Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Trick or Treat

"Trick or Treat" is the pilot episode of Tales from the Darkside. Written by series creator George Romero and directed by Bob Balaban, more known for his acting in the likes of The Monuments Men and assorted Christopher Guest mockumentaries but who is also the director of the suburban cannibal movie Parents and the zombie spoof My Boyfriend's Back, this episode is a classic just desserts tales. In this case, an old miser and trickster finds the tables turned when something other-worldly shows up at his house to start playing tricks on him.

That miser is Gideon Hackles, played by Barnard Hughes. A store owner, Hackles has the perfect name for a greedy, Scrooge-like businessman who, in a manner of speaking, shackles the farmers of the valley he lives in. Almost everyone in the town owes him money, and he uses that leverage to control their lives. Every Halloween, he has the children of his debtors come to his house, where they are given a chance to erase their parents' debts if they find the stack of IOUs he's hidden in the house, and Hackles enjoys terrifying the young children with his elaborate tricks, traps, and contraptions. But on this particular Halloween, a witch turns up to terrorize Hackles, and it isn't long before she uses his money to show him that if he wants to, he really can take it with him.

Many villains in these short stories usually have one bad trait to define them. Hackles has several. He's greedy, he enjoys controlling adults, and he enjoys preying on young people. This is illustrated a number of ways from how he clutches his bags of money, to how he charges his accountant for a cup of coffee, and the fact he threatens to increase monthly debt payments for those parents who refuse to allow their children to trick or treat at his house. This is a man who enjoys profiting off other people's suffering, whether it be monetarily or just for his own jollies.

Before the witch shows up, we see several children try and fail to find the hidden IOUs. Hackle's house is a dark, foreboding place that he has rigged with different tricks that he triggers from a hidden room. While hidden, he taunts the children through some speaker system and relishes it each time they run screaming from the house. We see him send a plastic bat flying through the air, launch a pop skeleton, and maneuver a stuffed bear from around a corner to surprise the kids. When the witch shows up, she turns the gags against Hackles, summoning up real ghouls in their place. And worst of all, she scatters all the IOUs and his money into the air, and he chases after, trying his best to catch them all, not realizing until it's too late that the witch has led him to straight to Hell, where the Devil tells him he's getting warmer, just as Hackles had taunted the kids.

Romero's script is littered with some clever, unexpected touches. One father, established as especially desperate that he states he toughened his son up with "the belt," looks like he'll get angry when the boy fails; instead, he hugs him. Balaban also uses the camera in an effective manner, filming the kids from high angles so we look down on the frightened kids as they traverse house, reinforcing Hackle's status above these families from an economic perspective and he looks down on them. When the witch shows up and starts levitating, she's filmed from below so she looms over Hackles, demonstrating how he's now on the bottom rung of the ladder.

"Trick or Treat" is a great start to the series. The makeup on the witch and other ghouls is well done and creepy, the story and characterization is tight, and the moral, social message about greed, cruelty, and how the rich exploit the poor is done in dramatic way that doesn't come off as preachy or obtrusive. A fine start, indeed.

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