(Why Kids' TV Sucks)
The following story is scarier than anything you'll read in an old EC horror comic.
My partner (Dave Hines) and I were contacted through Richard Donner's office (he was an executive producer for "Tales From the Crypt," from which this animated children's series was spun off).¹ They wanted to avoid the usual hack "Scooby-Doo" style of TV animation writing, so they were hiring film writers to do the teleplays. They sent us three stories from various EC comic from the early fifties, and asked us to adapt one of them.²
They were particularly keen on a story from The Vault Of Horror comic from April/May 1952, called "Death Wagon," a gruesome tale illustrated by Jack Davis in which the protagonists, unscrupulous used car dealers Herman Kitch and Amos Sink, were dismembered at the finish, and their body parts used to build a car (they foresaw marketing a toy based on the car after the episode aired). The final frame read:
Now, I LOVED to be scared as a kid. If there was anything I hated, it was "Scooby-Doo"-like crap in which a ghost turned out to be the cranky old carnival owner, and Fred wasn't really deadhe was just tied up in the basement. It was a cop-out, and pretty soon you knew that it was NEVER a real ghost on Scooby Doo, that the characters were NEVER in real danger, so you NEVER watched again.
Everyone said this show would be different. The producers had even hired their own child psychologist to argue down the network censors. There were only a few stipulations:
Simple (okay, we couldn't dismember two six year-old kids, but the other instructions were easy to follow). We switched the action to a high school car shop class (who doesn't want to kill high schoolers?) and faxed off a one paragraph pitch:
"Eddie and Herman are two young hoods, working to fix up their vintage, but beat up 60's muscle car, wanting to turn it into the hottest car on the road. One of a kind. What they don't want to do is get jobs to earn money to buy the parts they need. So they venture out at night, stealing parts off parked cars to fix up their muscle car. It becomes there obsession, particularly with Eddie, who is determined to have a car that everyone'll stare at as it goes by. They don't realize that, because of the parts they're taking off the parked cars, innocent car owners are careening to their deaths the next mornings as they try to drive without brakes, steering boxes, etc. But Eddie and Herman don't care, intent on putting the finishing touches on their muscle car. As they work on their pride and joy, they fail to hear the undead victims, fresh from the grave, enter the garage...
... The next morning, the muscle car is parked on the street - completely rebuilt using the body parts of Eddie and Herman. Their skulls where the headlights should be, eyeballs in the parking lights, severed hands as door handles. And the trim? Let's just say that now it truly IS a muscle car. One of a kind. A car that everyone will stare at as it goes by."
Nelvana (the company producing the shows) loved it. They instructed us to expand it into treatment form and then submit the story to ABC for Network and Broadcast Standards and Practices approval. We weren't worriedwe had Richard Donner, Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Nelvana, and a real child psychologist behind us!
Okay, Nelvana did recommend that we add a new charactera "good" boy, Kevinwho rebuilds his car the right way. And okay, he would be the MAIN character... and, okay, we'd have to add a bland love interestErin, a girl who wore the mascot uniform on the cheerleading squad (we made the school mascot a lemming).
But no problemat least we still had the car...
... until we got a message from Nelvana:
"Since this premise was given the okay to go to outline, we've had our BS&P meeting. This story was talked about and it was decided that no one could die in the car crashes and that the boys' dismembered body parts could not be used for car parts in the end."
As it turned out, the psychologist they hired to defend us was actually AGAINST scaring kids. Characters could no longer die on the show at ALL (which seems kind of strange in a series called "Tales From the Cryptkeeper." I suggested that from now on everybody could just get a bad bruise and we'd call it "Tales From the Nurse's Office." The reaction was not positive). Furthermore, we argued that showing kids stealing car parts and having NO fatalities sent a WORSE message to kidsbut it was all to no avail.
Now instead of our beloved Death Wagon, Nelvana had a new idea:
"Possibly Eddie and Herman even steal parts from Kevin's car so that when Kevin takes it out for a test drive, it goes out of control. Kevin manages to leap to safety but his car is totally destroyed (basically 'dies')."
Brilliant -- that would be a great influence on kids -- LEAP from your car when it's out of control! Don't trust air bags and seat belts -- JUMP FOR YOUR LIVES!!! They continued...
"(The crash is a) Big joke as far as Eddie and Herman are concerned. That is until they discover Kevin's car parked outside, gleaming and not a scratch on it. Deciding to take it upon themselves to make sure it's destroyed this time, they hop in. However, the car instantly takes on a life of it's own -- doors lock, seat belts wrap around them, horrifying shrieks, moans, and laughter pour out of the radio. all sorts of macabre (NOT DEAD) creatures, zombies, ghouls, etc pommel the windshield, reach in through the no drafts, etc. etc."
"Perhaps in the end, the boys are freed, they race off doors flapping. We later see Kevin in a new old car w/the girl drive past Eddie and Herman waiting at a bus stop. Offers them a ride. They blanche. Haven't been in a car.... well, in a long time."
Our hearts sank. Our toys were no more. The best we could hope for was tiny action figures jumping out of moving Hot Wheels. There were some scares, I guess. I was kind of like Steven King's book "Christine," and... well, that wasn't very scary either, but still... aw, heck, I still just wanted to write an animated show. It presented some sort of closure for my animation studies in college... and oh yeahwe weren't working anywhere else and needed the money. So we renamed the story:
... and we began a new treatment...
The Cryptkeeper stands at the counter of 'Hearse Rent-A-Car'. He's in a foul mood because his car died, and won't run anymore. He never let a little thing like death slow HIM down! Today's tale of terror comes straight from one of the most terrifying places on earth, where zombies walk the halls and the screams of the tormented echo from behind closed doors...
... As he talks we DISSOLVE TO a dark corridor, shuffling figures lurching slowly through the murky gloom. Of course he's describing HIGH SCHOOL! The Cryptkeeper laughs maniacally as the lights come up to reveal a typical high school hallway filled with bored kids on their way to class. Just another day at William M. Gaines Memorial High...
We introduce Kevin, who is attacked by a giant lemming!!! Fortunately, it just turns out to be his girlfriend Erin (hey, at this point we were willing to use any scare, no matter HOW lame). In car shop, Kevin works diligently on his car, which he treats like a living being. Meanwhile Eddie and Herman torture Kevin, instead of working on their own car. They bet Kevin that by the end of the semester, their car will be faster than his.
So we see Kevin going about it the right way -- BUYING car parts, even though he has to work longer hours at the local fast food joint to earn the money (we see him slaving in the kitchen, scraping dirty trays of food into a plastic tub marked "SECRET SAUCE." With his bigger paycheck, he visits a spooky Auto Graveyard and buys the parts he needs (a "Frankenstein" grave-robbing reference -- very hip).
Meanwhile, Eddie and Herman are out removing parts from neighborhood cars. So the next morning, all of the cars pull out of their driveways and crash in a horrible wreck. The owners all climb out, dazed (nobody LEAPS out - we avoided that).
That day at school, Kevin finally gets his car to start. "It's alive!" he shouts (another "Frankenstein" referencespooky, eh?). He pats it and strokes it like a girlfriend, and it seems to purr back. Eddie and Herman look on jealously.
That night, Eddie and Herman sneak back into class and sabotage Kevin's car. But Kevin's car is ALIVE! It straps them into the seats and takes them on a terrifying Hell ride (okay, you can't mention Hell on Saturday morning kids' showsit's a religious referenceso it's a HECK ride)! They end up in the Auto graveyard, where the dead, cobweb-covered cars all come to life a circle them menacingly. We DISSOLVE TO...
Kevin and Erin driving home from the prom. Eddie and Herman have been missing for days. They park and snuggle near the Auto Graveyard, when Kevin sees a part that he needs on an old junkerhe snaps it off and swears that he hears an "OW!" Shrugging, he walks back to his car as we see the name "EDDIE" on the license plate!
Pretty scary, huh?
Okay, it basically blowsbut it's not TOTALLY embarrassing... yet.
Two weeks later we received their changes:
-- Now Eddie and Herman WILL sabotage Kevin's car. Kevin races them in the car, which crashes and is totaled (Kevin of course LEAPS OUT of the car at the last minute and receives only a small cut on his forehead).
-- Eddie and Herman celebrate at a restaurant, only to see Kevin's re-born car outside, which will take them on their terrifying heck ride. Eddie and Herman escape the graveyard, and will be last seen working in shop class on old bikes.
Whatever. We needed the money. Quitting at this point would be as stupid as... well, leaping out of a moving car. So we plow into the script, and one month later, we typed in the Crypt Keeper coda:
INT. CRYPTKEEPER'S HEARSE - LIVE ACTION
CRYPTKEEPER: Well, kiddies, what do you think of Kevin's car? A real DEATH WAGON, wouldn't you say? And poor Eddie and Herman, why it practically gave them CARdiac arrest!
Well, as you can see, I finally got my rental car -- which is fortunate because I'm attending a funeral...
We hear MUFFLED CRIES, and now notice a coffin in the back of the hearse. Someone's hands are trying to raise the lid from the inside! The Cryptkeeper smiles apologetically.
CRYPTKEEPER: Okay, so I'm a little early... Don't you just hate a backseat driver?
The Cryptkeeper laughs maniacally as we...
FADE TO BLACK
So we took the money and ran. Hey, it wasn't HORRIBLE we snuck a couple of fun moments in there. Sure, we heard they had to change a few things: The heck ride was too scary, so now the car just held them down with seat belts and drove them around really fast (apparently the network had realized that zombies and ghouls were actually dead people). But all in all, we had escaped without embarrassment... until...
The show premiered one cold September morning (Nelvana never bothered to tell usa friend at Donner's called us to tell us it would be on). Well, it wasn't the season premiere slot, but they hadn't buried us, either. So we (somewhat) eagerly watched that morning...
The first thing we noticed was that the title had changed: it was now:
"OF???" A body OF work? That's not only NOT scary and NOT funny, it's not even about CARS! Apparently it was a typo.
Apparently there were LOTS of typos. Now the girlfriend was gone, and Kevin had practically disappeared from the story himself. Not bad cutsif Eddie and Herman had anything left to do themselves. The only "scary" moment in the first act was when Eddie and Herman went to a restaurant ("Donut Burger," we had named it), and a ghoul was working behind the counter... but unfortunately Eddie and Herman didn't see the ghoul, and, frankly, I've seen much scarier PEOPLE working at donut places.
After watching the first act we noticed something else: There was no SECOND actthe cartoon was only fifteen minutes long now (with commercials), instead of half an hour! What was left wasn't scaryI've had scarier heck rides in taxis (while they were sitting still).
I was watching EXACTLY the kind of show that I'd HATED as a kid.
The second fifteen minutes of the show was filled by a story about a family on a picnic that shrank down to the size of the ants that were ruining their mealnothing scary happened to them, they just shrank.
In the coda to that story, the Cryptkeeper was fishing on a boat. I have it on good authority that in the original script he reeled in his line to reveal a human hand as bait. The finished show revealed something else... a PORK CHOP. It was the psychologist's idea. What, you may ask, is so scary about fishing with a pork chop? Nothing, other than the creative process that devised that solution.
So, "Tales From the Cryptkeeper" changed. It NEVER had a real ghost on the show, characters were NEVER in real danger, and, true to form, kids NEVER watched again. The psychologist had censored himself out of a job. The show was canceled after the next season, to nobody's regret. Except mine...
... I really wanted that car toy.³
AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO: "A LITTLE BODY OF WORK". See a high-quality digitized version for a buck ninety-nine. Good until you realize it was free when it aired...
TALES FROM THE CRYPTKEEPER: GONE FISHING' AND A LITTLE BODY OF WORK, Buy the adorable children's book by Jane B. Mason (Author) and Erik Doescher (Illustrator); Publisher: Demco Media (May 1995). It's out of print, but copies are available for up to ONCE CENT on the open market. Valuable collector's item!.
BEST HORROR MOVIES: Animation and Horror: Tales from the Cryptkeeper (Season One). "A Little Body of Work also functions as a quasi-cautionary tale, but it's got a serious flare to it. In fact, this story of two car-part jackers who run into a car with a life of its own is awfully reminiscent of John Carpenter's, Christine. It's dark, at times a little unsettling and strangely nostalgic. We'll call that a winner!"
BIG CARTOON DATABASE. Cast and Crew for A Little Body Of Work.
SATURDAY MORNINGS FOREVER. Tales From the Cryptkeeper's evolution from comic to adult horror to kiddie cartoon.
CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST BRIAN NEWMARK, heck-ridin', porkchop-loving series consultant for Tales From the Cryptkeeper, who felt it was better to bore kids than to scare them.