Tales from the Crypt Season 2, Episode 10: "The Ventriloquist's Dummy"
I hate to be cynical, but there appears to be a direct cause and effect relationship between how much T&A there is in a header image for this column and how well read the article it advertises becomes. The teaser image for our last entry, “Four Sided Triangle”, reflected the episode’s deeply voyeuristic bent and love of boobs. The accompanying article, perhaps not coincidentally, was easily the best read in the column’s history, or at least since the first entry.
So of course “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is the least sexual episode in quite a while but even when Tales from the Crypt deviates from the tried and true template of sinful lovers getting their sometimes supernatural comeuppance for their lustful, murderous ways, sexual violence still informs the story on a deep level.
In the case of “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, an all-time great episode directed by Richard Donner of Superman and Lethal Weapon fame and written by Frank Darabont a few years before he won permanent pop culture fame for writing and directing The Shawshank Redemption, the favorite movie of many deeply boring people, that sexual violence takes the form of Morty, a demented, woman-hating siamese twin killing women he violently despises because he cannot have them sexually. In that respect he’s like a proto-Incel, only less creepy.
Don Rickles plays Morty’s conjoined twin, partner and prisoner, a misanthropic retired ventriloquist with a dark secret while a perfectly typecast Bobcat Golthwait plays a talentless aspiring ventriloquist who does not respect the older man’s Oscar the Grouch-like desire for the world to leave him the fuck alone.
Donner. Darabont. Rickles. Goldthwait. Ventriloquism and murder and the most impressive, expressive horror puppet this side of the Crypt-Keeper. Episodes like this made Tales from the Crypt appointment TV, a prestigious and classy excavation and celebration of the tawdry terror tales of our endlessly romanticized past. It’s star-studded behind and in front of the camera, with Rickles, who was a classically trained actor who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts before becoming synonymous with insult comedy, giving one of his best and most challenging performances, giving him a place of pride in the pantheon of great, offbeat character actors whose idiosyncrasies and darkness were perfectly understood and employed by this uniquely character actor-friendly anthology.
And Goldthwait, who sort of stumbled into a career as a movie star by accident and stumbled back out as soon as he possibly could en route to becoming one of our most consistently interesting, audacious and thought-provoking indie filmmakers is magnetic as a sweat-soaked handkerchief of a man who gets to know his hero in a way he might not survive.
The episode opens at the violent and dramatic end of Mr. Ingles’ (Don Rickles) career as a successful ventriloquist traveling from town to town with his wisecracking dummy Morty as he performs in front of a proud that includes young Billy Goldman, who looks up to this grouchy mediocrity of an entertainer as only a dorky child with even dorkier show-business aspirations can.
We then skip ahead fifteen years. Billy had the misfortune to grow up to be Bobcat Goldthwait at his saddest and most poignantly pathetic. Perpetually soaked in flop sweat, desperation oozing from every pore, he belongs in the same family of sweaty stand-up sad sacks as Neil Hamburger and the tragic funnyman Judd Nelson played in The Dark Backward, who despite his physical resemblance to Billy has more in common with Mr. Ingles than it might first appear.
Mr. Ingles, meanwhile, has retreated from the world and leads a hermit-like existence as a retired recluse that is unhappily interrupted when Goldthwait’s super-fan shows up uninvited and unexpected at his home, seeking the professional advice and guidance the ventriloquist promised ages ago, when he still had a career to promote and an image to protect.
The older man reluctantly agrees to talk to his adoring fan, who keeps pushing and pushing and pushing until he learns the horrifying secret of his hero’s success and his subsequent self-banishment from show-business and polite society. “Marty”, Mr. Ingles’ dummy, is actually the ventriloquist’s disfigured Siamese brother, who wears a costume onstage that makes him look like an ordinary ventriloquist’s dummy and not a mutated monster whose hatred of the fairer sex and violent mood swings make him a lethal threat to women around him, at least as long he’s not being sedated and kept docile through regular injections of morphine Billy unknowingly interrupts when he smashes Ingles’ morphine supply in a misguided attempt to inspire his hero and rouse him from hi depressive funk.
Rage was of course at the center of Rickles’ comedy. He specialized in a sort of rollicking, staccato comic anger that was cathartic for performance and audience alike. He never stopped attacking, attacking, attacking, whether his target was popular frequent foil Frank Sinatra or foreign tourists, but the overall effect was one of release and fun, not anger or rage.
In “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” that anger the core of Rickles’ persona becomes literally monstrous and deranged. Rickles spent happy decades onstage acting as a human id saying all the rude and quasi-forbidden things we’re not supposed to say out loud, at least in polite company. “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” asks us to imagine what this rampaging id’s rampaging id might look like, then gives us an answer in a puppet so brilliantly conceived and executed that it more than holds its own opposite Rickles and Goldthwait at their unhinged best and the iconic, ghoulish pun-dispensing puppet/host/monster of ceremonies handling the introduction and outro.
“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is a masterpiece of old-fashioned craft. It’s the perfect combination of horror and comedy fueled equally by fiendishly creative puppeteering and all-time great performances from two American originals with surprisingly simpatico sensibilities and styles of comedy that sync perfectly with Tales from the Crypt.
So even if “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is lacking in the sex and titillation that made the show such a lurid, adolescent-friendly sensation, it otherwise offers such an embarrassment of riches that the 14 year old me barely noticed the absence of boobs the first time around. Or at least I’d like to pretend that’s the case.
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