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The untold truth of Tales from the Crypt

Hello kiddies, and welcome to the Crypt Keeper's dark sanctuary of scary stories to help prematurely turn our hair white. Inspired by television series like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Dark Side as well as a controversial comic book by William Gaines dating back to the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt took the anthology format to a prestige TV level. Produced by Hollywood directing legends Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hours, Red Heat), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, House on Haunted Hill), and Richard Donner (The Goonies, The Omen, Superman) — who also helmed many Tales From the Crypt episodes — and given HBO budgets, this '80s and '90s classic quickly became a sought-after vehicle for people on both sides of the camera. 

The only recurring character was the ghoulish Crypt Keeper, whose grotesque appearance was regularly softened by the terrible puns coming from his decomposing mouth as he tied the lessons from each twisted morality tale together with dark humor. During Tales from the Crypt's run, from June 1989 to July 1996, its seven seasons featured 93 skin-crawling tales of terror and an entire lexicon of horror double entendres brought to us courtesy of the Crypt Keeper's undying comedic stylings. As the witching hour draws near and the haunted clock chimes midnight, here is the untold truth of Tales from the Crypt.

Tales from the Crypt's Lethal Weapon and Roger Rabbit connections

So how did some of the America's most famous action movie directors end up behind the scenes of Tales from the Crypt? It all has to do with a little movie called Lethal Weapon. Producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) was working on Streets of Fire with Walter Hill in 1983, and while discussing The Twilight Zone and Creepshow, they discovered a shared passion for the original Tales from the Crypt comic book series. They agreed they should work on a similar horror anthology project together, but it took several years for the stars to align. Donner and Hill also needed a third director to help them bring their Tales from the Crypt project to HBO. 

The final piece of the dark puzzle came together in 1988 when Silver was working with Robert Zemeckis on the half live-action, half-animated romp Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Zemeckis signed on as the third director, and in the summer of 1989, the first episode of Tales from the Crypt debuted.

Tales from the Crypt was one of the first shows to feature movie stars on TV

These days it's almost expected for a TV show to feature movie stars in cameo roles or longer arcs. But in Tales from the Crypt's day, this show was a Hollywood game changer that began the blurring lines that once clearly demarcated movie and television appearances. For example, Demi Moore appears in the season 2 premiere "Dead Right" as a waitress who marries a disfigured man (Jeffrey Tambor) for his money. 

Christopher Reeve appeared alongside Judd Nelson in "What's Cooking?," a terribly tasty tale about a couple who revitalize their ailing restaurant by adding some devilish new things to the menu. Brad Pitt also starred in season 4's ninth episode "King of the Road" as a psychotic drag racer, while Joe Pesci played a con man trying to pull one over on twin sisters in "Split Personality." Cinema legend Tim Curry makes a disturbing appearance in "Death of Some Salesman" as a member of a cannibal family, and Kirk Douglas appears in the World War II parable "Yellow" along with his son Eric. Tales from the Crypt episodes were already often star-studded affairs filled with television veterans, and adding marquee film talent only raised the bar even further. The fact that it was a horror show that started equalizing the big-screen/small-screen hierarchy is icing on the cake for horror fans.

Hollywood stars also made their directorial debuts on Tales from the Crypt

Some Hollywood celebrities didn't just star in Tales from the Crypt, they also made their directorial debuts on the show — for a salary of only $15,000. One of these is Tom Hanks, who directed season 4's opening episode "None But the Lonely Heart" about a con man (Treat Williams) after the money of a wealthy older widow (Frances Sternhagen). Hanks himself plays a small role in the episode, and boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard also has a cameo as a gravedigger. 

And the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, went from getting paid millions on movies to that same $15K to direct "The Switch," about an elderly bachelor who switches into a younger man's body to woo a beautiful woman, played by Schwarzenegger's Twins love interest Kelly Preston. It's a stereotype that every actor really wants to direct — and that a lot of those would-be filmmakers would be better off sticking to their roles in front of the camera. Groundbreaking in so many ways, Tales from the Crypt offered numerous actors an early shot at realizing their directorial ambitions. 

A brief history of the Crypt Keeper

Aside from the familiar television and Hollywood faces gracing each grim episode of Tales from the Crypt, audiences tuned in to see the show's undead MC, the decrepit and pun-prone Crypt Keeper who opened and closed each episode from his dank catacombs. With a characteristic shriek and ghoulish laugh, the Crypt Keeper was the bones of the show (pun intended) who told viewers what to expect and wrapped each morality tale into a neat but bloody little bundle by its disturbing end. If his bulbous eyes look familiar, they should — they're the exact same eyes used for the Chucky doll in the Child's Play series. 

Requiring six puppeteers to move the various parts of his body and designed by legendary monster creator Kevin Yagher (who also created Freddy Krueger), the Crypt Keeper became a phenomenon in his own right with visits to late-night talk show hosts like Jay Leno and even calls into radio legends like Howard Stern to promote his show. Voiced by John Kassir, the Crypt Keeper's personality was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the comedian king of one-liners Henny Youngman, as well as Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz to create that gravelly screeching we know and love. At one point in early production, the character was supposed to have a nose, but that idea was sliced (wink wink) for optimal creepy effect to balance out his humorously punny one-liners.

Humphrey Bogart's "ghost" appeared on the show

Speaking of visitors from beyond the grave, while it may be popular now, albeit contentious, to feature a dead celebrity as if they are still alive — we're looking at Forrest Gump, the Michael Jackson hologram, and more — Tales from the Crypt was ahead of the curve in this respect, too. For the season 5 finale, the technical wizards behind the show digitized Humphrey Bogart's performances in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo and then manipulated them to resurrect Bogey onscreen — and in full color, no less. 

Adding to the meta, some of Bogart's lines even came straight from Casablanca, and he says them to Isabella Rosellini, the daughter of his Casablanca co-star Ingrid Bergman. Wow. In fact, it was the same minds behind Forrest Gump's many dead celebrity appearances that created the "You, Murderer" episode, which was helmed by Gump director Robert Zemeckis. It took the team over 20 weeks to accomplish the feat, using a stand-in actor to help with Bogart's "physical" positioning for the camera. While the attempt wasn't always successful, it still pushed the envelope of what was possible to do with new technologies and storytelling. 

Tales from the Crypt helped invent the "It's not TV. It's HBO" catchphrase

Because of all the groundbreaking strides Tales from the Crypt made, from its delightfully dark storylines, star-studded cast, and pioneering new visual media technology, HBO used this pop culture moment to set themselves even further apart from other "basic" cable companies. And it happened sort of by accident after the PR company they hired to organize screenings aired snippets of Tales from the Crypt to a test audience along with some other shows and movies. "It's not TV," a participant said. "No, it's HBO," another one responded. 

The result was the slogan that has remained part of the network's history to this day: "It's not TV. It's HBO," a catchphrase that has come to encapsulate all the various classics the channel has released since. From shows in the same vein as Tales from the Crypt to The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, to their original movie selection as well as news and documentary features, HBO became the new template for prestige television that has since spawned a number of other channels aiming for similar heights.

Two versions of each episode were created

In order to plan for eventual syndication, there were two official versions of each episode created in order to facilitate eventual primetime TV airings. One version would keep all the violence, gore, and nudity on display, while the edited version would be PG enough to air on regular television. The coolest thing about this process, though, is the fact that the PG versions are just as good as the HBO ones. There was no storytelling lost or plot holes left gaping just because they toned down some of what appeared onscreen for the initial airing. 

Not only was this a clever way to tell two stories in one episode geared for different audiences, it was also an excellent advertising device that encouraged people to sign up to HBO if they wanted to see the unrated versions of these compact horror tales. Remember, these were the days before streaming or video on demand, so when an episode aired on TV you had to actually be there to watch it. It's not TV, it's also smart HBO marketing.

Famous '90s films were supposed to have been Tales from the Crypt sequels

Because of the continued success of Tales from the Crypt on HBO and in syndication, the creators decided that they would follow in the footsteps of other anthology horror shows like The Twilight Zone and Creepshow with follow-up feature films that would expand the scope of the show's mainstream reach. However, and quite unfortunately, the first Tales from the Crypt movies, Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood, were critical and commercial failures even if they might have developed a cult following in the years since. But what only a few people know is that two other cult classics, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn as well as Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, were also supposed to had the Crypt Keeper's dusty stamp of approval for their release as sequels to Demon Knight.

Sadly, creative differences forced Tarantino and Rodriguez to take their movie to Miramax. It's not clear why The Frighteners didn't end up as part of the official Tales from the Crypt universe, but part of it may have been due to the long production time for all the special effects needed on The Frighteners, the most any movie had required up until that point. Two other Crypt features were also in the works, a zombie movie set in New Orleans called Fat Tuesday, as well as a final film, Body Count, that never got past basic production.

Tales from the Crypt also became an animated series and more

Tales from the Crypt started as a comic book, albeit an extremely violent and disturbing one, so it makes a certain kind of sense that the next foray for the show was an animated Saturday morning feature on ABC, which ran from 1993-1999. The animated Tales from the Cryptkeeper made another major departure from the original HBO show: While the Crypt Keeper was still voiced by John Kassir, the character had a much more hands-on role in the cartoon than he did for HBO. 

Even though the stories were PG-rated, the Crypt Keeper himself was often an orchestrator of the creepy events happening onscreen. Another divergence from the HBO version was its focus on issues more relevant to younger folks like bullying, lying, and stealing, rather than the adult themes of sex and murder. This pivot to animation allowed a whole host of merchandising to take place in conjunction with the cartoon, including action figures, dolls, and even novels in the vein of Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine's horror stories for young adults. They even went so far as to create a game show called Secrets of the Crypt Keeper's Haunted House that also conveniently came with loads of spooky cool tie-in merchandise.

Tales from the Crypt even made a Christmas album

Tales from the Crypt was like the little engine that could of merchandising — it never stopped finding new ways to market itself, launching a growing array of tie-ins. The creative team even went so far as to create a Christmas album with the Crypt Keeper (still voiced by Kassir) singing punny mutated versions of Christmas carols with a ghoulish twist. 

Songs include "Deck the Halls with Parts of Charlie," "Twas the Fright Before Christmas," and "Should Old Cadavers Be Forgot" along with a number of tunes focusing on the Crypt Keeper and his strange enjoyment of the holiday season. But the Crypt Keeper's Christmas merriment didn't end up stopping there. Voice actor John Kassir's surgeon father brought his own warped sense of humor into the mix by playing the album while performing surgeries at the hospital. Now that's taking fatherly love to an entirely new level. 

M. Night Shyamalan was supposed to reboot the series

Thanks to Tales from the Crypt's ongoing success, it was inevitable that someone would eventually want to reboot it just as Jordan Peele did with his updated The Twilight Zone. For Tales from the Crypt, horror movie master of the twist ending M. Night Shyamalan was tagged to produce the project for TNT in 2011, making the dark hearts of horror fans delight in the thought of not just new episodes of the show, but even more of the Hollywood magic that made the original series so compelling. 

Sadly, because character rights to the Crypt Keeper still belonged to HBO, the TNT reboot never took off even though they were planning on not including the show's main character anyway. In this regard, fans of the show breathed a sigh of relief. Even though the Crypt Keeper was not in the original comic and had been created as a gimmick to tie together each distinct anthology episode, by now he's such a part of the fabric of Tales from the Crypt that it's impossible to imagine a version of the series without him.