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

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