Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: The Tear Collector

Anthologies are fond of O. Henry endings, i.e. a big twist, and Tales from the Darkside is no exception. There are plenty of episodes that conclude with a big surprise, usually in the form of some sort of cosmic justice. Unfortunately, "The Tear Collector" proves to be a shaggy dog story. It introduces to an interesting character with a peculiar hobby, but ultimately, the episode never really answers any questions or resolves anything. It just ends.

Prudence (Jessica Harper, looking a lot like Karen Allen) can't stop crying about ... honestly, I don't know. From what I could tell, she has an extreme case of clinical depression that no one around her seems to appreciate, but for some reason, she refuses to seek any help for this, even though she looks like she can't function in a day-to-day society. It just seems like anything will make her sad and cry. One day, after an encounter with a homeless man (played by Eric Bogosian but don't look for him after this scene), Prudence has an encounter with the mysterious Ambrose Cavender (Victor Garbo). He's a collector, and he says he can help her sorrow by collecting her tears.

I fully expected Cavender to be some sort of evil sorcerer or something like that who steals people's souls through their tears, but "The Tear Collector" offers very little in the way of horror or the macabre. Apparently, he just really wants to help people by taking their tears, letting them expel their sorrows in the process. Initially, I was intrigued about why Cavender collects to tears and what his agenda was, but no explanation is forthcoming. The story merely concludes with Prudence dropping the vial of her tears (by accident) and then immediately hitting it off with a taxi driver she meets.

What's going to happen to Cavender?  Is there real power to the tears? How long has he been collecting tears? Who knows? It's implied Cavender might be immortal. He shows Prudence other tear vials, one containing tears from an Aztec emperor looking over the ruins of his empire and another from a Confederate mother who will never see her son again (meanwhile, Prudence just can't stop feeling sad because? I'm reminded of the old joke, "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and I'll give you something to cry about.").

There's an attempt at romantic tragedy. Prudence begins to fall in love with Cavender, the man who is taking away her hurt. In their final session, the only way she is able to cry is when he kisses her. But then when he rejects her afterward because he only wants the tears, she storms off with her tear vial before running into the aforementioned taxi driver. This ending just feels tacked on. If the focus had been more on Cavendner, a man who helps people by accumulating their sorrows and helping them find love that he himself cannot have, the episode might have been a winner. Instead, it feels like the makers didn't know what to do with the premise.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Answer Me

The second episode of Tales from the Darkside to deal with a malevolent phone, "Answer Me" is one of the better directed and more atmospheric episodes. Anyone who has ever dreaded hearing a telephone, not knowing what kind of news it will bring, or who has had a peaceful sleep interrupted by that shrill ringing can certainly relate to the scenario presented here. Unfortunately, "Answer Me" has one serious detriment against it.

That would be Jean Marsh, who in a one-woman show plays Joan, an aging actress subletting an apartment in New York trying to get some rest before a big audition the next day. Marsh (who I'll always think of as the evil queen Bavmorda in Willow) plays Joan very broadly and comes off as a stuck-up bitch. She has a habit of talking loud, even when she's ostensibly trying to sleep, and describing everything she's doing thinking, and feeling, and really, it's overkill. Instead of showing us the terror and paranoia she's feeling, the episode has her tell us everything, and this strategy ends up sinking what is otherwise an effective, creepy episode.

See, Joan is trying to sleep, but the phone in the apartment next door won't stop ringing, and her attempts to get someone to answer it fail. She calls the landlord to deal with it, but he tells her no one lives there, so what's going on? Is Joan going crazy, or is something more sinister afoot? Perhaps, a ghost of a former tenant is messing with her. Honestly, even after watching the episode, I'm not sure.

The episode works best with its moody shots of empty hallways and closets in the apartments that are filled with shadows that could be hiding anything. When she decides to investigate the empty apartment, Joan discovers marks in the walls and doors that suggest someone is in there or has been there. When she picks up the phone in question, now disconnected, and is able to talk with a mysterious operator, it's creepy.

But the problem always goes back to Joan. I just didn't like her and couldn't care less what happened to her. Her monologuing over every action ruins the mood, and I hate to say it, she's acts stereotypically British: pompous, snooty, and condescending. Someone like Agnes Moorehead, who played the mute countrywoman in the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Invaders," would have been able to be sympathetic and to convey emotion without having to say it.

Also, the end, when the phone comes alive and strangles Joan, is really lame.

Tales from the Darkside: Snip, Snip

Many episodes of Tales from the Darkside try to have some kind of moral or social message. Here's the lesson I took away from "Snip, Snip": if you're going to use black magic to win the lottery, wait until after the numbers are picked before calling your boss to gloat and quit. But if you should fail to do that and discover you haven't won anything, it's best not to call him back to beg for your job back and use as an excuse "I was only off by one number!"

Those are the lessons Abe North (Bud Cort) should have taken to heart, but no, he disregards both and is left looking like an idiot (and is now unemployed) when the powers of the Dark Side didn't give him the winning lottery numbers. Instead of 666-666, the winning numbers turn out to be 666-667, picked by a hairdresser, Anne MacColl (Carol Cane), who plans to open her own beauty salon. Rather than learn not to put stock in black magic, Abe decides he's entitled to the winnings and sneaks into Anne's apartment to steal her ticket. But the seemingly air headed hairdresser might just have a trick or two up her sleeve.

"Snip, Snip" highlights something I think we've all long suspected: Carol Kane is kind of creepy. Seriously, those wide eyes and that voice that sounds like she's hiding something, she can be unnerving when she wants to be. She doesn't look intimidating, but appearances, especially in the horror genre, are often deceiving. Poor Bud Cort, once again playing a nerdy loser with a chip on his shoulder, discovers all too late that even when you get a little power for the first time, there's always someone else who's more powerful than you.

That's how "Snip, Snip" works. Abe is ostensibly the protagonist, but he's an entitled little shit, and watching him in turns being humiliated, foiled, and threatened is darkly funny. Anne proves to be more evil and powerful than Abe could hope to be, but it's hard not like her. She has a plan (both in terms of how to get the money and what she wants to do with it), she's nice to her old neighbor and pet bird, and she's the smart one in this story, two steps ahead of Abe. Abe, when you get down to it, is a sap, and he just doesn't realize it yet.

When Anne gets nasty toward, demonstrating the power she's capable of, it's actually pretty effective as she toys with Abe and makes him realize what a worm he really is. I suppose the real lesson of "Snip, Snip" is be careful of forces you don't really comprehend or control. Especially when that force is Carol Kane.

Tales from the Darkside: Anniversary Dinner

It's always the normal-seeming ones who turn out to be the biggest freaks in stories like this, isn't it? Country couple Henry and Elinor Colander (Mario Roccuzzo and Alice Ghostley) are planning their 25th anniversary when a pair of young hikers pass their home. The man is a jerk, but Ellinor takes to the girl, Sybil (Fredica Duke). Since the Colanders' children are no longer around, Elinor convinces Henry to allow Sybil, who ran away from her home two years ago, to stay and help out around the house as the prepare for their annual dinner.

"Anniversary Dinner" has a twist that's obvious a mile away. Anyone who has watched enough of these of anthology shows, whether it's Tales from the Darkside, The Twilight Zone, or Tales from the Crypt, will recognize very quickly where the story is going, what the red herrings are, and the true nature of the seemingly normal couple fairly quickly (I laughed when I saw the giant ladle and the hot tub). After all, when someone remarks how they would love to have someone for dinner, it's usually apparent that they don't mean they're inviting the other person over for post roast.

Still, after a string of sub-par and/or non-horror entries, "Anniversary Dinner" is a welcome addition to the Darkside cannon. The Colanders are convincingly simple, honest country folk, Henry as something of a grouch and Elinor as the sweet homemaker type. They squabble a bit, but they don't overdo it, and there's some real affection between the two. When the asshole hiker is a jerk to Elinor, Henry pulls a shotgun on him, and I was ready to cheer.

That's really the strength of the episode; its villains don't snarl their teeth and act like deranged monsters. They're a charming couple of empty nesters minding their own business, and in a way, you end up rooting for them. After all, not every married couple makes it 25 years. When they stir their Sybil's body in the hot tub and calmly add the vegetables for their human stew, it's a denouement that's both creepy and in it's own way heartwarming.

Apart from its predictability, the weakness of the episode is Sybil, who acts much younger than she appears to be and is never convincing as someone who has been on the road for as long as she states she is. To give the narrative more momentum, there needed to be a sense of mystery and entrapment: the more Sybil learns about her kind hosts, the greater the danger she realizes she's in, and while there is some of that, it isn't fully developed. It's more like this nice couple treats her well and then at the end, they cook her in the hot tub before she has a chance to do anything about it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: In the Cards

The best stories about predicting the future, I find, are the ones in which the prophecy occurs in an unexpected manner. MacBeth is told by the Weird Sisters he won't be defeated by one of woman born, so he is stunned to learn that MacDuff was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped." Or for a more recent example, Demi Moore plays a gold digger in a Tales from the Crypt episode in which she marries a morbidly obese man after being told he will inherit a fortune and then die a horribly violent death; however, when she ends up coming into some money and tries to leave him, he jealously kills her, inherits her fortune as a result, and is put down in the electric chair.

"In Cards" also deals with terrible predictions, but unfortunately, the episode itself is terribly predictable. It's one of those tempting fate stories in which a phony purveyor of the supernatural encounters the real thing and ultimately is destroyed by it, which has potential for a fun story, but the execution is rather humdrum. The predictions are all the same (death), so there's no joy or curiosity in seeing how the predictions will pan out, and the characters are boring; no one is deliciously nasty enough to be compelling or sympathetic enough to root for.

Dorothy Lyman plays Catherine, a fraudulent Tarot Card reader who always gives customers happy readings. One day, an old woman, Marlena (Carmen Matthews), arrives for a reading, but after getting it, she switches the deck of cards with an identical set when Catherine isn't looking. The new cards possess a genuine power at foretelling the future; the problem is the prediction is always death. Frightened by the experience, Catherine tries to figure out how to get rid of the cursed deck.

The interesting spin on this story is the notion that Marlena herself is revealed to be a competing psychic who tries to sabotage Catherine with the cursed cards because she doesn't respect the magic and is drawing away her clientele. Psychics as competing business owners might have made for some interesting satire or at least allowed for some variation of conflict, but no, once Catherine learns who Marlena is, she confronts her and learns that the cursed has been passed onto and the only way to get rid of it is to pass the cards onto someone else (which reminds me of Drag Me to Hell).

This is the point where a sympathetic protagonist would have a crisis of conscious: bare this burden or dump it onto someone. The episode doesn't address what would happen if Catherine keeps the cards but doesn't use them; there are attempts by her to get rid of the cards by throwing them away and burning them, but they always turn up just fine, no worse for wear. She might not be able to get rid of them, but that doesn't mean she has to keep giving predictions.

So, without a moment's thought, Catherine dumps the cards on another psychic by pretending to be a customer looking for a reading, but like an idiot, she doesn't wait until a reading is given with the normal deck, so she walks out of the shop and is immediately stabbed by a mugger. The end. Nothing to see here folks.

Tales from the Darkside: All a Clone by the Telephone

The first of two episodes in season 1 that deal with an evil phone or phone-related object, "All a Clone by the Telephone" is about a failing screenwriter, Leon (Harry Anderson of Night Court fame), whose life starts to unravel when the voice on his answering machine takes on a life of its own and starts to interfere with his life, leaving messages claiming to be him. Leon is a bit of wimp, and the voice is very dominant and blunt, pushing Leon into the things he's too meek to do himself: proposing to his girlfriend and pitching a hit idea for a miniseries. When Leon resents having his life controlled, the voice lets him know just how much damage it can cause.

Why is there a reference to clones in the title? There aren't any clones in the episode. Even if what the voice on the answering machine says about being from an alternate dimension is true, that still doesn't make any sense in the context of clones. The best explanation I can think is clone rhymes with phone, and it allows for a (very weak) pun. And, sad to say, that question is really the only thing about this episode that kept me interested. Not even the appearance of Dick Miller as Leon's agent did much to liven the show up if that tells you how un-involving it is.

The episode jumps right in with the answering machine voice (which is rather annoying as if it's trying to sound like Joe Pesci) revealing itself to Leon and asserting itself over him, and while to a degree it's understandable, given the running length of these episodes, that the makers would want get to the meat of the story as quickly as possible, there's just not enough time to build up and buy into the notion the story is presenting. A voice on an answering machine is not by itself a particular scary villain, and I have no idea what it wanted to accomplish. I thought it was perhaps setting up the notion of taking over Leon's life and replacing him, but by the end, the voice remains in the machine and Leon remains in his place, only now taking orders from it by dictating the miniseries that the voice wants credit for. How a disembodied voice on an answering expects to achieve any credit or frame is another question the episode doesn't answer, especially when it does nothing to prove its existence when Leon tries to blame.

There's a potentially interesting idea about technology taking over a person's life, a theme which has reappeared a number of times in the series. Leon depends on the answering machine for his personal and professional life, and when the machine decides it doesn't want to be told what to do, it causes havoc for him. The problem is a voice makes for a lame villain, Maybe if made today, with social media profiles, texting, Skype, and other devices and programs that are widely available, the story could build more mystery, better establish what's at stake, and perhaps make the proceedings more paranoid and ominous. This is a story about losing control to technology, but all I lost was interest.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Djinn, No Chaser

Oh boy. An episode of Tales of from the Darkside shouldn't make me think of Kazaam, but that's precisely what "Djinn, No Chaser" does. I mean, how many movies or TV shows can there be starring a basketball star as a genie? To be fair to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he's never as undignified here as Shaquille O'Neil would be in his movie, he doesn't wear any goofy outfits, he doesn't rap, he doesn't live in a boombox, and blessedly, this one's only twenty minutes long. Still, "Djinn, No Chaser" is pretty lame and mostly unfunny.

Based on a story by Harlan Ellison, the episode revolves around newlyweds, Danny and Connie Squires, who buy a magic lamp from a mysterious tent that mysteriously appears in a lot they are walking by and that mysteriously vanishes as soon as they step out of it. The lamp contains the spirit of a djinn (Abdul-Jabarr), but he's not a benevolent wish granter. Being trapped in that tiny space has made him a bit of a crank who enjoys lashing out at the Squires with rain storms, wild animals (that only appear off-screen), and other natural disasters that soon drive a wedge between Danny and Connie.

The episode is told in flashback by Danny while he is in a straitjacket and talking to an unseen psychiatrist, and that right there is a big part of the problem: Danny is a sarcastic motormouth who doesn't take anything seriously and never shuts up, and it gets old fast.  He reminds me of Steve Guttenberg and that college student Bill Murray messes with at the start of Ghostbusters, and he gets a lot of lines I can tell are supposed to be funny but are only occasionally amusing (example: he and Connie are in bed, she asks him if he's awake, he says no, she asks how he can answer her then, and he replies, "I was raised to be polite.").

Because everything is played for laughs, there's no sense of danger, and nothing ever feels at stake. The Squires worry about being evicted, but that never becomes an issue. Much of the running time is devoted to squabbling between the Squires and the djinn and between Danny and Connie. For a fantasy episode, hardly anything fantastical happens.

I'd like to say more about Abdul-Jabbar, but he's hardly in this apart from being a disembodied voice. The only time we see him in person is at the end after Connie has gotten him out of the lamp, and he's all nice and happy for being set free and wearing a suit. How did she get him out after others have failed for thousands of years? The episode shows us by ending on a valedictory shot of a can opener in a display case. Insert Captain Picard face palm here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: A Case of the Stubborns

"A Case of the Stubborns," based on a story by Psycho author Robert Bloch, is a ghoulish comedy of manners in which it's rude not to stay dead. It's the story of an old man, Titus Tolliver (Eddie Bracken), who dies one night, but the next day, he gets up as if nothing is wrong, too stubborn to admit he's admit he's shuffled off this mortal coil. The doctor is baffled. The preacher (Brent Spiner) thinks Titus is selfishly refusing God's call to return to Him. Meanwhile, Titus's daughter and grandson (a young Christian Slater) try their best to convince dear old grandpa he really is dead - after all, the county health inspector is threatening to quarantine them because of the smell.

This episode is as silly as it sounds. The characters are nothing more than one-note Southern stereotypes - the zealous preacher, the kooky Voodoo woman, the befuddled doctor, the well-meaning homemaker - and they speak with heavy accents - all y'alls and lawds and jumpin' Jehoshaphat. It's not particularly deep or complicated, but in this short format, it works pretty well. It's not the least bit frightening, although the progressively decayed makeup on Titus is impressively gross. Titus is back not to eat brains or haunt people; he just won't admit he's dead.

More on that makeup job. When we first see Titus, he looks more or less alive, if slightly rubbery, as if the undertaker has made him up. Each time we see him, he's further and further decayed until his skin is waxy yellow and covered with sores, pustules, and bruised. Realistic? Hardly, but it works. By the end, he looks like Grandpa Sawyer from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, albeit more lively and animated (ironic considering he's dead and Grandpa Sawyer is supposedly alive).

The humor of the episode arrives both from Titus's steadfast insistence to carry on as if things are normal and the reactions of the people who encounter him. In a scene reminiscent of The Return of the Living Dead, the good doctor uses his stethoscope and a mirror but can't detect a heartbeat or observe any breath; Titus insists the doc's equipment is bad, content to rock back and forth in his porch chair while the doctor tries not to have a fit. The preacher warns Titus he's going against God and nature and missing out on an eternity of heavenly splendor, to which Titus says he sees no reason to go along without any solid evidence.

Eventually, the grandson turns to the Voodoo woman for a solution, and she gives him one: pepper. Titus is eventually convinced once evidence is right in front of his nose or, more accurately, his nose becomes the evidence when he sneeze it right off into his napkin.

Tales from the Darkside: Slippage

I'll always think of David Patrick Kelly as Sully from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando. Kelly exits that movie when Arnold drops him off a cliff ("Remember Sully when I promised to kill you last ... I lied."). I like to imagine "Slippage" as the life away from crime Sully imagines he could have had as he plummets to his death. As he gets nearer to splattering on the ground, he begins to fade from that imagined life.

"Slippage" reminds me of the Richard Matheson "Disappearing Act." Kelly plays commercial artist Richard Hall, a man who discovers that he is slipping out of existence. First, his boss can't find his paycheck. Then, the new job he applied for has lost his portfolio. His vehicle registration comes back listed under his wife's maiden name, and his best friend from high school didn't send an invitation for the class reunion. At first, Richard suspects his wife and a co-worker are up to something shifty, but when he visits his mother, she doesn't recognize him, adding that she never had children.

At one point in "Slippage," It's a Wonderful Life is brought up. In that classic Christmas movie, Jimmy Stewart plays a man who gets to see what life would have been like in his hometown if he had never existed, witnessing everyone as worse off without his presence; what he sees convinces him to live. Of course, that alternate reality is presented by his guardian angel as a reminder of the good he's done and warning of the type of things that might happen if he goes through with suicide.

"Slippage," in some ways the darker version of that scenario in It's a Wonderful Life, generates its tension from the notion that Richard is caught up in the middle of a new reality replacing the existing one, and the new one has no place for him. He's not being shown an alternate what-if scenario; his life is being erased piece by piece. It's never revealed why or how this is happening; there aren't any angels or demons around pulling strings. As Richard theorizes, he's slipping through the cracks of time. At one point, we witness as his high school yearbook photo simply vanishes into nothingness, just as Richard fears he's doing.

In modern society, we take for granted all the stuff that proves we exist: a driver's license, a Social Security card, photographs, etc. These items offer evidence of who we are, what we've done, and what we plan to do. Take those away, and what's left of who we are? How would you be able to prove who you really are? Those are the interesting questions "Slippage." Forget being pursued by a ghoul; being forgotten about, now that's terrifying.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Mookie and Pookie

Anthologies enjoyed something of a resurgence back in the 1980s. Not only did we get Tales from the Darkside, we got its followup Monsters, a new version of The Twilight Zone, and Amazing Stories, a fantasy-based show created by Steven Spielberg. I bring that up because while some episodes of Tales from the Darkside veer more toward comedy, most usually retain enough of a horror element to keep them within the genre. "Mookie and Pookie" is an episode, however, that would belong better on Amazing Stories.

Just before he dies from that unnamed TV/movie illness that somehow doesn't leave its victims looking worse for wear, computer whiz Kevin "Mookie" Anderson (Ron Asher) makes his twin sister Susan "Pookie" (Justine Bateman) promise that she will follow his written directions for a computer program he's been working on. Mookie spends much of the summer after her brother dies working on the project, much to the concern of her parents, Ruth (Tippi Hedren) and Harold (George Sims). Just as Dad is ready to pull the pug and get rid of the computer, Pookie makes a startling discovery: Mookie is somehow inside the computer and trying to communicate with the family.

Dead Ringers this ain't. The basic idea - that of a human mind transferred into a computer - was recently featured in the Johnny Depp vehicle Transcendence, so it's an interesting sci-fi conceit that raises a lot of ethical questions, especially as technology becomes a greater and greater part of our lives by the minute. If someone's intelligence and memory is uploaded into a machine, is he or she still the same person? Are they even a person, or is the computer merely simulating that person based on data that's been uploaded?

Unfortunately, "Mookie and Pookie" isn't interested in exploring these questions. It's never revealed how Mookie uploaded himself into the computer in the first place or indeed if that's what he's really done. The family welcomes the computer as their son by the end, playing Scrabble just as we saw them when the episode opened, but the episode never tells us if it's his actual consciousness in the computer or a program that's recreating his personality. Plus, if he had time to write up a binder full of computer programming instructions for his neophyte sisters to follow, that's time he could have spent doing the work himself.

Too much of the episode is devoted to the back and forth between Pookie and her parents. They're worried she unable to move on from her brother's death and is wasting away on that computer, and she insists she has to do it. Mom's more lenient and understanding, but Dad's a jerk, going behind the family's back to sell the computer and getting angry. The real theme is the love a sister has for her brother.

The conflict centers on whether Dad will pull the plug, but the stakes - that Mookie will be deleted from existence - aren't made clear or played up; there's never a sense Dad will be able to go through with it. The episode feels like an after-special: tame, safe, and contrived. Pookie doesn't look like someone who's spent months indoors, and at the end, when Mookie finally starts talking to his father, after revealing himself to Pookie and Mom, I'm just wondering what he was waiting for.

Tales from the Darkside: The Odds

"The Odds" reminds me of The Twilight Zone, and that's a good thing. Unlike some of the other episodes of Tales from the Darkside that feel like rehashes superior efforts from that show, "The Odds" feels like it could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone. Here, we get a tense, strongly acted, and economic story that could have been written by Rod Serling. The only way to have improved it would have been to film it in black and white.

Danny Aiello plays Tom Vale, a bookie who never refuses a bet. Tom Noonan plays Bill Lacey, a man from Vale's past who always bets the long odds and always wins. Lacey bets that by 8:00 the next morning, Vale will die of natural causes, and Vale takes him up on the offer. That's the plot.

I can see "The Odds" working as a one-act play. It's got one setting - a bar - and in fact, not only is most of the action restricted to the bar, most of it is restricted to one booth in the corner of the bar, where a single light dangles down between the characters. There are three minor characters, but only one of them, Vale's lackey Horace, gets any dialogue. There aren't any devils, zombies, monsters, witches, or scenes of characters being stalked, and the only overtly supernatural occurrence that we witness occurs at the very end.  The conflict is revealed and developed through dialogue and performances, a rarity in this genre, TV or otherwise.

The action is often framed with Vale and Lacey sitting across from each other - Vale, loud, sweaty, and blustering with his suspenders out, a smoke in his hand and a beer at his side while Lacey, in his neat white suit and Panama hat, and reserved, quieter demeanor. There's no shortage of tight closeups on their face, each man trying to hide his nervousness and project confidence, proving that the human face is often the most interesting subject on celluloid (although shots of the ticking clock on the wall and the beeping a calculator/clock that Horace has get more nerve-wracking as the story progresses). The two make a great contrast to each other, and the fun of the episode is watching these two guys try to out nerve each other.

Aiello and Noonan are outstanding. I just wanted to watch them keep talking, and I almost feel ripped off that this is only a twenty-minute episode. The final twist might seem unlikely given that Lacey is established as having supernatural knowledge from beyond the grave, but it seems fitting to Vale's character. "The Odds" shows show how he ends up winning and losing, but you can't help but admire how brash he remains to the very end.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Pain Killer

In the classic Alfred Hitchcock film Strangers on a Train, Farley Granger plays a tennis star who is approached by Robert Walker with an offer: Walker will murder Granger's wife, who refuses to agree to a divorce, and in return, Granger will off Walker's overbearing father. Remembering that movie greatly improves the viewing of "Pain Killer" because Granger now plays the Walker role as if Walker had turned his idea into a business and was also the Devil.

Granger plays Dr. Roebuck, and he says there is no physical cause for the back pain afflicting Harvey Turman (Lou Jacobi), a mechanic studying to be a computer programmer at the behest of his nagging wife Nadine (Peggy Cass). As there savings are depleted, Harvey misses more work, and he tries every technique to alleviate the pain, Harvey agrees rather thoughtlessly when Dr. Roebuck suggests they murder the real source of Harvey's pain: Nadine.

Granger is the best thing about the episode. He comes off as both a real doctor as well as a creep. The first time we see him is when Harvey, in complete pain and spending the night on the kitchen floor, looks out the window into the storm and sees a figure he later recognizes as Roebuck when he meets him properly, so we know something is off even when the good doctor is acting normally. The episode's best moment occurs when he tells Harvey it's his time to uphold his end of the bargain.

Unfortunately, the other performances are stuck at the level of a sitcom and aren't particularly convincing; the characters are one-dimensional. Harvey is the hen-pecked husband, and Nadine is a shrill nag, and their interaction is played mostly for laughs, which wears thin quickly. Instead of calling an ambulance when her husband collapses on the floor and can't get up, Nadine chides him and puts a blanket on him but not a good because she doesn't want it on the floor. Harvey, once Nadine has been offed, doesn't seem particularly perturbed by it either way; he doesn't feel guilty, relieved, gleeful, ashamed, angered, or regretful that his spouse has died. To him, it's just something that happened, and hey what do you know, his back pain is gone.

Even the back pain, Harvey's motivation for the entire story, is not really demonstrated. He talks about it lot, lies on the floor, puts on a contraption his physical therapist gave him, and walks around stiffly, but he doesn't really strike me as someone in the severe pain he's supposed to be. I just wasn't buying it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Monsters in My Room

If "Monsters in My Room" represents an accurate account of Seth Green's childhood, it would explain a few things. Green, in one of his earlier roles, plays Timmy, a little boy with two big problems: his stepfather Biff (Greg Mullavey) doesn't understand him, and oh yeah, there are actual monsters living in his room, including a boogie man in the closet and an octopus under the bed. Biff wants the boy to toughen up, and he doesn't believe Timmy when he says there are monsters in his bedroom.

I'll admit it; "Monsters in My Room" creeped me out more than I expected it to. I expected it to be more kiddie friendly, but the ghouls here are well done, kept in the shadows, and genuinely menacing. The episode builds suspense with all the times Timmy almost sees the monsters, how he just misses being caught by one them, whether it be a tentacle reaching out from under the bed or a claw lunging out of the closet to grab him. Watching it even as an adult makes you feel like a little kid, and Green to his credit makes for an engaging lead.

The episode plays on a couple of common fears. First, the idea of how vulnerable you are lying in your bed at night. Who knows what will emerge when you close the door and turn out the light? The second is the fear of being disbelieved by those you expect to help you. Like Phantasm, in play is the notion that as a kid, you see things that adults don't, so whatever you're dealing, you have to face it on your own.

On a deeper level, "Monsters in My Room" could also be interpreted as another episode about family turmoil with the monsters being a representation of Timmy's anxieties stemming from his mother and stepfather's fighting. Timmy is something of a sensitive, intellectual soul who wants a stuffed panda for Christmas, studies bugs, and plays piano. His mother encourages this, but Biff thinks it will make the boy turn out soft and weak, so he does things like toss a football at Timmy when he's not looking, give him a toy gun as a gift ("Like the one I had in 'Nam"), have him drink beer, and turn a baseball game on the radio when Timmy is trying to practice piano.

This leads to arguments between him and Timmy's mother, fights Timmy can hear when he's trying to go to bed, the time when the monsters show up. When Timmy finally stands up to the monster, is it a surprise that he finally has the courage to confront his stepdad?

Tales from the Darkside: Ursa Minor

I think I may have found The Tales from the Darkside episode that terrifies Stephen Colbert the most. "Ursa Minor" is also the name of a constellation in the northern sky and Latin for "Little Bear," an appropriate name for an episode about an evil teddy bear.

In terms of execution, "Ursa Minor" resembles a classic Twilight Zone episode, "Living Doll." In that one, Telly Savalas plays a man who becomes convinced something is off about his stepdaughter's new Talky Tina doll. In fact, even the subtext, domestic turmoil between a husband and wife, is similar; the difference this time is it's the wife, Joan (Marilyn Jones), who becomes convinced something is off about her daughter's new stuffed toy. Meanwhile, the husband, Richard (Tim Carhart), is an irresponsible drunk who blacks out, falls asleep with a lit cigarette, and seems resentful that his wife is on a more stable career path (she's earning her master's in social work while his carpentry business is going nowhere).

Like "Living Doll," "Ursa Minor" doesn't do anything too fancy to show off whether the bear is actually sentient, at least not until the end. Most of the time, we don't see Teddy do anything. When something bad happens - a vase breaks, something is spilled - little Susie always says, "Teddy did it." This creates ambiguity: is Susie acting out when her parents aren't looking, or is Teddy really alive and mean? Not until Joan finds the trash can she stuffed Teddy in knocked over does she become completely convinced. By the time we see Teddy crawling across the bed to get to Susie, we're convinced, too.

In addition to keeping the bear off screen when it commits its crimes, "Ursa Minor" also makes effective use of shadows. The family's home is a creepy, dark place at night, and we sometimes see Teddy only illuminated by his evil, glowing eyes; it goes along way to cover up the fact Teddy is a cute and cuddly toy.

That all said, "Living Doll" is an infinitely superior effort of this type of story. The black-and-white cinematography is more effective, the performances are better, the story builds better, and a plastic, human-like doll that taunts and destroys a man is inherently creepier than a soft, adorable bear. "Ursa Minor" could also do to eliminate a scene in which a professor explains why the bear might be evil as well as come up with a better ending. Which is scarier? A giant, fake-looking bear claw swiping at the screen or a blank, emotionless doll saying, "My name is Talky Tina, and you better be nice to me."

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: The Trouble with Mary Jane

"The Trouble with Mary Jane" plays as a comedic take-off of The Exorcist. As in that film, the story centers on a little girl, the eponymous Mary Jane (Tanya Fenmore), who has been possessed by a nasty demon, and a pair of protagonists who are called upon to drive out the evil spirit. However, this demon is sassier than Pazuzu, and instead of two flawed, human, and righteous priests, our heroes are a couple of squabbling con artists played by Lawrence Tierney and Phyllis Diller, who aren't motivated by religious faith as they are by the $50,000 reward

"The Trouble with Mary Jane" is one of the sillier episodes in The Tales from the Darkside canon. It lacks the stark terror and sense of dread other, more serious-minded episodes were able to conjure, but it's amiable enough, despite its rather predictable nature and a climax that doesn't make much since.

The episode doesn't take long to show us it's going for laughs. It begins with Mary Jane's grandmother  (Anita Dangler), who remains unflappably cheery in the face of demonic possession, fussing over the unseen girl as Jack (Tierney) and Nora (Diller) Mills look on nervously. "You mustn't bite grammy, dear," she tells her. "You have very sharp teeth."

Then, we cut to an angle showing Mary Jane in bed, not restrained in anyway for some reason, as she flops around, gesticulates wildly, and declares in an unnatural voice that she is the biggest, baddest queen demon Aisha Candisha. That's about the time we see her goat legs, though thankfully that's really the only serious physical change the girl has to deal with; unlike Linda Blair, she doesn't have to worry about rotting skin, feeding tubes through the nose, and pea-soup vomit.

The performances are broad, and the comedy is fairly obvious and occasionally slapstick. Jack and Nora squabble over the course of action once they realize they're dealing with a real live demonic entity; Nora thinks they should go back to reading tea leaves for old ladies and rich housewives, but Jack thinks the reward is too big to pass up. The Mills' efforts to drive out the demon are pathetically inept and amateur. One attempt to transfer Aisha Candisha into a pig fails when the swine won't stay on the ceremonial pentagram, and the possessed girl responds by sending our would-be exorcists crashing through furniture. A plan that involves summoning a male demon, Gad, they can control results in two spirits inside Mary Jane, and well, let's just say the two demons don't enjoy being roommates, each telling the other there's no room for the two of them.

Somehow, Jack gets the power to drive out the two by sheer force of will after spending a week working out and consuming nothing but spring water (huh?). He succeeds, but the exorcism ends with the demons jumping into Jack and Nora. Of course, Jack has Aisha Candisha, and Nora has Gad. As they stumble out of the bedroom, the demons resume their bickering in separate bodies, as they head out to do whatever it is demons do when they're aren't confined in the beds of little girls. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tales from the Darkside: Ring Around the Redhead

I should have known "Ring Around the Redhead" was going to be a poor episode when I saw it starred John Heard. I got nothing against the guy; he's been in some good movies, but he was also in Sharknado (Yay! I'm finally jumping on that bandwagon!).

The problem with "Ring Around the Redhead" is that tries to pack too much into a twenty-minute piece. We've got portals to other worlds, a blackmailing enemy, star-crossed lovers, an innocent man on death row, teaching the outsider about our way of life, the journalist looking for the hot story, and a fish out of water. It also moves through a number of different genres: romance, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, film noir, and it never really gels. If this were a 90-minute feature, it might have had time to explore all these developments or at least be able to properly explain them. As a TV episode, it just feels rushed and disjointed.

"Ring Around the Redhead" opens on death row, where a condemned man (Heard) tells his story to a journalist. His name is Billy Malone, an inventor. One day, an earthquake caused some sort of ring to spring out of his basement. Reaching into it, Billy is able to pull things out of it, such as precious gemstones. He even pulls out a strange, naive, alien woman (Penelope (Ann) Miller) named Keena. Billy starts to teach her about science and life on earth and falls in love with her. But a greedy friend of Billy's, Jimbo, wants to use the ring for his own gain.

This episode resembles Amazing Stories more than Tales from the Darkside. There's nothing particularly horrific about it, and raison d'ĂȘtre of the series, the cosmic scales of justice along with a social or moral message, is all but absent. The film is told mostly in flashbacks. With the shots of Billy between prison bars and the swanky saxophone on the soundtrack, one gets the sense the makers are going for a hard-boiled, nourish vibe, but it really just came off as an excuse to shoehorn exposition in when we jump from one event to the next.

Too much time is spent telling us that Keena is supernaturally smart, and the scenes of Billy teaching her just come off as hokey. The subplot with Jimbo is literally three scenes: he tells Billy he needs to make a business out of the ring, and the next time we see him, he brings a gun and demands it. Then, he comes back almost immediately wanting to return to it.

The biggest letdown occurs with the ring itself. So much emphasis is placed on it, but at no point during the episode do we actually get to look through it and see all the supposed great things the characters say they can see and acquire from it. I understand budgetary constraints and trying to build some mystery, but this just comes off as unimaginative.  In fact, when the story got underway, I thought the mound the ring came in was the important object; I don't recall seeing any ring until Jimbo shows up and takes it.

The only good part is the very end. Billy is strapped in the electrical chair when Keena arrives, stops time, and teleports the two of them out of there, leaving the guards perplexed. This scene is rather charming, and Heard and Miller have some chemistry. If the episode had shown more of the relationship instead of just telling us everything in a bland way, it might have been a winner.

Tales from the Darkside: Halloween Candy

"Halloween Candy," another episode directed by Tom Savini and written by Michael McDowell, reminds of a couple a movie and another anthology show.

That would be the 2007 anthology movie Trick 'r Treat, in which Brian Cox plays a grouch under siege by a masked imp in his home on Halloween, and "The Invaders," a classic Twilight Zone episode in which a mute old woman is attacked by tiny "alien" invaders. The story is harrowing, intense, and fun.

"Halloween Candy" has a much similar story, and it draws on "Trick or Treat" from season one as well, and while it's not as effective as the others, it's a ghoulish good time with a great monster.

The main problem is the main character, Mr. Killup (Roy Poole). He's just too cranky, misanthropic, and bitter to be much fun, and his actions make little sense. His son buys him candy to give out and leaves it out by the front door. Killup has no qualms about answering the door when kids show up, only to tell them to get lost or to dump "goblin candy" (a concoction of honey and mayonnaise) into their sacks. Strange that no kids cry and no parents show up to give him an earful for being such a hateful bastard.

Savini's direction is quite good and memorable. With "Inside the Closet," he teased and suggested the monster's presence, careful not to show too much. Here, he shows more of the ghoul, an ugly goblin, pulling off now-you-him, now-you-don't tricks. One second, he's at the window peering through the curtains, and the next, he's gone.

The creature also has some sort of power to manipulate reality, such as when he makes cockroaches appear in a cracked egg and in Killup's glass of water. Plus, he looks great and mean, his voice is creepy (sounds like Frank Welker), and he's got a personality. At times, Savini splices in random cutaways of the monster saying "Tricks or treats," suggesting he has the power to be anywhere.

Tales from the Darkside: The Devil's Advocate

Not to be confused with the Al Pacino movie of the same name (which wouldn't come out until the next decade anyway), "The Devil's Advocate" is another Tales from the Darkside episode written by series creator George Romero, and it's another a one-man show.

That one man is Luther Mandrake (Jerry Stiller), the host of a radio talk-show called "The Devil's Advocate." On the air at midnight, he takes calls from a variety people on a bunch of different topics but all for the same purpose: so he can lay it into these people, call them losers, and rail against what he sees as wrong with the world. Gradually, over the course of a night, a night that began with some guy who died in Mandrake's car, weird thing happen. His engineer disappears, weird callers claim to be calling from decades past, and the door to the studio has vanished. Also, Mandrake's appearance has undergone a hideous transformation.

If you haven't figured it out yet, "The Devil's Advocate" is a "Surprise! You're Dead!" movie, one of those tales in which the protagonist discovers in the big twist that he or she has been dead the entire time. Mandrake, by the end, discovers he literally has become the Devil's Advocate, a subhuman spirit who drives his listeners to despair and evil with his me-first, screw-everybody-else Gospel. He rails against the police, the unemployed, politicians, doctors, and teenagers, in the process preaching against faith in law and order, our leaders, our healers, our future, and our most vulnerable fellow citizens.

Romero has always been a literal storyteller. In his Dead movies, the zombies are a new society literally devouring the old, the psychosexual subtext of the vampire myth is made explicit and literal by making the bloodsucker of Martin an awkward teenager instead of a suave count, and the evil alter ego of the writer comes alive in The Dark Half. "The Devil's Advocate" is no different; it takes the concept of a talk-show radio host, one who spews vitriol and contempt for the world and the people in it, and says, yeah, he's really doing the Devil's work.

"The Devil's Advocate" is sort of plot less, its big reveal long given away by so many other films that have done it, including The Sixth Sense and Jacob's Ladder. Really, what it is is a character sketch. It introduces Mandrake and illustrates just what kind of a man he is, and only over the course of the episode do elements of the supernatural creep in, transforming the broadcast room into a surreal, confining netherworld. Except for his silent engineer, who vanishes after a while, the only human interaction Mandrake has is with voices over the air, and since they come from impersonal machines and are represented by blinking red lights and fluttering pins on devices, it's no surprise he doesn't empathize or sympathize with their problems; they're not even human to him.

The episode is kind of tragic. Mandrake's parents and son are long dead, the result of various mishaps and crimes, while his wife is in a coma after a hospital error. It's the only time, apart from the end when his "boss" tells him what a good job he's been doing, that Mandrake shows his human side and is almost sympathetic, reminding us that those who hurt others have often been deeply hurt themselves.

Tales from the Darkside

Tales from the Darkside

Season 1
Trick or Treat
The New Man
I'll Give You a Million
Pain Killer
The Odds
Mookie and Pookie
Inside the Closet
The Word Processor of the Gods
A Case of the Stubborns
Djinn, No Chaser
All a Clone by the Telephone
In the Cards
Anniversary Dinner
Snip, Snip
Answer Me
The Tear Collector
The Madness Room
If the Shoes Fit...
It All Comes Out in the Wash
Bigalow's Last Smoke
Grandma's Last Wish
The False Prophet

Season 2
The Impressionist
Ring Around the Redhead
Parlour Floor Front
Halloween Candy
The Satanic Piano
The Devil's Advocate
Distant Signals
The Trouble with Mary Jane
Ursa Minor
Effect and Cause
Monsters in My Room
Comet Watch
Dream Girl
A New Lease on Life
Printer's Devil
The Shrine
The Old Soft Shoe
The Last Car
A Choice of Dreams
Strange Love
The Unhappy Medium
Fear of Floating
The Casavin Curse

Season 3
The Circus
I Can't Help Saying Goodbye
The Bitterest Pill
Florence Bravo
The Geezenstacks
Black Widows
A Serpent's Tooth
Baker's Dozen
Deliver Us from Goodness
Seasons of Belief
Miss May Dusa
The Milkman Cometh
My Ghostwriter - The Vampire
My Own Place
Red Leader
Everybody Needs a Little Love
Auld Acquaintances
The Social Climber
The Swap
Let the Games Begin
The Enormous Radio

Season 4
Mary, Mary
The Spirit Photographer
The Moth
No Strings
The Grave Robber
The Yattering and Jack
Sorry, Right Number
Payment Overdue
Love Hungry
The Deal
The Apprentice
The Cutty Black Sow
Do Not Open This Box
Family Reunion
Going Native
Basher Malone