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Tales from the Crypt

The grim, ghoulish stories are back for a fourth season, but this three-segment opener reflects the virtues and vices of the series -- fine performances and quality production values, teetering on asinine, predictable and sometimes grossly exploitive stories thinner than a comic book page. These 90 minutes collapse into a blur of glossy banality.

With:
Cast: "None but the Lonely Heart": Treat Williams, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Gibson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tom Hanks, Clive Rosengren, Bibi Osterwald, Gracia Lee, Don Perry, Constance Pfeiffer, Edward Penn, Louise Fitch. "This'll Kill Ya": Sonia Braga, Dylan McDermott, Cleavon Little, Rick Aiello and Scott Williamson. "On a Dead Man's Chest": Yul Vazquez, Paul Hipp, Tia Carrere, Sherrie Rose, Heavy D, Gregg Allman, Don Michaelson, Steve Jones, Karen Kalensky , Richard Danielson.

The grim, ghoulish stories are back for a fourth season, but this three-segment opener reflects the virtues and vices of the series — fine performances and quality production values, teetering on asinine, predictable and sometimes grossly exploitive stories thinner than a comic book page. These 90 minutes collapse into a blur of glossy banality.

If, as some social critics contend, TV is predicated on gratuitous sex and violence, William Friedkin’s episode about crazed punkers, “On a Dead Man’s Chest,” validates the point. It features full frontal nudity, simulated sex, the brutal and bloody murder of a young woman, demonism, profanity and a general odiousness.

It is also very well executed. Friedkin brings his usual brand of manic urgency to the proceedings, and the performances are quite good. The focal point is a tattoo which comes to symbolize, and facilitate, all sorts of evil proceedings.

Next to this fandango of excess, Tom Hank’s “None but the Lonely Heart” and Robert Longo’s “This’ll Kill Ya” seemed totally innocuous.

Actually, Hanks’ directorial debut — about a cad who marries and then murders wealthy women — is a nifty piece of work. Treat Williams is the slimy gigolo with a homicidal bent, while Frances Sternhagen and Bibi Osterwald are marvelous as two of the victims.

While the storyline is, to put it generously, devoid of surprises, the wit and malice and humor come close to redeeming the endeavor. The wronged ladies relish their revenge, and the make-up artists — essential to this series — come through with dangling eyeballs and putrid flesh and bloody lesions.

Longo works with a vapid, derivitive script (by A.L. Katz and Gilbert Adler) that does neither him nor the performers any favors. Given the material, they are innocent bystanders.

The unevenness of tone and quality in this opener reflects a continuing conflict within the series: The Hanks work, clever and traditional, is perhaps too soft for the late night pay genre, while the Friedkin material reaches to the far edge of even the squalid “adult” standards in this venue.

But enjoying a fourth season, it would be churlish for anyone involved to view this as a problem.

Tales from the Crypt

(HBO, Sat. (27), 10:30 p.m.-midnight)

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by HBO. Exec producers, Richard Donner, David Giler, Walter Hill, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis;producer, Gilbert Adler; co-producers, A.L. Katz, Jennie Lew Tugend; based on material published by William M. Gaines; art director, Phil Dagort; sound, Steve Nelson; production designer, Gregory Melton. "None but the Lonely Heart": director, Tom Hanks.

Crew: Camera, John R. Leonetti; editor, Lou Angelo; music, Jay Ferguson. "This'll Kill Ya": director, Robert Longo; writers, Katz and Adler; camera, Rick Bota; editor, Angelo; music, Ira Newborn. "On a Dead Man's Chest": director, William Friedkin; writer, Larry Wilson; camera, Bota; editor, Robert De Maio; music, Merl Saunders.

Cast: Cast: "None but the Lonely Heart": Treat Williams, Frances Sternhagen, Henry Gibson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tom Hanks, Clive Rosengren, Bibi Osterwald, Gracia Lee, Don Perry, Constance Pfeiffer, Edward Penn, Louise Fitch. "This'll Kill Ya": Sonia Braga, Dylan McDermott, Cleavon Little, Rick Aiello and Scott Williamson. "On a Dead Man's Chest": Yul Vazquez, Paul Hipp, Tia Carrere, Sherrie Rose, Heavy D, Gregg Allman, Don Michaelson, Steve Jones, Karen Kalensky , Richard Danielson.

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