Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1992) Part 1

14. Two-Fisted Tales

In 1989, Richard Donner would team with Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill, and others to launch “Tales from the Crypt.” The moralistic, gory, controversial and influential horror stories from EC Comics inspired Donner and his cohorts to make movies. They returned the favor by producing a series that adapted many of the EC Comics horror stories to television. By airing on premium cable, “Tales from the Crypt” could get away with levels of sex and violence then unseen on broadcast TV. This graphic content, along with the campy host segments featuring an animatronic Crypt Keeper, made “Tales” a pop culture phenomena in the early nineties. I’m a fan, obviously. The success of “Tales” prompted Donner, Zemeckis and the rest to try and launch a spin-off series.

While “Tales from the Crypt” pulled its inspiration from EC’s horror comics, “Two-Fisted Tales” looked towards EC’s war and adventure comics for stories. Though the lurid content of “Vault of Horror” or “Haunt of Fear” is far more infamous, the company’s action tales were no less hard-hitting and bloody. Despite riding the coattails of a popular show, “Two-Fisted Tales” never went to series. Originally airing on Fox as a TV movie, “Two-Fisted Tales” wasn’t popular enough to spawn an on-going anthology. Eventually, the three segments would be recycled as episodes of “Tales from the Crypt.” Despite the series often featuring crime or thriller stories, the “Two-Fisted Tales” segments still seemed highly out of place on that show. In the same spirit, forgive me if I reuse my “Tales from the Crypt” reviews for this Report Card.

An EC Comics series wouldn’t be the same without a host. “Two-Fisted Tales” is hosted by Mr. Rush. Played by William Sadler, Rush is a wheelchair bound ex-soldier or cowboy of some sort. Unlike the Crypt Keeper, Mr. Rush doesn’t regale the audience with lame puns or goofy sight gags. Instead, he berates the viewers like a drill sergeant, warning us that we aren’t man enough to handle these manly stories. While Sadler happily goes over the top in the most extreme way possible, Mr. Rush’s abusive speeches do not endear themselves to the audience. If there’s any reason I can point to for why “Two-Fisted Tales” didn’t go to series, it’s because of Mr. Rush’s confrontational, abrasive antics. They couldn’t have had Sadler just play the Reaper instead?

“Two-Fisted Tales” begins with “Showdown,” Richard Donner’s stab at the weird west subgenre. As oppose to the other segments, this story’s supernatural elements made it an okay fit for “Tales from the Crypt.” A western gunslinger comes into town, shooting down another would-be challenger in the dust. Upon sitting in a saloon, he notices it is populated with his many victims, all returned from the grave. As the story progressed, the gunslinger realizes he’s dead too. He’s a ghost, haunting the old building which has, in the modern age, become a tourist attraction.

“Showdown” is moody and low-key. The camera lingers on the dusty setting, creating an atmosphere of sun-baked regrets. Michael Kamen’s score is full of mournful cords, discordant brass, and wailing wind sounds. Richard Donner frequently employs slow-motion flashbacks, often emphasizing the acts of violence. Which isn’t to say the segment is lacking in that EC Comics flair. The confrontation between the shooter and his victims features ghouls pointing out their wounds and taking delight in tormenting their killer. The climatic shoot-out that follows is dramatically directed. Neil Giuntoli gives a solid performance as Billy Quintaine, a gunslinger that has to come to grips with his troubled life, even if his tortured screams are a little overwrought.

My favorite part of “Showdown” is when the setting leaps into the future. We see the gunslinger observe his modern day legacy as a legend. Billy Quintaine, a fearsome murderer, scourge of the West, is now an excuse for people to buy trinkets and snap photos. Immediately after jumping into the future, Billy is greeted by a tour guide in a garish cowboy outfit. We flash-back to his body in a casket, surrounded by his killers, posing for a morbid photograph. The gritty, violent truth is lost. We’re all washed away by history. The story even presents an afterlife for old cowboys, a posse riding across the desert sands forever. “Showdown” attempts to say something about the modern world’s relationship with the legends of the Wild West.

The second segment, “King of the Road,” shifts gears to the carsploitation genre. It also stars future world-wide superstar Brad Pitt, the biggest name to ever show up on “Tales from the Crypt” or its associated series. Character actor Raymond J. Barry stars as Joe Garrett, a cop and father. Secretly, Joe was a champion street racer when he was young but has been running from that past since killing a rival racer. That past comes rushing back when a young punk named Billy shows up, demanding a race. When Joe says no, Billy seduces his daughter, kidnaps her, and forces Joe to get behind the wheel of a dragster one last time.

The EC comics usually worked in archetypes and “King of the Road” is no different. How much you enjoy the segment probably depends on whether or not you have a built-in affection for those archetypes. I, myself, have a soft spot for carsploitation flicks, stories of old professionals being challenged by new-comers, and father/daughter stories. So I enjoy “King of the Road” a lot. Raymond J. Barry is good as the strong, silent Joe. Brad Pitt hams it up nicely as the psychotic Billy while Michelle Bronson strikes the right balance of youthful energy and fragile innocence needed for the role of the daughter.

While Richard Donner and Robert Zemecksis were established hit-makers, the third director of “Two-Fisted Tales” was in a different league. Todd Holland was known for clever, subversive genre fare like “Fright Night” and “Psycho II.” He had also directed several episodes of “Crypt,” which might explain why he tagged along for “Two-Fisted Tales.” Tom Holland’s direction captures the sleazy, nostalgic tone necessary for this sort of story. The race scenes are too short but still feature lots of twisted chrome, spinning tires, and speeding muscle cars. Somehow, Warren Zevon was convinced to contributed some original songs to “King of the Road.” “Bad Road” is rowdy and rollicking while “Roll with the Punches” is more nostalgic and insightful. Frustratingly, only the latter has ever been given an official release.

The final segment of “Two-Fisted Tales” is brought to us by Robert Zemeckis. Simply entitled “Yellow,” it’s the only part of the film directly based on an EC comic story. (Though it was published in “Shock SuspenStories,” instead of “Two-Fisted Tales.) Set on the European battlefield of World War I, the episode follows a young lieutenant, son of a high-ranking general. A pacifist who’s afraid of death, the lieutenant backs away from the bloody war. An attempt to prove his courage goes horribly wrong, leaving his entire squad dead. The boy is charged with treason, facing execution, causing the conflict between father and son to come to a head.

“Yellow” is the most star-studded segment of “Two-Fisted Tales.” Hollywood royalty like Kirk Douglas stars alongside his less famous younger son, Eric Douglas. The supporting cast features an expectedly glib Dan Akyroyd and Lance Henriksen. Despite the pulpiness of the material, Kirk Douglas treats the character with utmost seriousness. This is amusing, since Douglas’ casting was assuredly a reference to “Paths of Glory,” were Douglas played a solider questioning his superior’s actions. Eric Douglas is good in his part as well. Considering the second Douglas son’s numerous run-ins with the law and his eventual death from a drug overdose, you can’t help but wonder if there’s an autobiographical element to the speeches with his father here. Lance Henriksen is at his most horse here and has fun growling his dialogue.

“Yellow” is a surprisingly bleak anti-war story. Eric Douglas' lieutenant is afraid of death and unwilling to fight on the battlefield, like most anyone would be. His father and comrades force him into combat. When he proves his previously stated incompetence as a soldier, he’s court marshaled and set for execution. His dad lures him into a false sense of security, promising to spare his life, before having him killed anyway. In other words, the military values their own conceited sense of honor over the lives of their men. Zemeckis makes the most of his direction, creating some effectively foggy atmosphere on the nighttime battle fields. Despite mostly being inside cramped bunkers and trenches, the costumes and locations are still full of period details.

“Two-Fisted Tales” wouldn’t be the only attempt to launch a spin-off from “Tales from the Crypt.” Direct spin-offs, maintaining the Crypt Keeper character, included three movies, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a kid’s game show. After “Tales” ended, “Perversions of Science,” a series based off EC’s science fiction comics, aired for one season. As for “Two-Fisted Tales,” it was never re-aired or released on home video. Aside from those “Tales from the Crypt” episodes, “Two-Fisted Tales” mostly survives as a shaky VHS rip on Youtube. While none of the stories in “Two-Fisted Tales” are masterpieces, each are entertaining in their own right. I’m not sure if it would’ve made for a long-lasting series but, as a one-off movie, it’s not bad. [Grade: B]

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