Tales from the Crypt Season Two Episode Five: "Three's a Crowd"
Unlike most episodes of Tales from the Crypt, the boozily homicidal protagonist of “Three’s a Crowd” is not motivated by greed, at least as we traditionally know it. No, Richard, the episode’s anti-hero, who looks like a cross between character actor Christopher Mcdonald and a skinned rabbit, is motivated instead by equally ugly emotions like jealousy, insecurity and sexual paranoia.
The episode deviates from the norm in other ways at well. At around twenty-eight minutes, it’s almost eight minutes longer than “Cuttin’ Cards”, a veritable eternity of change for two episodes of the same show released only a few weeks apart. “Three’s a Crowd” makes excellent use of its super-sized runtime, allowing audiences to really marinate in the alcohol-fueled rage and self-pity of its unsympathetic but all too relatable main character just as “Cuttin’ Cards” brilliantly chopped its testosterone-poisoned tale down to its base elements.
I did not recognize Gavan O’Herlihy, the actor playing Richard, but perhaps I should have. I saw him recently as Clark Kent’s asshole competition in Superman III and he played the first Chuck Cunningham on Happy Days before landing roles in important films of the cinema such as Death Wish III and Never Say Never Again.
O’Herlihy invests Richard with a lot authentic pain and sadness. We see everything through his curdled perspective as he pickles himself with booze during a tenth anniversary vacation for him and his wife Della (Ruth De Sosa) from Allen (Paul Lieber), the best man at their wedding and a man who has subsequently done very, very well for himself while Richard has floundered personally and professionally.
For Richard, there would be an element of low-key sadism to their wealthy friend’s gift even if he wasn’t convinced that Della and Allen are using their brief idyll in paradise to have an affair.
Richard can’t help but feel like he is being cucked, that his more successful former friend is using his money, success, power and resources to make him look like even more of a loser and seduce his long-suffering wife, knowing that there’s nothing that he can do about it.
What looks like an exceedingly generous gesture from an all-too-indulgent friend to an appreciative and embarrassed Della looks more like a form of personal and sexual humiliation to her depressed and alcoholic husband, who marinates in bitterness, in anger, in the sour rage of someone convinced they’re being deeply wronged by someone with more power and money than them.
The core of most Tales from the Crypt episodes is blood-splattered dark comedy, sometimes phantasmagoric in nature, but “Three’s a Crowd” is a rare domestic drama. It’s rooted in atmosphere and creeping dread rather than gore. It feels like the television equivalent of an atmospheric short story in a mystery magazine as much as it does a comic book adaptation.
For a proudly juvenile, adolescent institution, it’s remarkably grown-up, a dark melodrama of jealousy and myopia taken to dark, bloody extremes. There’s a sturdy low-key elegance to the way it organically introduces elements that will come into play later, from the struggling couple’s difficulty conceiving a child to a stuffed deer’s head that figures prominently in the episode’s gruesome conclusion.
Richard begins “Three’s a Crowd” in a dark place. He’s self-medicating for depression with airport bottles of hard liquor that keep him perpetually inebriated and perpetually apoplectic. The vacation is supposed to be a joint celebration of the couple’s marriage and the trio’s friendship but it instantly becomes apparent that if there’s any fun to be had in this gloomy psychodrama of a vacation it will be had despite Richard, not because of him.
Richard sees in Della and Allen’s harmless flirtation as incontrovertible evidence of an affair designed to rob him of his last remaining shred of manly dignity. He’s a wholly unsympathetic character, self-pitying and filled with violent rage, morose yet explosive. Yet because we see things through his eyes we almost have no choice but to identify with him despite his complete dearth of admirable qualities.
All Richard knows is that Della and Allen sure seem to be up to something that he’s deliberately excluded from and it fills him with so much rage that he snaps and murders both his wife and his former best man who, honestly, deserved better. It is only at this point that Richard learns the exact nature of Della and Allen’s secret and is mortified to discover that he’s misjudged them and their intentions in the worst possible way.
“Three’s a Crowd” doesn’t aspire to be scary. It’s rooted more in Film Noir than classic horror. The episode’s horrors are entirely of the psychological variety, its demons wholly symbolic. It’s about the ugly things we do when we’re convinced that other people are intent on taking what is rightly ours. "Three's a Crowd" represents a distinct break from the show’s core in many ways but also embodies many of its strength as well, like atmosphere and a willingness to take its time leading audiences methodically to a gut punch of a closing twist.
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