Voice actor John Kassir talked puns, puppets, and practical effects in Calgary.
When HBO approached John Kassir to audition for their then-upcoming Tales of the CryptTV series, his initial reaction was one of both excitement and shock.
“I collected the comic books as a kid. You’re kidding me – they’re making this into a show? It’s just gonna be for cult freaks like me, right?”
That cult anthology series, based on the 1950s William Gaines comic book series, would go on to spawn seven seasons, three feature films, a children’s animated series, and a slew of other spin-off products – all anchored by Kassir’s iconic portrayal of the Cryptkeeper.
Prior to his appearance at the 2017 Calgary Horror Con, Kassir stopped by the Calgary’s Globe Cinema for a screening of Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight. After the movie (which he calls one of his top-five favourite horror flicks), he treated the boils and ghouls in the audience to a lively Q&A, reflecting on bringing the Cryptkeeper to life, working with diabolical puppets, and why practical effects will always beat CGI.
“A regular Gory Cooper”
Kassir’s journey from stage-actor to crypt-keeper was an unlikely one.
After portraying a depressed, Andy Kaufman-esque comedian in the off-Broadway play 3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down, he was approached by the producers of Star Search, who erroneously believed he was an actual stand-up comedian. Kassir initially balked, but changed his tune when he was told of the $100,000 prize: “Have I told you about my stand-up act?”
Having no such act, he was forced to scrounge together sketches for each episode. “I would do Wizard of Oz in two-and-a-half minutes,” he says, bursting into a spot-on impression of the Mayor of Munchkinland.
The tactic worked; Kassir beat out Rosie O’Donnell and Sinbad for first place, earning him opening gigs in Vegas for major acts like Tom Jones and Rodney Dangerfield. Unprepared for these longer shows (“I’ve got no f—ing act!” he lamented), he once again leaned heavily on voice impressions.
“Because I was never a joke teller, a lot of it was doing these voices,” he explains.
HBO recruited him to audition as the voice of the Cryptkeeper in 1988, three years after his Star Search win. The audition room was stacked with other comedians, many of whom were visibly unimpressed with the over-the-top script and corny punchlines (e.g. “Be careful what you axe for – you just might get it!”)
“They don’t get it – they don’t get it at all,” Kassir realized.
Familiar with the source material, Kassir knew instinctively how the character should be played. The cheesy puns were “like Shakespeare for this guy,” and required a gleeful and ghoulish delivery. The “textured,” “over-enunciated” voice began to take shape when Kassir got his first look at the Cryptkeeper puppet, complete with decaying flesh and rotting teeth. The producers loved his interpretation of the character, and he was hired on the spot.
Clip: John Kassir does his Cryptkeeper voice at the Globe Cinema
All About Evil
Tales from the Crypt premiered in 1989 and ran for seven seasons on HBO, serving up pulpy morality plays with liberal amounts of gore and vulgarity. Ironically, its popularity led to the creation of a Nelvana animated series for children, entitled Tales from the Cryptkeeper (although, as Kassir notes, plenty of kids covertly watched the adult version).
The Cryptkeeper character, who introduced and concluded each segment with a dose of gleefully grim humour, was the key to the show’s appeal, especially among younger audiences.
“I think [the fact] that it was a puppet was why so many people loved [Tales from the Crypt] as kids,” Kassir muses. “Holy f—, it’s a puppet, but it’s creepy!”
Delicate and difficult to operate, the puppet was one of his more difficult co-stars. Its skin would shred and have to be replaced after every episode, to the point that the effects crew asked if they could just put Kassir in make-up (“I was just, like, ‘No,’” he recalls). Its original incarnation also had a limited range of facial movement, forcing Kassir had to adopt a “slower…more ominous” speaking style for the early seasons. It was only after a motor was added to the puppet’s jaw that he could transition back to the “type of slapstick, stand-up delivery that I had originally auditioned.”
Due to budgetary restrictions, the puppet was cobbled together from spare parts – it’s eyeballs were borrowed from another diminutive horror icon, Chucky. (Coincidentally, Child’s Play director Tom Holland had considered directing an early version of what would go on to be Demon Knight).
Kassir credits executive producer Robert Zemeckis for incorporating “cutting-edge technology” into Tales from the Crypt. In one memorable scene, the same award-winning special effects used in Forrest Gump allowed the Cryptkeeper to sit next to Alfred Hitchcock on a park bench and offer the director “a box of shock-o-lates.”
The first Tales of the Crypt film, 1995’s Demon Knight, was a much larger production than the show had ever been. A supernatural horror-comedy about a band of motel-dwellers besieged by demons, the movie featured a massive set and impressive practical effects. Although Kassir pre-recorded his voiceovers in a sound studio, he made a point of spending several days on-set to watch the production, at one point acting as a stand-in for co-star Thomas Haden Church.
The only filming location that could accommodate the film’s elaborate set was an airplane hangar, which would become filled with birds whenever the doors were opened; Kassir recalls the crew firing blanks in the air to scare them away between scenes.
The demons were portrayed by “extremely skinny actors that were dancers” balancing on stilts, with motors controlling facial movements. Their incredibly-detailed costumes, which included facial piercings and elongated fingers, were even more intimidating in-person than on-screen, Kassir recalls: “You can’t see it in the movie because they light it so dark for effect.”
Having grown up watching Universal monster movies and Roger Corman’s lush Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Kassir has a deep appreciation for practical special effects.
“One of the things that we love about horror movies is that they still use a lot of practical effects instead of CGI,” he says.
He feels that, thanks to rapid advancements in technology, computer generated effects often don’t stand the test of time, citing the 2010 Clash of the Titans remake as an example.
“I would rather watch Ray Harryhausen stuff as opposed to some of that stuff, because it holds up so well,” he says, referencing the Old Hollywood effects wizard who worked on such films as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the original Clash of the Titans.
Longevity is one of the reasons Tales from the Crypt has such a place in Kassir’s heart. As someone who spent his childhood surreptitiously reading Tales from the Crypt comics, Kassir is grateful to have brought the character to life for a new generation.
“It’s a project that people will love forever for the same reasons I loved it as a kid,” he says.
How’s that for a scream come true?
Lineup: John Kassir / Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight screening
Date: June 9/2017
Venue: Globe Cinema, Calgary
Sponsors: Calgary Horror Con, Absolute Underground Magazine, Night Terrors Film Society, Burning Moon Video.