Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tales from the Darkside Season One: Overview & the First Eight

[Edited on 29 June 2010: formatting, new screen shots & more detail on "Slippage."]

This article covers the pilot and the first seven series episodes

For episode 8, please visit here
For episodes 9 through16, please visit here
For episodes 17 through 23, please visit here

Tales from the Darkside is one of several anthology series debuting in the 1980s. The pilot episode aired just in time for Halloween, on October 29th, 1983, with the series beginning a year later on September 30th, 1984. The success of the series, as well as that of HBOs The Hitchhiker, proved that these half-hour anthology series were marketable, and helped generate a genre anthology fever that was brought to its acme in 1985. Darkside was possibly inspired, or made possible, by the long-running British Roald Dahl-inspired series Tales of the Unexpected, bringing the concept to North America.

Produced by Richard P. Rubinstein, George A. Romero & Jerry Golod, the more direct influences, according to Romero, were the once popular, highly entertaining EC Comics (also the inspiration of his earlier collaboration with Stephen King, 1982s Creepshow) and The Twilight Zone. The show ran in syndication, allowing the writers a little more freedom with the "darkside" aspect of the show, so that characters were often defeated by whatever force they were up against, though these characters normally deserved their defeat. (Prime time TV has a history of not allowing the "bad" to "win" at the end, since corporate sponsors who paid for the advertising spots did not with to be associated with "bad." Hitchcock struggled with these issues throughout the ten-year run of his own series.)

With its low budget, episodes were generally set in a single location, and featured few characters. The show also allowed younger directors a crack at making these shorts, and this was also probably a consideration in keeping costs down. Aside from Bob Balaban, many of the directors who worked on the show never ventured far from television.

The show was successful and helped pave the way for additional mystery or fantastical anthologies to be produced for television. The decade's mid-point introduced big-name players into the anthology frenzy, and four series were launched that same season: the first The Twilight Zone revamp, the reworking of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, and the incredibly dull, unoriginal and over-sentimental Stephen Spielberg entry, Amazing Stories. (With a smaller budget, Darkside was nonetheless better received than AS, and the better of the two by a long shot; NBC put a lot into the show as Spielberg was attached to it, though its two-season contract was not renewed as the show performed poorly). While TZ lasted a single season (though a lengthy one with forty-four episodes), AS survived two with a single episode more at forty-five, and AHP and Darkside each aired for four, though the latter produced more episodes with a total of 89 and a pilot, while AHP aired seventy-six plus a two-hour pilot movie. (The Canadian produced Bradbury ran for six seasons, though they were short seasons and the show totalled sixty-five episodes).

The late 80s brought us a couple more fantastical series, with the extremely low budget Canadian Monsters in 1988 and a revamping of Tales form the Crypt in 1989; both had respectable runs. There was also the surprisingly successful Canadian series Friday the 13th which technically was not an anthology since it followed regular main characters, yet each episode focused on a distinctly separate story-line with a fresh set of supporting characters. A pre-Darkside 80s anthology show was 1981s Darkroom, hosted by the wonderful James Coburn. I watched this as a very small kid & while I remember having loved it, I was so small that I remember little, and the online consensus is that the show's half-season was half a season too long.

As with the other anthology series of the 1980s, Darkside had its share of veteran contributors, such as George A. Romero among the production team and scripting the pilot and a couple of additional episodes. The pilot was directed by Bob Balaban (later co-developer & actor in Robert Altman's Gosford Park) and a vast array of familiar (and not yet familiar) actors taking on various roles. Like most anthology series, Darkside is inconsistent, yet despite some truly forgettable episodes, it did manage to produce a solid amount of strong entries, as well a small number of truly innovative episodes, such as "If the Shoes Fit..." (S1E18) and "Going Native" (S4E17).

"Trick or Treat." First aired 29 October 1983. Directed by Bob Balaban. Written by George A. Romero. Starring Bernard Hughes, I.M. Hobson and Max Wright. 7/10

"I never overcharge, I never cheat, but I expect to collect every penny that's due me. That's the secret of my success."

Old miser Gideon Hackles believes he has never in his life received anything for free and has the entire struggling valley community wrapped around his finger, thanks to a collection of IOUs. Each Halloween he invites the valley children to search his house where he has hidden the bundle, and the child who can find it will have his or her family debt wiped away. Though as part of the search each child must face a series of fabricated frights.

Overall a strong, well produced pilot, it features an excellent performance from Bernard Hughes as Hackles and from accountants Mr. Bindle and Mr. Bundle (I.M. Hobson and Max Wright, respectively) in a well conceived and executed opening sequence. It is in fact that opening scene that makes the episode: it does well in presenting Hackles and contains some wonderful humour and some of the best dialog Romero has ever written, along with a great little climax of its own. The scene is well staged and directed, so that despite the episode's somewhat weak ending, it nonetheless remains above average. A great testament is that, like any good play, the opening sequence is well worth re-watching. In addition, the odd mechanisms that Hackles uses to frighten the children are fun to watch, and are nicely foreshadowed by the clock that cleverly activates his shop's open/closed sign. The unfortunate ending spoils the episode a little, though it is thematically appropriate. I must add that despite being such a horrible miser, Barnard Hughes's portrayal and the actual sympathetic script make me feel for the old bastard.

"The New Man." First aired 30 September 1984. Directed by Frank De Palma. Written by Mark Durand from a short story by Barbara Owens. Starring Vic Tayback, Chris Hebert, Kelly Jean Peters and Paul Jenkins. 4/10

At the end of the day Alan Coombs (Vic Tayback) is finishing up some work before heading home when a boy named Jerry appears wanting to accompany him, claiming to be his son. Coombs, however, does not have a young son. Back on the wagon after many hardships, Coombs's family is convinced that he has been drinking again. This episode is quite a mess. The premise is interesting but it does not move from there. Coombs rages on and on about being sober and not having a son named Jerry, and a little ending is tacked on pretending to be a twist when really it is meaningless. Tayback is fine when he is screaming and angry but a little lackluster in the opening, calmer moments, whereas the supporting cast, with the exception of Paul Jenkins as Coombs's boss, are weak. An unfortunate season opener and follow-up to the strong pilot.

"I'll Give You a Million." First aired 7 October 1984. Directed by John Harrison. Written by Mike Durand and David Spiel from a story by Harrison. Starring Keenan Wynn, John Petrie, Bradley Fisher 5/10

"There's nothing like a good old public execution, is there?"

Two highly amoral businessmen have grown incredibly wealthy with their shady dealings, and now, late in life, Wynn offers to buy the sickly atheist Petrie's soul for one million dollars. As an atheist, it's the easiest million he could ever make. Like the previous episode this one starts off well but plummets full-force in the final act, when the writers lost control and went for the downright obvious. What makes this watchable is the performances by the two veteran actors, Keenan Wynn and George Petrie, with Petrie looking appropriately ill (physically and spiritually) and Wynn exceedingly vibrant with that crazed mustache and nutty sideburns. Bradley Fisher appears as the devil, looking like a prissy Goth kid pretending to be a vampire, and comes across unfortunately comical. Fisher will reappear in another small part in the much better episode "No Strings" (S4E5).

[SPOILER: With a different ending this could have been a better episode. The reveal of Wynn's buying the soul as a gamble that Petrie would offer an additional million to buy it back was great, but this is followed by the most generic finish, with a dead Petrie appearing along with the devil, wanting the soul. Petrie's make-up is senseless: he was cremated so would not appear as a corpse, and even if he were buried his death that very morning would not result in such decay. A better ending would have been an additional reveal with Petrie himself having played at death for some other hidden purpose. Sadly wasted.]

"Pain Killer." First aired 14 October 1984. Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Haskell Barkin. Starring Lou Jacobi, Farley Granger and Peggy Cass. 5/10

A man is stricken with severe back problems and though he tries everything, the pain just seems to worsen. Finally he stumbles upon a guaranteed cure, but the hitch is that the cure requires that he perform an act of murder.

To contrast the previous two entries, this one actually starts off slowly and improves in the second half. The first part is like an old-time husband/wife comedy routine, only the jokes are flat, and while the actors do their best, Lou Jacobi's odd and continuous eyeball twirling reveals little and adds nothing to the interplay. Farley Granger, however, is great as Doctor Roebuck, and introduces the neatest half-point twist we've seen so far in the series. The ending too is quite good, and it's just too bad Granger had to perform that evil laugh with thunder & lightning suddenly appearing at the window. Another devil--and there will be many devils in the episoes and seasons to come--though perhaps not as obvious a devil as most. The thunder and lightening and evil laugh were probably intended to add to the element of humour, but since the humour was quite weak, this little moment did little of anything.

"The Odds." First aired 21 October 1984. Directed by James Steven Sadwith. Written by Sadwith from a story by Carole Lucia Satrina. Starring Danny Aiello, Tom Noonan and Robert Weil. 7/10

"I've never been cheated, I've never been broken. I'm still the best."

On a steaming hot day, bookie Tommy Vale receives a visit from a man making large bets on long shots, and winning each bet. Vale soon recognizes him as Lacey, the son of a man who took his life after losing everything he had to Vale. The first overall strong episode since the pilot, it is well written and well acted, particularly Tom Noonan as Bill Lacey with that great goofy laugh, and Danny Aiello makes a great Vale. The simple set in the rundown bar helps to focus the tension on the character dynamic. The best thing about the episode is the ambiguity in the nature of these men, and the question of who is truly responsible for Lacey's death. While Lacey accuses Vale of cleaning him out, Vale tells him that he should have focused more on his family than on his gambling habit, and by killing himself he left that family destitute. Note also that at the beginning, as soon as "the kid" places five hundred on a sure loser, Vale cautions him to try another horse; "I don't want you to get hurt," he says. The ending is good, but while not spectacular, with all its its positive elements, this episode is not one that needs to rely on a twist ending to be enjoyable. In fact, it was so enjoyable that I can even forgive the cheesy effects.

[Oddly the show was on hiatus for the week of Halloween. Perhaps last year's Halloween pilot was supposed to make up the first season's seasonal episode? It's possible that "Trick or Treat" was re-broadcast on the October 28th time-slot, but I can't confirm this just now.]

"Mookie and Pookie." First aired 4 November 1984. Directed by Timna Ranon. Written by Dan Kleinman. Starring Justine Bateman, Tippi Hedren, George Sims and Ron Asher. 3/10

(The only thing creepier than a 1984 model computer is Justine Bateman's blank stare.)

This one's about a pair of fraternal twins, Mookie and Pookie (nicknames, of course), and how brother Pookie dies and leaves sister Mookie instructions to complete a computer program, Mookie soon discovers that dear departed Pookie is somehow "in" the computer. Pretty idiotic, but not the concept (any idiotic concept has the chance of being well produced), but mostly due to dad who is horribly cruel to Susan (that would be Mookie) and tries some idiotic plot to make her believe that Kevin (you guessed it, Pookie) asked him to unplug and sell the computer. That's right, it's Daddy Darkside, and mom tries to keep the peace. This one features Tippi Hedren (from the brilliant film The Birds) and Justine Bateman (from the less than brilliant TV sitcom Family Ties). It gets a rating of 3 only because of the artwork in the house; there's an Escher in Pookie's bedroom.

"Slippage." First aired 4 November 1984. Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by Mark Durand from a story by Michael Kube-McDowell. Starring David Patrick Kelly, Philip Casnoff and Kerry Armstrong. 4/10

"For some reason, known only to forces beyond all of us, the layers of time have steadily been lifted." Apparently this is how commercial artist's speak.

Artist Richard Hall is fading away. First his boss can't find his paycheck, then his application for a new job goes missing, and suddenly he is no longer receiving mail. Soon people seem to be forgetting him. From there it gets worse on more levels than one, leaving me to hope that I will eventually forget this episode. Well, not really; there is a fair amount to learn about how not to make a short play.

This episode fails on a few crucial levels, which is unfortunate because it has potential, and there are some nice touches tossed into the mix. The script is laden with references to Hall's slippage, often in the form of rhetorical questions, from his boss telling him "Wouldn't want anyone around here to think you were slipping, now would we?" and his wife telling him to "Keep calling. I mean, you don't want them to forget you, do you?" Perhaps it's too laden, but either argument, that the weight makes it obvious or that it's all part of the fun, is valid. I like that the episode begins with the artist watching himself in the mirror, and that he is working on an ad campaign for a vacuum (get it?), the "thin air" vacuum. Some touches can also be seen as idiotic or neat: Hall's favourite movie is It's a Wonderful Life (deck the Halls?), a detail followed shortly by his visit to his mother reminiscent of George Bailey, only this version is dull.

One of the episode's main problems is David Patrick Kelly's portrayal of Hall (Kelly was great as the less than passive Sully in Commando). The problem is there is no desperation, not even when his mother won't recognise him. I understand h is passive and that that's part of the point, but even a passive man will grow desperate. There is also an unfortunate scene between Hall's wife Elaine (Kerry Armstrong) and best friend Chris (Philip Casnoff), where Chris awkwardly caresses her and presses her face into his shoulder. The episode is capped off by a ridiculous moment, the front door opening and closing on its own. (I suspect it's the director walking out on the actors.)

The episode does feature a happy ending, for by the end this vacant, spineless and incredibly dull small town boy ceases to exist; a blessing to all who knew him, I'm sure.

"Slippage" was directed by Michael Gornick, his first of four Darksides, which include the ptoblematic "Word Processor of the Gods" (S1E8) and the excellent "Circus" (S3E1). Gornick is the guy behind the mess that is Creepshow 2, and little else. The story idea was likely "inspired" by Richard Matheson's excellent "Disappearing Act" which was filmed for the original The Twilight Zone as "And When the Sky Was Opened."

"Inside the Closet." First aired 18 November 1984. Directed by Tom Savini. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Fritz Weaver, Roberta Weiss, and the first really cool Darkside monster. 7/10

Pretty graduate student Gail Aynsley rents a room from a veterinary scientist Dr. Fenner. The room once belonged to Fenner's daughter, and in it is a tiny closet (reminiscent of Alice's Adventures through the Looking Glass, though not that tiny). Soon Gail, and the viewer, suspect that something is living in there. Creepy indeed. Very well shot and acted, this is the first genuine horror episode since the pilot, featuring some nice chills, great make-up effects (as we'd expect from a Savini project). And since my ratings scheme is objective and scientifically based, this one gets an extra point for the pretty graduate student.

Tom Savini's first of three directorial efforts also introduces the first cool monster. Of course Savini is best known for his make-up effects in Romero's Dead films, and all three of his episodes highlight some fine use of make-up. Directing his make-up work is well done, filming the creature in quick segments at first, covered in dark shadows, heightening our curiosity until finally unafraid to let us see the entire creature in a moment of shock.

Fritz Weaver, is great as the serious Dr. Fenner, and is recognizable from films such as Marathon Man and Creepshow, and numerous TV shows, including two excellent The Twilight Zone episodes ("Third from the Sun" and "The Obsolete Man"). Also well cast is Albertan native Roberta Weiss who is not as recognizable but much prettier (she is best known as Alma in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My favorite episode and perhaps the scariest TV short story I've ever seen. Loved the suspense coupled with the "something under the bed" cliche. And Margaret - so precious!

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