmistakable psychosexual element at play in the game-playing and one-upmanship here. Tighe and Henrickson both play their gambling addicts as men who derive an almost sexual sense of pleasure both from watching their hated nemesis risk violent instant death for the sake of a dumb, honor-based gamble and by risking death themselves for the stupidest and most pointlessly macho of reasons.
These men hate each other but they also might secretly be in love with each other, and also each other’s best friend by default. There’s a wonderful moment deep into the Russian Roulette game when a fat high roller in a flashy car with a floozie in the passenger seat interrupts their game and without even talking about it, they instinctively join forces to scare the man away, Sam even referring to Reno as his friend.
“Cutting Cards” portrays a life-or-death game of escalation for two sociopaths powered not only by the usual greed, competitiveness and confidence but also anger, blinding hatred, misplaced honor and a deep, disturbing need to see other people suffer and even die for rubbing you the wrong way.
A darkly comic fatalism hangs heavy over “Cutting Cards.” When an impatient Sam tells Reno that he doesn’t need to think before pulling the trigger, that the whole point of Russian Roulette is that it’s all foolish daring and zero strategy, Reno responds with a monologue so goddamn beautiful it belongs in a Hard Boiled museum of purple poetry, countering, “Of course you gotta think. Thinking's the fun part of it. Thinking about it. Thinking about what's gonna happen. Listen to that little wheel of fortune click and turn into place when you ease back the hammer. Feeling that metal get warm against your skin. Wondering what it's gonna be like to feel your brains blown out through the side of your head. Wondering what comes after, if anything, or black. Wondering if youre gonna scream. What do you think, Sam? You gonna scream? Yeah, you will.”
It’s a perfect moment in a more or less perfect episode that leaps giddily from the end of Russian Roulette game that frustratingly ended without a single fatality to a kicker of a scene in a hospital, possibly for the mentally ill, where Reno and Sam, who are both limbless, having presumably lost their arms and legs, as well as their fingers, in subsequent gambling matches, play an exceedingly tense game of checkers.
As the Crypt-Keeper quips of these macho lunatics, “I’ve heard of giving someone the finger, but this is ridiculous!”
What a wonderfully appropriate ending to an episode that has been chops a riveting terror tale down to its bloody, hardcore essence.
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