Director: Walter Hill
Writers: Robert Reneau and Walter Hill
Cast: John Kassir, Bill Sadler, J.W. Smith, Roy Brocksmith, David Wohl, Gerrit Graham, Dani Minnick, Tony Abatemarco, Mimi Kennedy, Robert Winley, Eve Brent, Edgar Small, Mark Lowenthal, F.J. O’Neil, Raymond O’Conner, M. Jennifer Evans, Patti Yasutake, “Al” M. Allen, Kate Benton, Julie Ann Lucas, Ed DeFusco, and Laura Albert
Composer: Ry Cooder
Air Date: 6/10/1989
Following the abolition of the death penalty, state executioner Niles Talbot (Bill Sadler) decides to take the law into his own hands. Determined to make acquitted murder suspects Jimmy Flood (Robert Winley), Theodore Carne (Gerrit Graham), and Cynthia Baldwin (Dani Minnick) pay for their evil deeds, Niles prepares a “shocking” punishment for each of the above criminals.
By combining satirical undertones with the dark, moody atmosphere of a classic horror film, “The Man Who Was Death” introduces a variety of tropes (e.g. murder, graphic violence, and gallows humor) that would establish Tales from the Crypt—a campy, live-action remake of a 1950s comic line—as one of the most iconic anthology programs ever made. Also top-notch is the acting/narration of Bill Sadler, whom series enthusiasts will recognize from Demon Knight, Bordello of Blood, and season six’s “The Assassin.”
Though motivated in part by sadistic fantasies, Niles Talbot pleads his case in a manner that will evoke the sympathies of, if not thoroughly persuade, viewers with a compelling sense of justice. Prior to executing an exonerated couple, for example, Niles (now speaking directly to the audience) explains that one of his soon-to-be victims had murdered his wife, obtained her fortune, and began a relationship with another, more attractive woman before evading the legal consequences of his actions—an appeal to pathos that portrays the vigilante crusade of Niles, ostensibly a cold-blooded killer, in a heroic fashion.
Despite accentuating the grungy environment of the state prison, the poor lighting of this episode often clashes with the lively setting (i.e. a city filled with sex, drugs, and other vices) in which it takes place.
For containing a subtle critique on capital punishment, “The Man Who Was Death” deserves its reputation as a thought-provoking episode of Tales from the Crypt. Specifically worth noting are the hypocritical tendencies of the police officers, government officials, and prison workers who capture and later execute a man for performing his “job” outside of legal boundaries—an ironic statement on one of many double-standards frequently employed by the American judicial system.
The first episode of Tales from the Crypt, “The Man Who Was Death” should be requisite viewing for fans of the horror/comedy crossover genre. The technical shortcomings of this production may, however, evoke criticism from those with a keen eye for detail.
Overall Quality: 8/10
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