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More Scares to be had in Tales from the Darkside Season 3
by Kristin Battestella
The 1986-87 Third Season of Tales from the Darkside features twenty-two more episodes of horror and oddities beginning with “The Circus” premiere written by series producer George Romero. In a series that usually puts the bizarre first, this episode truly feels like a horror tale as Showman William Hickey (Tales from the Crypt) promises mummy and vampire spectacles to a journalist trying to debunk the smoke and mirror ghouls. The bloody feedings and hungry dogs, however, make for some disturbing showmanship – a creepy little parable done with very little, using one setting and power of suggestion scares for a fitting twist. Covered furniture and a murderous history don’t deter a couple from their spooky new home in “Florence Bravo.” This is supposed to be a fresh start, but the wife – who was put in an institution by her husband after a nervous breakdown – isn’t taking her pills as the rocking chair moves by itself and ghostly visions escalate. The haunted house set up is familiar, but she loves their spooky old home and her adulterous husband will pay the price for the house’s evil ideologies with bloody floorboards, gunshots, and killer ghosts. A suspicious dollhouse in “The Geezenstacks” comes complete with the eponymous doll family, and their morbid playtime whispers come true as the cracks begin to show with implied domestic violence and dire real-world consequences. The bemusing bizarre here is less annoying than other kid-centric episodes thanks to creepy toys and that quintessential Tales from the Darkside quirky likewise seen in “Black Widows.” Our homebody knitting mother insists enough company comes to her, like salesmen and ministers knocking on the door. However, visitors who squash and kill a spider in her house will pay the pincer price – even the fiance who’s not good enough for her daughter. He’s too thin and the web-like laundry hangings add to the obvious, but there’s a sardonic wit to the family secret. Unfortunately, the eerie mood escalates for an unscrupulous yuppie art dealer in “Heretic” when the inscriptions on a valuable Inquisition painting would have him learn the error of his ways. The torture and warped religion lead to terrible twists on life imitating art with pain and fiery consequences.
Warnings to behave and not do anything you wouldn’t do on network television accent the homemaker quaint in “A Serpent’s Tooth.” Mom insists she nags because she loves, however her teen daughter and college drop out son’s choices will be over her dead body. She receives the eponymous charm with a warning to be careful what she wishes for – because she may get it. The television, radio, and telephone disappear when she threatens how inconvenient life would be without them, and when she tells an obnoxious kid next door that his face will get stuck that way it does. Talk about a salty lesson! By contrast, a greedy advertising executive sees a New Orleans bakery and its intoxicating cookies as a golden opportunity in “Baker’s Dozen.” The secret ingredients of a thirteenth specialty make for twisted connections between men, dough, and gingerbread in this tasty voodoo turnabout also written by Romero. Of course, the kids in “Seasons of Belief” are at the age where they don’t believe in Santa Claus – but their older, festive parents warn them of a more terrible figure called The Grither. While disbelieving in Saint Nick only makes your presents under the tree disappear, The Grither is the most awful thing in the world, and they’ve called him by saying his name out loud. Tales from the Darkside provides a certain warped amusement here with a holiday episode featuring a deliberate act to scare kids, twisted carols and all. A mannequin trades places with a burglar for “Miss May Dusa,” and creepy shadows accent the seedy subway and what goes on after hours sunglasses at night. Our cursed lady doesn’t remember who she was before, but a jazzy street musician tries to guess, making for an interesting twofer with sadness, despair, and bitter realizations layering a more serious drama on the horror of loneliness. Little Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) says if you leave him a note, the milkman will give you presents in “The Milkman Cometh,” and a family in debt that has lost a baby is rewarded with another pregnancy. Was it a response from the ‘While You Were Sleeping Dairy’ or a coincidence? Increasing conflict, financial struggles, and drinking lead to eerie silhouettes and blue lighting making what was once a normal neighborhood visitor totally creepy with bizarre revelations and eponymous winks.
Jeff Conway’s (Grease) typing his latest in “My Ghostwriter – The Vampire,” and he’s happy writing hack vampire tropes for the money – until Dracula shows up on his balcony. He’s there to prove his powers, proposing sanctuary in exchange for his nine hundred years of bloody details. The toothy secrets lead to literary success, and the traditional vampire motifs with eighties spins are great fun. However Dracula wants his share of the spoils, and there’s an underlying ominous thanks to dining in on the maid neck bites and handy silverware. Robert Bloch’s (Psycho) “Everybody Needs a Little Love” starring Jerry Orbach (Law & Order) has noir mood with cigarettes, Truman posters, and vintage pubs. Our barfly friend brings home a mannequin, drinking, dancing, and taking a week off from work to cook dinner and sit ‘Estelle’ at the table. Who needs a nagging broad when you can have a classy dame who just sits there and smiles! He insists she’s no prude, adding to the old fashioned creepy and lively twists with a hint of something more sinister as her look or positioning seems slightly different from glance to glance. An old crone and her young-looking friend reunite for a bitter 1692 anniversary in “Auld Acquaintances” amid talk of burning houses, lightning strikes, poisoned cats, and puritan flashbacks. Evil chants, talismans, chokings, and threats set off the zany performances alongside Salem imagery and some intense 1987 shocking language on whores and devils. The bargains in blood and pacts to live forever are well done in this confined two-hander. More spell books, enchantments, and boils in “The Swap” don’t impress the young wife of a man who can’t compare to his mama – the greatest conjurer Louisiana ever saw. So long as she ‘plays house’ each night, his wife will get all their millions, and she goes upstairs with her revolting husband rather than be poor. Of course, she’s secretly with the hunky handyman, and Tales from the Darkside gets a little saucy with talk of ‘gentlemanly pleasures,’ handcuffs, and bottles forced into a man’s mouth. The twisted little threesome escalates with poison, wills, and stipulations on who the wealthy widow must marry next. By contrast, it’s all idyllic mid-century sophistication in “The Enormous Radio” with martinis, classical music, and period touches raising the unique horrors. Do our eavesdroppers interfere when they adjust the dial and hear their neighbors or is it none of their business? Unfortunately, the addictive gossip gives way to heated arguing, and the sad, depressing strain of hearing the whole building’s troubles ultimately overwhelm our once perfect couple.
Early in Year Three, however, back-to-back kid tales sag Tales from the Darkside thanks to an annoying little girl disliking her engaged sister’s kisses with her jerky fiance in “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye.” The titular premonitions lead to explosions, funerals, and a whiff of religion versus innocence but the crappy attitudes can’t make a thin script more eerie. “The Bitterest Pill” offers another petulant kid and nasty dad, and the family remains pissy even after they win the lottery. The in your face speed talking over the eponymous drug that provides total recall takes the investments over the top and the fittingly harsh turnabout drags on too long. Southern charm schmoozing over the politician at dinner in “Deliver Us From Goodness” also repeats the be careful what you wish for come ups that were done better several episodes prior, and the religious hypocrisy gets lost in the out of control humor and off the mark obnoxiousness. “My Own Place” may have $285 rent control, however, there’s a semi-mystical roommate that won’t leave – despite the yuppie renter’s curry jokes, Calcutta insults, and racist slurs. Such demeaning isn’t scary, and our jerky new tenant realizes he’s getting what he deserves too late. A stereotypical gold-digging femme fatale widow cut off from the company stock in “Red Leader” adds to the slow, generic corporate talk of cooked books and shady real estate as hellish minions from below debate over the same old evil businessmen tropes. Yawn. Likewise, a greedy young apprentice tries on a pair of magically crafted shoes in “The Social Climber.” He can really go places in this fancy pair, but his shoemaker boss warns him there will be a price. Unfortunately, the magical elements can’t disguise the transparent end, and today some viewers may be completely baffled by what a cobbler even is. A drunk having a heart attack to open “Let the Games Begin” leads to mirrors on the ceiling, hellish shadows, and heavenly echoes arguing over who gets to claim his soul. Both try to entice him by appearing as his angelic best friend and his vixen sister-in-law. However the askew angles, sardonic tricks, and heart beating suspense are too uneven, attempting too much between humor and cynicism in a plain story that gets irritating fast. What is scary are those yuppie styles – plaid sweaters tied over the shoulders, tube socks, and dated feather hair on top of crimped ponytails, neon fashions, and Like a Virgin fishnets. The Tales from the Darkside title card was changed for this season, the menu design on the Season Three DVDs is slightly different, and there are no subtitles. Cramped eighties trailer homes, small sets, and single locations with red lighting and dark dressings may be cheap, however, the claustrophobia is also very effective amid atmospheric thunder and that indelible, chilling Tales from the Darkside theme. Sound effects accent the monster makeup, blood, gothic archways, and older Victorian styles. Retro kitchens, typewriters, and big boob tubes harken a mid-century housewife mood – pink wallpaper, dusty rose doilies, and old bag vacuums contrast the giant eighties portable brick phones and pathetically dated computers. These ladies have to take off a clip earring to use the rotary phone and count the teaspoons to make that old fashioned coffee! While such a long season has its ups and downs thanks to dated or hammy half hours that are weird rather than scary, Tales from the Darkside Season Three once again provides creepy, chilling, and atmospheric parables for a nostalgic horror marathon.
The Frankenstein Chronicles Debut is a Hidden Gem
by Kristin Battestella
The 2015 British series The Frankenstein Chronicles follows Thames Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) and his runner Joseph Nightingale (Richie Campbell) as a floater composed of other body parts leads the police to body snatchers, abducted children, street pimps, and even author Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin). Someone may be copying her novel Frankenstein, and the home secretary wants the case solved before pesky newspaper reporters like Boz (Ryan Sampson) print the sensational tale.
Capsizing dangers, muddy chases, vomiting police, and a stitched-together body reassembled from at least seven children set the 1827 London dreary for “A World Without God.” Rumors of grave robbing abound and selling the dead to medical institutions is not a crime – this is a seller’s market doing good business despite still superstitious folk fearing science, medicine, and what happens to a body after death. Our inspector goes through several protocols and technicalities to research whether this butchery was done by a man of science or some layman out to prevent the new anatomy laws, invoking a mix of morose period noir with British lone detective angst. He’s canvassing the dirty streets for a meat market kidnapper while parliament spins grandiose hot air on rights to autopsy versus personal penance. Cholera, prayers, shady men at the docks with carts full of stolen bodies – is someone murdering to procure fresh dead to sell? The hands of the deceased seem to move when touched in “Seeing Things,” and William Blake quotes death bed whispers and sing-song visions wax on the beast with the face of a man. University hospital demonstrations on bioelectricity show how to reanimate the nervous system, however, those medical seminars and the subsequent Sunday sermons are not so different from each other. Higher up officials don’t want to hear about god fearing motives and scientific suspicion coming together as unauthorized doctors run unapproved clinics with their own ideologies. Investigation leads cut too close to home, and a fireside reading with narrations from the Shelley text invoke a self-awareness meta. An open copy of Frankenstein laying on the desk steers our course as the linear tale expands into a more episodic style with incoming regular cast high and low aiding our inspector or rousing his suspicion. Ghostly winds, flickering candles, and blurry visions create eerie, a supernatural clarity that helps connect clues while books such as An Investigation into the Galvanic Response of Dead Tissue in “All the Lost Children” provide handwritten sketches with blood in the margins. Religion versus science abominations, laws of God versus tyranny and oppression, and defiance of deities to defeat death layer dialogue from the author herself along with pregnant teens, abortion debates, and gory late-stage patients who may as well be monsters with their deformities. Past baptisms, dead families, and uncanny nightmares escalate the inner turmoil while hymns, market chases, and back-alley fights add to the well balanced mystery, life and death themes, precious innocence, and making amends.
Underground tunnels and unscrupulous business transactions in “The Fortunes of War” would have young girls sold at thirty-five guineas for ‘company,’ and the disturbing abuses create frightening silhouettes and threatening villains even as the uncaring uppity argue over chapter and verse regarding bastards and police refuse extra men on a sting gone awry. Screams, gaseous brick houses, and skeletons lead to arrests that unfortunately don’t solve the initial case butchery – only will out one small piece of a larger twisted picture. The aristocracy is shocked at the Frankenstein life imitating art scandal as fact and fiction strike the press, politics, police, and the author herself for “The Frankenstein Murders.” Drunken mad science, candlelit pacts, and monstrous machines bring the eponymous inspirations full circle as blackmail and the triumphant anatomy act provide a free supply of corpses for those who will now do whatever they wish. Threats, revelations, and suspicions swept under the rug keep the underbelly dark while disastrous scientific pursuits go awry. Blue currents and electricity experiments try to conquer death as the noose tightens. Red herrings and key pieces of the mystery come together as the audience completes the puzzle along with our constables thanks to erotic clues, nasty denials, ill pleasures, and warped dissections. The detectives must use one crook to catch another with cons, betrayals, and confessions that seemingly resolve the brothel raids, set ups, and scandals. Prophetic calendars, apparent suicides, and emergency parliament sessions make room for plenty of dreadful hyperbole – grotesque body snatchers have used murder to procure and defile corpses and the dubious press thinks it’s all thanks to popular fiction! This public medicine reform may banish the body trade, but lingering questions remain in “Lost and Found.” Constables need proof that the deceased aren’t staying dead and buried, and someone has known it all along. Conflict among friends and lies will out reveal the hitherto unseen beastly in plain sight as underground discoveries, powder misfires, and final entrapments lead to tearful trials. No one’s left to believe the truth thanks to corruption and condemnation blurring the fine line between genius and blasphemy. Last rights go unadministered when one is guilty of much but denies the crime at hand, and The Frankenstein Chronicles escalates to full on horror with frightfully successful dark science abominations.
Producer Sean Bean’s former soldier turned inspector John Marlott doesn’t like crooked police and his lack of fear is said to aide his quality undercover work. His gruff silhouette contrasts the posh officials, for they dislike his methods, deduction, and research on tides or time of death – questioning where others do not think to look makes him a somewhat progressive investigator even if he doesn’t care for books, poetry, or famous names of the day. Marlott has no problem with instructions, but feigns stupidity and says his conscious is his own, playing into people’s sympathy or religion as needed despite privately lighting candles to his deceased family and carrying sentimental lockets. The Frankenstein Chronicles is upfront on Marlott’s past, telling us how his syphilis caused his wife and baby’s deaths – he knows what it is to grieve and the prescribed mercury tonics add disturbing visions to his prayers. He’s uncomfortable at white glove luncheons as well as church services and cries over his past, perpetually tormented by his late loved ones while this barbaric case puts more burdens on his shoulders. He crosses himself at seeing these ghastly sights, recoiling from the morbid even as his own sores worsen. Marlott’s reluctant to use a dead boy’s body as bait to catch grave robbers and gets rough in the alley brawls when he must, acting tough on the outside and going off the book with his investigation after he steps on powerful figures who would manipulate him for their own political gain. Despite his own fatal mistakes, Marlott is a moral man in his own way, dejected that making the city safer tomorrow doesn’t help the children already dead. Now certainly, I love me some Sharpe, and in the back of my mind, I chuckled on how The Frankenstein Chronicles could be what really happened to Sharpe post-retirement. So, when Marlott says he was in the 95th rifles and fought Bonaparte at Waterloo, wears the same boots, and dons the damn rifle green uniform in a flashback funeral, I squeed! Marlott’s not afraid of death and ready to meet his family, not stopping even when the case is officially closed – ultimately breaking out that old Sharpe sword when it really comes to it!
Reprimanded and insulted by superiors, Richie Campbell’s (Liar) Joseph Nightingale is assigned to Marlott because they don’t really care about him or the investigation. The character is initially just a sounding board, however, Marlott confides in him, laying out the procedural methods in lieu of today’s police evidence montages. Nightingale does leg work for the proof needed, following a tip and getting roughed up when tailing a body snatcher. He argues with Marlott, too, countering his witness protection strategy before earning Marlott’s apology and his blessing to marry. Sadly, both share different angers when plans go wrong and people get hurt. The Frankenstein Chronicles offers a fine ensemble of familiar names and faces also including Anna Maxwell Martin (North and South) as Mary Shelley – a sassy, outspoken writer who says outwardly genteel appearances can be deceiving. She tells Marlott her book came from a nightmare, however, she knows more than she admits. Shelley is well-informed at a time when women weren’t permitted to be as cosmopolitan as their male peers, and great one on one scenes make her an interesting antithesis to Marlott. Ryan Sampson’s (Plebs) hyper young Boz is likewise a persistent little reporter who won’t give up his own sources but wants the police scoop. He circumvents Marlott, working all the angles and exposing the bodies found. Boz belittles him for not knowing Frankenstein was all the rage but he is on Marlott’s side in bringing the truth to light – so long as it’s a fantastic story. By contrast, Charlie Creed Miles (Essex Boys) and his mutton chops match the Burke and Hare-Esque thuggery. This body snatching businessman keeps track of his livelihood, for its just honest supply and demand. Pritty’s reluctant to snitch, but Marlott’s blackmail forces him into helping, becoming a useful, if crooked character. Vanessa Kirby’s (The Crown) initially snotty Lady Hervey comes to find Marlott is surprisingly honorable, confiding in him about her family’s title but little wealth even as she wonders if he is playing her for a fool. Jemima grows closer to him yet remains committed to a loveless marriage for money if it helps her brother’s charity hospital. Unfortunately, Lady Hervey is a woman of God who is sorely mistaken when she puts her trust in all these men of science. Ed Stoppard (Upstairs, Downstairs) as Daniel Hervey speaks out against early medical laws and technicalities with disturbingly contemporary theories when not performing abortions behind his sister’s back. Being a starving, homeless prostitute burdened with a child is not life, he reasons, only more suffering. He scoffs at charlatan surgeons and the home secretary’s grandstanding but offers Marlott a new medicinal spore for his syphilis instead of the harmful mercury, doing what he can for those less fortunate whether the Anatomy Act would ruin him or not.
Rain, thunder, fog, riverboats, marshes, and bogs set the chilly, bleak tone for The Frankenstein Chronicles amid period lantern light, overcoats, and muskets. Eerie artwork and beastly designs in the opening credits parallel the gory sights with separated body parts, arms, and legs upon the table, bowls of entrails, and stuck pigs contrasting the organ music, ladies frocks, bonnets, and courtly wigs. It’s bowler hats, simple crates, and bare rooms with peeling wall plaster for lower men but parasols, pocket watches, top hats, carriages, luggage, and grand estates for the upper echelon. Stonework and authentic buildings accent the blustery outdoor scenery, cobblestone streets, and humble cemeteries. Sunlight and bright visions are few and far between amid the candlelit patinas and small pocket portraits – the only available likeness of the deceased – however, reflections, deformed glances in the mirror, and filming through the window panes accent the man versus monster themes. Wooden coffins, baby-sized caskets, plain burial shrouds, simple crosses, body bags, and tanks containing deformed fetuses create more monsters and morose amid sophisticated libraries, early medical gear, handwritten letters, signets, and wax seals. Bones, blood, electricity, ruined abbeys, and hazy, dreamlike overlays combine with late Bach cues for final horrors, but it is bemusing to see the same title page on that open copy of Frankenstein over and over again – as if we could forget our eponymous literary source! Although many scenes happen on the move, enough information is given with time for dialogue in reasonable length conversations, balancing the visual pace and investigation exposition rather than resorting to in your face editing and transitions. All six, forty-eight-minute episodes in Series One are directed by Benjamin Ross (Poppy Shakespeare), teaming with writer Barry Langford (Guilty Hearts) for one cohesive tone on this ITV hidden gem now of course branded as a Netflix Original.
While some elements may be obvious, my theory on the new spins in The Frankenstein Chronicles was totally wrong, and I again wish there were more gothic, sophisticated series like this and Penny Dreadful. The Frankenstein Chronicles isn’t outright horror – the macabre drama, dreary case, and disturbing mystery are not designed as a scare to frighten even as choice gore keeps the ghastly at hand for this easy to marathon harbinger. Instead, the British gravitas meets mad science combines for a Poe-Esque caper with literary fantastics peppering the intertwined crimes and Frankenstein what-ifs.
Yours Truly Kristin Battestella aka Kbatz discusses Category Romance versus Gothic Literature, Slashers versus Hammer, Penny Dreadful, Mario Bava, Crimson Peak, Tom Hiddleson, and Only Lovers Left Alive as well as Victorian and Gothic Romance Themes and the upcoming HorrorAddicts.net anthology Dark Divinations.
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Tales from the Darkside Season Two Provides More Bizarre by Kristin Battestella
Producer George A. Romero’s 1985-86 Second Season of Tales from the Darkside is the series’ longest year with twenty-four episodes of oddities, scares, and morose mood. Of course, the night club comedy act in “The Impressionist” is stale – but mysterious G-men offer a has-been comedian a special job communicating with gestures amid secret labs, spaceships, and sympathetic aliens. Our slight of hand performer picks up the interstellar mimicry but refuses to reveal the alien’s secret to fusion power. While the weak effects are a little laughable, this alien touch gives a once sarcastic man a piece of something more. It’s business as usual, however, for harsh workaholic Bill Macy (Maude) in “Lifebomb” until an insurance salesman presents a deal on an unique medical safety device that’s too good to be true. After sudden chest pains, he accepts the titular offer, but that little implant on his back leads to scarier medical situations and company control over what could be life-saving technology. This is an interesting plot on stress, aging, and our career servitude made fantastic before inventor John Heard (Home Alone) recounts the earthquakes and mini volcano rising through the floor to deliver extraterrestrial Penelope Ann Miller (Carlito’s Way) for “Ring Around the Redhead.” The jailhouse frame condenses the pace for the romance, reduces the need to show action the series can’t afford, and grounds the what-ifs with electric chair shadows and noir mood. Remodeling and rent control versus eviction unfortunately carry a touch of racism in “Parlour Floor Front” as the upstairs alligator on the polo shirt snobs insults the elderly voodoo practitioner downstairs. A few curses lead to damaged antiques, broken wrists, and falls off the ladder. Mischief, disrespected coffins, and evil-tainted gold escalate to fatal lies as Tales from the Darkside does a lot of scary with very little. Likewise returning director Tom Savini’s “Halloween Candy” adds vintage costumes and candy bags to the holiday hate and cranky old dad hoping the kids have a sugar overdose on the doorstep. Threats to call the police or telling the trick-or-treaters to go to hell result in an incessant doorbell buzz and a devilish little goblin peeking in the window. Broken watches at midnight, bugs in the candy, blue hues, and freaky monster masks stand out thanks to the well-edited suspense.
Romero himself pens “The Devil’s Advocate” starring ornery radio show host Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld). He makes his callers cry amid vintage soundboards and flashing red studio lights, but the engineer falls asleep, the studio grows increasingly darker, and call-ins come from all over history before a chat with the boss from below himself in this superb one-man parable. A man in shades also has an exclusive offer to revive an old sixties network series for the film within a film of “Distant Signals.” The show Max Paradise was unfortunately terrible, but a hefty gold investment reminds the crusty Hollywood suit, writer’s block writer, and drunken actor how inspiring television really is. Although this nice Galaxy Quest story follows several scary tales, it’s made all the more bemusing thanks to today’s reboots and revivals ad nauseam. By contrast, the self-involved yuppie parents in “Ursa Minor” don’t believe their daughter when she says her antique teddy bear is responsible for the household mischief. Occult experts warn them of Native American magic and ancient worship of the eponymous bear constellations, but the muddy little paw prints and tool mishaps create some chilling moments before the faulty gas stove, ambulances, crutches, and karma for “Effect and Cause.” Starving artist Susan Strasberg (Scream of Fear) believes in synchronicity, tarot, and astral charts, leaving her reluctant to paint over unusually awful found canvases. Unfortunately, the esoteric heavy and chaos debates leave her trapped, helpless in a home that’s working against her in this Mandela Effect meta mind-bender. Baby Seth Green (Buffy) has something creepy under the bed on Christmas morning in “Monsters in My Room,” too. The boy prays against tentacles, saw blades, and boogie men in the closet out to get him with scary nighttime lighting and every toy, ticking clock, or floorboard creak adding to the terror. However, his stepdad wants to toughen him up, giving him beer and trying to make the boy a man in a whiff of subtext as real-world and horror merge.
Shakespeare quotes and an antique telescope invoke a renaissance touch for “Comet Watch” – a lighthearted entry obsessed with the cosmos once an Edwardian babe pops into the attic after taking a long celestial trip. The dated science and charming love triangles set off what was then a timely January 1986 airing ahead of the forthcoming Halley’s Comet. Yes, this again far beyond the Darkside theme. However, this is probably the last time a genre television series could address such fanciful fears with such innocence as we’re too scientific and overly cynical these days. “A New Lease on Life” provides a new apartment with all the trimmings and supposedly no catch for an uber-cheap $200 a month. Unfortunately, the wall groans when an against the rules nail is hammered in, and handymen against newfangled microwave radiation fix the bleeding sheetrock with peroxide. Neighbors denied water warn our tenant while cries within the walls and giant garbage disposals suggest there’s a price to pay for eating meat. One could have it all forever if he just follows the rules and does what he is told, making this a freaky little statement on human horrors and arrogance. The desperate writer with the empty refrigerator in “Printer’s Devil” follows an ad to one creepy agent’s office where voodoo dolls, mystic tomes, and animal sacrifices promise Pulitzers. Publication and success soon follow, but the so-called inspirational pets also increase as the literary riches must be maintained. When his new girlfriend starts sneezing over his apartment zoo, well, our devilish agent suggests one final sacrifice. “The Shrine,” by contrast, presents a mother offering her estranged daughter milk and cookies. She doesn’t want to talk about the past or her daughter’s breakdown, but she keeps her daughter’s room in untouched childhood perfection – yet phantom winds and nursery rhymes suggest someone else is living among the ribbons and pom poms. Can a mother be so disappointed in how a child grew up that she would try again with the same daughter? The who does mommy love more contest could be silly, but the warped women’s roles are played serious amid the taboos. Motel manager John Fielder (The Bob Newhart Show) reluctantly lends the Room 7 key to a cruising salesman for “The Old Soft Shoe,” and a vintage radio plays jazz while a woman in black lingerie draws a steamy bath. She calls our salesman by a different name and insists they’ll never be apart while they dance cheek to cheek. However, 1950 newspaper clippings and dusty corsages lead to gunshots and jilted dames as the nostalgic personalities and ghostly femme fatales bring the blood and stockings full circle.
On Thanksgiving eve an ingenue waits on the desolate platform for the late train in “The Last Car.” Once onboard, the eponymous passengers warn her she can’t travel between cars – they fear the upcoming tunnels, nobody likes to talk about time, and the so-called train to Providence isn’t stopping like it should. Lost watches, a shoebox full of all the foods they desire, and a nonsensical conductor create an askew Twilight Zone perception with memorable revelations before a cocky doctor is happy to diagnose mob boss Abe Vigoda (The Godfather) with cancer for “A Choice of Dreams.” Fortunately, a more radical scientist offers him power over death for a cool ten million. Ticking clocks count down as the murderer faces his own mortality while black and white offices with futuristic technology keep the brain alive as the memories flashing before our criminal’s eyes catch up to him. The 1935 noir, moonlight, pale skin, and hints of red in “Strange Love” tell us what fangs are afoot. Marcia Cross (Melrose Place) has no heartbeat and a cold touch to match her seduction, power, and beauty as this saucy love triangle leads to betrayal, a double wide coffin, and a bloody good time. The video will be left by a fire and brimstone televangelist for his sister Connie Stevens (Hawaiian Eye) in “The Unhappy Medium,” however, isn’t the riches she hoped. The hypocritical pretenses and greedy true colors come out thanks to neon lighting, purgatory traps, and devilish possession. The family that sins together, stays together in this timeless Tales from the Darkside parable. Meanwhile, the empty army recruiting office receives an unlikely man not signing up but asking for sanctuary in “Fear of Floating.” He unbuckles his boots and floats every time he lies – a gift the army would love to use between the zany standoffs, tall tales, delusions, deceptions, and one low hung ceiling fan. Splattered sheets and bloody babes set off frequent Tales from the Darkside director Frank de Palma’s finale “The Casavin Curse” amid homicide detectives, suspect servants, and ancient gypsy curses turning a tiny heiress into a deadly demon with killer claws. She always ends up hurting the one she loves!
Tales from the Darkside’s half hours often center around one or two characters, and episodes are slightly better when there’s a more recognizable name to anchor the fun. Indeed, viewers have to take these gonzo tales with a sense of humor, for even amid the serious parables there are laughable things. Scribble on a piece of paper isn’t an alien language nor is one earring and a few crystals in a gal’s hair outer space couture – actually, it’s just totally eighties! A calm granny offers chicken soup to the possessed little girl who’d rather eat souls in “The Trouble with Mary Jane,” and local amateur exorcist cum con artist comedienne Phyllis Diller is going to use tea leaves and tarot cards to put this demon into a pig and make her fortune. This could be something scary, but it’s tough to tell if the humor is intentional and we should roll with it or just laughably bad. Several juvenile shows and household scares in a row sag mid-season, and daughter Lisa Bonet (A Different World) tries to inspire her angry composer father in “The Satanic Piano.” His record company is unhappy with his latest album, but a mysterious man offers the family a computerized keyboard with telepathic connections and a sinister price to pay. Can a machine capture the purity and essence of one’s soul and music? This contemporary tale is waxing on something innocent, however, the execution is off the mark in a series where youth in terror befits the Darkside content. Dated phrases like “rad,” “far out,” or “right on” I can dig, yet I can’t say the same for “Dream Girl” as film shoots and pin-ups help a creepy janitor live out his sexist misogynist fantasy. While fog, distorted angles, and fake props set off the warped titular haze, the Inception play within a play meta is too nonsensical and confusing with abusive shouting and characters trapped in an overlong, dry predicament. Certainly, the computers and alien designs are primitive. The empty sets are grayscale abstract with wild faux marble luxury meant to be eighties high end but it’s all so obviously cardboard fake today. One may argue the backdrops beyond those false windows create a more stage-like setting allowing the bizarre per tale to shine, however, the redressed cheap is often too apparent – an office from one episode is easily a jail cell the next. Most special effects seen are also hokey but brief with major fantastics largely left to off-camera imagination. Though the jury may be deliberating on the eighties silk blouses and pussy bows back in vogue, those bright yuppie pinks and thugs in sport coats with the sleeves rolled up were never good looks!
While there may be no subtitles for the Tales from the Darkside: The Complete Series set, the always chilling greeting and opening theme speak for themselves. Old tape recorders, rotary phones, and typewriters add nostalgic décor alongside retro ice boxes, doilies, and static on the big boob tube. Blue lighting, silver accents, moonlight silhouettes, firelight, and candlesticks invoke mood as increasingly dark schemes, shadows, dreamy photography, and cigarette smoke frame the spooky atmosphere. Some of that white leather furniture and mauve pastiche does have the right swanky, and Tales from the Darkside’s production values increase slightly during the season with latter episodes featuring real homes and locales rather than mere set walls. Tiny white lingerie and steamy nightgowns and some side boob close calls also push the envelope, yowza! Art Deco tone on tone designs add an Old Hollywood simmer while choice reds and brains in jars never let us forget the horror at hand. Sure, Tales from the Darkside has a certain amount of dated silliness. Bemusing weirdness is more often featured than full-on frights. However, the scares are superb when they happen and the spooky fun doesn’t overstay its welcome. Tales from the Darkside Season Two is easy to marathon for nostalgic creepiness and all manner of bumps in the night.
Tales from the Crypt Season Three Stands Out by Kristin Battestella
During Summer 1991, HBO’s Third Season of Tales from the Crypt delivered fourteen episodes adapted from the Tales from the Crypt, Shock SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear comic book canon – and nearly every half hour plot steps up the sarcasm, star power, and scares.
The ‘Honey, I’m home!’ opening of the “Loved to Death” premiere leads to something saucy in the kitchen but it’s just a bad script in progress by Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s) when he’s not fantasizing about his demanding actress neighbor Mariel Hemingway (Lipstick). Forget the old boombox and shoddy word processor – leather, lingerie, and boobs inspire his creativity and a watching big brother landlord speaking over the intercom braves him to knock on her door. Of course, she’s not interested until he’s successful, making for a bemusing mix of imagination and real world bitter from writer turned director Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die). Unfortunately, subtle make up and costuming reflect the turnaround when a love potion makes the amorous too much to handle.
The Crypt Keeper, meanwhile is smoking in bed with a headless skeleton as the escaped Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) opens “Carrion Death” with dusty Arizona manhunts, motorcycle chases, and fiery accidents. The desert setting invokes a barren purgatory as a vulture waits amid the echoes, gunshots, race to the border, and loot blowing in the wind. The no water, talking to himself delirium may seem slow for some audiences, however the sardonic trek, gore, and just desserts escalate once the handcuffs are on and there’s no key.
Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox directs Terri Garr (Tootsie) in “The Trap,” for her nasty husband has a life insurance policy and a coroner brother-in-law who can help fake a death. Bemusing morgue saws, faux dead make up, and a bumbling cover story combine for over the top funeral wailing, cremation mishaps, and tropical hideouts. The askew trials, double crosses, and mistaken identity aren’t really horror, but the crime fits the screw here.
Likewise, the memorable “Abra Cadaver” opens with a black and white morgue, autopsies, pretty corpses, necrophilia quips, and dangerous practical jokes on Beau Bridges (Stargate SG-1) by Tony Goldwyn (Scandal). The color present has high tech lab equipment and research debts owed for these experiments on brain function after clinical death – studies done with ritual altars, folk medicine, and poisoned scotch. The distorted voiceover and overhead camera angles match this appearance of death as the acute senses remain to experience the meat locker, hooks, saws, embalming, and John Doe toe tags as the warped mix of science and revenge creates blood trickling down the screen twists.
The Crypt Keeper does a little Mashed to Pieces Theatre in “Top Billing” as desperate Jon Lovitz (Saturday Night Love) fails another audition. He won’t stoop to commercials like successful sellout Bruce Boxleitner (Scarecrow and Mrs. King), and this is an interesting commentary on the look being more important than the talent. Agent Louise Fletcher (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) says it’s commerce and product, not art, that sells tickets, winking to the viewer as oft comedian Lovitz is determined to play Hamlet with intense director John Astin (The Addams Family). Will he kill for the part? This little back alley theater at 895 ½ needs a real skull for its Yorick.
“The Reluctant Vampire” also begins with a traditional gothic atmosphere – before the alarm clock by the coffin and fang dentures on the night stand add modern humor as blood bank nightwatchman Mr. Longtooth Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) dreads Mondays and The Keeper reads Vampirism Made Easy. Manager George Wendt’s (Cheers) donation numbers don’t add up, so our sensitive vamp – who doesn’t drink direct from humans so he can respect himself in the morning – attacks an old lady’s mugger to replace his martini makings in the vault. Certainly he asks if his victim has any blood born diseases before filling up the water cooler. He’s saving the blood bank and taking a bite out of crime amid newspaper spinning montages, Transylvania soil myths, lighting candles at the snap of the fingers, and dangerous squirt guns with holy water. Van Helsing descendants are on the local talk shows, and Tales from the Crypt manages to be gothic and cute at the same time. Of course, Little CK has a Betty Croaker cookbook while womanizing reporter Steven Weber (Wings) keeps a tape recorder under the bed to get what’s off the record when, as they say, pumping a source for information in “Mournin’ Mess.” Hard nose editor Ally Walker (Sons of Anarchy) wants the scoop not drunk excuses, but suave spokeswoman Rita Wilson (Now and Then) spins the rhetoric on cleaning up the streets as the homeless murders mount. Dead witnesses and some literal cemetery digging lead to tunnels, coffins, skeletons, and underground revelations on The Grateful Homeless Outcasts and Unwanted Layaway Society, ahem, GHOULS. Although this starts off run of the mill, Tales from the Crypt continues to push the envelope with its grotesque.
As a kid I loved director Russell Mulcahy’s (Highlander) “Split Second” and even had it on one of several made ’em myself Tales from the Crypt VHS mixes! Foreman Brion James (Blade Runner) seethes over his sassy waitress with a reputation turned hottie wife Michelle Johnson (Blame it on Rio) while her short shorts and tank top get skimpier for new lumberjack Billy Worth (The Lost Boys, you know, the “Death by stereo.”) Axes, chainsaws, and the inherent dangers on the job immediately hook the audience as the camera reflects the peril, speed, and saucy games people play – leading to new power tools, a violent comeuppance, and plenty of blood splatter.
“Deadline,” however, would see drunk newsman Richard Jordan (Logan’s Run) clean up his act for particular hooker Marg Helgenberger (CSI). Although the narrative bookends are unnecessary, the newsroom clickety clack adds nostalgic pressure, and his cranky editor wants a juicy murder headline or else. Fortunately – or unfortunately – Jon Polito (The Crow) gives him an exclusive, ironic scoop on a crime of passion gone awry.
Tales from the Crypt’s tongue in cheek is in full swing for “Spoiled” as bored housewife Faye Grant (V) loves the over the top scandals of her favorite soap There’s Always Tomorrow. Her married to his work husband’s basement experiments may make medical history, but they interrupt her fantasizing, too. Good thing ‘Abel with the cable’ repairman Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace) is there with all the connection in the bedroom innuendo, drafting a bemusing life imitating art mad science mix and self-aware commentary complete with Tales from the Crypt on the boob tube. Like the soaps, the saucy isn’t actually shown – letting the male input and female boxes speak for themselves once the lovers play out their part.
Series producer Robert Zemeckis directs the supersized “Yellow” finale with general Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), his lieutenant son Eric Douglas (The Golden Child), loyal captain Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters), and gritty sergeant Lance Henriksen (Near Dark) facing the no man’s land trenches, explosions, and limbs lost of 1918 France. Battle failures, breaks in the communication line, family expectations, and the titular cowardice risk the chain of command, for this solider son refuses to kill and doesn’t want to be killed, undermining his father’s position as the enemy nears. Panic on the mission results in more slaughter and church held court marshals layer the religious iconography. It’s okay for fathers and sons to be afraid to die, and one’s a fool or a liar if he claims he isn’t – especially when facing the firing squad. This is a serious parable about real fear and horrors, yet the episode is not out of place. Who says Tales from the Crypt has to be all cheeky all the time? Rather than the expected juicy or sensationalism, this unique choice sells itself with innate intensity and cruelty for one of the series’ finest.
Of course, there are several less than perfect entries sagging Tales from the Crypt mid-season, including the late Tobe Hopper’s (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) star studded “Dead Wait.” The thieves are arguing over small scale island plantations and pitiful pearl treasures, and should be tense chess conversations fall flat amid red hair superstitions, voodoo talk, and witch doctor suspicions. Jungle fever romance with red king takes black queen quips and sweaty sex with voodoo drums compromise the hanging ram heads and dead chickens in the bed – playing into the very exotical stereotypes that the dialogue warns one to respect. Each eighties era horror anthology series seems to have a problematic voodoo tale, but they are always about a white man looking for something sexy and dangerous with an obvious turnabout. The gore and creepy worms are fine – this isn’t a terrible episode, but it doesn’t zing as it should.
The late night spoof with Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) as The Crypt Keeper’s guest is more fun. Painter Tim Roth (Rob Roy) doesn’t get the showing he was promised and fantasizes about killing his agent in “Easel Kill Ya,” but some accidental violence and nearby deaths inspire his art. He channels his darkness into some gruesome canvases and sells the paintings to a creepy buyer, but he can’t keep up with the killer demand for his art. Again the fatal twists and obsessive performances aren’t the worst, but this tortured artist cum murderer plot is nothing new.
“Undertaking Palor” also has obnoxious punks at the movies complaining about being one short in the Milk Duds box before they scare each other and capture it on camera. They break into the mortuary to raise the frights in their amateur film making and unfortunately discover twisted little practitioner John Glover (Smallville) using a Shop Vac for his latest embalming. The ironic classical music and Pepsi with pizza while the creepy mortician works makes for some delightful Tales from the Crypt grossness, but the juvenile found footage Nancy Drew mystery weakens what could have been wild had we seen the morgue conspiracy from the inside perspective. The Crypt Jam music video feature on the Tales from the Crypt Season Three DVD set is also a humorous little rap with babes, gore, and highlights from the year in a fittingly oh so nineties fashion both embarrassing and hysterical at the same time. The features also cheat slightly by listing two panel segments, for the first fifteen minute bonus recounting the history of EC Comics mid-century history and their ongoing relevance in horror is just pieced together from the second feature – which is the full half hour Comic Con discussion with voice of the Crypt Keeper John Kassir, producer Alan Katz, and additional crew telling more behind the scenes tales and answering audience questions. This DVD set also goes right to the menu without the “Kill Intro” theme playing only once per disc as in the previous video releases, and I like being able to see that spooky house opening per episode.
There are less fifties abstract and colorful comic designs for this season of Tales from the Crypt, but the seedy dark palette feels a little more nineties grown up to match the mayhem. Lots of familiar faces in supporting roles lend an extra sophistication with old televisions, rabbit ears, Polaroids, or T-n-A as icing on the cake per the humorous or grotesque plots as needed. That newfangled frivolous cable and HBO freedom allows Tales from the Crypt to exploit many women with then nudity, abuse, and victimizing. However, the series also has numerous working women in positions of power or ladies that give back all the ills deserved and never get naked to do so. Occasionally, the hammy over does it with stunt casting and humor falling flat, but bigger names, chilling stories, plenty of gore, quality production values, and heaps of ironic horror help Tales from the Crypt step up its winking formula for Season Three for a macabre and self referential but no less twisted good time.
Though Flawed, Thriller’s Second Season Remains Frightful