Monday, June 27, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season Four: Episodes 14 through 20

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season Three begins here
Season Four episodes 1 through 7 appear here
Season Four episodes 8 through 13 appear here

"The Cutty Black Sow." (First aired 8 May 1988) Directed by Richard Glass. Written by Michael McDowell from a story by Thomas F. Monteleone. Starring Huckleberry Fox, Mary Griffin and Paula Trueman. 7/10

Before she dies on All-Hallows-Even, Jamie's Scottish grandmother grumbles about the Cutty Black Sow, that creature that appears on Halloween night to take the soul of a family member in the household that has seen a death. Jamie is the only one who believes her, records her deathbed rantings, and makes preparations to protect the family from the legendary monster. A good, suspenseful episode, but the pacing is just a little uneven and drags at some points. The episode works thanks to good cinematography, the use of darkness, shadows and flickering lights, and thanks to the young actors. The kids are very well cast, Huckleberry Fox as the believing and determined Jamie, and Mary Griffin as his photogenic sister Gloria (who also appeared in the amusing Monsters episode "Parents from Space"). In fact, the kids are so believable as older brother and younger sister that the viewer truly wishes they come to no harm, and this becomes an excellent example of the importance of casting. The episode was also Paula Trueman's final screen appearance; she had a small part in season two episode, "Monsters in My Room." Her performance as the dying grandmother is truly effective. The ending is sort of predictable, but it does not come across predictably, making its final moment quite effective as well.

"Do Not Open This Box." (First aired 15 May 1988) Directed by Jodie Foster. Written by Bob Balaban and Franco Amurri. Starring Eileen Heckart, William LeMassena and Richard B. Shull. 7/10

Unlucky and simple inventor Charles Pennywell accidentally receives a box in the mail containing the inscription "DO NOT OPEN THIS BOX." He wishes to comply, but his wife Rose, a bitter and selfish materialistic woman, assumes there are valuables of some kind within, and promptly disobeys. Well, the box is empty, but the postman soon appears asking for it to be returned, claiming that he would give anything -- ANYTHING -- to have it back. Of course, Mrs. Pennywell takes advantage.

This is a great episode based on a classic scenario, and good writing, direction and acting make for an even-paced, suspenseful story. Directed by multi-talented Jodie Foster, her directorial debut, and co-written by Bob Balaban, director of the series pilot, as well as actor, writer and director of a number of other projects, who was also involved in the production of the excellent Gosford Park. It is clear that special attention went into this episode as it was produced with care, filmed with patience, allowing the actors to act so everything comes across naturally. The set is a nice, cluttered basement, as any inventor's basement should be, and we can even forgive the fact that the postman comes in by the cellar door rather than the front door, where you would think mail is normally delivered. (Of course it is just easier to produce the low budget series by keeping everything as contained as possible.) Eileen Heckart is excellent as Rose, while William LeMassena is super-sympathetic as Charles, and both are well balanced by Richard B. Shull as the unconventional postman.Link
Now, we can find some fault with the character dynamics. Kind Charles puts up with overbearing Rose, but are Rose's complaints so invalid? She is stuck at home while Charles fails at inventing; perhaps Charles should be husband to his wife, take her out once in a while, pay some attention to her rather than just involve himself with his inventions. Any woman--any person--would become bitter after years of neglect. Poor Rose has been suffering punishment all her life, only to be punished once more. Now, we can also speculate that she has always been this way and manipulated or somehow guilted Charles into marrying her, but there just isn't enough textual evidence to support this. Relationship vagueness aside, a truly fine episode.

"Family Reunion." (First aired 22 May 1988) Directed by Tom Savini. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Stephen McHattie, Patricia Tallman, Daniel Terence Kelley and Marilyn Rockafellow. 7/10

"What's behind that door, Mr. Perry?"

Robert Perry is in a rented house with his son Bobby. He's taken Bobby here to keep him safe, locking him up and away from the boy's mother. The thing is, Bobby is a werewolf, and Robert is worried he'll harm his own mother. But mother Janice has found them, and with the help of a social worker is determined to get her boy back.

Finally Edithe Swensen gets it right; her final of ten Darkside scripts, which includes some of the series' lower points, this one packs a punch. Though I wouldn't give Ms. Swensen credit for its impact; Tom Savini's make-up and direction are excellent, as is busy Nova Scotian actor Stephen McHattie's performance as protective father Robert Perry. The other performances are strong as well, with Marilyn Rockafellow doing a great job in the small part as family services employee Trudy.

There are so many small things that make this episode so much fun to watch. Savini is not only great at doing make-up, he proves himself to be great at revealing his make-up. We witness Bobby transforming through his shadows against the wall, and we see the creature behind so much darkness, little bits of boy and monster appearing in fragments. We keep getting hints at his wolfish appearance with tricks of light and sharp editing, and yet when we finally see him in full lycanthropic guise, we are not disappointed. The build-up is great without taking away from the final revelation. Savini also adds some nice, self-referential decor to Bobby's room. the boy reads Fangoria #47, the 1985 cover that features Savini's make-up for George A. Romero's Day of the Dead. On the boy's wall is a poster of Romero's 1982 Creepshow, a film not only make-upped by Savini, but that also features him in a cameo role as a garbage collector. There's also a nice transition from the full moon to the boy's face, the moment that confirms our suspicions that he is a werewolf.

Another nice touch is Trudy's ashtray cleaning. When Janice is sitting in her office the first time, Trudy wipes the ashtray her visitor has just crushed a cigarette, though Janice simply lights another. Now despite the nice, nearly unnoticeable moment, there is a continuity error with the same ashtray. When the camera first lights upon the scene, Janice is crushing her cigarette in the tray. The camera then cuts to Trudy, and there is a lit cigarette in the same tray. We then cut back to Janice is holding a fresh, unlit cigarette, which quickly Trudy lights for her. Minor detail, of course. There are more serious problems with the episode though, which are in Swensen's script.

[Spoiler] Janice's interview with Trudy makes the ending too obvious by letting us know she was injured along with Bobby on a trip to Ireland. Though we can also figure it out a little later through Janice's unnatural strength. Now, if Janice is that strong, that desperate to get bobby back and knows where Robert is keeping him hid, why can she not just walk over, do away with hubby and take custody of her little boy? Why does she need Trudy with her? And what is the point of the magistrate? Trudy tells Janice that a magistrate will arrive at the house, and yet it is odd that the magistrate should visit on official business so late at night. Maybe that's a trend in this unnamed town, since Trudy herself in still in her office. When they arrive at the house there is no magistrate, an individual never mentioned again, yet they enter anyway (illegally). So what is the point of that character? It's a way of getting Janice and Trudy to the house during a full moon, and a lazy way at that. Trudy is needed so that we can get some back story from Janice, but the episode would have made more sense if perhaps Janice uses Trudy to find out where they live, since with her strength she can barge into the house at any time. The way the script is pieced together makes for utter silliness, but thanks to Savini's skill, fine acting and great overall production values, it is a great episode.

"Going Native." (First aired 19 June 1988) Directed by Andrew Weiner. Written by Theodore Gershuny from a story by Weiner. Starring mostly Kim Greist, along with John Aprea, Cynthia David, Richard Kuhlman, Pamela Kenny, Alison Sweeney and lots of people in photographs. 8/10

"They have an expression here. Losing... your... mind."

We all feel alienated from time to time, a character says, but she doesn't realise how much this statement relates for Claire. The thing is, Claire is from another world, metaphorically and literally; she cannot relate to others since she comes from another planet. Her mission here is to studying Earth's natives, and at this she is diligent, photographing everything and, to understand us humans better, joining a social group. Members of this group (referred to simply as "Group") gather to express and release emotion, from hurt to rage, in an attempt to better understand themselves and those around them. In an attempt to better function in society. A great way to study human emotion, yet for Claire it also involves a risk.

"Stupid. Stupid. I should not have joined the Group."

A story told through the point of view of an alien living among us for the purpose of studying us has been done before. Immediately I think of that fun Robert Silverberg short story, "The Reality Trip." It is an idea, however, with a lot of promise, and with "Going Native" the idea reaches a pinnacle. Focusing primarily on human emotion, "Going Native" shows us up as primarily emotional creatures, but also portrays the ridiculousness of how we try to rationalize those emotions. Other human elements are touched upon through appalled alien eyes, such as human materialism and the power of media, asking the important question: "Who dictates these images?"

The concept works because the production values are excellent. This is like a short, experimental film by talented, emerging artists, or a successful graduate film project, something willing to take risks and investing fully in its idea. The script by Darkside regular Theodore Gershuny is top-notch, seemingly made up of broken sentences that are nonetheless inter-related. There is dark humour imbedded in these short lines. Group member Lee is pounding on a pillow, yelling at it, hurling insults at it, then stops, short of breath, and Group leader Amy asks, "Are you finished with your wife?" Later Amy says to Claire, "I'd like you to put your mother on the pillow."

There are good visual contrasts. Claire's studio is dark, so dark that details are difficult to make out, while the group meeting area is overly bright, the glare almost painful. (These contrasts made it difficult to capture a decent image for this review, but I so wanted to include one.) Contrast is used also to highlight human inconsistency, as when Claire, having slept with Lee, wonders how someone filled with so much anger can be so tender. Camera angles are great, and the photos Claire takes of everything and everyone are excellent. Sound is well used too, especially as a soundtrack to the studio photography slideshow.

The attractive Kim Greist is great as Claire. Greist is best known as Jill Layton, Jonathan Price's love interest in the excellent Terry Gilliam film Brazil; unfortunately she appears to have abandoned acting somewhere around 2001. Her cold, dry delivery is great, especially when she is trying to pretend emotion as an emotionless being ("YeeeEEESS?"), a difficult thing to pull off. And the way she looks at the people around her, intently and expectantly, like a child and yet looking down on them. Her climactic scene is fantastic, her body language sharp, and her voice work in narrating the episode is also good. John Aprea is good as soap opera actor Lee, delivering his lines well; it helps that his lines are well written as it's evident he is comfortable with them. Even that sleaze Claire picks up at the bar is good in a bit part.

This is the last of the great, unconventional risk-taking Darkside episodes, and from that unique bunch, it is also the best.

"Hush." (First aired 10 July 1988) Directed by Allen Coulter. Written by John Harrison from a story by Zenna Henderson. Starring Nile Lanning, Eric Jason and Bonnie Gallup. 7/10

With her inventor husband out of town, Beth Warren goes out to "a reception down at the high school" (aka to meet her lover), and babysitter Jennifer must take care of lonely, sickly Buddy. Buddy is productive in his loneliness. Learning no doubt from his father, he built a few little machines from household scraps. One of these is a "noise eater," a machine that looks like a run-down vacuum cleaner that is attracted to noise and essentially quiets it. When the machine runs amok, Buddy and Jennifer must be absolutely still, or risk being silenced themselves.

Chase episodes have been attempted for a few shows, and the idea was likely inspired by the Richard Matheson scripted "The Invaders" for The Twilight Zone, an episode almost wholly devoid of dialogue. The chase in "Hush" is inventive, which alone is impressive since chase episodes for any TV series are normally quite dull. It works here because the set up is well established. First off, the two-room space does well in creating a good geographical consistency, and the viewer becomes quickly familiar with the space that we might as well be there with the characters. The characters themselves are sympathetic so we care what happens to them, and the unknown cast is good, especially Bonnie Gallup as mother Beth, whose briefer role in the opening sequence is spot-on, hurried and well delivered. The cast is well directed, with the opening sequence delivered as nearly a single shot, and the choreography is excellent. While Beth getting ready to go out and she and Jennifer are pacing the room, a number of the items are clearly established for the viewer, items that will come into play during the showdown. The episode is well scripted, as we learn a good deal about the family and Beth's husband who never makes an appearance. What the purpose is of having Beth meeting a man while her husband is away (she could be meeting a friend just as easily), but it gives the episode additional colour, realism, and something interesting to notice. Whether any of this was scriptwriter John Harrison's doing or borrowed directly from Zenna Henderson's short story, I can't attest to as I haven't read it, but will hopefully rectify that soon.

Sure the monster doesn't look scary, being little other than a household vacuum cleaner, but the fact that it is household and familiar is the point, the threat within the house become more real. Its snout, of course, is at times too long and, sadly, at times comical. It is also odd that the noise eater doesn't attack Buddy when he first introduces it to Jennifer, but that's a minor detail, though you'd think he'd want to whisper. Shhhhhh...

"Barter." (First aired 17 July 1988) Directed by Christopher T. Welch. Written by Jule Selbo from a story by Lois McMaster Bujold. Starring Jack Carter, Jill Jaress, Michael Santiago and Miguel Alamo. 3/10

(This one could also have been titled "Hush.")

Dedicated housewife Ruthie is being driven around the bend by musician husband Nicky and their son, aspiring drummer Little Nicky. Salesman Klaatzu appears at the door seeking ammonia, for which he offers in trade (hence the title) an instrument that can freeze Little Nicky so that poor Ruthie can work on winning a freezer at an upcoming competition. This episode is a parody of the classic I Love Lucy, where iconic housewife Lucy (Lucille Ball) wishes she were a star, and puts up with bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) who wants her to be the ideal housewife. The names are nearly identical and they even look (somewhat) alike, and dress (somewhat) alike; Ricky is Cuban and from his (flawed) accent we can assume Nicky is as well; just like Lucy, Ruthie wants fame and attention while Nicky (just like Ricky with his Lucy) wishes she remain a simple housewife. And of course there are the hilarious antics (well, attempted anyway), along with a dash of the Darkside. Unfunny (even that uninspired moment when Ruthie and Nicky sneak in to replace ammonia with bleach wearing... cleaning stuff. Is this a reference to a specific I Love Lucy episode? Even then, was it really necessary?

This was actually a neat idea for television (it was close to the thirty-year anniversary of I Love Lucy), based on a story by Lois McMaster Bujold. It just isn't funny and feels at times too forced, as though everyone involved was trying so hard to be I Love Lucy (Michael Santiago as Desi Arnaz bothered me from the get-go). Sound guy Christopher T. Welch was behind the camera for season two's "The Shrine" (episode 17), a better effort than this, though we can't blame the directing here. The script is lame, the ending is anticlimactic and the acting is overly average, except for Santiago who was likely cast for his physical appearance rather his ability to successfully embody Desi. Moreover, the alien Klaatzu (comedian Jack Carter, who has appeared in the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of Tomorrow) fails to be funny as either a 1950s alien or a 1950s salesman.

"Basher Malone." (First aired 24 July 1988) Directed by Anthony Santa Croce. Written by Peter O'Keefe. Starring Vic Tayback, Steve Strong, Marie Denn and Magic Schwarz. 1/10

There exists a darkside, and ample proof is given by the fact that this episode was produced. A "good guy" wrestler is challenged to fight a demon from hell. It turns out that pro wrestling is the devil's tool to lead young, impressionable kids to the road to hell, and our hero Basher Malone is infuriating demon manager Tippy Ryan by being a good role model. This episode was produced at the height of pro wrestling, and good guy wrestler Steve Strong (Steve DiSalvo by birth) is appropriately cast as Basher Malone, except for the fact that he can't act. Strong's lack of acting talent is well accompanied by other terrible performances, with the exception of Vic Tayback as Tippy Ryan in his second Darkside appearance, following "The New Man" (S1E2).

In addition to the poor acting we have an unbelievably, shamelessly bad script by Peter O'Keefe, whose Darkside track record is a poor one, as he was also responsible for the "My Ghostwriter - The Vampire" (S3E14) and the terrible "Let the Games Begin" (S3E21). Worst yet is the new low in horrid 80s TV music. Finally, the episode closes off as a kind of ad for Pepsi Cola, another popular yet horrid item from the 80s. Pepsi paraphernalia appears throughout the series (good advertising for them & no doubt good advertising revenue for the series; while I never liked the stuff I'm pleased it supported Darkside). The only good thing this episode has to offer is that it reveals the true secret of Pepsi Cola: it is the gateway to Hell through its own vending machine.

It is unfortunate that Darkside ended its run - and a strong fourth season - with its all-time weakest episode. The episode even goes so far as to contradict itself: when Tippy hands brass knuckles to his fighter in the middle of a bout, everyone is shocked, yet Malone's mother doesn't hesitate in cheating herself, by dumping cold lemonade on demon fighter Trog's hellishly flaming body, and searching her purse for other cheating tools in helping her son win. So how does one distinguish the "Good Guy" (proudly emblazoned on Malone's shirt) from the demon, since both parties use the same means for their ends. Is it the ends then, and not the means, that determines who we are?

Finally, the episode also generates the most unbelievable idea to ever from Tales from the Darkside: the fighting in pro wrestling is real.


J said...

uh how is Pepsi a product from the 80's it came out in 1898 also i agree the wrestling episode did suck

Casual Debris said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I was being facetious, as I often am when writing about the 80s (being a child of that decade). The 80s did seem to be the height of the soda's popularity, even forcing Coke to re-brand itself. (It's also not true Pepsi is the gateway to hell.) Oddly enough, re-reading this post I can't even recall the episode.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

ah i see and wow that was a fast reply and i think that's a good thing you don't remember that crap episode and as for why that thing didn't go after billy i think it was because he was controlling it at the time

Anonymous said...

Can you help me? I saw a clip from the 1988 . Around that time. Before or after. I was only 8 years old. I remember the school teacher goes to the boys house. He's sick or so things keeping him from school. But his teacher dies
But still goes and visits him. I just remember the door and shesl say company's here. Can you help me ? Thanks andy ziepke

Casual Debris said...

Hi Andy,

This is not an episode of Tales from the Darkside, but sounds instead like the Ray Bradbury short story "The Emissary," which was filmed for The Ray Bradbury Theatre. Is this what you are looking for:

Let me know.

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