As a kid I loved pretty much any fantastic anthology show I could get my grubby little mitts on. Amazing Stories, Night Gallery, Tales from the Crypt, The Outer Limits, even the Friday the 13th series, which much to my shock and dismay, had nothing to do with Jason Voorhees. It didn’t even have anything to do with teens being slaughtered at summer camp. What a rip off.
Some of these shows hold up over time. If I happen to stumble across a Twilight Zone marathon on SyFy, good luck getting me to do anything else for the rest of the day, I’m useless. It happened last week. Others don’t stand the test of time. The third season of Tales From the Darkside is a bit of both.
Produced by horror legend, George A. Romero, the show was originally intended to capitalize on the success of his anthology film, Creepshow. Initially the show featured the works of such luminaries as Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and Clive Barker, in addition to Romero himself, but by the time the third season rolled around it was on a sharp downhill slide, and it is evident why the show only lasted for one more season.
There isn’t much of a budget for most of these episodes. The sets are minimal, and if you look closely, many of the same sets, repainted and rearranged, make multiple appearances throughout the season. The lighting is muddy, and the picture quality is not always the greatest, which makes the show feel dated. Casting is minimal as well, and it is rare to come across an episode that features more than four actors.
Most of the episodes follow a similar formula, with a twist ending that generally isn’t earned. In a half hour show, which in this case translates to approximately 21 and a half minutes of screen time, including opening and closing credits, it is difficult to create a fully developed story. Weekly sitcoms have the advantage of being able to draw from everything that came before, from all of the history already written. Tales From the Darkside introduces an entirely new world, new characters, and new situations every week. There are no connective threads, so there is nothing to build from, and the architects have to start over from scratch with each episode.
These aren’t meant to be disparaging remarks, but simple statements of fact. I don’t want to imply that the show isn’t worthwhile. While some of the episodes don’t work particularly well, winding up bland and formulaic, others are very effective. Working with limited resources, sometimes the producers manage to pull off something unique and interesting.
The episode “Miss May Dusa” transplants the Gorgon Medusa to modern day (1986 modern day that is) New York City. It features three actors, one who doesn’t speak, and the action takes place almost entirely on a subway platform at three o’clock in the morning. Still, despite some mid-decade cheesiness (seriously, one of the characters is a blind saxophone player), and an unnecessary twist ending, it manages to tell a sweet, genuinely moving story.
There are some other highlights in this season, like the episode “Baker’s Dozen”. Penned by Romero himself, it makes use of the voodoo undercurrents of New Orleans (somehow without actually ever showing the city) to create atmosphere. Though there is the requisite twist ending, it’s actually set up and does not come out of nowhere just to finish the episode. “My Ghostwriter—The Vampire”, about a horror writer who uses the stories of a real life vampire, is another episode that holds up until some overacting ruins it at the last minute.
While these and other episodes are legitimately well crafted and spooky, there are others that are so absurd that they wind up being a lot of fun to watch. “The Red Leader”, a cautionary tale about living a good life, features a cameo by Satan himself. Be warned, though: there are also some episodes that will make you cringe, like “The Geezenstacks”, about a family of haunted dolls, and “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye,” about people who die when a little girl says goodbye to them.
Like I said, Tales From the Darkside: The Third Season is a mixed bag, but if you throw on some tall rubber boots and wade through it, you’ll find some shiny nuggets worth watching.
You can also play a rousing game of “Spot That Pseudo Celebrity”. Make it through the entire season and you’ll get to see a pre-Blossom Jenna Von Oy, Kenicke from Grease, Nancy Travis (So I Married an Axe Murderer), the dad from A Christmas Story (Darren McGavin), and the dude who played Bozo in the greatest movie ever made, Thrashin’. In one episode Larry Manetti (Rick from Magnum P.I.) gets a “Special Guest Star” credit. To be fair, the air date was 1986, right in the middle of Magnum’s run, so he probably was the most “special” and recognizable actor in the entire season. Also, Robert Forster and Seymour Cassel star in the same episode.
While the packaging looks nice, CBS didn’t exactly go all out with the DVD release. Unless I’m missing something, and I don’t think that I am, there are no special features, though the first disc does give you the option to skip over the previews and go directly to the main menu, so that was considerate of them.