Paramount // 1984 // 553 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // February 13th, 2009
"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality, but there is, unseen by most, an underworld -- a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit: a dark side."
Though they seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, twist-ending short stories have long entertained fans of horror, mystery, and science fiction. Many of those stories, which originally appeared in magazines and pulp comic books, got second life on television in the '50s and '60s in anthology series like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The popularity of those series paved the way for big screen adaptations of scary shorts. One of the most popular, 1982's Creepshow, was co-created by horror icons George Romero and Stephen King. While not a critical success, it did well enough that the Romero wanted to turn it into a television series. Copyright issues kept the series from using the Creepshow name, but with Romero staying on as producer, Tales from the Darkside ran for five seasons, from 1984 to 1988. Besides the odd VHS release and random late night reruns, the show has been unavailable for two decades. Now that the complete first season is finally out on DVD, will fans find it as scary as they remember?
If you asked viewers to rank anthology TV series, Tales from the Darkside would probably make the top ten, but I doubt it would make the top five. Those slots are reserved for classics like The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock, The Outer Limits, and HBO's Tales From the Crypt. Darkside was made at a time when TV special effects weren't all that effective. It looks cheaply made and has more than its share of unsatisfying endings. Worst of all, without the freedom afforded to a pay cable series like Crypt, this horror show lacks any truly horrific moments. And yet, despite all that, you can't deny its creepy charm.
Tales from the Darkside: The First Season includes the 1983 pilot and all 23 first season episodes. The stories range in quality from terrible to great, and most fall somewhere in the middle. The weakest episodes are either too open-ended, too predictable, or have lousy conclusions that ruin decent set-ups. The pilot, "Trick or Treat," for instance, squanders a truly cool premise -- about a miser who offers children the chance on Halloween to search his creepy house for the IOU notes that will forgive their parents' debt -- with a lackluster finale. Episodes like "It's in the Cards" and "Answer Me" are likewise frustrating for their lame endings; "All a Clone by the Telephone" might star Harry Anderson, but the fear-of-technology storyline is not only outdated, it doesn't make much sense; and while "The Tear Collector" has a couple of strong performances, it leaves on too vague of a note.
To its credit, Tales from the Darkside has plenty of stories that aren't going for pure horror. Most of the good episodes rely more on atmosphere or humor than all-out scares. For fans of the creepy, there's "Anniversary Dinner," with its predictable-yet-disturbing final sequence. If you prefer something moodier, watch "Levitation" -- about a teenager who asks a magician to teach him a dangerous trick. The set also includes the Stephen King story "The Word Processor of the Gods," about a writer who gets a computer with the ability to alter reality, which is more fun than its familiar plot sounds.
The most memorable episodes this season are just as varied in tone. "The Odds," starring Danny Aiello as a bookie who matches wits with an otherworldy gambler, would have been right at home on The Twilight Zone. "The Madness Room" strikes the right balance of horror and mystery, and sports a nice double-twist ending. Perhaps the most recognizable episode on the set is "In the Closet," a freaky homage to things that go bump in the night. Even with the limitations of animatronic puppetry back in 1984, the beastie reveal is legitimately creepy, and any TV show that makes you want to shout "Don't open that door!" is definitely doing something right. My favorite episode, though, is a gem called "A Case of the Stubborns." This tale, of a crotchety grandfather who refuses to acknowledge his own passing, even as rigor mortis and decay set in, is in turns funny, gross, and clever. It also has the most famous faces per minute of any episode this season, featuring not only a teenaged Christian Slater, but also a pre-Data Brent Spiner as the local reverend, and Bill McCutcheon (a.k.a. Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) as the doctor.
Tales from the Darkside doesn't quite reach a Twilight Zone level of notable cameos, but it has its fair share. Besides the aforementioned appearances by Slater, Aiello, and Harry Anderson, Season One also features Max Wright, Vic Tayback, Tippi Hedren, Justine Bateman, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in the adaptation of Harlan Ellison's "Djinn, No Chaser").
Even on DVD, there's only so much you can do with 25-year-old video. The picture is soft to the point of being mushy, and the mono soundtrack, while clean, won't blow anyone away. The menus are pretty barebones, too, with only the first disc offering anything besides the option to play either specific episodes or all of them in a row. That first disc has the set's lone special feature, an audio commentary by George Romero on "Trick or Treat," which he wrote and Bob Balaban directed. It would be nice to have more than just the one commentary. It would be even nicer if Romero talked all the way through that one commentary. He drops out for minutes at a time, and while what he says is mostly interesting, fans that have been looking forward to the special features on this release are going to be disappointed.
Nostalgia would be a big help in enjoying Tales from the Darkside: The First Season, but even the curious should find something to like in George Romero's anthology series. A wide variety of genres, writers, and famous faces keeps this from being another disappointing TV-on-DVD release. Just don't expect any bigger scares than being reminded of how badly everyone dressed in the '80s.
Not guil -- Wait...did you hear something?
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 553 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentary