Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, or, in this case, an A.V. Club theme week. This week: In honor of Comics Week, we look at comics-to-TV adaptations from beyond the current surplus of superhero shows.
Tales From The Crypt, “Lower Berth” (season two, episode 14; originally aired 7/30/1990)
Many TV and movie adaptations of superhero comics buckle under their own ambition. Their mythologies span decades, afflicted by constant retconning and ballooning casts of characters, which can cause trouble when studios are deciding what to include in the latest sequel. Simply put, some superhero films just have too much going on.
The writers of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt faced an opposite challenge when bringing multiple EC Comics yarns from page to screen. The titles they drew from were all anthology series, meaning that other than The Crypt Keeper (and a handful of other, similar “hosts” including the Old Witch and Vault-Keeper), there were no consistent superheroes (or even heroes, for that matter) whose mythologies had to be respected. Even better, every issue contained roughly three stories, each running for 10 pages or so. At that length, the screenwriters had plenty of room to expand, rather than edit.
The season-two episode “Lower Berth” is a testament to how, in the hands of a good writer and director (in this case, Fred Dekker and Crypt Keeper designer Kevin Yagher, respectively), an EC story can take on a more complex tone than the comic that inspired it. On the page (you can view a pretty good breakdown of everything here), the reader gets an origin story for a familiar character, and as the unholy union between its parents—a two-faced man and an Egyptian mummy at a traveling carnival—unfolds, most of the plot gets covered in wordy narration boxes, leaving only the faintest of character sketches, even for the two ghoulish lovers at the tale’s center.
On the show, however, the audience gets to spend plenty of time with the two-faced man, Enoch. As played by Yagher’s brother, Jeff, his eyes take on a cow-like expression of innocence and pain as he’s abused by his handlers, even through the layers of prosthetic makeup. (In one of the series’ most remarkable feats of effects magic, both of Enoch’s faces are constantly moving.) Later on, those eyes exude a sense of longing when the mummy gets brought to the sideshow. This golden-souled sensitivity is a far cry from Enoch’s characterization in the comics, where the coupling between the two carnival attractions gets played more for lusty laughs than true romance.
That’s not to say the episode is devoid of the horror hallmarks that made Tales From The Crypt so viscerally entertaining in the first place: There’s still plenty of sadism from Enoch’s keeper Mr. Sickles (and sadism committed upon Mr. Sickles), and, of course, some gloriously terrible “mommy/mummy” puns from The Crypt Keeper during his outro. But as “Lower Berth” proves, sometimes an outline of a story—even a story as grisly as this—can leave room for added nuance and humanity. Sometimes it’s better to work with the skeleton instead of the whole bloody corpse.
Availability: “Lower Berth” can be streamed on YouTube.