A Scary Show Exposes a Scary Decade
I love horror anthologies, and Tales from the Darkside appeared in 1985-86 during the general revival of these fantasy and horror shows that followed the success of Tales from the Crypt (Amazing Stories is another example). Like Tales from the Crypt, George Romero’s role as executive producer ensured that Tales from the Darksidewould have both vicious twists and images as creepy as could appear on network TV. Production values remained relatively low and many episodes were essentially one-person acts. This seldom distracted from the clever plotting and the Romero-inspired social commentary.
CBS Home Entertainment has brought the series back to glorious life this year (TDS Season One was released in February of this year). I have to admit that I had not thought about the show since the mid-‘80s, but the moment the DVDs arrived in the mail, I could remember the creepy opening montage in which a safe, all-American, rural landscape, complete with amber waves of grain, babbling brooks and a wood-covered bridge, transmogrifies into a weird negative of itself and a voiceover reminds us that beside our sunny world there exists another “just as real but not as brightly lit…the Darkside.”
Even today, these images manage to be cheesy and chilling all at once. They perfectly suited this archetypal ‘80s anthology show, appearing as it did at a time when the president with the sunny disposition had proclaimed it “morning in America“/ Reagan evoked Norman Rockwell’s oeuvre while the United States became involved in secret and nasty Latin American adventures and its cowboy economy gutted American inner cities and set the stage for a growing inequality of wealth that remains with us today. A darkside, indeed.
Episodic horror anthologies have always mined all manner of social anxieties, following in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Make-up impresario and splatter auteur Tom Savini directed one such memorable episode in this set called “Halloween Candy”. Savini takes on the urban legend, born in the ‘70s and coming to fruition in the ‘80s, that Halloween predators were victimizing trick or treaters. “Halloween Candy” is a tale that at first seems to be about an angry old man who hates Halloween, but turns out to be about neglect of the elderly and a parable about the horrors of social isolation. Thanks to Savini and Romero, it also includes far more disturbing make-up effects than you would expect to see on a network broadcast.
Another of the treats of season 2 DVD set is an episode called “Devil’s Advocate”. Directed by Michael Gornick (Romero’s director of photography on Dawn of the Dead and director of Creepshow 2) and written by Romero himself, it features a conservative talk radio show host whose rising ire leads to his literal transformation into a demon. In an example of the genius casting that the show often managed, Jerry Stiller (later George Costanza’s loud and angry dad on Seinfeld) plays “Mandrake the Devil’s Advocate”.
It’s a true classic with Stiller essentially doing a one-man show with his callers. He blasts them for their stupidity, praising the virtues of self-reliance and damning the government. Appearing on TV just as the right-wing blowhard with a microphone became an unsightly weed on the American landscape, the episode seems prophetic. Watching the show today is like watching transformation of Jerry Stiller into Bill O’Reilly.
A viewer seeing these episodes for the first time will also be struck with how often Satan appears as a character in the series. Throughout the season he makes Faustian pacts, inspires his minions to evil and generally creates mayhem. This seems a bit out of step with other horror anthology shows where more general monstrosities and gothic ghostly spirits provide the grisly fun.
The Devil’s looming presence in these tales can largely be explained by the bizarre obsessions of the era. The series appeared right around the time that historians, folklorists and sociologists refer to as the “satanic panic” in American society. Urban legends made American culture a hot zone of irrationality. Stories circulated about satanic covens while televangelists warned about heavy metal bands coding demonic messages into their music.
In 1985, as the second season of the series progressed, the news magazine 20/20 presented a special episode, with “investigative reporting” by Geraldo Rivera, called The Devil Worshippers. TDS provided a running satire of America’s obsessions with deviltry, using its themes and making light of its absurdities all at the same time. The transfer of the episodes is passable and looks about as good as a mid-‘80s, low budget TV show could be expected to look.
The extras are the real disappointment of the DVD set. There is a single short featurette called “On Air with George Romero” where we briefly think we are going to get commentary from Romero on the “Devil’s Advocate” episode and instead get about three to four minutes of the Zombie King talking about what inspired the episode. This short segment is enough to leave horror fans wanting more.
At the same time, getting the lean, stripped down set of episodes for a minor cult favorite is probably all that we can expect. This disappointment aside, TDS Season Two offers the perfect companion for popcorn and soda fueled marathon and an opportunity to remember an anxious moment in American social and cultural history.