Tales From the Darkside: The Movie

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie
Director: John Harrison
Screenplay: "Lot 249" by Michael McDowell (inspired by a story by Arthur Conan Doyle), "Cat From Hell" by George A. Romero (based on a story by Stephen King), "Lovers' Vow" by Michael McMcDowell
Stars: Debbie Harry (Betty), Matthew Lawrence (Timmy), Christian Slater (Andy), Robert Sedgwick (Lee), Steve Buscemi (Edward Bellingham), Julianne Moore (Susan), David Johansen (Halston), William Hickey (Drogan), James Remar (James Preston), Rae Dawn Chong (Carola)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1990
Country: USA
Tales From the Darkside DVD Cover

Tales From the Darkside: The Movie is one of the last of the horror anthology movies to come out of the 1980s, following Creepshow (1982) and Creepshow 2 (1987), The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982), and Cat's Eye (1985), as well as HBO's successful Tales From the Crypt series. Like those movies, Tales From the Darkside is difficult to judge as a whole because each of its four stories (three main stories and a wraparound story that gives the narrative cohesion) has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Like The Twilight Zone movie, Tales From the Darkside is a big-screen version of a television show. Darkside was a half-hour anthology series developed in 1983 by the producer-director team of Richard Rubenstein and George A. Romero (who had collaborated on well-known horror movies such as 1978's Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow, among others) and TV producer Jerry Golod. An innovative series, it included work by a number of talented writers in the genres of fantasy and horror, including prolific novelist Stephen King and Psycho author Robert Bloch.

Similar to the television series, the one thing Tales From the Darkside: The Movie had going for it was its behind-the-scenes pedigree, including writing involvement from George A. Romero, who adapted a short story by Stephen King, and novelist Malcolm McDowell, hot from writing Tim Burton's offbeat horror-comedy Beetlejuice (1988), who adapted a story by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and contributed an original story of his own. The film was helmed by first-time feature director John Harrison, who had worked as an assistant director under Romero on Creepshow and Day of the Dead (1985).

The three principal stories are structured by a quirky wraparound narrative that involves a woman who appears to be an ordinary, middle-age, upper-class housewife (played by Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry), but is actually a witch who is preparing to cook a young boy named Timmy (Matthew Lawrence). It's an odd, but effectively self-conscious reimagining of Grimms' fairy tale imagery into the modern world, with a medieval dungeon hidden in a sparkling kitchen that looks like it came right out of the pages of an advertisement in Better Homes and Gardens. To delay his imminent demise, Timmy distracts the suburban witch by reading her stories out of a large volume titled, appropriately, Tales From the Darkside.

The first story, "Lot 249," was "inspired" by a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Set on a college campus, it is much like the old E.C. horror comics in that it features a much put-upon, slightly weird protagonist in the form of a brilliant, but eccentric and cash-strapped college student (Steve Buscemi) who gets even with the mean rich kids who cheated him out of a fellowship (Christian Slater, Robert Sedgwick , and Julianne Moore) by bringing a 3,000-year-old mummy to life. The dark, old-fashioned tone of this segment is about the only thing it has going for it, unless you count the gruesome nature of the murders that are based on ancient forms of mummification (one character has his brain pulled out through his nose with a coat-hanger and another is sliced open and stuffed with flowers).

The second story, "The Cat From Hell," is more gruesome slapstick comedy than outright horror. Based on a story by Stephen King, it is about—no kidding—a professional hit man (David Johansen) hired by a old, wheelchair-bound millionaire who owns a pharmaceutical company (William Hickey) to kill a cat that is apparently taking revenge for all its feline brethren that were sacrificed for medical experiments. The joke is watching the consummate professional killer stalking through an enormous, sterile mansion, trying to kill an ordinary-looking black cat that is anything but ordinary. The idea is really a lot funnier than the final product, although Johansen is game in his performance as the increasingly frustrated hit man.

The final story, "Lovers' Vow," is the best and the one that most closely reflects the tenor of the television show, especially in its twist ending that is, unfortunately, a little too obvious from the get-go. This segment focuses on a struggling New York artist (James Remar) who comes face-to-face with a demonic gargoyle late one night and has his life spared by promising that he will never speak of the encounter. That same night, he meets a young woman (Rae Dawn Chong) with whom he eventually falls in love and who completely changes his life for the better. Thus, as we watch their romance grow, the tragic overtones begin to set in as we realize that his love for the woman will eventually cause him to break his promise and unleash the gargoyle's wrath.

The movie then returns from the tragic romanticism of "Lovers' Vow" to the jokey fairy-tale rhythms of the wraparound story and supplies an expected, but gratifying ending involving the witch getting her comeuppance inside the fiery oven. Although the constant tone-shifting in Tales From the Darkside—from comedy, to classic horror, to melodrama—makes it feel at times like the filmmakers weren't entirely sure what they were going for, it offers the kind of variety and creative opportunities that help paper over the movie's weaker narrative aspects.

Tales From the Darkside DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesEnglish (5.1, 2.0), French (1.0)
SupplementsAudio commentary by director John Harrison and cowriter George A. Romero
Original theatrical trailer
Distributor Paramount Pictures
Release DateSeptember 18, 2001

Visually, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie takes different approaches to each of its stories. Thus, "Lot 249" is lit and framed like a classical horror movie with deeply saturated, amber hues, while "The Cat From Hell" is more evocative of noir-ish black and white with its monochromatic color scheme and dark photography. The new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer on this DVD does a solid job with all these visual tropes, rendering a sharp, detailed picture with good color tones and solid black levels. There is a minor amount of wear apparent in the image, but nothing distracting.

The soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The result is generally good, if not particularly outstanding. The musical score benefits the most by being spread out in the multiple channels, while imaging and directionality are used only sparingly.

Director John Harrison and cowriter George A. Romero contribute an amusing screen-specific audio commentary that starts out a bit slowly, but picks up steam as the movie goes along. They joke and kid each other while talking about the movie's various visual schemes, the fact that the wraparound story had to be severely re-edited when they decided to change the order of the anthology, and how limited the budget was. Because Harrison was originally a score composer, they talk a lot about the movie's music and how each segment has its own musical style.

The only other supplement included is the film's original theatrical trailer presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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