TV Article

Scare Tactics

The magic behind ''Tales from the Crypt'' -- The makeup effects artist for HBO's fright show, Kevin Yagher, talks to us about blood and twitching fingers

Sit down. It's time for pleasant lunch conversation with Kevin Yagher, makeup effects artist for HBO's Tales From The Crypt.

While he eats his salad, he calmly discusses a Tale called ''Cutting Cards,'' about a game of ''chop poker'' between two gamblers: The loser of each hand gets a finger chopped off.

He forks a piece of grilled fish, drags it in onion sauce, and says his job was to create false but realistic-looking arms and hands so the amputation would look genuine. ''I had one finger that would lie on the table and twitch after being chopped off. Realistically, your finger probably wouldn't twitch, but I just thought I'd do it anyway. . .By the way, this thresher shark is quite tasty.''

He continues: ''Anyhow, when I go to the doctor, I ask questions about this kind of stuff, like 'If someone cut your head off and shouted in your ear, would your eyes open?'''

Enjoy the rest of your lunch.

Yagher's blithely satanic view of horror embodies the spirit of Tales. Based on EC Comics' Tales From The Crypt, the series, which airs Tuesdays from 10 to 10:30 p.m., is now in its second season as the media mecca of psycho terror — 18 episodes fully bathed in humor and gore. ''But don't forget,'' Yagher says with a smile, ''the stories have morals too.''

Being on cable and thus free from network censors, the show has lured such top directors as Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, The Omen) and Walter Hill (48HRS.) to direct episodes — along with Yagher in his directorial debut. His program, scheduled to be shown this summer, is called ''Lower Berth,'' and Joel Silver, a series executive producer, laughs nervously as he describes it. ''There are no normal human characters acting in the episode,'' he says. ''I don't even want to go on the set for that one.''

''It's great,'' Yagher says of the Crypt canvas. ''We can do anything.'' Yagher, 27, who fine-tuned the look of Freddy Krueger (in Nightmare on Elm Street 2, 3, and 4) and did the demonic doll Chucky (in Child's Play), gets to create new horrific characters all the time for Tales. And his philosophy of terrorizing audiences seems perfect for the show.

''It's real easy to gross people out, but that's the cheap way of going about things,'' Yagher says. ''It's more fun to scare people psychologically, and that's what's done on Tales most of the time. If I can mess with your mind, it sticks with you longer. In creating makeup effects, the more realistic, the better. If it turns your stomach, then I've scored.'' With that as the criterion, Yagher scored big at a recent American Film Institute screening of ''Cutting Cards,'' where the hacked-off fingers drew appreciative groans from an audience of movie professionals.

Donner was at that screening. His assessment of Yagher: ''The kid is brilliant.''

But to Yagher, Tales From The Crypt is more than gore. ''It's all about greed, lust, murder, mayhem, and humor,'' he says. ''You gotta kill with a smile; otherwise, it becomes serious drama and we don't want that.''

After lunch, Yagher goes back to the huge, dark Culver City studio that houses Tales From The Crypt Productions. There, he directs all the ''wraparounds,'' the opening and closing segments of each episode, which star the ''Crypt-Keeper,'' a ghoul that is to Tales what Rod Serling was to The Twilight Zone. But where Serling introduced episodes with ominous gravity, the Crypt-Keeper tends to introduce segments with punny, gross-out humor. (Example: ''Oops. You caught me reading my ghoulie magazines.'')

Yagher was given free rein to create the look of ''C.K.'' (as the show's staff calls him). ''He's falling apart and rotting,'' Yagher says as he fixes a loose screw in C.K.'s jaw. ''What's nice when you do zombie designs is that if you bust a hole in his face, you just throw some red stuff in there. There's a couple of holes in his lips that weren't there originally, but that's fine by me. . .''

The Crypt is made of dark polyurethane rocks. C.K. sits at a desk with bottles marked ''Whisker of Rat'' and ''Bladder of Cobra'' (actually, chicken livers from the grocery). Smoke is constantly blown into the crypt by machhnes. Six people operate the electronic C.K. by hand, foot, and computer — four working his eyes, mouth, and facial movements, and two working the rest of his body.

''Crypt-Keeper's not really a scary guy,'' Yagher says. ''You like C.K. But he's ugly to look at. And you'd never turn your back on him because he'll take a knife and. . .''

Oops. The camera's ready to roll. Yagher runs off to his director's chair — a seat he will occupy in earnest when he directs ''The Lower Berth,'' an episode about the origins of the Crypt-Keeper.

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