“Tales from the Darkside” was initially supposed to be a “Creepshow” television series after the successful run of both films. Alas it never came to be and the idea was eventually transformed in to “Tales from the Darkside” bringing along the “Creepshow” alum of George A. Romero, Tom Savini, and Stephen King, all of whom contributed episodes and directed many of the key installments of the hit series.
One of the many anthology series of the eighties anthology revival, “Tales from the Darkside” covered fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and sometimes injected dark comedy in to the narratives. While not every episode is a masterpiece, these are ten of the best episodes of the series that I can never get enough of. Also, the theme song used to scare the living crap out of me for a time when I was a kid. It was so frightening it’d often reduce me to tears. Thanks George A. Romero!
10. The Moth
Debbie Harry was something special back in her days, and as Sybil she plays an alluring but deftly lethal young witch whose mother is utterly aware of the threat she poses. When Sybil comes home one night on the verge of death due to local towns folks who stabbed her repeatedly, Sybil beckons her mother to capture her soul in a moth and keep it contained in a jar until dawn.
Intent on reviving herself, Sybil seems to have mastered the secret of life, while her mother is not so keen on keeping her evil daughter alive. So begins a battle of wits, as Sybil’s mother uses the very book her daughter applies to her spells and seeks to keep her daughter distracted and restrained until dawn so she can finally die. Creepy and tense, the episode is very downbeat, and ends on a very twisted and surprise note. Harry has a knack for playing menacing characters, it’s a shame she never opted for more roles of this ilk.
9. The Family Reunion
You can kind of see the writing on the wall with the eventual casting of Patricia Tallman as the modern Barbara in Tom Savini’s “Night of the Living Dead” treatment. Tallman is a powerful and underrated genre actress, and she shows it in her work as a character actress and her working with Tom Savini who directs this fine episode. “Family Reunion” sets down on Robert who has just relocated with his son yet again and insists on keeping him chained and locked inside a barricaded room.
Janice is a woman trying to reach the father and son and seeks help from a family counselor who plans to track the duo down and help Janice be re-united with her son once and for all. With a hot temper, and unusual drive, Janice eventually tracks Robert and her son to a house and all hell breaks loose when everyone involved get an idea of how strong the bonds of blood are. Especially that of the lycanthropic nature.
8. Do Not Open This Box
There are some things that money simply can not buy. Charlie is a man with a lifelong dream of being an inventor. He doesn’t want to be an inventor so he can become rich, he wants to invent something so that he can help people and benefit society. His wife unfortunately is a gold digging wench who does nothing but nag and badger Charlie while complaining about her neighbors, whose possessions she covets. Often bemoaning marrying Charlie, she spends most of her time belittling Charlie who spends his days in his basement creating his own devices.
When the couple accidentally receive a box that insists on not being opened, Charlie’s wife Ruth cracks it open hoping for a fortune. Disgusted at an empty box, a delivery man appears at their door asking for the box back and insisting that it not be opened. Ruth insists on taking advantage of the opportunity demanding riches and jewels from the kind delivery man. But as time goes on, the delivery man has lost his patience and wants to collect the box and be on his way. When he learns the box has been opened, things take a turn for the worse, and the priceless artifact must be replaced. Or else. A wonderful and darkly funny episode, this is yet another installment of bad people getting what they have coming to them, and good people being rewarded.
7. The New Man
The ending to “The New Man” is so jarring and ambiguous that it could literally mean anything. Maybe there’s a trickster that targets ex-alcoholics over and over, perhaps there’s an avenging angel sent to Earth to torture and destroy ex-alcoholics for the pain and misery they’ve caused their family, maybe the company has a supernatural being that torments ex-alcoholics. Who knows? “The New Man” set light on Alan Coombs, a man with a horrible past who struggles to keep away from alcohol. One day when a young boy arrives at his job ready to go home with him, Alan has no idea who he is.
He’s never seen the boy in his life. What makes the situation more unusual is that Alan’s family swears he’s been his child forever. His sons recognize him as their brother, his wife knows him as her son, and Alan has no idea how to deal with this revelation. Most of “The New Man” involves the character Alan trying to comprehend this unusual new entity in his life, and it literally drives him mad as the story progresses. The moral seems to be that no matter how much we try to reverse it, there’s just no taking back the pain we cause our loved ones.
6. Printer’s Devil
Ever wonder if some people are famous because they’ve made a deal with the devil or perhaps concocted a spell? Well “Printer’s Devil” sets the light on struggling writer Junior Harmon who finds it impossible to publish his own original work anywhere. When he sees an ad for a company that guarantees to publish his work, he’s surprised to discover the company operates on a simple formula of routines and–uh–animal sacrifice.
Given the task of writing novels for the sake of fame, Junior finds fame to be the pits, and once he is married to the girl of his dreams, she finds it impossible to live with his enormous stable of animals he keeps around the house. Just in case. Junior Harmon learns that being famous can have its downfalls, but being a struggling writer is definitely worth the sacrifice of a few stray animals. Literally.
5. Bigalow’s Last Smoke
I really enjoy this episode for the fact that it explores how hellish quitting something can be. I’m not a smoker, but the common explanation from smokers is that quitting cigarettes is almost impossible. A businessman wakes up one morning to find himself being monitored by a mysterious man on-screen. Incapable of finding a match for his cigarettes, he discovers, much to his horror, that he is in a facility that is programmed to help him quit smoking for good.
If he progresses he’s allowed luxuries like television and furniture and light, but if he stumbles just once he’s deprived of the common luxuries and is plagued with a horrible siren. In spite of his protests and pleads, Bigalow simply can not leave the center until he’s kicked smoking. Often tense and twisted, “Bigalow’s Last Smoke” is a great look at a world I wish existed. If only this type of program worked. The final scene where Bigalow discovers he’s not quite out of the woods just yet is excellent.
4. Halloween Candy
There’s a lot of implications toward the finale of “Halloween Candy.” The final scene is pretty suggestive that perhaps the demonic presence of candy stealing ogres and demons really wasn’t some sort of twisted revenge on a horrible old man. Perhaps it was his delirium from starvation and neglect from a bitter son. Or was it? It’s left up to audiences to decide for themselves when the anti-Halloween neighborhood troll Mr. Killup who refuses to hand out candy.
His angry son spends most of his time with his dad complaining about his attitude and hatred toward kids, and leaves him alone for the night to run errands. When Mr. Killup is alone, he finds he’s at the mercy of vengeful Halloween spirits who want his candy, no matter what. The creature effects matched with the ace direction by Tom Savini makes this an atmospheric and tense episode. The ending is a sick and unusual twist that dabbles in the realm of reality and fantasy. We may never know what happened to Mr. Killup.
3. Anniversary Dinner
I can’t believe with the fairy tale allusions in the wrap around story of “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie,” that the episode “Anniversary Dinner” wasn’t saved for a segment of the movie. It would have easily turned it in to a more watchable endeavor. With shades of Hansel and Gretel from the very beginning, “Anniversary Dinner” sets down on a couple about to celebrate their 25th anniversary and are having a hard time finding meat for their big dinner. While relaxing they’re greeted with a male and female hitchhiker, both of whom are lost and looking for their way back to a house down the road.
The rude male traveler is escorted by the husband to the house as the female is brought in to the house and given a full treatment of a shower and food. Though the man is never seen again, the female traveler pays no mind, and begins taking a liking to the old couple. As they express gratitude toward not being able to find the proper meat for their big feast from their loyal butcher, they invite the girl to make herself comfortable where she’s brought in to the basement to bathe in their hot tub and relax. “Anniversary Dinner” is a bit predictable, but so utterly demented in delivering some truly gruesome story elements and never actually featuring any violence on screen. With implications toward the famous Hansel and Gretel, it’s a shame this fantastic episode never saw life in the movie.
2. Trick or Treat
This is coincidentally the first episode of “Tales from the Darkside” that has ever aired, and it’s also the first episode I’ve ever actually seen. I fondly recall watching this at least a dozen times in the nineties and being enamored by it every single time. The great Barnard Hughes plays the evil Mr. Hackles, a local wealthy old man who provides loans to struggling farmers and keeps their debts on file. Showing zero mercy for their monthly payments, he often uses their debt as a means of keeping them in his control.
Every Halloween he challenges the farmer to allow their children to enter in to his house and find the documents. He takes great joy in rigging his house with monsters and spooky sounds scaring the death out of the children. If they find the documents, their debts are cleared forever, but if they’re too scared to finish the scavenger hunt, the debt remains. One night after a particularly successful bout of scaring off many families, Mr. Hackles meets his match in the form of a vengeful witch, and a very angry group of hell spawn who show Mr. Hackles how to really scare someone to death. Filmed with nightmarish cinematography and an excellent display of creature effects, “Trick or Treat” is a haunting and perfect Halloween treat. And a very good dose of comeuppance for a horrible human being.
1. Sorry, Right Number
This is an episode that manages to be both creepy and heartbreaking at the same time. No other episode of “Tales from the Darkside” has inspired me to go back and re-watch the entire episode all over again. Not even the Halloween episodes. “Sorry, Right Number” is about fate, disaster, and the inevitable that we can’t fight or change, no matter how much we work at it. Sometimes bad things just happen for no rhyme or reason, and there’s no way around it. Life is just unfair, and we just have to find a way to push forward, in spite of it. Written by Stephen King, the episode follows Katie Weiderman, a family woman who one night receives a phone call from a random stranger.
Disturbed, the stranger over the phone is so hysterical and incoherent and seems to be asking for help or warning her about something bad. Incapable of letting the call go as something of a prank or mistaken wrong number, she and her husband Bill visit every single person in her family that night to see if they’re okay, and are shocked to discover that seemingly everyone are not only safe, but completely oblivious to any imminent danger. After a long night of ensuring everyone’s safety, Kate discovers what the call meant. An example of the science fiction device of predestination paradox, “Sorry, Right Number” has no clear villain or monster in it, but it does examine how sometimes we are the accidental engineers of the future, and the inevitable is an unstoppable force of nature. With a final scene that’s just gut wrenching, “Sorry, Right Number” is a masterpiece of genre television.