‘Crypt’ pix vault to silver screen

“Tales From the Crypt” partners Joel Silver, Richard Donner, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis and David Giler are hatching plans to translate their hit HBO series into what they hope will be a new suspense-horror movie franchise for the ’90s.

Donner, Hill and Zemeckis have each agreed to direct a full-length feature based on original stories that will open and close with the animatronic ghoul Crypt Keeper.

The producing partners are hoping to put the first of the three “Crypt” movies before the cameras this fall, lensing in North Carolina, for release next year.

Hill, who is free until Columbia’s “Geronimo” production early next year, is expected to helm the first of the “Crypt” trio.

It has not yet been determined whether Donner, set to direct “Witching Hour” for WB in mid-January, or Zemeckis, will go next. Zemeckis, who recently bowed out of the joint Columbia/Universal production “Houdini” (Daily Variety, Sept. 23), has not yet committed to his next picture.

While financing and other details are in the early stages of being worked out , the projected average negative cost for each of the first “Crypt” movies is in the $ 10 million to $ 12 million range.

Creative Artists Agency is currently mapping out a strategy to help secure the $ 30 million or so in needed production coin. In order to determine what percentage of the budgets can be derived from foreign markets, CAA has held preliminary discussions with foreign financiers to test their interest.

CAA officials declined comment.

Knowledgeable sources indicate that after it can ascertain what value “Crypt” has overseas, CAA must first offer a deal to MCA/Universal, which deficit-financed the first three HBO “Crypt” episodes and has right of first refusal to the foreign theatrical rights. If Universal passes, CAA is free to sell off foreign rights any way it wants. Once a point of view is established, CAA reportedly plans to sit down with the representatives of all the talent involved and try to get everyone to sign off.

One source suggested that an ideal scenario would be for the producers to derive all their financing from foriegn licenses, make a straight domestic deal with a studio and thus retain the negatives as they do with the HBO episodes. So far, there’s no equity in those negatives since there are deficits surrounding the series, of which HBO is the primary financier.

Warner Bros., which owns the foreign rights to 21 of the 52 produced HBO episodes, could come aboard as the domestic distributor, and pick up some foreign territories. While those talks have yet to be initiated, WB has long been high on the idea of “Crypt” going to the movies. WB’s would also be a likely participant since both Silver, who has a quasi-exclusive deal there, and Donner base their respective production companies at the studio.

Silver, who acquired the rights with Hill and Giler in the ’80s, said yesterday, “I’ve always been obsessed with ‘Tales From the Crypt’ and as much as I see it every week on HBO, I’ve always lusted to see our version in the movie theater.”

He added, “Not only are they my partners, but who better than these guys to do the first three movies?” The timing for a new horror movie franchise appears to be ripe given that the long-running “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday The 13th” series seem to have run their courses.

In a phone interview yesterday, Zemeckis said he wouldn’t want the “Crypt” features to be compared to the “Nightmare” or “Friday the 13th” series. He said, historically, “horror or terror has been synonymous with slasher movies and great suspenseful horror is a hard thing conceptually to explain to the moviegoing public.”

But he believes that since “Crypt” is distinguished by a healthy sprinkling of humor, “the four of us, who’ve always been fans of this genre, will now have the chance under that banner to sell the idea of horror with a certain tone … that would be hard to do just as a pure movie concept.”

Although there are no feature-length scripts ready now, the filmmakers plan to mine from the 500 stories comprised in the five “Crypt” comic book titles in addition to the 5,000 stories from E.C. Comics library.

Donner, who’s directed three of the HBO episodes, said he is looking forward to being able to have 90 minutes in which to tell a story.

“The frustration of TV is that as a filmmaker, you’re stuck with 24 minutes. This is like getting back into what I love to do–scare the shit out of people,” as he did with his first movie success, 1976’s “The Omen.”

The HBO “Crypt” series, now in its fourth season, was launched in June 1989 with a trilogy of tales.

There have been two previous “Tales From the Crypt” movies. The 1972 original was directed by Freddie Francis and starred Ralph Richardson and Joan Collins. A sequel, “The Vault of Horror,” directed by Roy Ward Baker, was released in 1973.

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