Horror and sci-fi anthology tv shows seem to have been around for as long as televisions themselves: Tales of Tomorrow in 1951; The Twilight Zone in 1959; The Outer Limits in 1963; Night Gallery in 1970; Ghost Story in 1972; The Hitchhiker in 1983; Tales from the Darkside in 1984; Monsters and Freddy’s Nightmares in 1988.
Until the last decade, most horror-themed television shows were watered down due to the ratings policies of general broadcast television. But there was one show, born from cable tv and found its way to late-night syndication with less editing than expected, that still claims the throne of the televised horror anthology: Tales from the Crypt.
Season 1 Episode 01: The Man Who Was Death (first aired June 10th, 1989)
Source Story: The Crypt of Terror #17
Director: Walter Hill wrote and directed this first entry in the series. As one of the executive producers, Hill along with Richard Donner and the rest of the producers probably wanted to trim the budget a bit to start things off. Since Hill directed The Warriors, it couldn’t have been a hard decision.
Plot: Niles Talbot, a maintenance electrician working at a prison, is promoted to electric chair operator/executioner, probably because the IBEW and corrections officers unions don’t exist in the Tales from the Crypt universe. When the ambiguous “state” abolishes the death penalty, Talbot loses his job because there is no need for an executioner and the warden doesn’t think having Talbot being around prisoners would be good for his health, considering his former role. Instead of moving to a state where the death penalty is still active, Talbot opts to become an electrical vigilante, killing people who are freed from their own murder charges due to technicalities in court.
Murderous Moral of the Story: Don’t get too caught up in your work, especially if you stop getting paid to do it.
Critique: It’s hard being the first of anything, especially when that “first” begins a franchise that lasts for eight years as a premium cable show and splinters off into an animated children’s show and two feature-length horror movies. But something had to be the first episode of Tales from the Crypt, and they could have done worse than “The Man Who Was Death.”
One of the great things about the episode is that Niles Talbot constantly breaks the 4th wall by addressing the audience. Story-wise, this can sometimes feel like someone hitting the brakes constantly on a car ride, but it sets up the story to have a real feeling of being a “tale from the crypt” without being so heavy-handed as having Talbot crawl out of his grave to tell us his story.
As far as acting, it’s William Sadler’s show as Niles Talbot with the rest of the cast supporting him. John Kassir’s Crypt Keeper voice sounds a little hoarse, but he was probably still trying to find that sweet-spot between moaning zombie and cackling witch.
The main issue of “The Man Who Was Death” is that it isn’t a very heavy-handed horror story. It’s more cartoonish noir than horror, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is a tough starting episode to get the general public excited. Luckily, there were more than one episode released out of the gate, and the others helped showcase the full range of what Tales from the Crypt would be.
Body Count: 5
2 by electric chair
1 by electric gate
2 by electric… hot-tub?
8-1/2 pairs of breasts
Actors/Actresses of Note: Usually the big names in a Tales from the Crypt episode are big before they make it on, so it’s interesting how the first episode starred William Sadler, who became a bigger name after his Tales from the Crypt debut. He was the main villain in Die Hard 2, the Grim Reaper in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Heywood in The Shawshank Redemption, and Brayker in Demon Knight, the first Tales from the Crypt movie. If the warden looks familiar, that’s David Wohl, who played the bullied dean in Revenge of the Nerds.
Quote: “I told them, ‘Don’t worry, the governor gonna call.'” – Niles Talbot
Watchability: 3 out of 5. It may not be the best story from the Tales from the Crypt series, but it gets the ball rolling.