When Tales from the Crypt made its run on HBO from 1989 to 1996, it coincided with the time in my life I was least likely to watch it. Those were my party years. I caught the odd episode here and there, and liked what I saw, it just wasn't a regular thing for me. Since I did enjoy the episodes I watched, I was happy to sign up for 31 Days of Tales from the Crypt, a month-long event hosted by Bubbawheat and the gang over on Channel: Superhero. Let's just get to it.
The episode we're going to discuss, "Fitting Punishment," is one that I actually don't recall watching before. A little bit of research reveals that this was the first episode in series history with a black protagonist. It's got an all-black cast, for that matter. This piqued my curiosity since I also don't remember seeing any black folks on any of the episodes I saw. Needless to say, I headed on over to YouTube, found the episode, and clicked play.
After The Crypt Keeper does his little introductory spiel, we find out that the star of "Fitting Punishment" is Moses Gunn. I know the name doesn't ring any bells for most of you. For me, the guy is a staple of movies and films from the 1970s and 80s. It seemed like he was in every production in need of a black actor. However, I can't remember seeing him in a leading role so this was an added bonus in addition to getting to go back into the crypt for the first time in so many years.
Gunn plays Ezra, a mortician who runs a funeral home and cuts every corner he can in order to make a buck. He even takes valuables off of the deceased before burying them. Yeah, he's THAT dude. Shortly, a kid with a basketball shows up. His name is Bobby (Jon Claire). He soon informs Ezra that he is the son of Ezra's sister Ruby who has just passed away. Boys and girls, this is when I notice that Bobby seems like a sweet kid, a handsome young man, but not very perceptive. By 'not very perceptive' I mean not at all. I say this because what happens next would have sent me, and most of you, running for the hills. When told of his sister's passing, Uncle Ezra says "Oh, really?" with a serious smile on his face.
I did say that Ezra is THAT dude, right?
Ezra then, asks Bobby what the hell he wants. Bobby shows him the paperwork proving that Ruby, in her evidently very finite wisdom, has granted Ezra custody of Bobby. By very finite wisdom, I mean non-existent. Bobby promises not to be any trouble and offers to help out around the funeral home. Ezra promises to work his nephew as hard as possible and not give him a dime. They seem to agree that's a win-win and the episode proceeds from there.
The entire thing has a strong current of dark humor running through it. We spend most of the runtime watching Ezra be an incredibly schiesty businessman. For instance, he buys all of his coffins from China because they cost less due to being six inches shorter, yet still charges his customers full price.
Wait...did he just crack an 'all Asians are short' joke. To hell with PC. Ezra is THAT dude.
Ezra's not all bad, though. He does take some time to teach his nephew a thing or two, like how to drain and embalm a body, which we sort of get to see. While doing so, Ezra drops this gem on Bobby, "The human body is one big cesspool. Food flows in, shit flows out, and blood flows all around." Umm, yeah. I guess. Of course, this is when we also find out that in place of embalming fluid he uses water because, to paraphrase, 'they're dead and won't know the difference.'
Okay, I take back that stuff about Ezra not being all bad. Ezra is definitely THAT dude.
The horror elements are back-loaded, but even then they have an unintentionally humorous tint due to some poor writing. In the course of what appears to be one day, Bobby suffers a debilitating spinal injury thanks to Uncle Ezra and a crowbar, goes into a coma, wakes up, and climbs the longest staircase in the history of basements all by himself on crutches. It's just too much to buy any of it. Then again, it's Tales from the Crypt. You're not necessarily supposed to buy it. You're just supposed to be shocked by the big twist. That twist is cause for more laughter as it heavily involves a pair of Air Jordans. No, seriously. Like, they actually mention the shoes by name and give them some camera time. The worse part of this particular product placement is that because of an exchange had just a bit earlier, they shouldn't even be there.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention that it's at least stereotypical, and possibly condescending, or worse, that the first episode about black characters prominently features a basketball and a pair of Air Jordans. Combine that with the Asian jokes and we can't put anything out of the realm of possibility, but I digress. This is silly enough to not be concerned with any of that. I can chalk it up to inexperienced and, arguably, not very talented writers. After all, this is the only writing credit for two of the three guys the screenplay is attributed to, brothers Jonathan and Michael Kahn. The third person credited is Don Mancini who penned the classic slasher flick Child's Play a couple years prior. However, it's not clear how much of a contribution was made by any of them. All in all, it's an entertaining half-hour that is funny unintentionally nearly as often as it is on purpose. It goes for a scare late, but is far too goofy to pull that off. Check this out if you want a horror-themed comedy.
And yes...Ezra is THAT dude.