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Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Best of Tales From the Darkside Season 1

"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But... there is unseen by most an underworld... a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit... a Dark Side!"

If you grew up in the 1980s, chances are you saw the creepy Laurel Entertainment series TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE on television. If you could watch the intro with the foreboding music and Paul Sparer's straight-from-the-grave delivery and your skin not crawl you're obviously not human. 

Born from the success of CREEPSHOW (1982), these TALES outlived other failed horror anthologies (like DARKROOM and NIGHTMARES), lasting four seasons from 1983-1988. Created by George A. Romero and featuring a gaggle of stories by authors like Robert Bloch, Stephen King and Clive Barker, the themes ran the gamut of horror, SciFi, fantasy and even the blackly comical. Occasionally veering into AMAZING STORIES territory, TALES had its share of good episodes and more than enough fair, to middling, to awful ones. This season-by-season list is a selection of DARKSIDE tales that best represents the spirit of the show, and some that narrowly miss the mark.


Trick Or Treat (originally aired October 29th, 1983)

Gideon Hackles takes great joy in controlling the citizenry of his small town. Every Halloween the young children are given a chance at freeing their families from Gideon's greedy clutches if only they can locate the stack of IOU's hidden somewhere in Hackle's house. The catch is the huge home is rigged with scary devices and spooky sound FX that will send any young trick r' treater screaming for the door. On this particular night, though, Hackles receives an unlikely visitor with both a trick and a treat for him.

George Romero wrote this TALES pilot episode. It's a good start to a series that was a seesaw of quality over the course of its 4 season run. In his first directing gig, actor Bob Balaban procures a modern-day fairy tale aura with a dark, Grimm quality. Barnard Hughes is fabulous as the All Hallows Eve version of Ebenezer Scrooge; and there's some nice creature designs from makeup FX man Ed French. The makeup designer for a few shows, French also acts under his own makeup as the Devil.

The Odds (originally aired October 21st, 1984)

"I bet that you're dead... by 8 o'clock tomorrow morning..."

Tommy Vale is a bookie who never refuses a bet nor extends credit. His confidence is eroded when he meets Bill Lacey, a mysterious man dressed in white who only bets on long shots. After Vale loses a bundle on a bet, he begins to notice something familiar about Mr. Lacey. Not quite sure what it is, Vale accepts another bet from Lacey with the highest stakes of his life.

Emmy winning director James Steven Sadwith helms this quaint episode about ghostly revenge in a TWILIGHT ZONE vein. The first episode to be set entirely in a single location, many episodes followed this example, streamlining things even further by limiting the cast to one or two people. Danny Aiello and Tom Noonan are the two gamblers--one with nothing to lose and the other nothing to gain. The second episode to air, 'I'll Give You A Million', had a similar premise.

Inside the Closet (originally aired November 18th, 1984)

Gail Aynsley, a young veterinary student, rents the upstairs room from a strict, eccentric vet professor. Curious about the small closet in the room, Gail initially thinks a rat is scurrying around in there despite Professor Fenner's denial of any rodents in his home. The truth is far more frightening when Gail discovers what's residing Inside the Closet.

Tom Savini's first of three directed episodes was also his first stab at directing. After a decade of working in special makeup FX, Savini shows a natural hand at guiding actors and building suspense. Not only did he helm this fantastic entry in the series, but he created and designed "Lizzie", the monster. Fritz Weaver is no stranger to diminutive devils as displayed in 'The Crate' segment in CREEPSHOW (1982); he finds himself in a somewhat similar predicament here. Patricia Tallman, later to play Barbara in Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1990) remake, did the stunts in this episode.

A Case of the Stubborns (originally aired December 2nd, 1984)

"I told ya' I ain't dead so many times I'm blue in the face!"

Ma and Jody Tolliver mourn the loss of Titus Tolliver the family patriarch. As they sit down for breakfast the following morning, Titus shocks them both when he descends the stairs to enjoy some mornin' vittles. It doesn't take long before family and friends begin to notice something foul about Titus... foul as in smell. Decomposing everyday, Titus refuses to lay down to take a permanent nap. Jody then pays a visit to a local voodoo queen in the hopes of getting his stubborn grandpa to take an eternal rest.

Director Jerry Smith didn't do much, but this 1st of 4 episodes bearing his name as helmer is arguably the best example of black humor on TFTD. Likewise, 'Stubborns' is easily the single most gruesome episode of the entire run; ironic considering it's more comedy than horror. Accompanied by the sound of flies swarming his rotting carcass, Ed French's makeup for Grandpa Tolliver is unsettling to say the least. Eddie Bracken is outstanding as the old man who refuses to go. A very young Christian Slater plays the grandson, Jody.

Anniversary Dinner (originally aired February 3rd, 1985)

Celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, Henry and Elinor Colander reminisce about their children who no longer live at home. Two hikers stop by the next morning. The Colander's take an immediate liking to Sybil, inviting her to come stay with them anytime. She does, and both Henry and Elinor feel it's just like old times when they had their children at home.

Over the course of six episodes, director John Strysik had a sense of the quirky. The creepiest of those is present in this, his first. He builds a gradual sense of unease from James Houghton's screenplay (from a story by J.D. Pass), exacerbated further by off-kilter performances by familiar character actors Alice Ghostley and Mario Roccuzzo as the elder couple looking forward to their special occasion that is this episode's title. Similar stories have been told since so you will likely pick up on where it's going. Still, for those who enjoy their omnibus cuisine with a nicely disturbing sting in the tail, 'Anniversary Dinner' satisfies.

Levitation (originally aired May 19th, 1985)

"Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see has not been attempted on any stage in over 25 years."

Ernie and his young magician friend Frank have driven 75 miles to witness the Great Kharma on stage. Expecting to see some mind-blowing magic, Frank is disappointed, noting the elementary level trickery. After the show Frank goes to speak with Kharma and asks why he doesn't do the famous, and little seen, wireless levitation. Learning he lost his daughter when something went wrong while performing the trick, Frank remains relentless in goading Kharma into doing the act using him as the volunteer.

Romero collaborator John Harrison helmed 8 episodes of TALES. This is one of his best. An EC vibe is definitely in attendance on this installment. This is one of those 'be careful what you wish for' programmers. You often hear about how low budget this series was, but with the limited means, there's a nice, if compact carnival aura captured. Joe Turkel, who plays Kharma the Magician, was Lloyd the Bartender in Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING (1980).

TALES of Missed Opportunities: Killer Phone On the Line

Answer Me (originally aired February 17th, 1985)

Aging actress Joan Matlin becomes increasingly frustrated by a shortage of movie roles and a near-constant ringing phone in the apartment next door. Curiously, the apartment next to hers has been vacant for some time after the previous occupant was said to have strangled herself to death.

This segment about an irritated older actress bugged not only by losing film roles but a ringing phone and loud bumps against the wall is a one-woman show. Jean Marsh (THE CHANGELING [1980]) is convincing as the down-on-her-luck leading lady although some viewers might become frustrated with her constant sarcasm and bickering to herself. Richard Friedman does manage some nifty TZ-style suspense with the supernatural phone residing in the empty apartment next door. However, some unintended laughs during the final moments ruin the atmosphere established up to that point. Friedman directed two episodes that made it onto this season by season list. He would later direct (and contribute the story to) DOOM ASYLUM (1987) and PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE (1989).

TALES of Missed Opportunities: Wishful Thinking from the Older Generation

Grandma's Last Wish (originally aired June 16th, 1985)

Grandma feels hopelessly out of place in trying to keep up with her fast-moving family; or coping with current trends that are the polar opposite to what was familiar back in her day. Growing weary of Grandma's pestering, the Rollins household decides to place her in an old-folks home "affectionately" referred to as Humdinger Heaven. With but one week to go, the Rollins' ask Grandma to make a wish and they'll try to fulfill it before her big send-off. However, Grandma may not be going away alone.

Warner Shook, the alcohol-absorbed Richard Grantham in CREEPSHOW (1982), directed this darkly humorous episode. It's one of the few genuinely funny segments of TALES. It starts off beautifully, with a lot of wit but loses steam midway through. The finale is suitably sinister, recalling similar "just desserts" endings of your finer TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. Still, the fate of the Rollins family is a bit harsh considering their inattentiveness towards Grandma doesn't warrant what awaits them.

And that wraps up our first dark ride into the Dark Side. Creatures of the Night carry over into the Best of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE Season Two. "Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight!"

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