Crypt-Keeper's horror cartoons will bring a certain dread to Saturday mornings

June 27, 1993|By Daniel Cerone | Daniel Cerone,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Forget Captain Kangaroo, Mister Rogers, Shari Lewis, Barney the Dinosaur and all the other warm kiddie hosts you've ever known. It's time to prepare your children for the Crypt-Keeper, a putrid puppet in the form of a rotting corpse that will host a new Saturday morning cartoon series on ABC this fall.

Yes, that Crypt-Keeper.

The cackling, sneering one who kills audiences with bad puns as host of HBO's very adult "Tales From the Crypt."

Those with HBO may already know that "Tales" is a campy, half-hour horror anthology -- based on the old E.C. Comic books published by William Gaines -- awash in a bloody sea of twisted murders, naked bodies and detached body parts.

But in September, a gentler Crypt-Keeper will emerge from his vault of terror on Saturday mornings to wake up an audience of sleepy-eyed children. Instead of the throat-slitting tales of the HBO variety, the animatronic skeleton will introduce all his fiends in "cart-tombs," as he calls them.

Those terrifying toons -- based on the same E.C. Comics that in the 1950s were the subject of Senate hearings on whether comic books should be banned in America -- are also designed as morality plays.

Still, ABC's "Tales From the Crypt" will push the envelope as no Saturday morning series ever has. For one thing, several characters will meet their maker in some fashion -- breaking a cardinal rule in Saturday morning programming that says characters cannot die.

And the Crypt-Keeper's stable of creatures -- including a werewolf, mummy, vampire and zombie -- were drawn to be significantly more threatening than Casper in his worst nightmare, with razor-sharp fangs and claws that can slice through stone.

"If a child sees a monster in most children's television programs, like 'Ghostbusters,' he slimes the monster and the monster is controlled," said Toper Taylor, senior vice president of Nelvana Entertainment, the Canadian animation house producing the series. "In this particular show, if a child slimes the monster, the monster keeps coming."

To heighten the thrills, Nelvana has pushed the color palette into deep reds, purples and magentas, accompanied by the heavy use of shadows, darkness and extreme camera angles. Nelvana was given about $400,000 to spend on each of the 13 episodes of "Crypt," compared to $250,000 or so for an average Saturday cartoon.

Blood does appear in more than one "Crypt" script, although that may eventually be edited out of the final episodes, or the color may be changed to resemble goo or ooze. In early scripts, the writers, most of them from feature films, included numerous VTC scenes with severed limbs -- something ABC quickly put the kibosh on.

"This will be one of the first television programs on Saturday mornings, I believe, where the human characters are expendable, and the monster characters are the continuing, ongoing anti-heroes," Mr. Taylor said. "The formula will generally be that a kid, or young adult, will do something that's wrong, and thereby unleash the monster to teach them a lesson."

The key players behind "Crypt," including a child psychologist hired as a consultant, strongly advise parents to watch "Tales From the Crypt" for themselves to make sure that their children can stomach the scares.

"We're under the impression there's a certain amount of scare factor kids really do enjoy, that whole roller-coaster effect, the rush of adrenalin," said Jennie Trias, president of children's programs for ABC.

"Granted, not every kid wants that. I'm sure if some 3-year-olds saw this without an adult nearby they could be very frightened. But I like to think that at the beginning of the season a majority of the audience, especially parents, check out what's on television for their kids."

As the series has evolved, "Crypt" consultant Dr. Brian Newmark, in the child psychiatry department of Massachusetts General Hospital, has had his work cut out for him.

In one episode, the Crypt-Keeper was fishing, and "he's fishing with a hand as bait," while he's talking in lots of puns and double-entendres," Dr. Newmark said. "The fish are biting, and they've eaten off all the flesh. Now clearly we don't have to be a rocket scientist or someone in the field of child development to see that this is inappropriate."

On Dr. Newmark's advice, the hand was replaced with a pork chop.

Creepy cartoons such as "Scooby Doo," "Ghostbusters" and "Beetlejuice," which are generally more silly than scary, have traditionally thrived on Saturday mornings. With only ABC's "The Addams Family" tapping the supernatural realm, Nelvana executives worked with feature filmmakers Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Walter Hill and Richard Donner, who several years ago bought the entertainment and exploitation rights to the E.C. Comics lines.

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