Everyone knows ‘Tales From the Crypt’, but what about it’s short-lived science-fiction based spinoff, ‘Perversions of Science’?
“Losing control can be a terrifying thing. But then again, it’s nothing to lose REM sleep over. At least, that’s what the man in my next playback keeps telling me, and he should know. I calibrated this off-kilter ode to insomnia under the name, ‘Dream of Doom’”
It’s hard to deny that Tales From the Crypt was a cultural phenomenon. Even if you had never seen the show before, you were at least aware of the property in some sense, whether it was its comic-based source material, or even its pun-loving host, the Cryptkeeper. With the footprint that this audacious anthology left on the television landscape, you would think that a sister series that embraced sci-fi rather than horror would be a natural hit. Perversions of Science would debut in 1997, a year after the conclusion of Tales From the Crypt. The public was assumingly hungry for more pulpy anthology storytelling, with Perversions swooping in nicely to fill the void, but in spite of this, the series would see cancellation within the same year. Perversions of Science is certainly an anomalistic oddball of a show, but its faults almost make the series a more fascinating case study. The fact that it existed for such a short time, and is virtually on nobody’s radar in spite of the pedigree that it comes from makes it all the more interesting, too. By all reasoning Perversions of Science should have been a huge success, and we’ll break down the reasons why this footnote is deserving of a second glance.
With Tales From the Crypt providing a winning formula for HBO for seven years, it isn’t surprising that they approached the same cabal of producers (Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, Gilbert Adler, A.L. Katz, Joel Silver…) for another stab at the format. In fact, this wasn’t the first time that a spinoff of the anthology series was explored. In the middle of Tales From the Crypt’s run, a war and action-based series titled, Two-Fisted Tales, still based on the EC Comics line, had a pilot produced but never ended up going anywhere (the episodes were even worked in Tales From the Crypt’s third and fourth seasons). While a war anthology might seem limiting, the topic of science fiction is certainly more universal and it was enough for HBO to get excited. Thus, Perversions of Science was born.
It’s kind of crazy to see just how similar Perversions of Science is to Tales From the Crypt, with the spinoff directly trying to invite the comparison. The series starts off with a gorgeous Möbius strip of an intro sequence that acts as even better walking guide to your destination than your descent into the crypt in Tales. The whole thing is paired with a deeply fun Danny Elfman orchestration that’s worth checking out the series for alone (and feels really reminiscent of his work on Ed Wood for what it’s worth). This impressive introduction is even concluded with the series’ own de facto Cryptkeeper, a sexy female robot by the name of Chrome. Whereas the Cryptkeeper would make puns based around death and the macabre, Chrome’s aim is all about sexual innuendo and pushing your buttons. Each story even begins from a projection stemming from her breast when she pushes her areola (I swear to God). HBO kept up the same airing strategy that they did for Tales From the Crypt as well, premiering the series as a three-episode event. There was no lack of fanfare going on.
Beyond all of the obvious visual allusions to the series’ predecessor, the show’s stories were still all originating from EC Comics (the Weird Science line, to be precise, but using that title for the series would have invited an unwanted association with the John Hughes comedy of the same name). On top of that, Perversions of Science also had an assemblage of directing, writing, and acting talent comparable to Crypt’s A-list talent. In spite of all of this though, the series mostly fell on deaf ears. It certainly was no fault of HBO and lack of exposure though, with the network giving the series a huge marketing push, and advertising choicely in Playboy and comics, where the ideal market would be looking.
Perversions of Science may fail to tap into the heights that Tales From the Crypt did during its first season (lest we forget that that remarkable year of television had the gems “The Man Who Was Death”, “And All Through the House”, and “Collection Completed”), but it does hit some pretty excellent highs that warrant the series a better reputation than it currently has. The ten-episode season kicks off with a Walter Hill directed entry called, “Dream of Doom” that’s basically Inception a decade before Christopher Nolan would go there. The episode sees Keith Carradine playing a beleaguered professor who’s unable to fully wake up from his dreams. Every time that he tries to escape, he winds up in another dream, increasingly losing touch with reality in the process. It’s even kind of nuts that the installment is scripted by Nolan’s constant confidant, David Goyer, and getting to see him playing around with this complicated concept so long ago. It’s a strong, unnerving premiere episode that director Hill doesn’t squander, and it ultimately ends up feeling more like Groundhog Day than Inception, but it still works.
“Anatomy Lesson” deals with a young guy with homicidal tendencies that’s continually plagued by visions of a bearded man (an on-point Jeff Fahey) that he’s been having since his childhood. The more psychological entry directed by Gilbert Adler is appropriately dark like most of his work, using a succinct script by Kevin Rock (writer of installments in the Warlock and The Howling franchises) to sell the material. “Boxed In” is the polar opposite tonally, presenting a sex-fueled slapstick farce staring (and directed by) William Shatner. While much of “Boxed In” just feels like an excuse to get Shatner back on the bridge of a spaceship, the segment is one of the weirder stories as Shatner struggles with his morality as he weighs the pros and cons of having sex with a sex android. These might have amounted to mediocre Tales episodes, but they do a good job at showing the varied scope of the “sci-fi” that the series would put under its microscope. Clearly this wouldn’t be all aliens and space fodder. These three episodes that made up the premiere night couldn’t offer up a more eclectic taste.
“The Exile”, much like “Dream of Doom” is another of the more worthwhile episodes of the series, largely due to its precise direction (courtesy of William Malone of The House on Haunted Hill remake) and cast (Ron Perlman and Jeffrey Comb, who is off leash here and gets to deliver delicious lines like, “That makes the tip of my dick cry”). The story is set against a World War II backdrop with a wartime scientist failing the rehabilitation process and being exiled from the world as he atones. There’s a very A Clockwork Orange mentality to the episode, as well as a certain socialmindedness that would so often accompany The Twilight Zone.
Even if several of Perversions of Science’s episodes would fail to connect with audiences in the same way that Tales From the Crypt would, this poignant social commentary was present in many of the entries, like “Given the Heir” (a woman achieves perfection in her body, only to be sent into the past and become an object of gaze), “Snap Ending” (a complicated look at sexuality as a mixed gender species tries to understand a new organism), and the season/series finale, “The People’s Choice” (a story on consumerism steeped in patriotism, as feuding robot housekeepers become the norm). This sort of reflection and dissection of society at large was an element of storytelling that was often absent from Tales From the Crypt, and in this sense Perversions did feel a little closer to Rod Serling’s classic series. Normally this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but when you’re towing the line between being jokey and putting on little silly spectacles, inviting this comparison can sometimes only highlight what you’re not.
Other episodes saw topics like moving between alternate realities to find loved ones that are dead in our timeline (something Fringe would invest heavily in years later), like in “Planely Possible” by Tales mainstay Russell Mulcahy and Peter Atkins (Hellraiser and Wishmaster series), or the concept of alien colonization and covert hybridization with the human race as a means to infiltrate the species, which sees exploration in “Ultimate Weapon.”
These all amount to very entertaining distractions, but the series’ episode “Panic” directed by the prolific Tobe Hooper and written by the selective Andrew Kevin Walker (writer of the incredible Se7en screenplay) is one of my favorite anthology shorts of all time. It might be campy as hell at certain points, but if this was a Tales From the Crypt episode, it would still rank up there with me amongst the best of them, mainly for the incredible twists that this economical piece of television pulls out at you. “Panic” is set on Halloween night in 1938, during the broadcast of Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” prank (or rather Carson Walls, an approximate for story’s sake). Two friends (Jason Lee and Jamie Kennedy, no less) are having a nonchalant time at a Halloween party when suddenly the alien invasion news breaks out and everything changes.
I really don’t want to spoil the direction that this episode goes in, but it takes the premise of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and subverts it with such a brilliant idea that it just fills me with such glee. Not only is this initial twist one of the smarter premises that I’ve seen used for an anthology show, but the ultimate twist that wraps up the episode is so in-your-face audacious, you just have to get on board with it. “Panic” is a bewildering experiment from top to bottom that never stops you from guessing what’s going on. This episode is deserving of some sort of elevation above its discarded series’ status. Perversions of Science might be a very mixed bag, but “Panic” is the series at its absolute best and won’t disappoint.
But on the topic of disappointment, it’s worth examining just why this series did crash and burn so unceremoniously. It’s possible that the final, British produced season of Tales From the Crypt left a bad taste in the audience’s mouth and rather than wanting more of this sort of thing, they were just burnt out. It’s also possible that sci-fi tends to have less of a success rate than horror, especially with how recent programming has been dictating. Not only is horror huge with results at the moment, but anthology horror is doing even better. Interestingly enough, Perversions of Science’s cancellation wasn’t because of it receiving tiny numbers due to some juggernaut of a competition. Granted, the series didn’t perform as well as Tales From the Crypt had, but it maintained solid numbers in its spot. What was more of an issue was the premiere of HBO mega-hit, Oz, also in ’97, and when it came to the time of cleaning slate at the end of the year it was clear which of the two wasn’t going anywhere.
With the complete lack of reputation that this series has, it almost feels more appropriate that this be the series that Shyamalan should revive for TNT. There’s considerably less stakes on something like this, you get around the issue of not having the rights to HBO’s Cryptkeeper, you still get the library of EC Comics at your disposal, and arguably Shyamalan has more a connection to science fiction than horror. The director could essentially create the same series, but under a title that doesn’t sully Tales From the Crypt’s name any, and as a result Perversions of Science gets a nice little publicity bump as well.
Or perhaps the series is just meant to always lie in obscurity. It did tell us that the whole universe all rests inside a piece of popcorn, after all.
The entirety of Perversions of Science is available on YouTube. God bless America.