Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff II

Anyhow after sorting the chaff from the wheat, we reach the most effective episodes of season one, although I don’t want to over-sell the following episodes. They have some points of interest, but I could recommend quite a few things that you would be better off watching – actually an incredibly long list of things!

“I’ll Give a Million” is a relatively fun episode in which two mean business men make a pact with the devil, literally, when one of them comes up with a brilliant scam for fleecing the other. He offers to buy his friend’s soul for a million dollars, receipt of said item to be taken on death. As he points out, who would turn down a million dollars for something as intangible as a soul, and his victim agrees. But as his health starts to fail, the victim becomes ever more desperate to buy back his soul, and offers more and more for it each time. Unfortunately, the victimizer holds out for too long and his victim dies before he can cash in on his scam – at which point, a ghost appears with the property in question. The upshot is a heart attack, upon which the devil turns up to claim both souls.

“Pain Killer” is a slightly jokey tale of a man whose wife is giving him a pain, literally, and whose doctor (a rather charming Farley Granger) proscribes her murder as the only viable treatment, the murder to be done by a proxy. On her death, the ailment clears up immediately but, when asked to return the favor for another of the doctor’s patients, the man refuses with dreadful consequences.

“The Odds” isn’t really that good except for a wonderful turn by Danny Aiello as a bookie who cheats the fates, while “Slippage” has a great concept and a pretty pitiful execution: a young man gradually disappears as family and friends gradually forgot about him. “Mookie and Pookie” has an interestingly eerie quality, although I couldn’t for the life of me say why; and it concerns a sister whose twin brother dies having left instructions for her about how to finish a computer project on which he has been working, a project that has somehow downloaded his consciousness to his computer.

“The Madness Room” is absolute tosh but, for some reason, I really liked it. I saw everything coming a mile off but somehow the wooden predictability seemed to work here, as though the whole thing was a loving homage, which I don’t think it was. Anyhow, it concerns a couple living in an old house, and he has a weak heart and a best friend who seems a bit over familiar with the wife. When the three of them contact a ghost who resides within the house, the spirit tells them about a room that drives people mad, and obviously, they decide to search of the cursed room … I won’t bore you with the ending, which you have probably largely guessed, but it worked for me as an episode.

However, the two stand out episodes are “The False Prophet and “The Tear Collector”, if only because they are so extraordinarily weird. In the first, Ronee Blakley (a beautiful actress/musician, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Robert Altman’s Nashville, was married to Wim Wenders (1979-1981), worked with Bob Dylan and appeared in Nightmare of Elm Street) plays a woman who lives her life on the guidance of a computer fortune teller. When she encounters the latest version, it seems to fall in love with her but it also encounters competition from a preacher who wants her to live for the moment. The result is somewhere between a high-camp soap-opera and really far-out art project – but it isn’t predictable!

In “The Tear Collector”, a perpetually sad and tearful Jessica Harper runs into an odd but sensitive Victor Garbor, who values her tears and invites her over to his place so that he can watch her cry and collect her tears. Talk about strange fetishes! Anyhow, even more oddly, she thinks that she has found her soul mate and pays regular visits to this metaphysical pervert, until she finds that he is doing the same with a variety of different women (and seems to have been doing it throughout the ages!) Distraught, she break up with him and runs out into the road where she is nearly run over by a taxi, out of which climbs an attractive young man tells her that she has a beautiful smile – the tear collector’s strange attentions seem to have left her all cried out and she is now ready to live a happy life.

Of course, that description doesn’t begin to capture how weird this episode really is. It is almost worth watching the whole of season one just for this one episode … almost.

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Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff I

I have been working my way through series one of the Tales from the Darkside over the past couple of weeks, which hasn’t been a punishment or a pleasure. Some episodes are fairly effective, although none are outstanding, and there is a lot of other stuff to get through. The central idea – that there is a ‘darkside’ to human experience – is a bit of a catch-all that lets the series pretty much get away with any old thing, and it is therefore a bit difficult to get a handle on what it is even aiming for – there is a bit of the old horror comics, a bit of the Twilight Zone and lots of other bits thrown in for good measure.

Some stories, like the pilot episode, “Trick or Treat”, are morality tales in which wicked people get their comeuppance. Others just seem mean. In “The New Man”, a man trying to do right by his family after years of alcoholism is stunned by the presence of a son that he can’t remember and his failure to remember the boy drives his family away – they think that he has started drinking again. Which is of course what then happens. Initially, one thinks that it might be some clever way of exploring the experience of alcoholism, until the twist ending sees his replacement being similarly stunned by the presence of exactly the same boy, who is again claiming to be his son… In other words, we have just seen the story of a man trying to do right but destroyed by a malicious fate.

However, this meanness is preferable to the repeated attempts at humor, which are often quite irritating. In “A Case of the Stubborns”, Eddie Bracken plays a man so stubborn that he won’t admit to being dead, much to the annoyance of his family and the local community. The story features an performance by a young Christian Slater, but its laughs are forced, as are those of “Djinn, No Chaser” – hey, the title says it all! “Word Processor of the Gods” is a lot more successful, if only because it features the wonderful Bruce Davison as a writer who is bequeathed a fantastic new word processor that can delete aspects of reality and execute new versions, a tool that allows him to completely rewrite his life and replace all his disappointments with the objects of his desire.

Episodes such as “Anniversary Dinner” and “Answer Me” are simply clumsy, with the first of these setting up its big twist a bit too obviously, while the second is simply incoherent. A woman is kept awake by a phone ringing next door, and slowly finds out that someone had committed suicide in the room next door some time before. But then she might be the woman next door – and then she is menaced by a woman on the phone (who might be her again) and then the phone itself seems to come after her… Maybe I wasn’t paying attention properly but then again watching Jean Marsh talk to herself for an entire episode is likely to make one’s mind drift onto other things.

If these two episodes are clumsy, other episodes are just plain weird. “All a Clone by the Telephone” features a man who is menaced by his answering machine, but that looks fine when compared with “Inside the Closet”, where a young student moves into a room in the house of a weird old professor and starts to hear noises coming from a very small door in the corner of her room. Sometimes the room is locked and other times it is open; sometimes it is empty and other times it is full of stuff that may be the property of her landlord’s mysterious daughter. Anyhow, it then turns out that there is some sort of small rubber monster living there and it drags the poor girl into the closet before going downstairs to the professor for a cuddle – is this the mysterious daughter? What the hell is going on? If anybody has any clue to what this is all about please let me know.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: The Wheat and the Chaff II

The 1980s Anthology Show

So, here is a quiz for you. Put the following figures in order of promise, if they were associated with fantasy and horror television shows of the 1980s (and early 1990s): George Romero, Stephen Speilberg and Robert Zemeckis. Who is the most likely to produce the best and who would you expect to produce the worst?

Well, you would probably be wrong.

I am not saying that it is a work of genius but Tales from the Crypt (Zemeckis, 1989-1996) is was a fun show that tried to capture some of the trashy energy of the horror comics of the 1950s, much like the Stephen King collaboration with Romero on Creepshow. Amazing Stories (Speilberg, 1985-1987) is a polished (a little too polished, if you ask me) attempt to do a kind of updated Twilight Zone. It is fun but a little uneven, with several episodes descending into the syrupy nonsense that bedevils many Speilberg efforts – it was also (possibly because of its expensive production values) the shortest lived of the three series, and only ran for two seasons, while Tales from the Crypt ran for seven seasons and Romero’s contribution ran for four seasons.

Finally, Romero’s contribution was Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988), a rather odd effort. It’s not without its charm and it has some decent stories but it also has some stinkers. Many episodes, even though they are only half an hour long (or actually about 20 minutes without the adverts), seem hopelessly padded, the final twist being painfully obvious from the outset and the efforts at its deferment being strained beyond belief. Also, the visual style is beyond dull, with many episodes being stagey, wooden and making one yearn for the visual flair of an Aaron Spelling production.

If these shows confound expectations about their origins, they also demonstrate another interesting feature, which was a strong tendency within the 1980s. While there were numerous made-for-television horror films and mini-series during this period, the television shows that followed the series format were often obsessed with nostalgia. If Tales from the Crypt paid homage to the 1950s horror comics, both Tales from the Darkside and Amazing Stories are clearly attempts to recapture some of the glory of the anthology series of the 1950s and 1960s, shows such as The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was even remade as series in the period (1985-1989); as was another classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-1989). The Outer Limits was also remade, although this was a decade latter (1995-2002).

So what is going on here? Well, one could related it back to debates over postmodern nostalgia, although this would seem to suggest that this nostalgia was less a ‘cultural condition of late capitalism’ than a more historically specific phenomenon. It could therefore be argued that it was simply an updating of the obsession with the popular culture of the 1950 and 1960s that one finds in the work that King, Romero, Speilberg and Zemeckis had produced back in the 1970s. Furthermore, these shows were produced in a period during which American television was going through rapid and dramatic transformations, and many of these shows were explicitly bound up with these changes. They can therefore be seen as examples of a classic strategy in which people look back to the past as a way of negotiating change.

Next Week: Tales from the Darkside: Wheat and Chaff.

Apologies

I am not sure what happened this week. A post should have gone up last sunday saying that I was away, but I am now back and a new post will be going up tomorrow.

So in an attempt to make amends, you will find the Matheson scripted Scream of the Wolf (1974) above. Enjoy!

True Blood – Surely Sex and Violence Shouldn’t Be This Boring?

True Blood has been a phenomenal success. It has been going for five seasons; I keep reading about it as a classic example of quality television; and people are repeatedly telling how good it is. My friend, Brigid Cherry, has even edited an academic book on the subject. (Note to self: given the quality of Brigid’s work, I should probably read this, despite what I am about to say).

The problem is that I really don’t ‘get’ this show. I watched the first series, and I really had to force myself to through it; it wasn’t a pleasure; it was more like pulling teeth. I had heard so much about how good it was that I felt obliged to give it a try; but, seriously, it was painful. The characters really grated; the plot seem to meander about all over the place; but most unforgivably the sex and violence were just boring.

It was as if, having secured a deal with HBO, the program makers just went a bit loopy. Brett Mills once (brilliantly in my opinion) described watching The Dark Knight as like having someone shout ‘look at how profound I am being’ for two and a half hours! True Blood felt like the program makers were shouting ‘look what we can get away with on cable’, which sought of destroyed any tension or shock or thrill. Surely sex and violence shouldn’t be this boring!

On another level, the sweet seductions of vampirism with its sensual appeals seem to be reduced to the hit of crack or a kinky one night stand. Neither of which look very enticing – just a bit sleazy. God, maybe I am getting old but it just doesn’t seem to be any fun any more. But, then again, maybe its not me. I am not singing the praises of The Vampire Diaries, and should really write a entry on the show, which certainly has numerous irritations; but, frankly, I would rather curl up with a box set of this bunch of whining teenagers than spend more time with the inhabitant of Bon Temps (which is as far from a good time as I care to get).

I keep seeing endlessly comparisons between True Blood and the Twilight saga, comparisons in which Twilight is not only a bit of a straw man but critics even seem a little unfair to Twilight. It is like claiming that Night of the Living Dead is more gory than Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein: it is a meaningless comparison and both of these films are more fun than True Blood (and Twilight).

If you really want a slice of Southern Gothic (another irritating attempt to avoid the horror label), you would be much better off with the Sonja Blue novels by Nancy A. Collins, particularly Tempter. But of course they haven’t made a television series out of those novels – and that would really test the ‘freedom’ of cable.