Sunday, 1 October 2017

October Nightmares III #1: Tales from the Darkside (1983 - 1988) - Do the Twist Ending

"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But...there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit... a darkside."

October the 1st. The start of the actual most wonderful time of the year. Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy a good horror experience; which is why I wait with baited breath for the annual funfair which has visited Hull every October for 700 years. For those of you not native to my hometown: just picture a Mad Max film where the villains win and forge a society from the scraps, and you'll have Hull Fair down pat.

But the real reason you're here is for the 3rd annual October Nightmares: an onslaught of 31 (daily) horror reviews. I've already done films and video games, so TV shows was the next logical step. I'll be in trouble next year - I'll probably have to review 31 interpretive dances. As I discovered, upon drawing up my shortlist, the problem with focusing on horror TV is that there are so many damn anthology shows. I've had to casually separate the wheat from the chaff - like a fucking millennial and their dating apps - and leave only the shows which generate the most talking points.

Tales from the Darkside is a part of a genealogy so nightmarishly intertwined that you practically hear Deliverance style banjo music playing whenever you go near it. Produced by the legendary George Romero (RIP), Darkside is the TV spin-off of the Creepshow films. The two Creepshow films where themselves inspired by Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, sharing the same comic book framing motif. Darkside was succeeded by another anthology series, Monsters, in 1988 and a film adaptation in 1990. Christ, this is all so insular it's like Eton's 'who's who'.

Being an anthology show, each episode of Darkside is a one-shot; unconnected by actors and thematic trappings. Beyond 80's city-dwelling arseholes getting their comeuppance, anyway. Some episodes are purely horror focused ('Halloween Candy'), some take the comedy-horror route ('Distant Signals'), and some throw sci-fi into the mix ('Going Native'). Like a box of poorly labelled chocolates, you never know what you're getting next. Which is to be expected when you have the likes of Tom Savini, Michael McDowellStephen King, Clive Barker, and Romero working together.

Actually, scratch that. There were two things one could expect from Darkside: ultra-camp layered on with a trowel, and the opening narration performed by Paul Sparer. The into was actually rather spooky, what with its creepy discordant music and Sparer's low-rent Vincent Price narration. Though the narration was admittedly ruined by the description of the titular Darkside as 'reality but slightly less bright'. Black metal didn't invent a hundred different ways of describing the black depths just so you could half-arse your scary opening narration, Darkside.

The episodes themselves are largely a mixed bag. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise considering that this is mostly the same creative team as those working on the Creepshow movies, but with a smaller budget. Creepshow had a ratio of three awful stories for every good one; with Darkside, that ratio is closer to five to one. There are more stinkers here than in the aftermath of the sprout lovers' convention.

An episode called 'It All Comes Out in the Wash' - which is The Picture of Dorian Gray meets My Beautiful Launderette - essentially boils down to watching a horrible middle-aged man sat in his office as his laundry piles up. If I wanted to see that I'd go round to my dad's house. 'Barter' is an I Love Lucy parody, and that's enough said about that. 'Lifebomb' shows 80's salesmen can even sell dodgy methods of immortality. 'The False Prophet' epitomises the belief I have that anthology show writers start with the cruel twist ending and work backwards. This one begins with a dippy woman going to meet a mystery man, at the behest of her psychic, and ends with said woman trapped in a fortune-telling machine. Bet she didn't see that one coming.

'The Yattering and Jack' - an episode adapted from an excellent Clive Barker short about a man hounded by a mischievous miniature demon - let's the source material down by turning the 'Yattering' into a midget. Worse still, this episode was adapted by Barker himself! I understand that this was 80's TV and money-constraints are a thing, but Tom Savini is a special effects wizard and I know he's better than a midget Ron Jeremy.

I could go on and list every bad episode, but that'd be uncharitable of me. Also, I actually want to go to bed at some point. There are good, even great, episodes to be found in Tales from the Darkside. Usually this is when the planets align and the magic of a Romero and Savini combination strikes. Episodes like 'Trick or Treat', 'Halloween Candy', and 'The Circus', are genuinely unsettling and feature fantastic makeup and practical effects for television of that era. These are the episodes which gave Tales from the Darkside an edge that shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone never had. The Circus is practically a Hammer Horror tribute.

The problem with Darkside is that it never seemed to realise its potential, forever remaining on the cusp of greatness. There are not many TV shows which could have pulled off a boundary-challenging episode like 'Baker's Dozen', an episode which revolves around voodoo cursed gingerbread men and culminates in a man's head being crushed into bloody pulp. Darkside is an utterly mean-spirited show in which horrible things happen to people who largely deserve it (usually criminals, awful family members, or 80's corporate figures). Perhaps the writers felt as though they had to offset the edgy episodes with the lamer comedic or fantasy episodes. Whatever the reason, the show came off poorer as a result. Darkside is best when it's being the type of show where in an episode called 'The Milkman Cometh', the protagonist can only hope the brutal twist is that his mum is actually shagging the milkman.

"It's this big."

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