As perhaps the first television series ever to have every one of its episodes based on a comic book, HBO's "Tales From the Crypt" has its built-in limitations. The lessons in the old comics' horrific morality tales weren't especially sophisticated ones--mostly limited to be careful what you wish for, you just might get it , or he who lives by the pickax dies by the pickax and that sort of thing--and a modern audience virtually weaned on clever twists can see the O. Henry-style denouements coming a mile away.
That established, the series does leave ample room to have stylistic fun with the creaky, campy material, when the directors--usually established Hollywood names happily slumming in cable land--are willing and able. The second batch of original episodes gets kicked off tonight at 9:30 with a new trilogy of "Tales," all of which are indisputably of theatrical quality, if not necessarily good repute.
First up is director Howard Deutch's "Dead Right," which gives Demi Moore a plum role as a waitress who happens upon a fortune teller with dead-accurate advice. The fun here is not so much in the tale, which has Moore marrying a grotesque slob predicted to inherit a fortune, as in the telling--specifically Moore's sharp, funny characterization of a working girl who works mostly at developing a premature- yup attitude.
Sandwiched in the middle is the weakest link, "The Switch," in which, in his directorial debut, Arnold Schwarzenegger (!) tells a competent tale but fails to coax much of a performance out of Rick Rossovich, Kelly Preston or even William Hickey. Speaking of O. Henry, the plot, which has elderly Hickey spending his vast fortune to buy up new body parts in order to win a young woman, may remind you more than a little of "Gift of the Magi." Passable, it could've used a helmsman better equipped to directorially pump (clap) it up.
Last--and best, at least for students of the auteur school--is "Cutting Cards," in which director and co-writer Walter Hill ("48 HRS," "Southern Comfort") reaches the possible apotheosis of his modern-machismo-in-decline themes. Two obsessive gamblers converge in a town they conclude ain't big enough for the both of 'em; a series of wagers escalates to squeamish extremes. Once more, but in more comic fashion, Hill both celebrates and condemns this ridiculously unbending ethic.
Again, the animatronic Crypt Keeper's introductory admonitions to "kiddies" are strictly rhetorical. None of this tongue-in-skull material is at all scary, but the violence and language are unflinchingly R-rated, and the series' penchant for setting scenes in topless-dancer bars is bare-facedly exploitative.