Friday, November 13, 2009

Television Review: TALES FROM THE CRYPT- "CUTTING CARDS" (1990, Walter Hill)


Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 25 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Walter Hill, Lance Henriksen, Kevin Tighe, John Kassir (the Cryptkeeper's voice), Roy Brocksmith (TOTAL RECALL, TANGO & CASH), Diane Cary (V, EL NORTE), Allan Graf (Walter Hill's stunt coordinator). Music by James Horner (BRAVEHEART, TITANIC, ALIENS).
Bad Cryptkeeper Puns: 6. "Red hot poker," "giving someone the finger," "going out on a limb," "gotta hand it to," "elbow their way to the top," "stab at the jackpot." (Not sure that last one even counts, but there it is.

There are certain actors, giants among men (and women), who are generally unjustly confined to purely 'character-y,' supporting roles. People like Clu Gulager, John Glover, Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Henry Silva, Kevin Tighe, Lance Henriksen, et al. They're mostly men- unfortunately- because the writers of 'genre' cinema usually write a meaty role for either a lead female (i.e., Pam Grier in the 70's), or none at all. Featured, crazy, character-y roles are fairly scarce for women, and when they do exist, they're usually designed for an elderly lady (Ruth Gordon, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, etc.). Now, these actors (though they ought to be enshrined as national treasures) rarely are afforded the opportunity to take center stage. But "Cutting Cards"- one of my all-time favorite episodes of TALES FROM THE CRYPT- allows two of them the opportunity to do just that: Lance Henriksen (PIRANHA II, PUMPKINHEAD, ALIENS, SURVIVAL QUEST, HARD TARGET, JOHNNY HANDSOME, etc., etc.) and Kevin Tighe (Locke's dad on LOST, ROAD HOUSE, MATEWAN, GERONIMO, JADE, etc.). And this episode is all about them. The only other actors in the piece serve to provide brief exposition about these two, or remain entrenched in shadow, literally part of the background. 99% of the episode is closeups on the faces of Lance and Kevin, and that is pure gold.

Kevin as Sam Forney: sleazy and smarmy.

Lance as Reno Crevice: fiery, pissed off, and committed.

We begin with some rootin' tootin' synthesized horns and a ramblin' honkytonk piano courtesy of two-time Oscar-winner James Horner. Walter Hill rachets up the atmosphere- squalid neon, sticky macadam, puddles, shadows, and cowboy boots. Hill gets straight down to business, though- this episode is about one thing, and one thing only: two gamblin' men who hate each other. They exchange some verbal barbs (Kevin: "Just remindin' you- I'm the best. I wouldn't want you to forget that." Lance: "You gotta see a doctor, cause your brain has gone to shit. I guess you're disrememberin' the ten thousand bucks I took offa you last time we met." Kevin: "Course, I was still drivin' around in that Caddy I won offa you, now wasn't I? Always wondered how you explained that one to your wife, but she already run off with that piano player?"). Yeah, that's how it's gonna be. They are bringing their all, and then some, to these roles. There's an incredible viscerality to these closeups, too. You half expect pure, odious slime to pour from Tighe- straight out of your TV, or a vein-bustin' intense stare from Lance to splinter the screen itself into a hundred shards of glass. They challenge each other to a dice game- whoever loses has to 'get out of town.'

The sheer, unadulterated, hateful gaze from Tighe as he shakes the dice is worth a thousand words (or at least a spin-off series):

Mere dice cannot satisfy their unmitigated loathing and bloodlust, so things quickly turn to a game of Russian Roulette.

"In front of God and everybody!"

"Feelin' that metal get warm against your skin, wonderin' what it's gonna be like to feel your brains blown out through the side of your head... wonderin' what comes after, if anything, or BLACK. Wonderin' if you're gonna scream...

"I don't want anyone to say that Reno Crevice didn't have the balls to do it..."

I shan't reveal exactly how the roulette game (or, indeed the rest of the episode) ends, but Hill, whom I've always considered something of a latter-day Howard Hawks, builds a battle of wills between two lunatic forces of masculinity that is at least as good as the one in Hawks' own RED RIVER. I suppose it's the logical end result of what happens when two nemeses meet (i.e., 'Small world,' –'Too small for two of us!') and each possesses that wild-eyed intensity of a trash talker who actually will put his money where his mouth is. I'm reminded of a scene from Takeshi Kitano's BROTHER, where a gangster says that he would stake his life for his aniki. Someone with decidedly much less intensity dares him to: 'Stake my life- what does that even mean?' The gangster decides to show him what commitment really means and proceeds to casually blow his own brains out. Yeah, we should probably rein in this macho stuff a little bit.

Yeah, this is just about as perfect as 25 minutes of television can be. Four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

2009 Halloween Countdown OVERFLOW

1. [•REC] (2007, Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza)
2. THE MANITOU (1978, William Girdler)
3. SLEEPWALKERS (1992, Mick Garris)
4. CUTTING CARDS (1990, Walter Hill)


Anonymous said...

Got to love Lance. Well done sir.

Anonymous said...

are you going to do a review of the tales from the crypt movies like bordello of blood and demon knight

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stopping by- I've got DEMON KNIGHT on my list of things to review eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later.