Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best of Tales from the Darkside

It's taken me some time to get to this article. After a few months of watching the four seasons of Tales from the Darkside in their entirety, I compiled a bunch of notes and a short list of what I felt are the strongest of the Darksides. Opinions for any anthology series differ vastly (as witnessed on IMDb posts), and rather than making a list of the ninety episodes from top to bottom (which won't help anyone, no matter how much the general public likes lists), I've grouped together the five or six "best ofs" in three straightforward categories, with a brief reasoning as to why they were included. I've reviewed each of these episodes individually and have included links to those reviews. The categories I've selected are for overall episode, actor and actress, with some honourable mentions and notes on directing and writing. I won't pretend to be an expert in areas such as cinematography and music, so rather than embarrass myself in attempting to filter those, I'm sticking to the basics.

The strongest seasons were without doubt the first and fourth. Not only did they sport many of the true Darkside classics, they consisted of mostly consistently above par episodes, not relying on the many poorly executed comedies that season three was notorious for. I don't know if the show's budget differed from season to season, but production values were fairly consistent throughout the series. There are exceptions, of course, with some episodes clearly more costly than others, whether for their cast or actual staging, while others are rushed-looking, sloppily produced over perhaps three days or so. When working on The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was given a budget for the entire season, and he meted out the cash depending on the strength of the script, so rather than giving each episode an even sum, the stronger scripts received more money in order to help produce some truly exceptional small films. For Serling and his show this worked out quite well, and I'd be curious to know how the producers and creators of Darkside handled their own budget. (It's in my research notes and if I learn anything I'll add it here).

Best Episodes

"Trick or Treat" (0.0) & "Circus" (3.1). The Pilot and the third season opener are both penned by series creator George Romero, and are quite similar in intent and delivery. Both are well scripted (by Romero), well directed (Bob Balaban for the pilot and Michael Gornick for "Circus") and well acted. For "Trick or Treat" it's Barnard Hughes in the lead with great support from I.M. Hobson and Max Wright, while for "Circus" William Hickey gives a great performance as the mysterious circus operator. The pilot is unfortunately bogged down by some silliness at the end, which is partly due to the low budget special effects, and partly to the seemingly indecisive point in making the witch an adult or a children's monster. However, the exceptional quasi Dickensian script, with Hughes doing a tremendous job at emphasising Gideon Hackles's position (even the name is Dickensian), takes "Trick or Treat"  to a level of delightedness. Moreover, the premise itself is original and the dark, moody atmosphere and the creative sets are a joy to watch. Both episodes carry simple, straightforward messages, yet "Circus" delivers its message somewhat better by simply being a darker, less forgiving piece. There is a dash of humour thrown into this one as well, but there's no confusion with its intentions and "Circus" is doubtless for an adult audience.

"Inside the Closet" (1.7) & "Family Reunion" (4.16). Like the Romero-written episodes above, these two, directed by long-time Romero collaborator Tom Savini, are also similar. Both feature a hidden monster in the family, a protective father and an outsider who helps to reveal that creature to the viewer, though not the public at large. For both it's the make-up and sets that help make the episodes so watchable and memorable, rather than the directing or writing. Savini focuses on his creature creations, using shadows to slowly reveal the make-up as each episode progresses. This is particularly effective with "Family Reunion," the overall weaker of the two, as the boy's physical transformation is superbly done. Both episodes are predictable, yet Savini does well in using the make-up as the reveal rather than the obvious plot twist.

"The Last Car" (2.19). As with many Darksides this one is quite predictable. However, it nonetheless manages to maintain a high level of suspense throughout. The quirkiness of the characters and brief sequencing are original and hypnotic, and the tunnel sequences are fantastic. The concept itself of the tunnel and the notion that these moments of terror will be perpetual make "The Last Car" among the more horrific of episodes.

"The Geezenstacks" (3.5). Everything about this little episode is well done, from an excellent script, cinematography and directing, to the wonderful set design, gorgeous dolls and a fine performance by Craig Wasson in the lead. What tops this piece beyond simple television fare is its high level of musical sophistry. The use of music throughout (which I discuss in my episode review) helps transform "The Geezenstacks" into a remarkable piece of short film. My personal favourite Darkside.

"If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18) & "Going Native" (4.17). These two much-maligned episodes are superb and among the most original half hours to appear on television in the 1980s. Both are satirical, and while "Going Native" plays out in a serious tone, "If the Shoes Fit..." does a little winking at the camera. Serious in theme, both episodes take a chance in presenting their points in unusual and highly original productions. Because of this they are not terribly accessible to the general public, and leave many a little baffled. The fact that reaction to these episodes is often some form of confusion is very telling in how generic and paint-by-numbers television in the 1980s had become.

Other excellent episodes include "Bigalow's Last Smoke" (1.21), "Ursa Minor" (2.10), the genuinely amusing "A New Lease on Life" (2.15), the strange but compelling "The Milkman Cometh" (3.13), the gorgeously noir "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17), the horrific "No Strings" (4.5), and Stephen King's originally scripted "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9).

A note on directing

There were some well directed episodes, such as the two by Savini mentioned above, Bill Travis's work on "The Geezenstacks" and Balaban on "Trick or Treat." Yet some episodes which could easily have been flops  were saved by decisions made behind the camera. Two that come to mind are "Mary, Mary" (4.2) by Katarina Wittich and "Hush" (4.18) by Allen Coulter. Neither are stellar episodes and both risk being tedious, yet their energy and the treatment of their individual stories make them better than they perhaps should have been. "Hush" could have been a lengthy and dull chase sequence, yet the ground floor house is not only well designed by well treated by the camera. We are dragged through the house and shown individual components that come into play, getting us involved in the action as we too are searching for ways of destroying the funny-looking noise eater. "Mary, Mary" on the other hand, being predictable and shmaltzy, is saved by a well used set and good camera play. Of course Margaret Whitton also has much to do with saving this episode.

As for series directors, the most consistently good were Bill Travis ("The Geezenstacks," "The Enormous Radio," "Distant Signals," "The Spirit Photographer"), Tom Savini ("Inside the Closet," "Family Reunion," "Halloween Candy") and John Strysik, who directed six in total: "The Last Car," "A New Lease on Life," "The Milkman Cometh," "Love Hungry" and "Black Widows," along with the weaker "I Can't Help Saying Goodbye."

A note on writing

Obvious excellent entries aside, there were a few truly well written episodes. John Harrison's adaptation of Robert Bloch's short story "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17) is well handled. A nice little noir paranoia which almost made it to my list of best episodes. "The Apprentice" (4.13) had some nice moments and the  differing ideals, time periods and so forth were well translated into the script by Ellen Sandhaus (who also penned the much weaker "The Social Climber" (3.19)). Stephen King's "Sorry, Right Number" (4.9) can easily be used in a script-writing 101 course, the material is so well handled and the little familial moments fit in well. Even the somewhat exaggerated writing in "The False Prophet" (1.24) by Jule Selbo from a story by Larry Fulton works well for the silly fun that it is. I'll also mention "The Swap" (3.20) which has an original script by Richard Benner that is interesting because it is at times playful. Attention to even the smallest of details can add layers to even the most average of stories.

Writing for Darkside was no easy task. Many episodes featured so few characters that monologues were plentiful, people talking on telephones or to themselves. It's difficult keeping these scenes interesting, and writer and actor/monologuer are the two components that must make it work. Which is a great segue to the acting portion of this article.

There were no stand-out series writers. Though he wrote two excellent episodes, George Romero wrote an okay piece with "The Devil's Advocate" (2.7) and a flop with "Baker's Dozen" (3.9) which tries a little too hard and is not terribly well handled by director John Harrison. Robert Block fared better with three good episodes, doing pretty well in adapting his excellent short story "Beetles" (4.1), and having two successful adaptations of his own short stories, James Houghton's adaptation of the fine little fantasy "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9) and John Harrison's adaptation and direction for "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17).

Best Actor

I've singled our six solid performances, four from the first season, from a variety of episodes. Others deserving mention are William Hickey for "Circus" (3.1), Craig Wasson for "The Geezenstacks" (3.5) and Stephen McHattie as the father in "Family Reunion" (4.16), all three of which I discuss in the best episodes section. Honourable mention goes to Abe Vigoda who was well cast as mob leader Jake Corelli in "A Choice of Dreams" (2.20).

Barnard Hughes in "Trick or Treat" (0.0). I can't get enough of the devilishly grinning Hughes in the series pilot. He is so involved in character Gideon Hackles's perverse notions of financial equality that you almost agree with him just as the poor accountant who finds it fair that Hackles charges him three cents for a cup of coffee at a business meeting. The complexity of the character is that he is not totally wrong in his reasoning, it is only that his reasoning overshadows the basic principles of human compassion, and the shop owner of the small failing agricultural town ends up reasoning his way to owning the region similarly to Henry Potter's attempt to own Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Unlike Potter, Hackles likes to play little Halloween games with the local boys and girls.

Keenan Wynn in "I'll Give You a Million" (1.2). While the episode falls short at the end, the versatile and energetic Wynn gives a great performance as greedy millionaire Duncan Williams. There is nothing complex about the characters in this one, and Wynn is helped out by a fine performance from co-star George Petrie, but these details aside, without Wynn the episode would likely have been a pure flop.

Fritz Weaver in "Inside the Closet" (1.7). Tom Savini's first Darkside is a good one, and is helped out by the performance of long-time character actor Fritz Weaver. Weaver does a good job by stiffening body and tone while at the same time allowing the nerves to poke through as a college professor and a father defending a little monstrosity locked up in the closet he rents out to students. Unfortunately Weaver re-appeared in Darkside in the terribly failed comedy "Comet Watch" (2.13)

Eddie Bracken in "A Case of the Stubborns" (1.9). A difficult story to adapt, it did have some faults such as sequences that were a little too long and the fact that it tried to carry itself on almost a single joke. A good episode nonetheless, it features a young Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who does well as Reverend Peabody, and an even younger Christian Slater who does poorly as the boy. Bracken steals the show, however, as stubborn old Titus Tolliver who refuses to believe he has died. Bracken's body language and unique facial features are great for the role, as is his delivery of the character's unnatural stubbornness.

Dick Shawn in "If the Shoes Fit..." (1.18). The unique episode of a trailblazing gubernatorial candidate Bo Gumbs is certainly a rare feat, and without Dick Shawn's willingness and ability to be utterly silly while being completely serious, it could have fallen flat. As Gumbs, Shawn manages to get confused and to question the odd incidents that abound in his hotel, and meanwhile, wanting to please and impress everyone in his over-the-top bid for votes, plays along with the ridiculousness, revealing himself for what he truly is.

Jerry Orbach in "Everybody Needs a Little Love" (3.17). The character actor best known (and often only known) for his many years on Law & Order, the recently belated Jerry Orbach is wonderful in the absurd story of a man who witnesses an old acquaintance fall desperately in love with a mannequin. What's more absurd is that he begins to get a little jealous. Orbach as Roberts is crusty and disillusioned, having lived his years in rough style as a salesman with little to show for it. The story uses the loneliness of middle-aged working-class men who, having worked hard seem to have gained little from life.

Best Actress

It's great that Darkside offered strong roles for women, and I've selected seven to highlight. Other memorable roles include Ronee Blakley as Cassie Pines in "The False Prophet" (1.24), Tanya Fenmore with her great facial work in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9), and Sharon Madden in the amusing "Love Hungry" (4.11).

Carmen Matthews in "In the Cards" (1.12). This surprisingly above average episode features a great performance by Carmen Matthews in two distinct roles: the friendly and pleasant first-time visitor to the conniving Tarot reader, and the dark and disillusioned veteran false clairvoyant Madame Marlena, recently turned believer. Matthews pleasantness in the early part of the episode is in sharp contrast to the darkly leering Marlena, and I didn't at first recognize her.

Jane Connell in "Grandma's Last Wish" (1.22). This somewhat weak episode features a great role for Jane Connell as the elderly grandmother whose family is trying to get her out of the house. The episode is at times amusing, at times not, yet Connell's presence helps elevate it considerably.

Susan Strasberg in "Effect and Cause" (2.11). A neat idea for this episode is helped greatly by Strasberg as a free-spirited woman living in an old house. Her attitude toward life seems to attract a kind of chaos, and she is forced to live in time out of joint, as consequences are occurring before the initial act. There is some gap in logic with Michael Kube-McDowell's script, but thanks to Strasberg and a somewhat disturbing finish  it turns out to be negligible.

Marie Windsor in "A New Lease on Life" (2.15). Veteran Windsor is Madame Angler, the landlady operating the comfortable yet economical big city St. George Apartments. It's a good episode with a good cast, but Windsor manages nonetheless to steal the show.

Margaret Whitton in "Mary, Mary" (4.2). This is an episode with a generally mixed response. It's a little silly and potentially disastrous, but with sympathetic direction and a wonderful performance by Whitton as the very average and lonely Mary Jones, who is using a mannequin to film her dating videos. Whitton is so good that her averageness becomes quite attractive, helped by her natural charm. Among the single character performances in Darkside, where a single actor or actress must carry the entire show, this one is truly among the best thanks to Whitton.

Eileen Eckhart in "Do Not Open This Box" (4.15). Another veteran actress, Eckhart is marvellous as crusty and unhappy Rose Pennywell. In fact, she is so good as the loathsome character that I found myself sympathising with her. The great, cluttered set and good direction by Jodie Foster help make a good episode, while Eckhart only makes it great.

Kim Greist in "Going Native" (4.17). As the cold, otherworld visitor, Kim Greist is icy yet attractive. And as the narrator of the episode her delivery is excellent. Add to this a great outburst at the end and Greist manages to do well in various levels of acting.

As a final note on acting, only two people from Darkside have received acting nominations, both in 1987 for season two, and both for Young Artists Award. Scooter Stevens received a nomination for his role as the boy in "The Last Car" (2.19), while Tanya Fenmore was recognized for her part as Mary Jane in "The Trouble with Mary Jane" (2.9). Stevens did well while Fenmore was really quite good in an otherwise weak episode.

Coming soon... or eventually... The Worst of Tales from the Darkside.


Anonymous said...

I also liked "The Devil's Advocate" with Jerry Stiller. I am so used to seeing him as George's father on Seinfeld, but he really gives a great and memorable performance on Tales from the Darkside.

Casual Debris said...

Much agreed, Anonymous. Despite its limitations a strong episode that is carried mainly by Stiller's performance. I review the episode in the Season Two Eps 1 - 8 article.

Trevor said...

The final minutes of Mary, Mary is sooo creepy to me. In my opinion, she either turned into a mannequin when the guy walked in or was a mannequin all along!Which, to me, is creepy as hell!

Casual Debris said...

A good point Trevor on some fine ambiguity, but if she is a mannequin who actually lives in that flat? I never quite understood the often negative response to "Mary, Mary."

Trixter said...

Great summary of the best this series had to offer; thanks for writing this up. I've seen all of them at least once, but some of my viewings were from the 1980s -- you've convinced me to revisit a few, including Going Native which must have bored me as a teenager; I don't remember it.

Now, when will you tackle Monsters? :-)

Casual Debris said...

Monsters!! Trixter, I was a kid when that was on & my mom, who loved horror, let me watch these with her. I remember only the pilot episode. Time permitting, I will certainly try reviewing that series as well.

(Apologies for a year-late response; I somehow missed a number of comments over the past year.)

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