True Terror with Robert Englund - Season 1, Episode 3: “Cryptic Messages” TV Episode Review
Written by Stuart D. Monroe
Premiered on Travel Channel
Directed by Kevin R. Hershberger
Written by Ron Nelson and Patrick Rogers
2020, 43 minutes, Not Rated
Premiered on Travel Channel on April 1st, 2020
Robert Englund as Himself/Host
Anthony Misiano as JJ O’Connor
April Crowell as Doris O’Connor
Lucas Hall as Phinneas Rowe
Steve Maurice as the Gravedigger
Brian Landis as George Columbo
Sean Guerrero as Carlo
Clint Strohman as The Axeman
Kurt Vogelsang as Carl Tanzler
Adriana Uy as Maria Elena De Hoyos
Episode 3, entitled “Cryptic Messages”, centers on the theme of people getting messages from evil or otherworldly entities and shows the effects those messages have on a person’s sanity…sometimes over the course of their entire lives. It also gives us less obscure tales that’ll have you getting lost on Google and digging a little deeper. Two of the three I was already familiar with, and I still got some little tidbits that I didn’t know before. I love to learn something new; it’s an obsession of mine.
The opening segment, “Dial A for Afterlife”, brings us another archetype tale of communication from beyond the grave. It’s 1878 in Newark, New Jersey, and JJ O’Connor (Anthony Misiano; The Devil’s Restaurant) is the manager of the local cemetery. His office is located a couple of miles away, and he has a brand new telephone installed to connect the business office to the onsite office. It’s a wondrous invention, saving him tons of money. He’s enamored with it…until it starts ringing off the hook at all hours of the night with nothing but dead air on the other end. As his wife loses patience and his sanity slips, JJ tries everything to uncover who’s pranking him only to discover that the answer isn’t of this world. Anthony Misiano draws the eye and has a quality that keeps you engaged, and the segment as a whole is well-constructed and tightly paced. You’ll find yourself wondering if this old American tale is the source of this mainstay of horror fiction.
The second segment, Axeman of New Orleans”, concerns one of America’s most famous early serial killers. He taunted police and the public with an open letter to the papers. He set off a media frenzy of sleazy journalism and public backlash with citizens writing letters back to him challenging him…and the media printed these replies! It’s an ugly spot on the concept of journalistic integrity and public safety. This tale concerns an Italian American immigrant (most of the Axeman’s victims were) named George Columbo (Brian Landis; Harriet) who intended to take the Axeman up on his offer after the Axeman named a date and place that he would attack. There’s a punchline to the story, and George Columbo became a tragic victim in a way that no one would have anticipated. This segment surprises with the level of blood, gore, and overall violence (especially on the finish). It’s nice to see punches not being pulled even if one of the blood effects is a little CGI-ish and corny.
The final segment, “Mummy Dearest”, sets a new bar for quality in the series and stands as the most “horror” of the series thus far. It’s the famous tale of X-ray tech and German immigrant Carl Tanzler (Kurt Vogelsang; Where Are You, Bobby Browning?), whose obsession with a young tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena De Hoyos led to his theft of her corpse and necrophiliac relationship with her body (which he continued to “preserve”) for seven more years. He was told by the spirit of a long-dead aunt as a child that she would be the love of his life, and he waited his whole life to meet her…then he couldn’t let her go. It’s a nasty cautionary tale about the power of love and prophecy as well as the staggering hold that a message can have over a person of questionable sanity. It’s not in any way graphic, but by God does it make you uncomfortable not only because of the nature of the subject matter but the performance of Kurt Vogelsang. You’ll need a moment to regroup.
Robert Englund is his usual sterling and foreboding self, though he takes a bit of extra perverse pleasure in the third tale. I appreciate that. He could have gone for seriousness but chose to give it just enough of an underlying chuckle to enhance the gross factor. True Terror with Robert Englund is continuing to show that we have a long and dark history in America that could spawn many seasons of gleeful nastiness. You can almost feel the momentum.
I, for one, want to see if they can top this fantastic episode.
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