Tales from the Crypt “Cutting Cards”
I’ve always been a big fan of horror anthologies. The mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s were really the heyday for the format, as shows like The Hitchhiker, Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, and revamped versions of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits made the rounds on cable and syndication.
The king of the format, however, was Tales from the Crypt. Premiering on HBO in the summer of 1989, this gory tribute to EC Comics from the ‘50s was a smash for the network and horror in general. I won’t get into the back story of the comics, because we’d be here all damn day. It’s covered more thoroughly and professionally elsewhere, and I’d much rather focus on the show.
Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Stars such as Tom Hanks, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger got involved in the series, usually directing episodes, but occasionally taking an onscreen part. I’ll be looking at some of my favorite episodes, starting with a neat little tale from season two called “Cutting Cards”.
The shortest episode in the series (twenty minutes, minus the opening intro to every episode), this is more of a dark comedy (as were many episodes) than actual horror, but it’s a fun romp nonetheless.
For some reason, the first and second season DVD sets don’t have the opening title sequence. I have no idea why they were done this way, but it really takes something away from the experience. Thankfully, the opening intro is where it belongs on the season 3-7 sets.
The intro itself is fairly straightforward: Danny Elfman’s funhouse-esque main title theme plays as a POV shot moves through a scary mansion, until stopping at a coffin that opens up, revealing the Cryptkeeper as he leaps up at the camera and screams/laughs.
The current episode begins as all episodes do, with the intro from our undead host, a fantastic puppet designed by makeup f/x ace Kevin Yagher and voiced by John Kassir. Yagher is the man behind Chucky from the Child’s Play movies, and he did effects for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and 3, to say nothing of the tons of other movies he’s worked on. He also directed a few episodes during the show’s run.
The Cryptkeeper intros the episode while looking over some cards, setting up the gambling theme of the episode and making his usual bad puns. These wraparound sequences are more entertaining for me due to the effects work than any of the lines given to the character. There’s just something admirable about an animatronic puppet done so well that it can be seen in a super tight close-up and still be believable.
On to the main course, we begin in a small town as Reno Crevis (Lance Henriksen) arrives at a casino in a red Caddy, decked out in a black and red cowboy outfit complete with hat and huge ass belt buckle. Yep, it’s that kind of story, folks. Not sure where this story is supposed to be taking place, but I’d guess either Texas or Atlantic City. Probably Texas, given the accents.
As the credits roll, I just have to mention what a stellar behind the scenes team this show had. When your executive producers are responsible for Alien (Walter Hill and David Giler), Lethal Weapon (Joel Silver and Richard Donner) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis), that’s some serious talent there. I’m in hog heaven, and the story hasn’t even started yet!
As Reno walks through the casino, we find our episode is directed by Walter Hill. Hill also directed two other episodes of this series, not to mention great movies like 48 Hrs., and as long as we’re being honest, bad movies like Another 48 Hrs.
Reno learns from the bartender (played by Roy Brocksmith from Tango & Cash and Total Recall) that Sam Forney, an old rival of his is in town, and from the conversation, it’s clear that Reno has a rather dim view of Sam. Well, at least that’s what I would take “two-bit hustler” to imply.
Reno glances back and sees Sam in a private room, drinking and playing solitaire. Sam is played by Kevin Tighe, most recently seen around here in Road House. Reno approaches his nemesis, and right from the get go, it’s clear these two despise each other with a white hot passion.
Sam has cleaned out most of the regulars Reno used to gamble with, and they trade taunts, with Sam arguably getting the best parts of the exchange. Generally, mentioning how you won a guy’s car and how his wife ran off with another man afterwards will trump just about anything. About the only thing that can top that is if the wife ran off with you after you won the car, but that’s neither here nor there.
This remark from Sam doesn’t do much to improve Reno’s mood, and he threatens his rival, which earns him a little speech about how everyone laughs at him. Given the man’s fashion sense, I’d be hard pressed to stifle my laughter, too. Seriously, Tex. Try wearing something consistent with the era in which you’re living.
It comes down to Sam saying he wants Reno out of his life forever, which nicely sets up the rest of the story, as the two go through a series of gradually more macabre bets. Hill directs these scenes with a great deal of style. I really feel he’s an underrated director.
Our adversaries start with a roll of the dice, loser leaves town. Both get double sixes, and man, is it great how over the top these two actors are willing to go. Henriksen can do pretty much anything and make it work, as we’ve seen, but Tighe is more than capable of matching him move for hammy move. Seriously, every one of the man’s reactions is like something out of the old EC comics. Wildly exaggerated, and very funny.
Reno gets pissed, and suggests a round of Russian Roulette, and as luck would have it, Sam has a .44 in his car. Yep, I’d say they’re in Texas alright. Evidently, it’s a rather small town in Texas, as the streets are fairly empty when we cut outside to the parking lot where they’re prepping the gun.
Sam does the honors of loading the bullet, and what ensues is a wonderfully tense sequence as they take turns taunting each other and pulling the trigger. Sam goes first and clicks on an empty chamber, as does Reno, who then goes off on an insane rant about how thinking about actually getting the bullet is the fun part of Russian Roulette. It’s both ghoulishly funny and slightly creepy.
Sam is a bit shaken by this, as it would seem Reno is a little bit tougher. Or crazier, at any rate. The next two chambers click empty for both men, meaning there are only two chambers left, and it’s now a fifty-fifty shot for Sam.
The tension builds, and is then broken by some guy in a convertible who, for unknown reasons, sees two guys with a gun in a parking lot and assumes they’re the valet service for the casino. Well, I guess they needed something to pad out the episode a bit.
They scare the guy off, and then resume the game, and after some tense moments, Sam clicks on an empty chamber. Delighted, he taunts Reno, who grabs the gun and shoves it into Sam’s face, telling him to shut up.
Reno gives some final words and then pulls the trigger… Only to have it misfire. He’s more pissed off than anything else, and he accuses Sam of cheating.
I love Tighe’s reaction to this. He’s almost genuinely hurt to be accused of rigging a game of Russian Roulette.
Even better is what he suggests their next game should be: “Chop Poker”.
The game is simple: it has the same rules as poker, only when you lose a hand… you lose a finger. I love the production design for this sequence; it’s stark and nicely creepy.
Reno wins the first hand (heh heh), picks up a butcher knife, and chops off Sam’s finger. Tighe’s reaction is hilarious.
The next hand also goes Reno’s way, and with more taunting, Sam loses yet another digit. But of course, since we can’t have just one character actor getting maimed, Reno loses the third hand. He tries to cut a deal with Sam, offering to have one of the doctors sew Sam’s fingers back on, but Sam won’t hear it
Sam picks up the butcher knife, and Reno loses a finger of his own. A rather shaky Sam (hey, having two fingers cut off will take a lot out of a guy) notes, “It don’t hurt that bad!”
And with that, we cut to sometime later in a hospital, as Reno and Sam are amazingly both still alive. They’re now playing checkers in as insanely competitive a fashion as they played Russian Roulette. And it would appear neither one of them has arms or legs.
The limbless men continue taunting each other, and with that, the episode ends. We go back to the Cryptkeeper, who wraps things up with a few bad puns while offering us a frying pan full of severed fingers.
To be honest, the ending feels a bit abrupt. The game could have been stretched out a bit more, and the episode in general feels like it’s missing a beat. In fact, the first time I saw the episode I thought it had been trimmed for content more than usual (it was a syndicated version I taped off of FOX). Seeing as how the entire episode, including credits and wraparound segments, runs about twenty one minutes and change, I’d say something was cut out of the script at some point.
It’s a shame, since this episode is lean, mean, and ghoulishly funny, with two fantastic performances from the lead actors. It stands as one of the best episodes of the season and the series.
It fits in nicely with the rest of Walter Hill’s résumé, as he tends to favor stories about seriously macho men and their rivalries. This episode also encapsulates the humorous aspect of the comics quite nicely. Next time, I’ll cover an episode that gives you a better idea of just how far the series was able to push the limits when it really wanted to.