Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Two: Episodes 17 to 24

[Edited 30 July 2011: cleaned up text & new screenshots.]

For the review of episodes 1 through 8, please click here.
For the review of episodes 9 through 16, please click here.
Season One begins here.

The final third of season two is much improved over the first two-thirds. Overall, the season was a mixed affair. Some ideas had good potential but the scripts were simply weak. Often, rather than using a nifty idea to make something memorable, the show resorted to adapting original ideas as sitcom-quality comedies that were desperately crying out: "Look how neat and funny I am," when in fact they were not. The show spent much of the season masquerading as Tales from the Darkside, while it was being presented as Tales from the Sillyside.

It did not help that the quality of the acting was well below average. Gone were the many neat casting roles of season one (though we did have some fine performances from the likes of Marie Windsor, Abe Vigoda, Jerry Stiller, Coleen Gray and Susan Strasberg), replaced by actors whose careers spanned less than ten television appearances. Granted, the comedic horror that the show spewed out on a nearly weekly basis did not allow many of the actors to perform in any notable way, but even in serious episodes such as "Parlour Floor Front" (here I'm referring to the two homeowners; Adolph Caesar was quite good) the "serious" acting was two-dimensional.

There were some long gaps between episodes, with no episode airing throughout March and April; the final episode aired nearly two months following its predecessor. I'm not sure why this was. Perhaps they were contracted a maximum of twenty-four episodes and at season's end stretched them out as special events while running re-rums or giving another show a chance to perform better. Or perhaps the producers were late in delivering the final episodes. All this, of course, is just speculation.

The strongest episodes from Season Three are: "The Last Car," "A New Lease on Life," "Effect and Cause," "Ursa Minor," and "Dream Girl," while other half-decent episodes were "Ring Around the Redhead," "The Old Soft Shoe," "The Devil's Advocate" and "The Shrine." The rest are forgettable or very close to it.

"The Shrine." (Episode 17: first aired 9 February 1986) Directed by Christopher T. Welch, written by Jule Selbo from a short story by author/editor Pamela Sargent. Starring Lorna Luft, Coleen Gray, Virginya Keene, Janet Wood and Larry Gilman. 6/10

Christine Matthews (Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft) returns to visit her mother (no, not Judy, but veteran Coleen Gray in her final screen role) after a six-year absence. Things are awkward between the two women, with tensions that have been present yet repressed for many years. We learn quickly that Christine has suffered a nervous breakdown and is convinced that her mother believes she is a failure. The creepy element is that mom has turned Christine's bedroom into a shrine, and in the late and early hours a little girl's voice can be heard in the room.

There are some creepy moments; just the idea of seeing yourself again as a ten year-old is enough to send anyone over the deep end. There is also a wonderful opening sequence that makes sense only after having watched the entire episode. Late on a stormy night Christine is knocking on the door, calling out to her mother: "Mother! Mother!" But her mom is asleep in the kitchen chair. We also hear a distant little girl's voice calling "Mommy!" and mom awakens, but instead of heading for the door to let Christine in from the rain, she heads to the stairs leading to the bedrooms, and the shrine. A truly nice, subtle touch.

This is also among the rare Darkside episode featuring an unambiguous happy ending, so I suppose that makes it unpredictable. The opening is well done and it's fairly well written, though the ending drags a little and there is a seemingly useless scene with Christine's brother (Larry Gilman), a character exposition scene that could have been written for her friend Toni (Janet Wood) instead: the episode deserves an all-female cast since the highlighted relationships are between mother and daughter. Aside from Coleen Gray the acting is fairly standard, though the roles don't require anything too elevated. Despite these intrusions I did enjoy this one for the most part, glad when the show tried to do something a little different, or at least do it a little differently.

"The Old Soft Shoe." (Episode 18: first aired 16 February 1986) Directed by Richard Friedman, written by Art Monterastelli. Starring Paul Dooley, John Fiedler, Kathy McLain, Dorothy Parke and Patrick Farrelly. 6/10

"No I'm not with some cheap floozie,
I'm in some creepy motel for God's sake
Travelling lingerie salesman Chester Caruso (Paul Dooley) is stranded in a cheap motel owned and operated by eccentric Arthur (the always lovable John Fiedler). There is only one room remaining, which Arthur is mysteriously unwilling to let, though an ten bucks is all the convincing he needs. In this room is beautiful ghost Glenda (Dorothy Parke), who believes that Caruso is a man named Harry. The rest is mostly predictable, though not necessarily bad.

The humour is at times painful, though the scene with Fiedler entering the room with a shotgun is amusing simply because it's reminiscent of the Warner Brothers hunter of bunnies Elmer Fudd, who Fiedler oddly resembles. (I wonder if this was intentional.)

The additional story explanations given at the end, Arthur's confusion about the odd events in cottage number 7 just don't make any sense. [Spoiler] Arthur is at first unwilling to rent the cottage out, though keeps the key in full view, and knows full well it's the room his father was drowned in, yet seems unaware and even shocked to learn of the room's unusual occurrences.

Finally, the title "Old Soft Shoe" is a reference to Caruso's soft dance steps, yet his tango is awkward and I can't imagine him ever competing in ballroom (I'm saying this as someone with experience). However, Caruso/Dooley is truly smooth in his approach with women, or so he thinks. Married and seemingly faithful, though flirtatious and wanting so much to be the womanizing road warrior, he is at the end of the day an old soft shoe, a slipper really, lacking danger, mystique and likely not a real threat of infidelity.

A special note on the cast, since each member does an honestly good job with this fairly generic ghost story. Dramatic and comedic character actor Paul Dooley, who was a stand-up comic for many years fits his soft shoes well. John Fiedler has been in just about everything, from 12 Angry Men to Star Trek and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, two The Twilight Zone episodes ("The Night of the Meek" and "Cavender is Coming") as well as two AHP episodes, including the popular Henry Slesar scripted "Incident in a Small Jail." Torontonian Dorothy Parke is simply lovely, and it's too bad she hasn't appeared more on screen. Non-actor Patrick Farrelly with the bit part as the sheriff was among the call-in voices in the episode "The Devil's Advocate."

"The Last Car." (Episode 19: first aired 23 February 1986) Directed by John Strysik, written by Michael McDowell. Starring Begonya Plaza, mary Carver, Louis Guss, Scooter Stevens and Bert Williams. 8/10

Young Stacey is heading home for Thanksgiving, and finding the train awfully crowded, makes her way to the peaceful confines of the last car. "Why is it so empty back here?" she muses, and the friendly old lady tells her it's because the furthest car sways the most, which many find uncomfortable. Stacey settles into a seat, and besides herself and the friendly older lady, the car is occupied by a young boy and an old man. Everyone is a little too agreeable, a little slow even, not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

And then there are the tunnels...

What makes this such a strong little play is not the shocking ending, since we can quickly figure out what's really going on, but the odd characters, each of whom are well portrayed, and those creepy little tunnel episodes. The surreal bits, from the Old Man's replenishing lunch box to the Boy's changing costumes and Mrs. Crane's quick knitting, are all excellent additions to something that could have been just bland, but is happily creepy. Director John Strysik has helmed some of the better Darkside episodes so far, with "Anniversary Dinner" in the first season and "A New Lease on Life" earlier in season two. Here he succeeds in directing the strongest episode of the season.

Members of the cast do a good job all around. Colombian actress Begonia Plaza as Stacey; Mary Carver (Mrs. Cecilia Simon of Simon & Simon) as Mrs. Crane, Louis Guss I thought great as the zombie-like yet strangely sympathetic Old Man; Scooter Stevens is a fine freckled Boy; and Bert Williams is nicely smiley in his brief turn as Conductor.

"A Choice of Dreams." (Episode 20: first aired 4 May 1986) Directed by Gerald Cotts, written by James Houghton from a story by Edward F. Shaver. Starring Abe Vigoda, Ralph Monaco, David Chandler and David Glen. 6/10

"Don't just stand there! Get me a bottle of scotch!"

Mobster Jake Corelli has just learned that he is dying. Having lived with more power than most can imagine, and more money, Corelli is nonetheless impotent in this new twist of events. The doctor makes it clear that he will die, and that the cancer he has will prove to be excruciatingly painful. Yet a mysterious scientist calls on Corelli with an offer of salvation through Afterlife, an invention that offers a kind of immortality: the ability to spend eternity with the happiest of his memories. Of course this comes with a hefty sum, which Corelli is able and willing to pay (for otherwise there would be no episode).

"What are you, some kind of hippy undertaker?"

Like most Darkside episodes I found this to be predictable, yet I did enjoy the progression, the quiet meditation and the suffering Corelli. The wonderful Abe Vigoda is in fine form in this episode, as is Ralph Monaco as right hand man Angelo. The others are a little weak and the laboratory set is less than impressive, but Vigoda and a few good one-liners prevent the episode from ever getting dull.

"Strange Love." (Episode 21: first aired 11 May 1986) Directed by Theodore Gershuny, written by Edithe Swensen (see below at "The Unhappy Medium" for comments on Swensen). Starring Harsh Nayyar, Marcia Cross and Patrick Kilpatrick. 5/10

A vampire love triangle. (The title, "Strange Love," is out of place in an era when love between mortals and vampires is, unfortunately, all too common.) In 1935, vampire Edmund Alcott drags physician Philip Carrol to the aid of his wife Marie who has broken her knee while dancing. We learn that times are tough and it's hard to find good, clean blood (it is, after all, during the Great Depression), so the doctor is essentially held captive and should do nicely for supper. Complications arise when the good doctor and his patient start developing feelings for each other. (Personally I find this odd, since though I love meat, I've never fallen for my steak enough to want to spare it, let alone make out with it.)

Yet that is only one of several problems with this ill-thought-out episode. The first main problem is that a superhuman vampire suffers a serious injury so easily (you'd think after hundreds of years of practice they'd be able to get their steps down). Yet they are desperate for a doctor to come and care for the wound, whereas the knee heals all by itself in no time. (But what the hell, we have a set-up for romance, don't we?) The second main problem is the choice of costume and make-up: we learn on sight that these archetypal figures are bloodsuckers, so that when the fangs are revealed there is absolutely no surprise. (Alcott is evidently modelled after Bela Lugosi.)

A dull and predictable episode, which would have ended better with an additional twist: Marie turns out to be have been the one to turn Edmund, hinting that every half-century or so she seeks a new mate, tired of the old. But that was not to be and so our generic ending remains for all eternity. (Like a vampire this episode is, sucking the universe of logic and good sense.)

It can be argued that, though the good doctor is turned into a vampire, this is a happy ending since they find love, while the evil vampire dies. I must add that there is an additional attempt at making Marie likable by revealing that she does not drink human blood, only the blood of animals. (Something much touted as of late with a ridiculously popular vampire series.) Edmund is made so unlikable (and unattractive) that one wonders what Marie ever saw in him, and I must add that versatile Indian actor Harsh Nayyar is a little irritating in this role, while Patrick Kilpatrick is a wuss who later becomes demented, it seems.

The best thing about this episode is the elegant and beautiful Marcia Cross, who delivers a fine performance made better by her absolutely wondrous knee.

"The Unhappy Medium." (Episode 22: first aired 18 May 1986) Directed by Dusty Nelson, written by Edithe Swensen. 2/10

Televangelist Farley Bright (Peter Miller) is dead and three people are gathered to view his video will (appropriate for someone who has made his fortune through the medium). His sister Caroline (Connie Stevens) wants the estate and to amass an additional fortune by taking over the business; associate Jonathan Reed (Richard Kuhlman, who is to appear in a season four episode) wishes to take on the role of tele-preacher; niece and Caroline's daughter Jenny (Carolyn Ann Clark) wants to donate the money to a humanitarian cause.

This is the second straight episode penned by Edithe Swensen, and the third in the series from a total of ten Darkside episodes. As the show progresses, Swensen will go on to prove that her attempts at humour tend to fall flat. Her first season episodes are lighter affairs, dealing with tricksters who lose the fight against good, and in this sense her scripts generally have happy endings. Of the first three this is by far the weakest, though none are good. Still early in her career, Swensen will go on and write some fine television, with six episodes of Monsters, one for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and five episodes for the excellent Odyssey 5.

There isn't much to say about this one. The evangelist is caught in limbo with the devil chasing his tail, and he uses Jenny to tell everyone (including the bored viewer) what's really going on, and to yell some threats out. Hence the title, as Jenny is an unhappy medium. Kind of like a puppet on strings. Characters open doors that look into Heaven and Hell, and all we see are smoky neon lighting, with Hell in red and Heaven in an odd, cold blue rather than a warm gold. The ending is silly but then again so is the beginning and those parts in between, and the only thing worth watching is that brief moment when Connie Stevens struggles with a painting, believing there is a safe hidden behind it. There is something charming about that handful of seconds.

"Fear of Floating." (Episode 23: first aired 25 May 1986) Directed by John Lewis, written by Donald Wollner from a story by Scott Edelman. Starring Lex Luthor, General Jonathan Krantz and Lisa Simpson. 4/10

In the middle of a tremendous heat wave in dusty Arizona, a man wearing heavy shoes (Sherman Howard, Lex Luthor from Superboy) rushes into a military recruiting house where two soldiers, Corporal Marcia Smith (Anne Lange) and Master Sergeant Buzz Caldwell (Leon Russom, Krantz from Prison Break) are on the verge of losing their senses amid the heat and boredom. The stranger, however, is seeking not a military career, but sanctuary from the crazed members of a circus he has just fled from. Well, it becomes clear that this person is a fibber, but more so, he has a special, uncontrollable talent, which is that without the weighted shoes he will float. And I mean float; not fly or glide, just soar uncontrollably like a helium balloon.

The odd premise, unique setting intermingled with its theme of becoming "grounded" by taking responsibility for one's actions could have worked nicely, but it doesn't. The problem is that the writers tried to create an amusing comedy when a more serious take on a surreal situation would have suited it better. Think of the excellent first season episode "If the Shoes Fit..." (S1E18)

The acting is fine, with a neat appearance by Yeardley Smith (best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson) and I liked the set quite a bit, with its dated recruiting posters and miscellaneous junk. There are some nice camera shots, with the opening focus on Uncle Sam's poster followed by the neat angle through the ceiling fan (see the shot above) which nicely displays both the neatly cluttered set and the element of heat. Moreover, it manages also to foreshadows the ending. Even the music has a playful military quality. Sadly, "Fear of Floating" is a failed episode that could have been far better.

"The Casavin Curse." (Episode 24: first aired 13 July 1986) Directed by Frank De Palma, written by Edithe Swensen. Starring unknowns Catherine Parks, Joseph Cortese, Scott Lincoln, Julie Ariola and John Brandon. 5/10

If the title hasn't given it away, Gina Casavin is cursed. Or is she? The lovely woman (Catherine Parks) believes she is unable to fall in love, simply because she is convinced that the man she loves will die a horrible death. The episode opens onto a bloody scene, shots of a woman lying by her white, virginal bed, covered in blood, pills on the table, flowers in a vase, a mirror on the wall... everything covered in blood, while a man lies dead at the vanity table, his back slashed open by what appears to be a set of claws. Suddenly there's a knock at the door, a woman calls out some information useful to the viewer, and our lovely, troubled heroine starts to scream: "I killed him!"

I found this episode painfully predictable. Perhaps I have read too many short stories employing a similar trope, with the idea of [spoiler alert] an attractive, innocent woman who is being sheltered by a mean-looking man who intends on marrying her despite the fact that he is her brother (played malevolently by Joseph Cortese). In his efforts he keeps all other men at bay. (Hey, it's Darkside's version of The Barber of Seville, just not as fun to watch.) The thing is, she did kill the guy. Her brother was right all along even though we don't want to believe him since he's such a [expletive]. The idea is that the viewer will automatically believe the woman innocent even though she doesn't believe it herself. The mean guy turns out to be in the right, and love does not prevail over all, but rather vengeance is a more powerful force. There is a little post-twist twist, which was unpredictable yet unnecessary and out-of-nowhere. Though really, the entire episode was not terribly necessary either.


Anonymous said...

You wrote:
"In this room is beautiful ghost Glenda (Dorothy Parke), who believes that Caruso is a man named Teddy."

Just an fiy- I just watched "The Old Soft Shoe" episode of Tales From The Darkside and she called him Harry, not Teddy.

Great job overall, though! I love the concept of what you are doing!


Casual Debris said...

Hi Ed, Thanks for catching this & for pointing it out. I appreciate people helping me out with these reviews. I've just added to the text & am in the process of posting different screen shots.

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