Friday, June 10, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Four: Episodes 1 through 7

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season three begins here

Season four episodes 8 through 13 appear here
Season four episodes 14 through 20 appear here

"Beetles." (First aired 27 September 1987) Directed by Frank De Palma. Written by Robert Bloch from his short story . Starring Rob McCary, Sirri Murad, Donald MacKechnie and Colm Meaney. 6/10

It's April of 1936, and American Egyptologist Arthur Hartley is in England conducting research on an ancient sarcophagus he has recently unearthed (unsanded, to be specific). Only, rather than conduct research, he is more interested in the valuable jewels the mummy is supposed to be concealing. In walks Egyptian Hammid Bey, warning him not to touch the artifacts; they belong to Khepri, the beetle god of ancient Egypt (though it sounds as though he says "Kefra"). Yet Hartley nonetheless opens the coffin, as well as its mummy, to search for the precious stones he is certain are within. Shortly after committing this sacrilege, he is beginning to see beetles crawling throughout his home, across his pillow at night, in his cup of tea, and so forth. Is there indeed a curse involving beetles, as the images on the mummy imply? Will George, John, Paul and Ringo make an appearance? Will Hartley die a horrible death à la Darkside?

This is the Third Darkside adaptation of a Robert Bloch story (following Season One's "A Case of the Stubborns" and Season Two's "Everybody Needs a Little Love"), and it is easily the weakest of triad. Bloch's early, often generic stories from the 1930s, when he was interested in Egyptology and still under the influence of H.P. Lovecraft's work, deal with ancient spells and curses, whether Egyptian or Lovecraftian, and among those early stories, "Beetles" is probably the best (it was published in the December 1939 issue of Weird Tales). Unfortunately it loses a good deal in the translation to Darkside, mainly due to the humdrum restrictive devices of television (and especially of low budget TV). As with many Darksides, there are few characters and a single location, so information is often relayed through soliloquy, either a character talking/thinking aloud, or on the phone. Sometimes this works, often it doesn't, and here Bloch fails at constructing a convincing monologue, with Hartley unnecessarily resorting at times to state the obvious: "The jewels must have been here all the time!" Add to this some terrible British & cockney accents in the opening scene ("Can I give you a 'and, Govna?"), tedious pacing and predictability.

Yet there are some good touches that make the episode nonetheless watchable. Rod McCary is well cast as Hartley, looking the part of the 1930s archaeologist, and the reliable Colm Meaney delivers a great cameo as a constable. There is some good piano music (though it is more suitable for a saloon across the Atlantic), which is nicely contrasted with the requisite Egyptian music (Hammid Bey appears playing a wind instrument, and I'm not sure what this is supposed to imply; is he calling the beetles forth?). The set is well constructed despite continuity problems with the liquor bottle and glass, and there is a good mummy amid the clutter. There's also a neat visual transition from the mummy's face to Hatley's early on. The greatest achievement, however, are the great looking beetles, and a powerful final image that, though nowhere as powerful as the short story's finally, nonetheless rescues the episode from total average-ness.

"Mary, Mary." (First aired 4 October 1987) Directed by Katarina Wittich. Written by Jule Selbo. Starring Margaret Whitton and her mannequin. 7/10

"We of the popular club have a lot of work to do."

Lonely Mary Jones, surrounded by stuffed animals and other fake models of the living, tries to experience life through a mannequin. Professional photographer, Mary is able to beautify the hunk of plastic and film it so that she can send videos out to some mid-1980s dating agency. Yet when a good-looking neighbour catches a glimpse of her through the window and tries to make contact, lonely Mary is terribly afraid. Is handsome stranger David attracted to her, or is he also taken in by the mannequin? The double-barreled title alludes nicely to this dilemma: which Mary is the one receiving this unexpected attention?

"Mary, Mary," quite contrary to its IMDb rating, works nicely for me. It took me over half the episode to figure out how the play will end, though much of the credit for this goes to the ability the episode has in making me root for its title character. Played superbly by stage director and stage and film actress Margaret Whitton, my desire for Mary to overcome her shyness was truly sincere, and that moment as she tries on the various dresses, trying to put on some make-up, is devastating. Whitton's face is expressive and her voice well controlled so that her entire performance is engaging, especially the second time around (as I was searching for a neat shot to post). It is also ironic that Mary is a professional photographer with the ability to beautify a mannequin, since she is completely aware of the importance of surface appearance, and tragically unable to find a dress that can give her even a modicum of confidence so she can leave that cluttered apartment.

Director Katarina Wittich was assistant director on a some of Romero's projects, including several Darkside episodes. Wittich is only the third woman to have directed for Darkside, and it's possible that this episode works because of a woman's hand. Mary's loneliness and insecurities come out sympathetically; she is a victim of her ordinariness. The ending also works [spoiler] in that we can argue she does not transform into a mannequin, but has pushed herself into a tragic form of stasis due to her inability to act with confidence. Her desperate need to change and her crippling inability do so simply freezes her, and the result is a kind of plasticizing coma.

The Spirit Photographer." (First aired 11 October 1987) Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Mark Patrick Carducci & Brian Thomas Jones. Starring Frank Hamilton, Richard Clarke and "Screaming" Terres Unsoeld. 5/10

Paranormal investigator Algernon Colesbury has bought the most infamous haunted house in New Haven, and sets up a "spirit attractor," a machine that, well, attracts spirits. He is attempting to take the first ever clear photo of a spirit (none of that fuzzy Loch Ness stuff). His old rationalist friend Harry Bainsbridge believes that Algernon's work so far has been a hoax, and has no faith that he will succeed. The viewer knows, of course, that there are indeed spirits in this house, and moreover that Algernon is in danger. The episode is a little slow and we must again watch a character speak aloud to himself, though really he is making an important recording. The opening sequence between the two contrary friends is required to quickly bring us to the meat of the plot, yet despite its clear expository nature, it is well written and makes for a good opening scene. Actors Frank Hamilton as Algernon and Richard Clarke as Harry are enjoyable to watch.

The ending oddly switches the genre from suspense ghost story to light comedy, though strangely it works. Perhaps it works because the ghost Lenore is a joke: the suspense builds up but when she appears, a spirit so evil and frightening that she has destroyed many men, she gives the impression of bad actress playing a witch at a child's Halloween show. This is truly unfortunate, for a slightly better conceived and/or acted ghost could have improved the episode significantly. Her name, Lenore, is likely borrowed from Poe.

"The Moth." (First aired 18 October 1987) Directed by Jeffrey Wolf. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Deborah Harry and Jane Manning. 5/10

A duel is played out between a woman and her dead daughter. Thing is, daughter Sybil is a witch and has died from wounds incurred through meddling in the lives of others. Before expiring, Sybil convinces her mother to seal her soul in a jar, and that soul manifested in the form of a moth. Well, mother regrets having done as Sybil wished, and tries to confuse the corpse in order to prevent it from getting to her soul. This one could have been excellent, but the items mother sets about the room are not too convincing, and the witch's ease in getting through some of the items is confusing. What the mother is even up to at the beginning is not immediately clear, so we are not given the opportunity to build suspense in relation to the duel itself.

Popular band Blondie's lead singer Deborah Harry received her first notable acting opportunity in David Cronenberg's Videodrome. Here she plays Sybil (perhaps a role that should have been offered to Stevie Nicks), and plays her well, I suppose, though nothing incredibly demanding is required. Harry later appeared in the 1990 Darkside movie version, creatively titled Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. Her mother is played by one Jane Manning, who is a little uneven. The set is quite good but the script hampers this one considerably.

"No Strings." (First aired 25 October 1987) Directed and written by David Odell. Starring T, J. Castronova, Barry Dennen, Cameron Milzer and Bradley Fisher. 7/10

"I'm your puppet, yes it's true! I'll do anything you want me to."

Mob leader Eddie Minelli is celebrating his latest achievement: he is now the sole head of his area's organized crime, since he has recently killed his partner, Don Paulie. To celebrate, Minelli has brought in famous puppeteer Aldo to perform a private show. Unfortunately for Aldo he was brought in without consent, though worse is the fact that Minelli wants him, despite girlfriend Tiffany's hysterics, to use as his puppet the recently belated Don Paulie.

Great horror with an original concept. Among the few Darkside episodes that can be truly categorized as modern horror, it is great that the makers were able to get away with filming the horrific concept, including a sequence during which Minelli's henchman Nicky is preparing Don Paulie's corpse. The cast is fairly unknown, with T.J. Castronova as Minelli and Barry Dennen as Aldo; they all do a fine job for TV, despite some wonky New York accents and Cameron Milzer's annoying whining as girlfriend Tiffany. The horror and tension lessens a tad when a supernatural element is introduced, since the early part is wielded to realism, but it is still a good episode, the best so far from Season Four.

"The Grave Robber." (First aired 1 November 1987) Directed by Jeff Schiro. Written by Howard Waldrop and Donald Wollner from a story by Waldrop. Starring Arnold Stang, Polly Draper, Daren Kelly and Ed Kovens. 5/10

An archaeologist and his assistant are led to a secretly discovered Egyptian tomb whose contents they wish to steal for profit. They discover, of all things, a mummy (bet you didn't expect that twist) who awakens, kills their expendable stereotypical guide and promises the Americans a painful death. Assistant Aileen proves to be clever, and gets the mummy to play strip poker in order to escape. An almost amusing episode with a good, energetic performance by comedian Arnold Stang as the mummy Tapok. Throw in a few amusing lines, and of the mostly forgettable comedic episodes, this one is actually watchable. Too bad, however, that two episodes featuring Egyptology appear so close together.

"The Yattering and Jack." (First aired 8 November 1987) Directed by David Odell. Written by Clive Barker from his own story. Starring Phil Fondacaro, Antony Carbone, Thomas Newman and Danielle Brisebois. 5/10

A diminutive, angry daemon known as a yattering is wreaking havoc at the home of happy pickle salesman Jack Polo on Christmas Eve. His daughter drops by for an unexpected visit, and the craziness intensifies as they try to evade what appears to be a poltergeist. The viewer soon learns, however, through the appearance of that Darkside favourite, the Expository Devil, that the yattering was sent to capture Jack's soul, and MUST NOT FAIL. Moreover, it can do anything short of touching our hero, for if it were to touch Jack, it would forever be his slave.

This episode is yet another near miss. The main problem is that it cannot decide whether it's a comedy or a horror; that opening scene with the yattering appearing in the cracked mirror was a good bit of shock suspense, but the turkey flying up to the Christmas tree made me wonder if Terries Gilliam & Jones were responsible. Another scene that weakened the whole was the appearance of that devilish expository Beelzebub. Too many Darkside episodes relied on the devil to appear in order to explain to the viewer the plot points they need to know in order to progress the story and often to generate an ending. ("Whatever you do, don't touch the salesman!" Of course he will touch him.)

Other items add to the confusion. [spoiler here] Jack seems genuinely confounded by the destruction, claiming there is a poltergeist, or perhaps he is going mad, yet it turns out he is aware of all the finer details of the "haunting." It turns out that Jack is important to Beelzebub, so I wonder, why give such an important task to such a stupid, temperamental imp?

As far the cast is concerned, Phil Fondacaro is great as the yattering, and Antony Carbone is charming as Jack (Carbone appeared on the original The Twilight Zone episode "Mirror, Mirror"). The others are fine, I guess. This is David Odell's second directing stint on Darkside, the first being the excellent "No Strings" which he also wrote (his writing career includes less memorable works such as Supergirl, Masters of the Universe, and also the acclaimed The Dark Crystal, none of which I have seen).

"The Yattering and Jack" is among Clive Barker's Books of Blood stories, which are known for their ingenuity and even their violence and horrific concepts. Likely the originally work has less of Monty Python and more of Hellraiser.

Finally, there is an ancient Pepsi bottle on the side table, just inside the den, circa 1987.

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