Different approaches to suspense and horror

One show is hailed for its finely honed subtlety, the other is famed for its Grand Guignol gore. Back to back, the way they’ll air tomorrow night, “The X-Files” and “Tales from the Crypt” offer intriguingly different approaches to suspense and horror – under-the-edge and over-the-top.

When you talk about series that could only be shown on cable TV – the sort of signature fare that pay-cable built its reputation and audience on – HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” goes to the top of the list. Consistently (and deservedly) one of the highest-rated series in cable history since its debut five years ago, it features zestily macabre and deliriously twisted little morality plays that would earn an R-rating from a film board and are not for the faint of heart or stomach.

But producers Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill and Robert Zemeckis always had more in mind for “Crypt” than cable. They’re calling it quits after 65 episodes, figuring that’s enough for the eventual big payoff of TV syndication, while making plans for three feature films and moving the show in reruns to Fox.

Only on cable? Not anymore.

“HBO is wonderful, but it’s only seen by one-fifth of the homes in America,” said Silver, who also produced the “Lethal Weapon” movies with Donner. “When you do something like this, you want to be seen in as many places as possible.

“Fox wanted to run it nightly, after Chevy Chase went down, but what made the most sense was late Saturday night. It’ll be new to most of the audience, so we’ll see what happens.”

Two episodes, a couple of distinctly offbeat love stories starring Demi Moore and William Hickey, air at 9 and 9:30 p.m. tomorrow on WOIO Channel 19, after a special early broadcast of “The X-Files” at 8. “Crypt” then will run weekly at 10 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 19.

HBO will continue to present original episodes prior to their broadcast on Fox.

For Fox, Silver said in a recent interview, the big change is editing what he called its “extremely cable-ready language.” Some of the violence, gore and nudity will also be toned down, either through editing or the use of “coverage” – tamer footage that was shot at the same time as gamier scenes.

“We always shot coverage, but we’ve had to cut some of the episodes down anyway, to get to 22 minutes” for commercial broadcast, Silver said. “Originally, none could be longer than 30 minutes, and they always came in around a half hour, but they never had to be exact,” he said. “Some of them play better shorter. The stories don’t suffer and the pace is faster.”

They’re still not for kids. Based on such classic and then-controversial E.C. Comics of the early 1950s as “Tales from the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror,” the stories blend suspense with contemporary adult humor and eye-popping special effects. It has boasted actors like Tom Hanks, Joe Pesci, Whoopi Goldberg, Teri Garr, Richard Thomas, Christopher Reeve, Kirk Douglas, Blythe Danner and Louise Fletcher, and gave Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael J. Fox their first shots at directing.

Besides Silver, Donner, Zemeckis (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) and Hill (“48 HRS.”), other directors have included John Frankenheimer and William Friedkin. Danny Elfman, Ry Cooder, Jan Hammer, Jimmy Webb and David Newman have contributed music, and the show’s opening title sequence alone is a TV classic.

Each episode was shot in just five days, compared with eight for the average TV drama.

“We want them to be little movies,” Silver said. “They’re hard to make. To get good people and to do it properly is hard. I only do what I believe in. I always loved the comic books as a kid and thought it would make a great series.”

With some 500 comics stories still available, Silver and his partners are putting together a deal for three 90-minute feature films aimed for release starting next Halloween.

His favorite episode is one in which Pesci plays a gigolo who romances wealthy twin sisters. To marry them both, he convinces them that he is twin brothers. Their revenge?

“They cut him in half, of course,” Silver said.

“The X-Files” sits at the other end of the suspense spectrum. It slides you to the edge of your seat instead of jolting you there.

Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, playing FBI agents who investigate unexplained cases that might involve paranormal phenomena, coolly underplay the horror as they chase UFOs, genetic experiments gone awry, hibernating serial killers, de-evolved beast people or a homicidal computer chip.

Executive producer Chris Carter tries to keep the cerebral but exhilarating show “within the realm of extreme possibility” or “speculative scientific possibilities.” He relies on plotting and atmosphere for its nightmare-inducing scariness – not to mention the moody music by Mark Snow, who made “X-Files” the lone TV show cited recently for achievement by Keyboard magazine, along with film composers including Danny Elfman, Ennio Morricone and Vangelis.

Carter is well aware of Fox standards – “like they won’t let you see somebody giving a shot, you can’t show somebody dead with their eyes open, you can’t show too much blood” – but he seldom pushes them.

“We choose to imply a lot, and I think that’s what has helped keep the show sort of creepy and mysterious,” he said. “We don’t go over the top in terms of gore, and that’s by design of the writers and producers.

“What we can’t show, a lot of the time, is what we don’t have time to show or to shoot, or that the budget won’t allow. But I’ve gotten to do almost everything that I wanted to do.

“I didn’t want each episode to become centered around its particular effect. I think we have to tell a better story than that to bring the audience back each week.”

Ratings have been unspectacular overall, but solid and growing among Fox’s target 18-49 age group – especially for Friday, which is generally considered an out-of-the-house, away-from-TV night. Buzz for the show is strong enough that Fox has renewed it for next season.

Its soft-spoken stars bear temperamental resemblance to the characters they play, down to Duchovny’s wry, deadpan sense of humor. In point of view, however, they’d be cast in opposite roles.

While Duchovny’s Agent Fox Mulder is a maverick who believes in the forces of the unknown, “I guess I believe in the abstract but not the specific,” the actor said. “If you ask if I believe in the possibility of things we do on the show, I would say yes. If I believe that they actually have happened, I’d say no.

“I had one experience with something in the sky, which is basically that I saw a plane and then it was gone and it’s not that interesting. So that would be my one experience with an unidentified flying object.”

Anderson, whose skeptical Agent Dana Scully keeps tabs on Mulder, says she hasn’t had “any personal experience with UFOs or anything that might be considered paranormal, but I have for a long time believed in certain aspects of the unknown – ESP, psychokinesis, UFOs.’

Is she ever bothered by Scully’s continued skepticism, despite the strange things she sees with Mulder?

“Usually by the end of an episode, there is a logical explanation to what she has seen,” Anderson said. “Her first instinct is always going to be to try and solve the cases from a scientific, analytical standpoint.

“There have been opportunities for Scully to question her own beliefs, especially more recently,” she said. “Certainly Mulder ends up seeing a great deal more than Scully does – it just so happens that he is in the middle of it, while I’ve got my seatbelt on in the car or something.

“And it helps with the dynamic of the show. Without that, where would we be?”

Certainly not in a romantic clinch, despite the desire of some fans and close relationship of Scully and Mulder.

“I’ve always said that I think the best kind of sexual tension for me is when you put a smart man and a smart woman in a room, no matter if it’s romantic,” Carter said. “What we have with Mulder and Scully is a mutual respect, a mutual passion to solve these cases.

“People have responded to that. I had somebody write in and say that if Mulder and Scully ever kissed, they’d throw their television set out the window.

“I’m going to try to keep that person’s television set in their room.”

 
 
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