Still Enough Gems in Tales from the Darkside Season Four
by Kristin Battestella
The 1987-88 Fourth season of the George Romero produced Tales from the Darkside provides a darker horror bizarre in its final twenty episodes beginning with the smuggled artifacts, Egyptian statues, and golden sarcophagus in writer Robert Bloch’s “Beetles.” Although the premise is familiar, the petrified corpse, gem eyes, and eponymous scarabs create a great atmosphere and ominous warnings – return the mummy to its tomb or suffer the cursed consequences. The unheeded desecration leads to more hysteria, insects, and death throws, setting the mood for the season alongside the dolls, mannequins, and stuffed animals of “Mary, Mary.” These are our lovely photographer’s friends, and the photoshoot trickery for the video dating service calls is weird, pathetic, and sad. A real-life friendly neighbor is too scary – she can’t hide behind any facade and live vicariously in this orchestrated illusion. However, the warped horror escalates once the dummies start talking back. The new owner of an infamous haunted townhouse in “The Spirit Photographer” also intends to use rare technology and mysticism to prove the paranormal to his rational friend. They’ve spent their lives seeking evidence or to debunk, obsessing over life after death and paranormal explanations in an interesting two-hander mixing real science, ectoplasm gadgets, and ghostly images. Some of the supposedly irrefutable photos and phantom wails are laughable, but the eerie messages, stakeout suspense, and deceased drain on the living provide great ambiance. “The Moth,” by contrast, is brimming with rural mood thanks to a humble cabin and spellbooks that won’t burn. Debbie Harry’s (Videodrome) stabbed by a jealous wife and her angry mother thinks she is a wicked girl for the water rituals, broken clocks, branches, and circles in blood. Our daughter intends to come back – so long as her mother captures the moth that comes out with her dying breath. The religion versus the devil, who’s right and sinister, is well-done thanks to counting the sand to keep out evil, creepy conversations, and deadly twists. Writer Clive Barker (Hellraiser) adds holiday melodies, trees, and presents to the underlying menace in “The Yattering and Jack” with angry apparitions, cracked mirrors, and apparent poltergeists. Unexpected family visits escalate the supernatural and pleas to Beelzebub as carols turn to fiery smoke and devilish demons debate the rules found in Job regarding tormenting a good man into admitting evil exists. Tales from the Darkside presents another disturbing December demented–possessed turkey dinner and all.
A horror writer dad videotapes his scary movie adaptation for his squabbling kids while mom’s on a long-distance call in Stephen King’s (Creepshow) “Sorry, Right Number.” Flashing call waiting buttons and desperate pleas for help, unfortunately, leave mom worried. She knows the voice but it isn’t their collegiate daughter nor sisters or grandma. Our husband thinks it was a prank or wrong number, and the family dynamics change thanks to the understandable apprehension. The bad feeling continues in the night with damaged door locks and well-developed suspense that keeps viewers invested right up to the twist. A passive-aggressive bill collector in “Payment Overdue” threatens unpaid folks and enjoys scaring kids who answer the phone with how their parents are going to jail – getting the job done with no exceptions until she receives a raspy call from a supposedly dead claim. It turns out she doesn’t like being on the receiving end of the harassment, and the fearful frustration phone acting isn’t phoned in like today’s television with abrupt smartphone conveniences. A mysterious man delivers the payment from the deceased dialer – an avenging angel forcing our overly confident go-getter to face the chilling pleas before it’s too late. Tales from the Darkside has several similar stories in a row here with devils and telephones, but the excellent turnabouts make for a strong mid-season before a plump lady who’s tried all the guaranteed weight loss gimmicks in “Love Hungry.” Amid talking to her plants and crumbs everywhere, she spots an ad for ‘your weight is over.’ Soon a small earpiece arrives allowing her to hear the painful screams of the foods being ingested. It’s both an amusing and disturbing way to ruin dinner, and it’s amazing no one else has thought of the horror of considering body, environmental, and self-worth statements from the fruit pleading not to be eaten. Now that she has a pair of glasses revealing the food in question, it would be murder to eat them but she has to eat something – leading to hunger, paranoia, guilt, and a bitter finale. Period clothing, spinning wheels, and old-fashioned décor belie the 1692 Colonial Village in “The Apprentice” as a contemporary student applies for a re-enacting job. The magistrate insists on no sign of the twentieth century allowed, but our coed doesn’t take her apprenticeship seriously. Smoking, flirting and telling the puritans to lighten up and not have a cow lead to stocks, hangings, and debates on using so-called witches as a scapegoat to bind a struggling society together. Horror viewers know where this has to go, but it’s a real treat in getting there.
“The Cutty Black Sow” continues Tales from the Darkside’s late superb with trick or treating, fireside vigils, and an ill grandma who doesn’t want to die on All Hallows’ Even. Scottish roots and Samhain lore combine for deathbed delirium about the titular beast and warnings to stay safe inside the stone circle. The young grandson is left to make sense of the ravings, trying to finish protection rites he doesn’t understand in this unique mix of candy, masks, and contemporary Halloween fun alongside old word spells, rattling windows, glowing eyes at the door, and home alone frights. The spooky darkness and chilling what you don’t see is dang creepy even for adults! However, a cranky old wife is unhappy with her husband’s junk in director Jodie Foster’s (Flightplan) “Do Not Open This Box.” She wants new things – including the titular package that a strange mailman says was delivered by mistake. He insists he’ll pay anything for the unopened box’s return, and our browbeating lady sees an opportunity for a reward. While she shows up her friends with ostentatious jewels, her husband only asks to invent something useful to others. Our carrier also has a midnight deadline and a limit to his gifts, and his repossession notice exacts a fiery turnabout. In returning director, Tom Savini’s “Family Reunion” dad Stephen McHattie (Deep Space Nine) does whatever it takes to find a cure for his son – taking the boy from his mother and remaining on the move as chains, snarling, shadows, and howls handle the surprise. Prior torn shirts and accidents send mom to child services; and despite nightmares, pain, and the urge to run free, the boy wants to be with his mother, leading to wild confrontations, hairy threats, and superb revelations even if you already know what’s what. Barking dogs, parakeets, kitchen timers, coughing, and ominous toys also foreshadow the noisy horrors for the babysitter in “Hush.” Her charge has been experimenting in his father’s workshop – creating a noise-eating robot with one freaky suction-like hose. Initially, the primitive gadgets seem hammy and the premise simple, but the accidental activation and broken controller lead to heavy breathing, beating hearts, and some quite disturbing, slightly sexual imagery.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Tales from the Darkside without a few awkward entries including the impromptu champagne and sensitive puppeteer forced into a private performance for a hammy gangster in “No Strings.” Cliché accents, vendettas, dumb shootouts, and sexism litter an already silly premise, and the supposedly scary pantomime is just dull. Yuppies also get what they deserve in “The Grave Robber” – another Egyptian piece with hieroglyphs, explosives, a creaking mummy, and yes, strip poker. It’s laughable in all the wrong ways, and Divine (Hairspray) likewise can’t save the corny jokes, offensive portrayals, and stereotypical visions seeking the obnoxious titular leader of “Seymourlama.” Will these terrible parents sell their indulged son for shiny trinkets? Although disturbing, the attempted mix of satire and sinister misses the mark. Downtrodden scriptwriter Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) also doesn’t believe his innocuous neighbor with a dog named ‘Diablo’ can help him achieve movie-making power in “The Deal.” Hellish quips contribute to the deja vu, for we’ve seen this plot previously on Tales from the Darkside as well as in other horror anthologies. This isn’t bad in itself, just derivative. The shutter clicks and outsider point of view trying to solve humanity’s mystery in “Going Native” is stilted and drab, too. Our photographer regrets joining this bizarre reverse therapy group with dark robes, rage, aggression, and creepy innuendo. It’s all trying to be lofty about the human condition with on-the-nose debates about why we let advertising dictate what we value, obsess with wish-fulfilling television, and use sex to alleviate solitude but everything falls flat. For its time maybe this was provocative, however, it’s run of the mill after better Tales from the Darkside episodes, and the steamy, alienated analysis could have been better explored on Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, from Nicky and Ruthie to the bad accents and red hair, the I Love Lucy spoof in“Barter” is just plain bad. A rambling, ammonia-drinking alien salesman gives mom a gadget to freeze her son – providing some peace and quiet amid all her good gollies and household hints. Of course, everything goes wrong, and the attempted parody completely drops the ball as Tales from the Darkside ends with two clunkers. Likewise contending for worst in the series is “Basher Malone.” Its gritty music, seedy crowd, and wrestling cliches are terribly dated alongside some macho, blue lasers, and a masked man coming out of a portal behind the soda machine?
Fortunately, that Tales from the Darkside introduction is as creepy as ever, and the crawling bugs, icky corpses, gory faces, choice monster effects, and ghostly overlays remain effective. Hellish red lighting, dark silhouettes, nighttime eerie, fog, and thunder invoke horror despite small-scale sets and one-room storytelling. There are often only a few players per episode, too, but the acts flow as conversations rather than relying on flashing editing or visuals over substance. Through the frame views, mirrors, reflective shots, and basic camera ruses accent good old-fashioned corded phones, big cordless phones with those giant antennas, answering machines, long distance calls, operators, and Ma Bell references. There’s big old computers, tape decks, record players, radio reports, boob tubes, and the rush to find a blank VHS for the VCR amid nostalgic antiques, retro lamps, classic tunes, and period piece clutter. The obligatory eighties cool with big hair, excessive make-up, lots of pinks, and terribly glam fashions, on the other hand, woof! Strangely, the Tales from the Darkside DVD Special Features includes two more episodes – odd spin-offs or backdoor pilots that sadly went no further. Wills and flirtations mix with black roses and exotic pursuits in “Akhbar’s Daughter,” for sheer near nudity, steamy silhouettes, and threats about what happen to the last suitor add to the sense of forbidden danger. By day, the tantalizing lady is not what she seems at night – leading to ominous portraits and gross consequences. Instead of wasting time on silly entries, it would have been interesting to see Tales from the Darkside grow into this more mature vein, and “Attic Suite” has a desperate paycheck to paycheck couple contemplating how to get rid of their elderly, costly aunt and gain her insurance policy. Auntie herself wishes she could starve herself to death for them, and we believe how sad and bitter the options are as the dire needs escalate in another serious, demented, and twisted plot. These two extra entries should have replaced the last two clunker episodes, which send an otherwise fine season and overall perfectly demented series out on a cheesy note. Compared to timeless horror series before like The Twilight Zone or upping the saucy Tales from the Crypt after, Tales from the Darkside is steeped in low-budget eighties sinister. Season Four’s eerie goods live up to the series name, and Tales from the Darkside remains watchable with memorable if bizarre vignettes and frightful storytelling.
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