Main cast: William Sadler (Niles Talbot), JW Smith (Charley Ledbetter), Roy Brocksmith (Vic), Gerrit Graham (Theodore Carne), Dani Minnick (Cynthia Baldwin), David Wohl (Warden Havers), and John Kassir (The Crypt Keeper)
Director: Walter Hill
Tales from the Crypt is an anthology horror TV series, although calling it “horror” is oversimplifying its appeal. The series has humor, macabre, noir, thriller and more, adapted from stories featured in pulp magazines around the 1950s. Each episode is bookended by a short sequence featuring the puppet version of the Crypt Keeper, voiced by John Kassir, and in the first season, the Crypt Keeper is a bit more menacing, threatening the audience that the following episode will be full of chills and squeals.
The Man Who Was Death, the first episode, is not a good example of the best the series can offer, unfortunately, because it is all monologue and exposition, with little thrill to spice up the proceeding. This story, based on a story in Crypt of Terror, features Niles Talbot, a death row officer who pulls the switch in order to fry the prisoner on the electric chair. He likes his job a little too much, as he has a very misanthropic view of society in general. He sees scumbags everywhere, and every criminal who gets away unpunished makes him see read. Therefore, being the one to fry prisoners on the death row is one way for him to channel his frustrations.
Alas, the death sentence is soon abolished in his neighborhood, and he is out of a job. His former employers decide not to hire him even for another position because they feel that his presence would only disturb the prisoners who know of his reputation. I also suspect that they don’t want him back as he creeps them out. Without any job and without any way to rein in his impulses, Niles soon decides to embark on a vigilante crusade to take down the scumbags that escape the law by either bribing the judges and such or due to technicality. He decides that he’s the embodiment of death itself, so watch out, people, the time of judgment is nigh…
William Sadler tries, and he is always a joy to watch, but his character spends most of the screen time saying insipid things like “They know death is coming. They tease it. I like that!” His rants about criminals, junkies, and what not feel like the unhinged rambling of some emo teen on Tumblr, and the show tries to fill up the time by flashing the occasional topless stripper and such. But this one is mostly Mr Sadler glowering and ranting directly at the camera, and when Niles finally embarks on his new homicidal career – by which there is only about twelve minutes left in the episode – the whole thing ends before it has even started. And the denouement is one I can correctly predict from the very beginning of the episode.
Slow, draggy, and eye-rolling in its pretentiousness, The Man Who Was Death is a shaky start to a TV series that attempts to bring to life the various degrees of campy fun in the pulp fiction days of the 1950s and 1960s. Future episodes will need to be better than this one in order to keep the party going.