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12 Spine-Tingling Facts About Tales From the Crypt

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Yanked from the tasteless, imaginative, and classic E.C. comics that incited a Congressional investigation in the 1950s, HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)—which signed off 20 years ago today—was one of the few television shows where A-list Hollywood talent appeared. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) was an executive producer, along with Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Superman: The Movie) and Walter Hill (The Warriors). Each week, the anthology series would deal out a bloody morality tale, framed by the cackling Crypt Keeper (voiced by John Kassir). Boils and ghouls curious about the show’s history should keep reading, or more puns will follow.

1. LETHAL WEAPON IS PARTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SHOW.

Producer Joel Silver was on the set of 1987’s Lethal Weapon when he and director Richard Donner began talking about Silver’s failed attempts to adapt Tales from the Crypt as a feature film: the disappointing reception to 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie and 1982’s Creepshow had lessened enthusiasm for horror anthologies. Unmoved by those failures, Donner said he’d be interested in joining the project. When the series idea was brought to HBO, they were intrigued that so many feature film talents were backing the idea. When Zemeckis—who was working with Silver on 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—got involved, the network agreed to move forward with the show.  

2. THE CRYPT KEEPER HAS CHUCKY’S EYES.

When a film or television show needs a creepy animatronic puppet, they usually call Kevin Yagher. As horror’s Jim Henson, the prolific special effects expert has been responsible for the Crypt Keeper, Chucky of the Child’s Play films, and various versions of the Freddy Krueger make-up. To create Tales from the Crypt’s decomposing host, Yagher used the clear blue eyes from his Chucky fabrication; it took six puppeteers to make him fully operational.  

3. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER DIRECTED AN EPISODE.

HBO

Tales from the Crypt was famous for luring a number of noted feature directors to television at a time when it was considered a step down from movies. While having producers like Donner and Zemeckis making phone calls helped, the primary attraction was getting to shoot what amounted to a short film with minimal interference. For actors, it was also a chance to step behind the camera without the burden of an extended shoot. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was paid scale ($15,000) to direct an episode, said at the time “It was, I would say, the greatest joy I’ve ever had in the movie business.”  

4. IT BROUGHT HUMPHREY BOGART BACK FROM THE DEAD.

Zemeckis’s involvement often meant that Tales from the Crypt would take any opportunity to explore new techniques for visual effects. In the episode “You, Murderer,” a career criminal murdered by his wife and best friend posthumously narrates the events leading up to his demise. When the character looks in the mirror—the show takes place from his POV—viewers see the resurrected features of Humphrey Bogart. Zemeckis used footage from Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and other Bogart films to capture footage and digitally insert it into the frame. During wraparounds, the Crypt Keeper also converses with a seemingly above-ground Alfred Hitchcock.   

5. IT HELPED CREATE THE “IT’S NOT TV, IT’S HBO” TAG.

Free from the restrictions of broadcast networks, HBO had no problems pushing boundaries in its content. When the channel enlisted a new ad agency to develop a marketing campaign for Tales from the Crypt, they screened a collection of racy footage from the show along with other original programming. When the lights came up, someone said, “It’s not TV.” Another person said, “No, it’s HBO.”  

6. TWO VERSIONS OF EACH EPISODE WERE SHOT.

For Zemeckis, Donner, and the rest of the show's high-profile producers, the financial payoff was always thought to be a move to syndication. Because HBO was more permissive in terms of content, they needed to prepare for an eventual screening on broadcast TV stations. When Tales from the Crypt was bought by Fox for a late-night Saturday slot in 1994, the episodes were re-edited to include alternate takes that eliminated most of the original episodes' gore and nudity. The show also had actors loop non-profane dialogue during shooting. While HBO normally values exclusivity, it didn’t mind the deal: uncut episodes were still an attraction and, as one executive pointed out, “The show is called HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.” Free advertising never hurt.

7. THE AXE-WIELDING SANTA WAS SEEN BEFORE.

One of the show’s earliest episodes featured Larry Drake (L.A. Law) as a murderous Santa Claus stalking a woman who had just murdered her husband and couldn't exactly plead with the police for assistance. While the premise was based on an E.C. story, it wasn’t the first time it had been filmed. In 1972, a production company named Amicus released a Tales From the Crypt feature: in one segment, Joan Collins appears as the freshly widowed wife being hunted by a significantly less sinister-looking Santa.

8. JOHN KASSIR CALLED INTO RADIO SHOWS IN CHARACTER.

As an anthology show, Tales from the Crypt didn’t have any recurring cast members to help drum up publicity. The only familiar face (and voice) was Kassir's. So HBO had him make the media rounds at the start of each season, calling into radio shows as the Crypt Keeper. “We would launch a new season and I would spend a week in the morning doing 50 or 60 radio interviews as the Crypt Keeper,” he told CrypticRock.com. “I would naturally have to improvise all of that. I would have some bullet points and all that to talk about when the show was coming on ... [the Crypt Keeper] would sit there and talk. ‘How are you Frank? Ha ha ha.’”

9. IT MOVED TO THE UK FOR ITS FINAL SEASON.

And not, as some suspected, because it was cheaper. After six seasons, Tales from the Crypt had more or less exhausted California’s reserve of actors and filmmakers. For its final season, the production moved to Ealing Studios in West London. Producer Gil Adler endorsed the switch for enabling new faces and locations to be utilized. As a result of the change, Ewan McGregor and Bob Hoskins were among the actors who popped up on the series.

10. IT GOT G-RATED FOR AN ANIMATED SERIES.

The success of Tales from the Crypt in live-action prompted Silver to consider alternative revenue streams for its popular host, who once sat in with The Tonight Show band. In 1993, ABC aired a Saturday morning cartoon show, Tales From the Cryptkeeper, that featured a somewhat softer approach to the morbid material: characters didn’t die, and being dismembered was off-limits. Originally intended to be introduced by the puppet version, concerns over his appearance—the Crypt Keeper is essentially a rotting corpse, which might disturb children—led producers to replace him with an animated substitute. John Kassir remained the voice. The light alternative didn’t resonate with viewers, who tuned out after two seasons.   

11. IT ALSO GOT REWORKED AS A GAME SHOW.

The unwieldy title was probably a fair warning: Secrets of the Crypt Keeper’s Haunted House was a 1996 production that featured Kassir and his puppet alter ego in a game show that aired on CBS on Saturday mornings. Shot at Universal Studios Florida, teams of contestants awkwardly interacted with a green screen and 1990s-era computer graphics while the Crypt Keeper taunted them. The effects were so peculiar that the show’s premiere was delayed by a month while technical difficulties were sorted out. It lasted a season, but that was enough to make some kind of TV history: by this point, the character had appeared on ABC, CBS, Fox, and HBO.

12. THERE WAS ALSO A CHRISTMAS ALBUM.

Reminded that Freddy Krueger once performed with the Fat Boys, Kassir recorded several albums in character for Warner Bros. The first, Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas, was released in 1994. (Sample track: “Deck the Halls with Parts of Charlie.”) Kassir has said his father, a surgeon, enjoyed playing the holiday record during procedures.

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Marvel Entertainment
The Litigious History of DC and Marvel’s Rival Captain Marvel Characters
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Carol Danvers is just one of many heroes to hold the Captain Marvel mantle for Marvel
Marvel Entertainment

Behind-the-scenes struggles and legal wrangling have played just as big of a part in the history of comic books as the colorful battles on the pages themselves. And one of the most complex and long-lasting disputes in the industry has focused on Captain Marvel—or at least the two distinct versions of the character that have coexisted in a state of confusion at both Marvel and DC for decades.

Like many comic book tangles, this dispute was made possible because of the debut of Superman. Soon after his first appearance in 1938's Action Comics #1, there was a deluge of knockoffs from publishers looking for a piece of the Man of Steel pie. Though most of these were fly-by-night analogues, Fawcett Comics’s attempt at its own superhero wasn’t an inferior model—it quickly became real competition.

ENTER: THE BIG RED CHEESE

Fawcett’s Captain Marvel was created in late 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck and debuted in Whiz Comics #2. On his first cover, Captain Marvel is shown carelessly throwing a car against a brick wall, as two criminals bolt out of the windows. In Action Comics #1, Superman made his debut by hoisting a similar car over his head and driving it into the Earth, as the criminals inside fled.

The similarities were unmistakable: Here were two caped strongmen with heroic squints and circus tights leaping around cities and battling mad (and bald) scientists. But while Clark Kent got his powers from his Kryptonian physiology, Captain Marvel was, in reality, a young boy named Billy Batson who would receive his powers by shouting the magic word “SHAZAM!” If Superman was the straitlaced Boy Scout, Captain Marvel earned his moniker of "The Big Red Cheese" through sheer camp, a wink, and a nod.

Seniority mattered little to young comic book readers, and once Captain Marvel found his footing, he was outselling Superman at the newsstand and beating him to the screen by receiving his own live-action film serial in 1941. But as Captain Marvel reached larger audiences, DC was in the midst of legal action against Fawcett for copyright infringement. The claim was simple: Captain Marvel was a bit too close to Superman for DC's comfort.

DC wanted Fawcett to cease production of the serial and comics by the early 1940s, but Fawcett fought to delay a court battle for years. It wasn’t until 1948 that the case actually went to trial, with the dust finally settling in DC's favor in 1954. Legally, Fawcett would never be allowed to print another Captain Marvel book. By now, though, the superhero market was near extinction, so for Fawcett, it wasn’t even worth it to appeal again. Instead, the publisher closed shop, leaving Superman to soar the skies of Metropolis without any square-jawed competition on the newsstands.

MARVEL CLAIMS ITS NAME

The next decade would see a superhero revitalization, beginning with DC’s revamped takes on The Flash and Green Lantern in the late 1950s, and exploding just a few years later when Timely Comics changed its name to Marvel Comics and launched a roster of heavy-hitters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and The Hulk, all by 1962.

Marvel was a buzzword again, and in 1966, a short-lived company called M.F. Enterprises tried to capitalize with a new character named Captain Marvel—generally considered one of the worst superheroes ever put to paper.

Marvel now needed to stop inferior comics from using its name on their covers, so it obtained the trademark for the Captain Marvel name and went about protecting it by introducing yet another character named Captain Marvel. This new alien version of the hero made his debut shortly after in 1967's Marvel Super-Heroes #12.

The character was born purely for legal reasons. According to comic book veteran Roy Thomas, Stan Lee only created a Captain Marvel at publisher Martin Goodman's insistence: "All I know is the basis of the character came from a resentment over the use of the ‘Captain Marvel’ name."

Comics are nothing if not needlessly confusing at times, and by the early 1970s, Superman wasn’t quite the sales force he used to be. In need of some fresh blood, DC turned to an unlikely source for help: Fawcett. The company had reemerged in the late 1960s as the publisher of Dennis the Menace comics, but its hands were tied when the superhero business revived since it was legally forbidden from producing new Captain Marvel books. So they did the next best thing by agreeing to license the character and his supporting cast to DC in 1973.

CAPTAINS IN DISPUTE

Now the world’s two biggest publishers both had high-profile characters named Captain Marvel. But there was a catch: Since Marvel owned the rights to the name, DC couldn’t call its new Captain Marvel comic Captain Marvel. Instead, all of his comics went by the title Shazam, as did the character’s live-action TV revival in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, the name of the character himself was still—wait for it—Captain Marvel. So DC could retain the character’s name in the stories but couldn’t slap it onto book covers or TV shows. Only Marvel could monetize the name Captain Marvel.

Right after Captain Marvel’s first DC book launched in 1973, there was an immediate hiccup. The full title of the series was the slightly antagonistic Shazam: The Original Captain Marvel. That lasted all of 14 issues before a cease and desist order from Marvel turned the series into Shazam: The World’s Mightiest Mortal. Marvel, on the other hand, found itself in the position to keep its trademark by continuously pumping out more books with Captain Marvel on the cover, which is why the company’s history is littered with reboots and new versions of the character turning up every two years or so.

By the 1990s, DC had outright purchased its Captain Marvel from Fawcett, but it could barely promote him. There are only so many times you can put Shazam on a comic cover but refer to him as Captain Marvel on the inside without confusing your readers. So in 2012, DC and writer Geoff Johns decided to end the decades of confusion and simply rename the character Shazam, because, as John said, “everybody thinks he's called Shazam already.”

In 2019, these two characters that are seemingly forever linked will have another shared milestone when they both make their big screen debuts. Marvel’s Captain Marvel will hit theaters on March 8, 2019, with Brie Larson playing the Carol Danvers version of the character. And after nearly 80 years of switching publishers, changing names, and lengthy legal battles, Zachary Levi will play the title role in Shazam! a month later on April 5.

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Evening Standard/Getty Images
8 Actors Who've Played Batman (and What Fans Had to Say About Them)
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Batman is one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, which has made playing him a difficult task for more than one actor. (Playing characters with rabid fan bases can be a double-edged sword.) Here, take a look back at eight actors who've donned the Batsuit—and how fans and critics reacted to their performances.

1. LEWIS WILSON

Lewis Wilson as Batman
Columbia Pictures

Lewis Wilson was the youngest person to play Batman. He appeared in the 15-part 1943 Columbia serial. Critics complained about everything from his weight to his accent.

2. ROBERT LOWERY

Robert Lowery took over the role in the 1949 follow-up serial, Batman And Robin. He was a forgettable actor in this role.

3. ADAM WEST

Adam West at 'Batman'
Evening Standard/Getty Images

West played the Caped Crusader from 1966 through 1968 in the Batman television series in addition to a film spin-off. Fans were torn: Either they loved his campy portrayal or hated it.

4. MICHAEL KEATON

Michael Keaton's casting in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film caused such controversy that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Brothers’s offices.

5. VAL KILMER

Val Kilmer in 'Batman Forever' (1995)
Warner BRos.

Val Kilmer put on the suit in 1995 and received mixed reviews. Director Joel Schumacher called the actor “childish and impossible."

6. GEORGE CLOONEY

It's safe to assume Clooney regrets his decision to star in Batman & Robin. It was the worst box-office performer of the modern Batman movies and Clooney once joked that he killed the series.

7. CHRISTIAN BALE


© TM & DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though Christian Bale is largely favored as the best actor to play the Dark Knight, he was not without criticism. NPR’s David Edelstein described his husky voice as “a voice that's deeper and hammier than ever.”

8. BEN AFFLECK

Most recently: Fans immediately took to the internet to decry the decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), recalling his previous roles in the poor-performing Gigli and Daredevil.

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