Tales From the Darkside—a syndicated horror anthology series originally broadcast from 1983-88—is remembered more for narrator Paul Sparer’s ominous preamble (“a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit”) than its mind-blowing episodes. A general dearth of televised anthology series followed the cancelation of Night Gallery in 1973, but after the unexpected box office success of Creepshow (’82), the George Romero-produced Tales From the Darkside helped jump-start a new wave of televised anthologies, paving the way for programs like The New Twilight Zone (1985-89), Amazing Stories (1985-87) and the far gorier Monsters (1988-91).
Though billing itself as straight-up horror, the respective moods and tones of the individual episodes are deliriously uneven, with the series frequently wandering from its horror base camp into the dubious realm of lightweight fantasy or horror-comedy. CBS Studios’ DVD release of Tales From the Darkside: Season 1—24 episodes on 3 discs—serves as a cultural barometer indicating how far horror television has progressed during the past 25 years. Even the best episode of Tales From the Darkside looks like a Junior High stage production when compared to network mediocrity like Fear Itself. Still, nostalgia is a force to be reckoned with, and even the haters will concede that a handful of episodes are worth remembering:
”Inside the Closet”—Not the study in adolescent homosexual angst that the title suggests, Tom Savini’s directorial debut is easily the best episode of Season 1. An introverted student rents a room in the spacious home of a leering professor, but things get creepy as she begins to suspect that something is living in her bedroom closet. The make-up maestro paces the action like the proverbial baby bear: not too fast, not too slow, but juuuuust right. The excellent creature effects stamp Savini’s fingerprints all over this memorable ep.
“Trick or Treat”—The pilot episode, about a cranky old moneylender who forces his creditors’ children to walk through his house of spooks each Halloween, is a creaky bore until the third act, when the appearance of a vengeful witch finally kicks the party into gear. Although tame by today’s standards, the episode’s third-act depictions of hell were lurid enough to convince television programmers to pick up the series.
Case of the Stubborns”A daughter and grandson (a young, obviously eager Christian Slater) mourn the death of Grandpa the previous evening, and are stunned when his partially decomposing body descends the stairs the next morning, wanting breakfast. They solicit the help of their local preacher (Brent “Data” Spiner), who convinces the family that they will need to “prove” to Grandpa that he has passed away, or else his rotting, undead body will be hanging around forever. A talky episode belabored by a shitload of stilted attempts at comedy, most of which are centered around Grandpa’s “humorous” refusal to die. Although it’s a decent episode, its status as fan favorite is hard to comprehend.
Anniversary Dinner–An elderly couple living up in the mountains take in a female hiker after her boyfriend ditches her for bigger and better trails. The woman hiker digs the attention, the married geezer couple seems awful lonely, so it all seems to be working out for everyone. Until events take an ominous turn (of course). A diverting episode with some good acting, but you can see the end coming from light years away.
Each subsequent season of Tales From the Darkside roughly mirrored the good cpisoded/bad episode ratio of Season 1: About 1 in 6. This is one of those rare television series that warrants a “greatest hits” DVD release, rather than each individual season being released in its ultra-lame entirety.
DVD ExtrasThe pilot episode, “Trick or Treat”, features a sporadic and dismissive commentary from producer George Romero. Seriously, he only talks about 25% of the time, and when he is talking, he’s referring to the Tales episodes as “silly little things”.