HBO’s horror anthology series Tales From the Crypt premiered 27 years ago today. It would be selfish to solely credit the HBO series for it’s footprint in the horror genre, so to truly understand the legacy that Tales From the Crypt has left behind, one must go all the way back to October of 1950, when the first issue of Entertaining Comics’ (formerly Educational Comics) Tales From the Crypt (then known as The Crypt of Terror) was unleashed upon the world.
In 1950, William Gaines, son of EC’s founder Maxwell Gaines, realized that he and his editor Al Feldstein both sought to create the same type of horror fiction in a post-World War II era when male readers had grown weary of the standard detective comic books that were being released at the time. Readers were demanding something more risqué. They wanted something with lots of gore. Gaines and Feldstein begane to inject elements of horror into their crime stories, and thus paved the way for Tales From the Crypt. No issue was more important than Issue #15 of Crime Patrol, titled “Return From the Grave!” This particular issue, which was the December 1949/January 1950 issue, served as the introduction of the Crypt Keeper, functioning as the host of the story. By the time issue #17 rolled around, Gaines and Feldstein had changed the title of the series from Crime Patrol to The Crypt of Terror. After three issues of that had been published, the series was renamed Tales From the Crypt in the October/November 1950 issue. The series would go on to publish 27 issues before ending in 1955. The final publication was the February/March 1955 Issue (#46).
Of course, Tales From the Crypt wasn’t the only horror series for EC Comics (It doesn’t make a lot of sense does it? That expands to Entertainment Comics Comics.). EC also had The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear to keep up with. Each series had their own host: The Crypt Keeper for Tales, the Vault Keeper for Vault and the Old Witch for Haunt. Each host would invade the other series and trade barbs with the other hosts, while constantly trying to one-up each other. Their sole purpose was to add some levity to juxtapose the sheer horror of the tales being told within the comics.
The Crypt Keeper didn’t always start out as the emaciated skeleton we know today. Hi initial appearance was that of a man in a long robe. He eventually grew more and more grotesque (and more humorous) in the comics before being portrayed by British actor Ralph Richardson in the 1972 film adaptation. It wasn’t until 1989 when HBO premiered their anthology series Tales From the Crypt that the Crypt Keeper took on his now iconic look.
In the mid-50s, horror comics were criticized by authority figures and were thought to have caused delinquency among minors, which was becoming more of a problem in America. As a result, many restrictions were placed on comic books (they were forbidden from depicting zombies, vampires and other monsters), thereby making it nearly impossible to maintain the creative liberties they had once held. Gaines cancelled Tales From the Crypt and EC’s other horror series, releasing a final issue for February/March 1955 (Issue #46).
The world would go without another taste of Tales From the Crypt until 1972, when the aforementioned British film adaptation was released. Two of the five stories included in the film were adapted from Tales From the Crypt while the other three from from Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear. It received moderately positive reviews and was able to earn back its budget of £170,000. The following year saw the release of Vault of Horror, which served as the sequel to Tales From the Crypt. Oddly enough, none of the vignettes in Vault of Horror actually came from the Vault of Horror . Four of the vignettes were adapted from Tales From the Crypt, with one coming from Shock SuspenStories. In a questionable creative decision, the Vault Keeper was left out of the film.
On June 10, 1989, HBO premiered its adaptation of EC’s Tales From the Crypt, simply titled Tales From the Crypt. To fully understand the cultural significance of Tale From the Crypt, one must realize that in 1989 HBO was primarily known as a premium cable channel where you would watch uncensored movies. The channel didn’t have the amazing lineup of television series that it has right now. When Tales From the Crypt premiered, it was the first show put on television that was able to escape the censorship put in place by the network standards and practices and put as much profanity, gore, sex/nudity and drugs as they wanted on the screen. Because of this, it put HBO on the minds of television viewers everywhere. Not everyone was in love with the series, but enough viewers watched it to make it one of HBO’s biggest hits (which makes it even more depressing that it isn’t available on HBO Go due to rights issues). The pedigree of the show’s executive producers is quite impressive, made up of several talented film directors and producers: Richard Donner, Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Walter Hill and David Giler.
In this adaptation of the EC Comics series, the Crypt Keeper was a ghastly skeleton puppet voiced by the superb John Kassir and operated by the late Van Snowden (who did the puppetry for Chucky in the original Child’s Play). Since the series premiered 27 years ago, HBO’s incarnation of the Crypt Keeper has become the definitive version of the character, with Kassir’s memorable high-pitched cackle permanently ingrained in people’s memories. As for the episodes themselves, the stories were taken not just from EC’s Tales From the Crypt, but their entire collection of horror comics (the aforementioned Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Shock SuspenStories, as well as Crime SuspenStories, and Two-Fisted Tales).
My association with Tales From the Crypt is that of it being a taboo. Tales From the Crypt, Married….With Children and The Simpsons were the main three shows I remember my parents forbidding me from watching as a kid (I was born in 1989). Hell, I wasn’t even allowed to watch the animated series Tales From the Cryptkeeper and that show was made for kids, but I digress. Before I became more seasoned in the horror genre, I had actually thought that the television show was an adaptation of the films Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood (they used to play on Syfy, formerly Sci-Fi Channel, all the time). Silly me.
As many of you may know, a reboot is being planned for TNT under the supervision of M. Night Shyamalan. While that may sound like a terrible idea, anyone who watches Wayward Pines knows that Shyamalan can actually do very good television. Everyone had an initial scare when it was announced that the reboot would not feature the Crypt Keeper, but luckily those worries have been alleviated by Shyamalan himself.
Take some time today to celebrate the 27th anniversary of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt! The DVDs are selling for affordable prices on Amazon so there’s really no excuse not to! Don’t forget to share your memories of the series in the comments below. To read more on the subject check out our own Daniel Kurland’s 15 Best Episodes of the series,a television show he is extremely passionate about, since he so rudely stole writing duties from our own Jess Hicks. Have fun, kiddies!