Horror and science fiction have always been a part of the television canvas, and constant attempts have been made over the years to produce classic entertainment. Some have fallen by the wayside, while others became mainstream phenomena. With “TV Terrors,” we take a look back at the many genre efforts from the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s, exploring some shows that became cult classics, and others that sank in to obscurity.
This week, we revisit the animated series “Tales from the Cryptkeeper”…
- Aired from: 1993 – 1999
- Aired on: YTV, ABC Network, CBS Network
There was a weird movement in the eighties and nineties to take adult properties and transform them into kid friendly franchises. They tried everything from “Rambo” and “Kid and Play,” to “Conan” and “RoboCop,” who went from an X rated action picture to a lunchbox superhero. Yes, they even tried it with horror properties like “Beetlejuice” and “Tales from the Crypt.” Not only did the Cryptkeeper get his own game show a la “Double Dare,” but there were even action figures, collectible dolls, a series of young adult novels from Scholastic, and the entertaining G rated “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.”
The show, which ran simultaneously with the adult version of the series in many markets, originally premiered on ABC Saturday Mornings. It’s pretty much like those tame “horror” comics that filled store shelves after EC Comics shut down in the seventies, and the Comics Authority Code took over. It was mostly generic horror in the way of Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, demons, and vampires sans all the blood, gore, and grue. I think we can all agree that the original HBO show is one of the all time great horror series ever made, even thriving in syndication for many years on local stations and cable TV.
And to its credit, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” was a nice treat for Saturday mornings where time slots were typically reserved for tamer programming like “Free Willy: The Animated Series.” In this new format, the Cryptkeeper (John Kassir returned to voice the character), who now shockingly resembled Beetlejuice, didn’t just introduce the scary tales, but he’d also set the course for said tales of terror. He lived in his massive mansion rigged with traps and monsters and would deliver some comical preamble for classic EC Comics morality tales. Often during the episodes he’d either appear as a plot device that would set the story in motion, or would cameo as a delivery man.
What I love about the series is not just that the Cryptkeeper is kind of a puppet master who sets the wheels in motion, but with a little tweaking, every episode could be a very violent and gruesome episode of the original HBO series. The animated series shied away from the more violent beats the comic was known for like death, murder, and infidelity, and tackled more youth oriented themes. A lot of the stories revolved around greed, bullying, deceiving role models, or the cost of lying.
In the pilot “While the Cat’s Away,” a pair of teenagers are filled in on a fortune hidden in the catacombs of the mansion of a rich man named T. Charles Kingman. They venture inside to look for the treasure to pay for new bikes, and soon realize the house has no intention of letting them leave thanks to its monstrous security system. I have a sentimental attachment to this episode as it played during the Saturday morning previews on Friday night’s TGIF line up, and my ten year old horror fanatic self salivated during the preview. “The Weeping Woman” is probably the best episode of the series, involving a pair of friends staying at a hotel that is being haunted by a wailing ghost.
“Sleeping Beauty” is a fun take on the classic fairy tale where two brothers seek to awake the slumbering princess for the sake of glory—only to find out that she’s a blood sucking vampire. “Vampire Express” finds two “surfer dudes” sneaking onto a train to go skiing, only to find out the train is hauling a wagon filled with vampires. There’s also “Hyde and Go Shriek,” about a science nerd named Wendell who, when pushed one time too many, strikes back at his bullies with a mysterious tea that turns him into a wolf monster.
Executive produced by “Tales from the Crypt’s” own Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, Richard Donner, David Giler, and Walter Hill, the series nonetheless lasted twenty six episodes on ABC before it was cancelled. In 1999, CBS rebooted the series as “The New Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” Believe it or not, this iteration was even lighter than the previous one with a bigger focus on the antics of the Cryptkeeper, as he’s forced to live with his obnoxious and intrusive relatives, the Old Witch and The Vault Keeper. “The New Tales from the Cryptkeeper” got a lot of slack from horror fans for being considered inferior to previous incarnations.
It’s a fair criticism, but “The New Tales…” is not without its merits; we finally do get to see the Old Witch and the Vault Keeper in animated form, and they also take over for the Crypt Keeper during various episodes. The reboot (technically the final season of the 1993 animated series) dabbled in the same themes involving kids and morality lessons, as well as ideas about getting back at bullies, and learning to be careful what you wish for.
Despite the toned down aesthetic, which ABC seemed proud of at the time of its development, “Tales from the Cryptkeeper” maintains a look very reminiscent of the classic EC Comics, with some genuinely creative episodes. While the grim tone and grue are missing, the series has the same menacing aura with John Kassir doing a great job as the Crypt Keeper as always. While it may not satisfy the appetites of all hardcore EC fans, it’s a fun novelty, and still holds up as a solid introduction course for potential horror fanatics.
Is It On DVD/Blu-Ray? The majority of the episodes are available on YouTube by way of YTV Direct and TBEntertain, and various episodes can also be streamed on Amazon Video. The series is also available in numerous, separate volumes on DVD.