A horror anthology series like no other, Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons on HBO from 1989 to 1996. Based on the EC horror comics of the 1950s and the 1972 movie of the same name, Tales from the Crypt trafficked in graphic stories adapted from the comics that depicted often ironic comeuppances for frequently terrible people. This was in the days before prestige TV like HBO’s Game of Thrones, so an R-rated show like Tales from the Crypt, which contained graphic violence and nudity, was still a novelty.
What kept fans coming back, though, was the show’s morbid humor and its darkly clever episodes—sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, frequently ingenious, and always hosted by the pun-spewing Crypt Keeper, voiced by John Kassir.
While Tales from the Crypt may have gone off the air in ’96, you can still watch it right from the comfort of your computer or smart TV tonight. So settle into your lair, boils and ghouls. Here are the best Tales from the Crypt episodes.
“The New Arrival” Season 4, Episode 7
Peter Medak, who helmed one of the great understated ghost movies in 1980’s, The Changeling, is behind the camera for this Tales from the Crypt episode featuring Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein as a mother looking after her disturbed daughter, who always wears a porcelain mask. Enter horror mainstay David Warner as a psychologist attempting to exploit the situation to boost his own ratings, and things quickly take a turn for the strange in one of the series’ wildest episodes, which ends with a suitably grim Tales from the Crypt finale—though not before introducing some Saw-like traps to its creepy house premise.
“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” Season 2, Episode 10
Tales from the Crypt’s remit of pulling stories from old horror comics means that the show was never afraid to play with—and frequently subvert—stock horror tropes. See, for example, the story of the sinister ventriloquist’s dummy, as adapted here by none other than The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont and directed by Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon). The episode stars Bobcat Goldthwait as a young ventriloquist who wants to learn the secrets of the trade from his hero (played by Don Rickles), only to find out that some secrets are better left alone…
“Death of Some Salesmen” Season 5, Episode 1
Ed Begley Jr. plays a conniving salesman of cemetery plots (probably not a good occupation to have if you’re in a Tales from the Crypt episode) who sets his sights on a hillbilly family with a fortune stashed in their basement. The story, adapted from The Haunt of Fear #15, is pretty standard Crypt fare, but what makes this episode really stand out is Tim Curry playing all three members of the hillbilly household—Pa, Ma, and daughter Winona.
“Easel Kill Ya” Season 3, Episode 8
If this story of a struggling artist who finds financial success painting the dead—only to resort to increasingly desperate means to supply himself with fresh subjects—sounds familiar, it may be because it’s essentially the plot of Roger Corman’s classic A Bucket of Blood. For purists, though, the comic story from which this episode was adapted from actually hit stands six years before Corman’s film. A young Tim Roth plays the painter, who comes to the kind of haunting end that only Tales from the Crypt could deliver.
“Yellow” Season 3, Episode 14
Originally conceived as part of a pilot for a war-themed spin-off series called Two-Fisted Tales, this poignant and cinematic Tales from the Crypt episode stars real-life father-son duo Kirk and Eric Douglas as a general and his son, who is branded a coward during World War I. Directed by Robert Zemeckis in a sweeping style meant as an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (which also starred the elder Douglas), “Yellow” is not only the longest episode of Tales from the Crypt, it’s one of the most emotional in its examination of toxic masculinity years before we regularly talked about such things. It also co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Lance Henriksen.
“Television Terror” Season 2, Episode 16
Morton Downey Jr. plays a tabloid news host who is essentially a fictionalized version of himself in this episode about a camera crew investigating a supposedly haunted house where a gruesome murder was committed years before. Considered one of the scariest (and grisliest) episodes in the series, what really makes “Television Terror” fascinating is that it also serves as an early example of found footage horror of the type that would be popularized in the wake of The Blair Witch Project a decade later.
“You, Murderer” Season 6, Episode 15
Robert Zemeckis directs once again in this film noir homage that makes use of the same technology he had used to bring historical figures to life in Forrest Gump the year before to give the episode’s narrator the face of Humphrey Bogart. When the narrator’s wife (Isabella Rosselini) and doctor (John Lithgow) conspire to knock him off, the episode takes a morbid turn, recycling a plot device that had previously been used in the Season 3 episode “Abra Cadaver.”
“The Assassin” Season 6, Episode 8
Jonathan Banks, Corey Feldman, and Chelsea Field play a trio of operatives who invade the home of a seemingly ordinary housewife—played by Shelley Hack—whose husband is believed to be a rogue CIA assassin. The story has some fun twists and turns, but the real pleasure here is seeing William Sadler reprise his role as the Grim Reaper from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey in the host segments, where he plays a winner-take-all game with the Crypt Keeper. (Sadler once again played more-or-less the same part in the Tales from the Crypt movie Bordello of Blood, though that time he was a mummy.)
“People Who Live in Brass Hearses” Season 5, Episode 5
“What’s Cookin’” Season 4, Episode 6
Superman himself Christopher Reeve stars in this grisly story about a couple whose restaurant is failing until a new employee (Judd Nelson, The Breakfast Club) gives them a steak recipe with a secret ingredient—human flesh. Adapted from Haunt of Fear #12, this episode also features a guest appearance by the ironically named (given the episode’s subject matter) Meat Loaf.
“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” Season 1, Episode 3
The Matrix’s Joe Pantoliano plays a homeless man turned carnival daredevil after a doctor’s experiment surgically gives him the nine lives of a cat. Director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies) showcases our protagonist’s death-defying acts in a series of elaborately-staged flashbacks as he completes his final performance. There’s only one problem… he forgot one very important detail.
“Carrion Death” Season 3, Episode 2
Written and directed by Steven E. de Souza, who also wrote Commando, Die Hard, 48 Hours, and, ahem, wrote and directed the Street Fighter movie, this classic Tales from the Crypt episode sees a fugitive from justice stranded in the desert, handcuffed to a dead police officer who has swallowed the key to the cuffs. It’s the kind of simple setup that the show excelled at, and this episode is one of those that people think of when they think Tales from the Crypt.
“And All Through the House” Season 1, Episode 2
No one can accuse Tales from the Crypt of not starting strong. For many viewers, one of the most memorable episodes of the series was also one of the earliest—and it had also been a segment of the 1972 film of the same name. Adapted from The Vault of Horror #35, this infamous shocker features a woman who kills her husband on Christmas Eve, only to find herself stalked by a maniac dressed as Santa Claus. In the episode, written by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) and yet another directed by Robert Zemeckis, Mary Ellen Trainor of Die Hard plays the wife while the sinister Santa is Dr. Giggles himself, Larry Drake.
“The Third Pig” Season 7, Episode 13
Tales From the Crypt season 7 episode 13, the final episode of the entire series, stands apart from the pack. How? By delivering a demented animated horror version of the "Three Little Pigs" story. The Big Bad Wolf (voiced by Bobcat Golthwait) slaughters two of the three pigs and frames the third for murder. Alas, the third pig is convicted of the crime by an all-wolf jury. To exact his revenge, he conjures a zombie Frankenpig to hunt down the murderous Big Bad Wolf.
Featured image of "Tales from the Crypt" via HBO