January 20, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Visions of spurting blood and shredded guts dance in Joel Silver’s head this postholiday season. The first Tales From the Crypt movie, Demon Knight, opens nationally this month, and he already has a deal with Universal for two more Crypt hackfests — no matter how this one fares at the box office.

On HBO, where Tales has haunted late-night for six years and the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks have directed the likes of Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, the show quickly earned the highest ratings of any series in the cable network’s history. But moving the comic-book-inspired chiller to the big screen has been slightly more of a struggle. When the show’s team of executive producers — Silver, Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Richard Donner (the Lethal Weapon series), Walter Hill (48 HRS.), and David Giler (The Black Bird) — decided to bring their franchise to the movies, they (along with the show’s producer, Gilbert Adler) split up the development work on the three planned features. Zemeckis shepherded Demon Knight; Donner worked on the second film, Dead Easy, a New Orleans zombie romp that may be released next Halloween; and Hill took on the as-yet-unscheduled third, Body Count.

Silver says the team’s original plan was to debut with Dead Easy because ”it (would have been) the easiest one to make first.” But when shown all three scripts, Universal wanted Demon Knight, a horror fantasy: ”They said, ‘That’s the most Tales-like — you know, monsters —and we want that.”’ Universal sweetened the switch by offering to guarantee the production of all three films — an economical deal given the films’ relatively low budgets. ”We didn’t want to do just one. We wanted to get a run on the thing,” says Silver, who on a different film might have spent Demon Knight‘s $13 million budget for one star’s salary. ”To me, $13 million is not a lot of money.”

That budget might have been even smaller if director Ernest Dickerson (Juice) hadn’t had to reshoot the conclusion to the death joust — a fiery confrontation between demon leader Billy Zane (Posse) and the feisty street-girl-turned-warrior played by Jada Pinkett (A Low Down Dirty Shame), the only resident of the New Mexico boardinghouse he’s been terrorizing who survives to stand up to him. When the scene’s finale tested poorly, the movie’s Halloween 1994 release was delayed. ”We reshot the original ending because it didn’t seem visceral enough — Zane turns into a wreath of fire,” says Dickerson, who trimmed the picture to earn an R rating. ”The audience wanted visually to see Zane really get it.”

Zane’s character isn’t the only one whose fate has been uncertain. The 80th episode of Crypt, a Zemeckis-directed season finale starring Isabella Rossellini and — thanks to Gump-like special effects — Humphrey Bogart, may also be the Crypt Keeper’s HBO swan song. ”I don’t know for sure it’s our last episode,” says Bridget Potter, HBO’s senior VP of original programming. ”We’re on the fence. We like to keep our options open.” If HBO drops the show, the Fox network may well move in; its reruns of the series (with its more graphic violence snipped out) have drawn strong ratings as late-night Saturday programming.

So, far from being buried, the Crypt Keeper appears to be a bona fide star: He has his own ABC Saturday morning cartoon, and his people even met recently with various advertisers to discuss possible product endorsements. Silver, for his part, is delighted. ”I don’t want it to end,” he says.

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