Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: August 25th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
George Romero’s legacy will be forever intertwined with the undead. This is indisputable and understandable: that’ll happen when you pioneer an entire genre movement. However, lurking in the shadow of the living dead are Romero’s sizable contributions to the anthology format, which saw a notable resurgence in the 80s following Creepshow. It largely unfolded on the small screen, where Romero was once again instrumental in bringing the macabre and the morbid to televisions across the nation with Tales from the Darkside. A minor revolution was launched, with the show begetting the likes of Tales from the Crypt, Friday the 13th: The Series, Freddy’s Nightmares, and even a Twilight Zone revival. Tales from the Darkside was among the most successful of the bunch, too, airing for four seasons before finally making the leap to the big screen in 1990. More than just a victory lap, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is a culmination of Romero’s anthology work, if not a weird crossing of the streams in some respects. Considered in fan circles (and by Tom Savini himself) to be the unofficial third Creepshow film, Darkside blends the show’s distinct macabre flavor with leftover scraps from Romero’s big screen anthology exploits for an definitive, emphatic take on the format.
Its frame story feels like it could have easily wrapped around a Creepshow film: once again, idyllic suburbia is our scene, where the perfection starts to feel downright sinister as we watch a seemingly normal housewife (Debbie Harry) unload some groceries in her kitchen. She’s preparing for a dinner party, and we soon learn that the main course will be Timmy (Matthew Lawrence), a young boy chained up in a makeshift dungeon pantry. To stave off the inevitable, Timmy suggests reading from a book of scary stories, serving up a trio of tales involving ancient Egyptian curses, killer cats, and vengeful gargoyles. All the while, this suburban witch dutifully prepares her feast, amused by these demented stories but steadfast in her mission to eviscerate and eat this child.
Tales from the Darkside is an odd convergence of different eras, with most of its stories echoing classic literature, be it 1,001 Arabian Nights, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or Japanese folklore. It’s a bit of a different flavor from the EC-inspired stories in Creepshow--but not too different, it should be noted. For the most part, Darkside still deals with awful people meeting with well-deserved, supernaturally-tinged comeuppance. “Lot 249,” adapted from the Doyle short story, is exemplary of this form: after a pair of college students (Julieanne Moore and Robert Sedgwick) frame classmate Edward Bellingham (Steve Buchemi) for a theft to sink his chances at landing a scholarship, he decides to actually steal a mummy and reanimate it to exact his revenge.
It almost feels appropriate that Tales from the Darkside kicks off with this kind of comfort food. “Lot 249” is a familiar tale that feels tailor-made for the anthology format, which is so often the vehicle for such deranged, bite-sized fables. Director John Harrison and screenwriter Michael McDowell are quick to deliver the shocks and show off KNB’s spectacular effects work. The mummy especially is marvelous creature work, its decayed flesh peeking from beneath tattered burial rags as it dishes out gruesome vengeance. This isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) mummy: it’s a nasty, ghoulish creature capable of bringing some disgusting gore to the screen.
The actors match the carnage with some playful performances. Moore and Sedgwick are irritatingly conniving, and practically invite the audience to delight in their eventual comeuppance. Christian Slater also appears, doing his Jack Nicholson impersonation because he wasn’t about to let that obsession go as we entered the 90s. His signature mania is well-matched for this material, as his character becomes embroiled in this bitter triangle and is unable to escape despite his best (and even well-meaning) efforts. But the real star here is Buscemi, whose nebbish persona belies Bellingham’s cunning and depravity; for much fo the segment, he’s restraining that depravity but lets loose during the denouement, where that stifled giggle bellows into an uproarious cackle, cementing the episode’s unhinged monster movie vibes.
In some ways, the contemporary origins for "Cat from Hell" make it the odd segment out: it began life as a nixed segment from Creepshow 2 before Harrison and company resurrected it here with Romero’s script (adapted from Stephen King’s short story) in tow. And yet, it’s totally what you’d expect to find in this sort of thing. Once again, we’re dealing with an unscrupulous character, in this case Drogan (William Hickley), a pharmaceutical tycoon who summons a hitman (David Johansen) to eliminate an unlikely target: a cat that prowls the grounds of his sizable estate. Because he made his fortune off of medicine tested on scores of (now dead) felines, he’s convinced this black cat has come to exact vengeance. As he reveals this sordid backstory to the hitman, Drogan weaves through time to explain how several of his the house’s occupants have mysteriously died, supposedly at the claws of the cat. “Cat from Hell” trades in the previous segment’s four-color, comic book panache for moody, gothic ambiance, as Harrison soaks it in otherworldly blue and grey pallor.
There’s a grim inevitability to this segment as it builds to a gore-soaked climax showcasing one of the film’s most indelibly gruesome and unreal images. The titular cat slinks and prowls around, essentially circling the two characters like a vulture, accenting the feeling of watching a downward spiral that ends with both men meeting a predictable--but no less satisfying--end. But “Cat from Hell” is otherwise no less playful: both Hickey and Johansen are outsized personalities as the increasingly jumpy duo trapped in this haunted house of sorts, and DP Robert Draper’s camerawork weaves in some inventive feline POV shots to augment the demented thrill ride sensation. If you had to pick one segment from the movie that best captures the Darkside/Creepshow aesthetic, you’d probably point to this one, making it the film’s purest episode in some respects.
Then there’s “Lover’s Vow,” the true odd segment out in this case. Inspired by the Japanese myth of the Yuki-onna (previously adapted in Kwaidan), it finds struggling artist Preston (James Remar) bottoming out at a bar, where his agent (Robert Klein) unceremoniously drops him, citing his lack of commercially viable work. His night only gets worse from there when he witnesses an honest-to-god gargoyle decapitate his buddy outside of the bar. Strangely enough, the gargoyle spares him but only if Preston vows to never reveal what he’s just witnessed. Dazed by the ordeal, he agrees to the terms and staggers into the arms of Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), a beautiful passerby who helps him home and dresses the wounds he received in the encounter with the gargoyle. He keeps his vow, however, and a romance quickly blossoms between the two.
But even though this duo stands in stark contrast to most Darkside/Creepshow protagonists, you know it’s just not going to end well. Such is the ominous verve of “Lover’s Vow,” which tragically hangs a guillotine over this doomed couple, even as they make a life for themselves with marriage and parenthood. It’s much more of a tragic romance, a flavor rarely tasted in the confines of the horror anthology, as Remar and Chong anchor the tale with their genuine chemistry. Even with little screen-time to work with, Preston and Carola feel like an authentic couple, and the weight of their years together is perceptible even though the episode skips ahead ten years into the future. Where so many anthology segments string an audience along, playfully leading them to a rousing climax for damned souls, this one hinges on a heartbreaking twist, briefly leaving viewers on an odd, bummed-out note. However, this is exactly what makes “Lover’s Vow” stand out: it’s a haunting little number that reminds us of the anthology format’s range, even if it comes at the expense of complete thematic unity. Besides, it’s fitting for a Tales from the Darkside film because the show often mixed in tragedy and comedy with its macabre stories.
Besides, the conclusion to the frame story lands on that signature, morbidly humorous note that just feels more “correct,” so to speak, allowing Tales from the Darkside to properly run the gamut. Even though Romero’s involvement was minimal outside of his “Cat from Hell” screenplay, it feels like a proper companion to his other anthology work. He effectively passed the torch to Harrison, his longtime musical collaborator who eventually cut his directorial teeth on the Darkside television series. It’s a seamless transition, as Harrison oversees a magnificently gritty production whose low-budget origins are never betrayed on-screen. The imagination is undeniable, too: like the Creepshow series, Darkside is a wonderful platform for the industry’s preeminent effects artists (in this case, a newly united Kurtzman, Nicotero, and Berger, with help from consultant Dick Smith) to show off their chops, and they deliver with a colorful assortment of monsters and gore to terrorize a memorable cast. It's a Whitman's Sampler style of anthology, one that offers up various flavors, giving the audience bite-sized tastes of the show in a 90-minute span.
Maybe it isn’t Creepshow 3, but it might as well be; unfortunately, it shares the same nagging feeling we had with Creepshow for years because it feels like there should have been much more where this came from. Instead, this big screen outing was the brand’s swan song, if not a requiem for the 80s anthology boom, which would soon wane as a new decade dawned. Still, it’s a hell of a way to go out: you could do much worse than leave an audience wanting more.
Tales from the Darkside is one of those titles you’d swear made it to Blu-ray years ago. However, it’s one of the many Paramount titles that’s languished on DVD, despite fans’ constant pleas for an upgrade. Scream Factory has finally answered the call with another outstanding collector’s edition release that will make it easy to toss out that old, mostly bare-bones disc. While there’s no indication that this isn’t a new remaster, the transfer is more than adequate, with the only “blemishes” showing up with some brief instances of optical effects. Otherwise, the presentation is stellar, and includes a choice of the original stereo track or a 5.1 remix, both in the DTS-HD lossless format.
The supplements are similarly terrific. Scream ports over Harrison and Romero’s feature commentary from the old DVD in addition to the newly produced Tales Behind the Darkside, a six-part retrospective featuring Harrison, KNB, production designer Ruth Ammon, and more as they recount the production. If you’ve been hoping for Scream to revert course to their old style of retrospective docs, this is what you’ve been waiting for. Even though it is chopped up into six chapters, it runs right at 100 minutes, clocking in longer than the film itself. Each segment is covered in its own chapter, with the frame story also sharing some time with Harrison and company discussing how the project came into fruition. There’s a heavy emphasis on the craftsmanship involved, with Ammon, KNB, and Draper explaining certain creative choices, often with the accompaniment of vintage behind-the-scenes footage. On-screen talent is a little more sparse, with Michael Deak (who played the mummy and the gargoyle) appearing with some great anecdotes for both of his segments. Remar and Chong are the most noteworthy actors to appear, and both have fond memories of their time spent on the set.
That’s the portrait that eventually emerges throughout the six chapters: like Creepshow, the set thrived on a familial vibe, with everyone chipping in and having a blast, including those performers who went on to have huge careers. Even though the likes of Julieanne Moore understandably don’t appear, her presence is felt in anecdotes about how she enthusiastically reminisced about the production with Deak years later (once she realized who he was--it turns out she never saw him outside of his makeup while on set!). Tons of little anecdotes like that are strewn throughout the doc, which also includes separate chapters about the music, editing, and legacy of the film. The latter is especially interesting: it turns out Tales was well-received critically (one critic even referred to it as “enlightened” horror, proving that a certain set has always tried to gussy up the genre when they happen to like it) but wasn’t a huge hit at the box office after its first weekend. It was an unfortunate harbinger for the anthology format, which would largely lay fallow for over a decade until its most recent resurgence with films like Trick 'r Treat and V/H/S. Hopefully Scream stays the course with these kind of in-depth retrospectives because they’re so much more satisfying than watching separate interviews where the participants answer similar questions. The information comes together a bit more coherently and efficiently in this fashion.
Scream Factory also tosses in trailers and TV spots, plus 11 minutes of unfiltered behind-the-scenes footage of the KNB boys (and girls) testing out and filming their effects work. You love to see the boundless energy of this crew--it’s so infectious that it left me wishing I had been creative enough to pursue a career in this industry. Sometimes, I’m pretty sure there would be no more rewarding job than crafting monsters, mutants, and painting the walls red with your buddies. 10-year-old me certainly thought so, anyway, and 36-year-old me wishes he could have kept that energy into his twenties. Alas, I now have to settle for enjoying it vicariously, at least so long as Scream Factory keeps serving up great releases like this. Hopefully, the day never comes where that’s not the case: a release like this reminds us why we were so ecstatic when Scream Factory started and why we remain ecstatic whenever they strike a new license with studios. Their deal with Paramount has been especially fruitful, and should prove to be even more so with upcoming releases for Friday the 13th and Event Horizon. Of course, I think I speak for everyone when I hope The Dead Zone is in our future; one doesn't have to be blessed with Johnny Smith's powers to know it sits high atop just about everybody's wish-list.
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