Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: The New Man

Horror often works as metaphor. The monster, the vampire, the ghost, or whatever the creature is can be used to symbolize any number of real-world fears, anxieties, or issues. For example, Night of the Living Dead has been interpreted by some scholars and fans to be a reflection of the social disorder going on in the United States during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement while some earlier David Cronenberg movies about parasites and sexually-crazed maniacs such as Rabid have been said to be about venereal disease.

Alcoholism is potent material for the horror genre. Consider Stephen King's The Shining. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic who is driven insane by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel, who use his weakness for the bottle as a way to transform him from a loving husband and father to a deranged killer. Alcohol destroys his career, threatens his family, causes him to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy, and ultimately destroys him, just as alcohol can do outside of fiction.

"The New Man," the second episode of Tales from the Darkside, is sort of a low-key version of alcoholism as a horror genre monster. There are no ghosts, no isolated hotels in the dead of winter, no ax murders, and no blood and guts. Instead, this is more like a small-scale version of The Shining as presented by Franz Kafka. There's no phantasmagoria, but you're still not sure what's real, and it's very paranoid as all the people in the main character's life turn against him. Unfortunately, the explanation at the end of the episode ruins the whole enterprise and just raises more questions than it answers.

Vic Tayback plays Alan Coombs, a real-estate salesman and a recovering alcoholic who hasn't had a drink in a year. One day at the office, a 6-year-old boy named Jerry shows, claiming to be Alan's son. Alan takes the boy to the police station, convinced it's some kind of joke or mistake because he only has one son, Petey, but when he gets home, he finds his wife angry at him for what he did to their son. She becomes convinced he's back on the bottle, but Alan insists he's clean.

That's an intriguing premise and it sets up an interesting conflict: has Alan started drinking again, causing him to black out and forget things, including the fact that he has a 6-year-old son, or is something more nefarious at work, something sinister that is altering the people around him to drive him crazy? Is he crazy all along or is what happening an attempt to drive him crazy? It's hard to say.

As the episode progresses, Alan becomes more and more unhinged. He sweats a lot, he looks disheveled, and he starts losing his temper when his family starts making accusations.The passage of time becomes a blur to him as well. Alan goes to work and apologizes for being late, and the boss tells him that it's been two days since he last showed up. His wife tells him she'll leave him if she finds out he's drinking again, but when he goes to work straight from that talk, he gets a call from her and finds out she's leaving. At the end. Alan alone in his presumed son's bedroom, finds a dresser full of shirts with Jerry's name on them along with a bottle of booze that he begins to imbibe.

But then the episode continues. We see a new employee working at Alan's desk. He too is a recovering alcoholic, demurring a drink offered by the same boss. However, Jerry shows up and claims to be his son. Huh? Is this kid supposed to be the literal demon alcohol, targeting the people at this particular office who have quit drinking?

This ending destroys the earlier ambiguity because clearly, Alan was right all along; this isn't his son, but the episode doesn't explain why the wife and the other son believe this kid is part of their family. So what happened after Alan gave in to the drink and this kid goes after someone else? Do they still think this boy is in their family? And why does this kid, assuming that's what he is, want to get recovering alcoholics to drink again? The ghosts in The Shining do that so they can control Jack Torrance; no greater purpose is presented here.

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