Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 1, 2010: Six Creepifying Decades of ‘Tales From the Crypt’!

April 2010 is quite a month for landmark anniversaries of spooky works. We have “Twin Peaks” turning 20 on the 8th and Bride of Frankenstein celebrating its 75th birthday on the 22nd. But today I’m going to take a little look at the 60th anniversary of a publication that was as influential on the horror genre as a whole as “Peaks” was on television and Bride was on film. I’m squawking about Bill Gaines’s short-lived, but unfathomably far-reaching, comic Tales From the Crypt.

The story behind Crypt, and its sister mags The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, is as hoary and familiar as the Crypt Keeper at this point. Gaines reluctantly inherited Educational Comics from his dad Max after the curmudgeon died in a boating accident in 1947. Bill rebranded the publication, which had been hawking tiresome fluff like Funnies on Parade and Picture Stories from the Bible, as Entertaining Comics, and the new EC commenced whipping out its now-revered war, crime, sci-fi, and horror comics. The stories introduced by the GhouLunatics— the Crypt Keeper, the Old Witch, and the Vault Keeper— as well as their accompanying art, may seem quaintly tame today, but one can’t underestimate their potency in 1950. Universal Pictures had only recently faded as the major force in horror entertainment, going out with a hilarious bang called Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. The films Val Lewton produced for RKO were the only comparable films in terms of contemporary popularity and influence, but movies like Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Body Snatcher were even more reserved than the Universal horrors, despite their lurid titles. None of these films crossed any lines regarding blood or graphic gore of any sort. The violence either involved bloodless swipings by the Frankenstein Monster or the directors simply cut away just as Dracula was about to sink his teeth into a victim’s jugular. Then in lurched EC’s horror comics. The difference betweens these picture books aimed at youngsters and the horror pictures of Universal and RKO was shocking. Gaines, Al Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman hacked out tales of rotting corpses rising from the grave to extract ironic but graphic retribution on their wrong doers. Star artists like Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Jack Kamen, Ghastly Graham Ingels, and Jack Davis matched the text with vivid depictions of putrefying flesh and grisly eviscerations. Not surprisingly, parents were horrified when they saw what little Timmy, Jimmy, and Janie were spending their dimes on.

The uproar was exacerbated by a phony-boloney psychiatrist named Fred Wertham, who published a scanty little “study” called Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. The book drew all sorts of spurious connections between horror comics and juvenile delinquency. Outrageously, Seduction led to horror comics being brought before a senate inquisition. When Bill Gaines volunteered to be the industry poster boy by defending his work at the hearings, EC absorbed all of the public disgust directed at the genre, which also included sub-par, non-EC titles like Terrifying Tales, Chamber of Chills, Ghostly Weird, and Horrific. Gaines was forced to discontinue his horror titles. No matter. He soon rebounded with a satirical comic called Mad, and the remainder of his career was made in the shade.
A particularly controversial E.C. comic.

Yet, Tales From the Crypt and its associates were not dead, either. The comics may have ceased publication, but the aftershocks they emitted continued to ripple through the ozone. As the stodgy ‘50s segued into the swinging ‘60s, the kind of grue that speckled the pages of Tales From the Crypt crossed over to the cinema. The films Hammer Studios started producing in the late ‘50s gave horror followers their first glimpses of Technicolor blood. Hitchcock’s Psycho forced horror out of the Gothic castles and graveyards of yore and into the kind of contemporary setting that served as the background for many a tale from the crypt. 1968 saw the first film to pay direct and humble homage to EC’s horror comics. Night of the Living Dead was a graphically violent, slightly campy, relentless, and socially conscious horror movie that may as well have been peeled right off the page of a vintage issue of Crypt. No surprise that George Romero was an EC fanatic back when Frank Wertham was busy spoiling everyone’s fun. So were John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Joe Dante, and R.L. Stine.

Little Karen Cooper munches on her folks in Night of the Living Dead.

In 1972, Hammer’s chief competitor, Amicus, produced a tribute film called Tales From the Crypt, which adapted five EC chillers. Although the film skimped on the humor that was a Crypt staple (Sir Ralph Richardson’s grumbly Crypt Keeper couldn’t hold a candelabra to the incorrigible wise-cracker illustrated by Jack Davis) it still stands as the best horror portmanteau because of a cracking cast (Peter Cushing! Patrick McGee! Joan Collins!) and director Freddie Francis’s deft hand with crafting striking visuals and scenes of nearly intolerable suspense. The first and final sequences— “And All Through the House…” and “Blind Alley”, respectively— are particularly intense. Amicus followed with the slightly less spectacular Vault of Horror the following year.

Meanwhile, Romero continued diving into EC territory with further creeptastic offerings like The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead, before giving EC its most direct props yet. Creepshow did acknowledge the comics’ humor and style, even if the acting and Stephen King’s script were not on a par with Francis’s film. Romero then took his comic-vision to the small screen with the syndicated horror series Tales From the Dark Side, the success of which paved the way for the most popular and enduring pure horror anthology series in TV history. Yep, boils and ghouls, I’m talking about HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, which ran from 1989 to 1996 and spawned two feature films, a Saturday Morning Cartoon called Tales From the Cryptkeeper, and a kiddie game show called Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House. Most importantly, it introduced a new generation of creeps to Bill Gaines’s classic comic. In 2007, independent publisher Papercutz resurrected Tales From the Crypt in comic form, and even stirred a bit of controversy after printing a 2008 cover depicting a hockey-stick wielding Sarah Palin to illustrate an anti-censorship editorial by Bill Gaines’s daughter, Cathy. Clearly, the Crypt spirit is still alive and well after 60 years.

Why couldn't the GhouLunatics been the ones wielding the hockey stick?
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