england’s Dreaming #2: tales from the crypt
Pull the curtains. Light the candles. Brace yourself for an evening of cheap shocks and sordid twists. This week were going to get nasty kicks from watching some recent, forgotten UK horror...
I want to look at the final series of 90s schlock revival Tales from the Crypt, because, and this is surprisingly un-celebrated, it was entirely shot in England. If youre not familiar with the program, TotC was a horror anthology series made by HBO, based on stories from the thoroughly enjoyable, morally destitute EC comics of the 40s and 50s. The comic books kicked off a substantial government panic in McCarthy era America, lavish as they were with voluptuous femme fatales, decrepit blood sucking ghouls, hapless dabblers in the occult, and gleeful depictions of agony. This sort of thing:
HBO did a pretty good job bringing all the sensationalism and verve of EC to the small screen, Crucially they chose to aim directly at an adult audience, packing the series with lashings of gore, nudity, profanity and transgression. Bookended by marmite monologues from the Cryptkeeper, a skeletal undead maniac with a taste for shit puns and natty outfits, TotC ran for 6 long seasons before, in the face of slackening ratings, the producers decided they needed a shake up.
To this end, the final series was transplanted to England. As a result it featured appearances from stellar British talent, with episodes starring, amongst many others, Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Craig, Ewan McGregor, Imelda Staunton, Martin Kemp and Julia Sawalha. Im not going to lie to you; some of the episodes are really bad. Transplanting weird 50s Americana to our island led to a few jarring cock ups, best left forgotten. Only a sadist would want to sit through the Ewan McGregor episode more than once (he plays a zombie, or a werewolf or some such thing, then gets killed by a vampire. Its worse than it sounds), but when the series worked, its kitsch, gleefully unpleasant anarchic spirit chimed with the British dramatic tradition of celebrating both the sinister and the silly, and created a couple of curiously forgotten gems.
If youre interested Id recommend you start with the above episode Horror in the Night. Telling the story of a low rent crook holed up in a hotel that may or may not exist, his reality whirled into increasingly disturbed feedback loops, Horror in the Night is a great little story, as much J-Horror as it is standard TotC fare. It features two noteworthy cameos one from Ed Tudor Pole, who was once Malcolm McClarens lame replacement for Johnny Rotten in the Pistols (here he is, being a chump, in unintentional Pistols obituary The Great Rock n Roll Swindle), and the other from the hotel itself which, if Im not mistaken, is now the pub on Commercial Road called The Shoreditch.
As with anything shot in East London pre early noughties, the area appears to be a desolate, crumbling sepulchre, which, surprisingly, is infinitely more appealing than the vile, teeming turdwalk the place is now. Probably less likely to get shot these days though, which is some sort of bonus.
Of the rest of the episodes, personal taste comes into play. Im going to suggest the Steve Coogan episode first. He plays a simple soul in the grip of a selfish love, and its a little Alan Partridge: The Bedsit Psycho Years (I guess everything Coogan does is doomed to be a bit Partridge). Further on, the Daniel Craig episode is based on the familiar TotC trope that business men particularly anyone working in advertising – CAN NOT BE TRUSTED. This ran through every series in fact one of the overriding themes of Tales From the Crypt is that people in suits are either ripping off the public, plotting murder, or rapidly on their way to hell.
Episode 10 has Anna Friel playing good and evil twins out for revenge on their father, a sleazy Victorian vicar, and has a satisfyingly gruesome conclusion, and if you can handle Martin Kemps ridiculous German accent, his episode is pretty good as a World War 2 suspense story. Links to all are below. The others? Well, Ive watched and (kind of) enjoyed them all, but Id probably recommend just checking out the first 4 American series, which really did produce some classic mini horror films and a fair few surprise English cameos (this Adam Ant turn springs to mind).