Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season 3: Episodes 1 through 7

[Edited on 1 August 2011: formatting, minor text changes, new screenshots.]

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season three episodes 8 through 16 appear here
Season three episodes 16 through 22 appear here

Season three of Tales from the Darkside is a bit of an oddity. Despite boasting the strongest season opening, as well as in perhaps the greatest Darkside episode of all seasons with "The Geezenstacks," it is by lengths and miles the weakest of the show's seasons. Yes, there were some gems, as with "Everybody Needs a Little Love" and "The Milkman Cometh," but there was also a large emphasis on humour that is painfully unfunny, on angels and devils and dull predictability, bad writing and unfortunate attempts at acting. Some episodes were so dull, in fact, that I wasn't even motivated to capture any screen shots. (But the good ones get two.)

"Circus." (First aired 28 September 1986) Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by George A. Romero from a short story by Sydney J. Bounds. Starring William Hickey, Kevin O'Connor and Ed French. 8/10

"There is always the unexpected, isn't there, Mr. Bragg?" Cynical newspaperman Bragg visits a mysterious side-show circus that boasts as its attractions such legendary terror figures as a vampire, a wolf-man and a re-animated corpse. For the first time in three seasons Darkside gets it right by leading in with a great episode. This is a fine example of a serious episode whose inherent black humour is effective. Especially in its third season, Darkside unfortunately wasted plenty of original or unusual ideas by emphasizing on humour rather than on simply accepting the unusual and focusing on its serious undertones, whether they be grand or simple, straightforward themes.

"Circus" is base upon a short story by English author Sydney J. Bounds, prolific yet mostly forgotten, who was long kept in print through those great Fontana Books of Great Horror Stories and even a few of the New Writings in SF. I haven't read "Circus" but will try to seek out a copy (please let me know if you have one).

"Circus" is an adaptable story with great visual potential, and Darkside seemingly invested more money in this episode than in most others. There is a sparse though well designed set, a good deal of make-up, a pair of dogs, a dead rat, and despite only two speaking parts, there are several onscreen actors/extras. The story is well adapted by Romero, the dialogue dripping in thematic notions of imagination, youth and moral corruption ("Think of the children!"), all tied in with the importance of that sense of wonder that no fact-based paper can provide. The make-up is excellent, from the over-rippled vampire to the dirty lycanthrope and darkly-comical re-animated corpse (essentially Dr. Frankenstein's monster). All of these elements are well supported by strong performances by Kevin O'Connor as Bragg, who is best known for his role as Woody in the indie Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and William Hickey as Dr. Nis, and a great bit-part by David Thornton as the werewolf.

"Perhaps my circus does provide some useful service. And as for the children... what better time to develop a sense of wonder than one's youth, before it's too late."

"I Can't Help Saying Goodbye." (First aired 5 October 1986) Directed by John Strysik. Written by Jule Selbo from a story by Ann MacKenzie. Starring Brian Benben, Loren Cedar, Alison Sweeney and Helen Duffy. 3/10

Little Karen seems to know when someone is about to die, and can't help but say goodbye. Needless to say creeping everyone out in the process. This episode may have worked but the pacing is completely off; it takes too long to get to the premise, with several minutes of filler chatter in an attempt to make us care for the characters. Moreover, the poor acting, terrible music and terribly used music (the girl has her own theme) make "Goodbye" an incredible disappointment as a follow-up to the excellent "Circus." The ending could work, and could work well in illustrating that the girl is merely a victim not only of her "gift" but of the creeped-out people around her. Unfortunately, by the time we arrive to the last frame, we just don't care how it'll end. Goodbye... Goodbye...

"The Bitterest Pill." (First aired 12 October 1986) Directed by Bryan Michael Stoller. Written by Jule Selbo (yet again, to my dismay) from a story by science fiction veteran Frederik Pohl. Starring some average people. 2/10

A family wins a lottery prize of ten million dollars and are hounded by people wanting them to finance their projects; so intensely hounded that they need to hire their own private security guard who remains stationed at the front door. Now, with ten million you think the family could move into a place a little more secure than your average middle-class suburban house. Or get a security guard with some muscle. Well, I suppose less intimidating security is required, since good security would have kept Uncle Tinker out, and we wouldn't have had an episode and we would've been better off.

So, in comes Uncle Tinker (Mark Blankfield) with his latest invention: a pill that opens up the subconscious so that a person has instant recall. I'm not terribly familiar with the works of prolific science fiction and fantasy author Frederik Pohl, so I can't imagine what his original take on the idea was, but the situation it is worked into here is not the most effective in illustrating its various possibilities. The episode is painfully unfunny, poorly acted and is one of the truly darker blemishes of Darkside's entire run.

The short story was first published in Galaxy Magazine, April 1959.

"Florence Bravo." (First aired on 19 October 1986) Directed by John Lewis. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Lori Cardille, David Hayward, Carol Levy and Lauren Klein. 6/10

"It's a very colourful story."

The episode credits open to a room with covered furniture, the white dust sheets immediately implying the presence of a ghost. As the credits end and the camera settles on some grimy French doors, a young agent appears to show the unoccupied house to Dr. David McCall (David Hayward) and his wife Emily (Lori Cardille, Sarah from Romero's Day of the Dead), and as they exit Act I, the boom mike is clearly visible on the top left corner. We soon learn (thanks partly to the mike) that Emily had a recent breakdown, and so the couple is here to recover, wishing to start their lives afresh. Yet how can they, as the couple soon becomes a trio when the expected ghost appears, one Florence Bravo, a feminist of the days of yore. A good episode despite its predictability, the fact that Dr. McCall is a dead ringer for Geraldo Rivera, and I doubt that old rusted gun would have worked.

"The Geezenstacks." (First aired on 26 October 1986) Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Nancy Doyne from a short story by Frederic Brown. Starring Craig Wasson, Tandy Cronin, Larry Pine, Lana Hirsch and Stephanie Cassel. 9/10

"Sometimes people get confused about dolls."

Uncle Richard gives little Audrey a gorgeous doll house that was left abandoned in a deserted people house. Audrey is immediately taken by the neat little dolls and their nice home, and right off the bat refers to the family as the Geezenstacks. Learned it directly from them, she insists. "Here's Mr. Geezenstack, here's Mrs. Geezenstack, here's little Audrey Geezenstack and here's Uncle Richard." Mother Edith believes Audrey is just imagining as children do, but father Sam feels there is something truly odd about the little house and its creepy inhabitants.

If only other Darkside episodes were half as good as "The Geezenstacks." This fine little play stands out on so many levels, and it's great that this was aired as the Halloween episode for 1986. First off, the dolls and their house are just gorgeous; even I would own a set. The plot progression, script adaptation by Nancy Doyne from a superb short story by Frederic Brown combine for solid story-telling. (Indeed, many of Brown's original stories made it to television, including four episodes of the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents and two for Tales of Tomorrow, as well as a story credit for the popular Star Trek episode "Arena.") Moreover, there is some fine cinematography and good camera work, but what truly brings this above the mold is the excellent music, that wonderfully creepy semi-tonal string music (to replace the awful synthesized music of most other Darkside episodes). The strings begin in simple repetitive form, but soon increases in complexity and intensity, and moreover is even enhanced in contrast to Audrey's screechy violin practice.

As far as story is concerned, there are so many interesting elements that keep the suspense mounting and the ending unpredictable. We follow Sam Hummell as he suspects something odd about the dolls and about little Audrey's relationship to them. It's their eyes, certainly, nearly human and staring right at you, but it's also Audrey's intense playing, her wanting to punish them for misbehaving, her insistence that she just knows things about them. Craig Wasson is well cast as Sam Hummell. He plays the part with an almost comic air, the businessman father who is naive of home matters, who dotes on his daughter as a sitcom dad would dote on the baby girl of the family. But when his baby girl becomes a little creepy, and he tries poorly, as an unpracticed dad would, to communicate with her, his comedic smile and eyeball stare are replaced by utter terror, frazzled hair and pleading, fear-infused eyes.

There is a stunning scene when Sam rises in the middle of the night and heads downstairs to see the dollhouse. Perhaps the minute is filler but it is incredibly well done, nicely dark and methodical, allowing that great music to shine through the mounting suspense. And that ending is just fabulous. Perhaps the best Darkside episode of any season.

"Sam's gotten all wound up about those dolls."

"Black Widows." (First aired on 2 November 1986) Directed by Karl Epstein. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Margaret O'Brien, Audrey Webster, Paul Eiding and Joe D'Angerio. 6/10

The humour almost works in this one, though the concept is far greater than the execution. Audrey Webster lives with her shut-in mother Mildred in a mobile home. While Ashley heads off to work, excited about her upcoming wedding, Mildred sits at home watching TV and chatting with the Reverend Joy and whatever unlucky salesman happens to come by. Unlucky because, unbeknown to her daughter, Mildred is an arachnid.

This episode features some interesting (yet unimportant) events. It is one of the few episodes to open with an outdoor establishing shot, though many remaining season three episodes use the same set-up. Second week in a row the daughter's name is Audrey, who in this case is played by an actress named Audrey. As for the cast, Mildred is played by legendary Margaret O'Brien, the memorable Tootie from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Beth from the great Little Women (1949) and many other films and television appearances. Moreover, frequent voice actor Paul Eiding as Reverend Joy is a pleasure to watch.

"Heretic." (First aired on 9 November 1986) Directed by Gerald Cotts. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Roberts Blossom, Bruce MacVittie, Michael O'Hare and Alan Scarfe. 3/10

Sleazy medieval art dealer Harte receives his latest (stolen) prize: a sixteenth century tempera painting with a lovely scene re-enacting a moment of the inquisition. Since this is an episode of Darkside, we immediately expect our protagonist to get trapped in the painting. Lo and behold there is lots of smoke and a figure appears to take Harte to the inquisition, where the kindly Inquisitor gives him a chance to redeem himself. This is where the episode moves from being bland to being plain idiotic: Harte believes the magic and the warning, is absolutely terrified of the punishment should he fail to change, and yet despite being pursued by magic, he tries to pack a suitcase and flee. Yes, an actual earthly suitcase, as though it can ward off both magic and the evils of the Inquisition. Of course, as we have learned over the course of the series, people cannot change. And as we have come to expect, the characters suffer their horrible fates regardless of logic or sense.

Another weak, paint-by-numbers episode. The idea is not too original, yet in a medium lacking in originality, the problem here is that it is not originally done. Camera work and directing are tired, and the acting (excepting Roberts Blossom as the Inquisitor) is quite poor, with Bruce MacVittie giving us a generic rising bad guy in Harte.


Inukioo said...

Loving these detailed reviews with insight into the sources of episodes and other appearances/histories of the actors.

I noticed you hadn't read the story which Circus was based upon at the time of this review. If you're interested, I managed to find the story available in an book preview!

It's a short enough story that you can read it for free on the google book preview:

Casual Debris said...

Thank you Inukioo for the kind words & for pointing out the Bounds story. I'll certainly try to get around reading it soon & might even post a review (with due credit to you).

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