From the first moment of the opening credits, where idyllic surroundings go photo-negative, you get the idea that Tales from the Darkside may be better off left in obscurity. There are some things that one just should not indulge in nostalgia for, things that are better left relegated to the dusty vaults of childhood memory, fond, foggy recollections of a bygone era. Tales from the Darkside is one of these things.
Like slap bracelets, Sunny Delight, Hypercolor t-shirts and pro wrestling, George Romero’s horror anthology series has aged exceptionally poorly. Or perhaps it was always this bad and I just didn’t notice it.
Tales from the Darkside came out of the success of romero’s Creepshow. The show was envisioned as a televised version of the EC comics of the ‘50s, much like HBO’s more often recalled and better executed Tales from the Crypt. Which is a fine notion, except those stories only really work when they’re morbid and often brilliantly illustrated comics that take about 10 minutes to read. When they’re stretched to a half hour of actively crumbling cardboard set pieces and ham handed performances, they lose much of their charm.
For the most part, these episodes play like low rent retellings of Twilight Zone episodes. But where the often stunning writing of The Twilight Zone explored the dark corners of human nature, Tales from the Darkside is instead concerned with teaching valuable lessons about life. For example, never buy anything from a suddenly appearing middle eastern curio shop. And if the handsome, mysterious stranger who is paying you to catch your tears in a bottle shows you around his shrine-like Chamber of Ancient Sorrows, then it’s probably time to leave.
Of course these lessons are significantly more appropriate if you share the evangelical world of the characters in Tales from the Darkside, a world where the devil and his agents are very real threats, active in the world and constantly trying to corrupt and lay claim to innocent souls. And while gathering your friends together for an evening of shouting “Watch out! That guy/girl/deck of tarot cards/answering machine is the Devil!” makes for a reasonably entertaining drinking game, there is little else to recommend the first season of this hard to take horror series.
Tales from the Darkside plays host to a staggering variety of devils, all seemingly jockeying for possession of every soul they can get their hellish mitts on. The foppish, rose carrying devil of “I’ll Give You a Million” appears in the third act to lay claim to the glowing, seemingly radioactive soul of a zombie, which simply has to be seen to be believed.
The stern and businesslike Dr. Devil, MD, puts in an appearance, as does magic Kareem Abdul Jabaar (okay, technically he’s a genie, but the same principle applies). Devils inhabit word processors, answering machines and coin operated fortune tellers, eagerly waiting their opportunity to maim, murder or eternally corrupt the next in an endless line of unlikable, unsuspecting knuckleheads.
The series is also replete with stories in the “be careful what you wish for” genre, operating on the assumption that it is always entertaining to see an obnoxious teenager clamoring for a glimpse of real magic get his just deserts. Sadly, the producers seem to go out of their way to prove that this is not the case, and that, given poor enough production values and a seemingly endless supply of clumsy dialogue, any thing that goes bump in the night can be rendered staggeringly boring. Even the one special feature, a commentary by executive producer George Romero on the pilot episode, feels listless and cursory, in unfortunate keeping with the rest of the series.
The light hearted episodes that take themselves less seriously are among the most successful. When Bud Cort and Carol Kane face off as sorcerers dueling over an ill gotten lottery ticket, the play between the two is a well worked combination of menace and goofball antics.
Some episodes are even effective as genuine chillers – Tom Savini’s “In The Closet” plays effectively on classic childhood fears of unspeakable creatures lurking in bedroom closets and underneath beds and, with a healthy dose of atmospheric lighting, claustrophobic set design and scraping claws and eerily creaking doors, turns out a goose bump-inducing segment. It’s unfortunate that most of the episodes in this collection don’t take a cue from this one, instead opting for corny tales of bad things happening to bad people in this series that deserves to be left on the dustbin of history.