'90s films, Alice Drummond, anthology films, based on a short story, Christian Slater, cinema, Creepshow, dark comedies, David Johansen, Deborah Harry, Dick Smith, Dolores Sutton, film reviews, films, gargoyles, George Romero, horror, horror anthologies, horror films, James Remar, John Harrison, Julianne Moore, KNB Effects, Mark Margolis, Matthew Lawrence, Michael McDowell, Movies, mummies, Philip Lenkowsky, Rae Dawn Chong, revenge, Richard P. Rubenstein, Robert Draper, Robert Klein, Robert Sedgwick, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Steve Buscemi, Tales From the Darkside, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, The Crying of Lot 249, vengeful cats, William Hickey, witches
As eerie music plays, we witness various pastoral scenes: a picturesque country road…a covered, wooden bridge…a heavily wooded area. As the camera continues to show us imagery that should be soothing but is the farthest thing from it, a narrator begins to speak, drawing out his lines with almost ghoulish relish: “Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality.” As the narrator speaks, the image on-screen spins slowly to reveal its negative side: “But there is, unseen by most, an underworld…a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit…a dark side…”
If you were a horror fanatic who came of age in the ’80s, I’m willing to wager that you were more than familiar with the above opening: this, of course, is the now iconic credit sequence to one of the most important TV shows for formative fiends…this, of course, was Tales From the Darkside.
While The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone were always reliable standbys for me, Tales From the Darkside and its successor, the gorier, goofier Monsters, were really where my heart was at. When Tales From the Darkside was good, it could be absolutely astounding, especially considering the era it came out of. They weren’t all classics, of course (even less so for Monsters), but individual episodes and storylines have still managed to keep a summer cottage in my brain, after all these years, proving that the stuff you get exposed to as a kid tends to hang around the longest in your subconscious, for better or worse.
When Tales From the Darkside went off the air in 1988, its legion of horror-obsessed fans must have really had some sleepless nights: lucky for us all, however, that the series’ producer, Richard P. Rubenstein, and several of its creative personnel, including director John Harrison and cinematographer Robert Draper, would see fit to bring the eerie anthology series to the big-screen, no doubt hoping to capitalize on the success of Creepshow (1982) a few years earlier (in a telling bit, Rubenstein also served as producer for Creepshow). While Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990) isn’t quite the encapsulation of the series that I wanted, there’s still plenty of good, fun material here, much of which would have fit in quite nicely on my living-room screen.
Tales From the Darkside: The Movie consists of three separate fright tales, along with the standard wraparound story that’s so integral to anthology films. The wraparound involves a modern update of Hansel and Gretel, in which new wave icon Deborah Harry plays a polite, suburban witch/cannibal who plans to fatten and slaughter a young boy (Matthew Lawrence, who could go on to front a bakers’ dozen of kid-related TV shows). In order to forestall his inevitable death, the boy reads the witch stories out of one of her own books. Turns out the book is called “Tales From the Darkside,” so I’m imagining you can guess where this goes.
The first tale, “Lot 249,” is an adaptation of the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mummy tale, “The Crying of Lot 249.” In this version, set in the sort of collegiate environment that might best recall Lovecraft’s Miskatonic U, Edward Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) has just been cheated out of a grant by the combined team of Lee (Robert Sedgwick) and Susan (Julianne Moore, in her feature film debut). When Edward decides to get a little revenge using an ancient, Egyptian resurrection scroll and the mummy he’s just received in a crate (the “Lot 249” of the title), it’s up to Susan’s brother, Andy (Christian Slater) to even the score.
Our second story, “The Cat From Hell,” is an adaptation of a Stephen King story done by none other than George Romero, himself. This particular tale involves a mercenary, old billionaire (William Hickey), a super-cool hitman (New York Dolls frontman David Johansen) and the seemingly invincible cat that he’s been hired to kill. Once the villainous billionaire (who made his fortune from a global pharmaceutical empire) reveals that the cat may be seeking revenge for all of the poor cats that were killed during testing of their newest, hit pain-killer, however, we can see the gleeful comeuppance coming from a mile away.
The final (and most “serious”) story, “Lover’s Vow,” is a modern take on the ancient myth of the sailor who ends up with a beautiful, mysterious bride, yet loses everything because of his inability to keep a promise. In this case, troubled, down-on-his-luck artist Preston (James Remar) comes face to face with a ferocious, living gargoyle. After the monster makes Preston promise never to tell another soul about its existence, he ends up running straight into Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), the woman of his dreams. This being Tales From the Darkside, of course, things don’t go quite as planned, resulting in the most bittersweet, mature short in the film.
All in all, the big-screen version of Tales From the Darkside is a fun, if slight, horror anthology, sort of like the tag-along kid brother to Romero’s much more interesting Creepshow. While none of the stories really pack much of a wallop, although the final one does have a genuine sense of poignancy to it, they’re all well made and well-acted, leading to a nice, breezy experience. One of the biggest joys in the film comes from spotting a rogues’ gallery of future/current stars in their more formative years: Slater, Moore, Buscemi, Hickey and Johanson give it their all and the results make this all but required viewing for fans of any of the above. For their part, Remar and Chong get the most dramatic heavy-lifting and acquit themselves nicely, even if the story, itself, is a bit too predictable.
While many of Tales From the Darkside: The Movie’s elements are top-notch (legendary makeup guru Dick Smith served as a consultant and the equally legendary KNB Effects handled the SFX), the whole thing suffers by comparison with that elephant in the room: Creepshow. In most cases, the film comes off as a pale imitation of its predecessor, right down to the comic book-esque wipe transitions and multiple frames that adorn the various segments. To compound the problem, none of the shorts are either particularly surprising or particularly weighty: in particular, the wraparound is so slight as to almost non-existent, although it’s always nice to see Harry in anything.
Ultimately, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie will probably appeal most to horror fans looking to scratch a nostalgic itch from their childhoods. While the film is fun and well-made (aside from the terribly muddy picture/transfer in the middle tale), it definitely doesn’t earn a pole position in the pantheon of great horror anthologies, although it’s arguably light-years ahead of the fairly rank Cat’s Eye (1985). For horror fans that like their frights bite-sized and tongue-in-cheek, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie has plenty to offer. It might not be the kind of car that ages into a classic but it still turns over when you put the key in and that, my friends, has to account for something.