Tuesday, July 1, 2014

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.

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