Tales from the Darkside Part Three – Mystery & Magic
The third (and final) disc of the first season of Tales from the Darkside starts with a bang. Or, rather, two of them. The first episode stars Jessica Harper (of Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise fame) as a young woman who can’t stop crying. When she runs into a (frankly very weird) guy who collects tears, played by prolific actor Victor Garber, she is at first just overjoyed to find someone who accepts her as she is.
The episode remains dreamy and strange, even after all the explanations that will ever happen have been handed out, and it never really crosses over into the territory of actual horror, occupying instead a position of gentle (if somewhat unsettling) fantasy. It was helmed and co-written by John Drimmer, whose only other directing credit is a half-hour TV movie called Battle in the Erogenous Zone. Make of that what you will.
“The Madness Room” offers one of the series’ better horror episodes in… some time, really. The plot may be familiar, but it’s familiar in that charming ghost story way. The legendary Stuart Whitman plays an aging (and wealthy) husband with a bad heart whose young wife likes to play with a Ouija board. She has learned that their house has a secret room, where anyone who stays there goes mad. Together with his lawyer, the three go in search of the room and find, frankly, a fairly unsurprising twist, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still pulled off well.
It’s the only episode of the series helmed by John Hayes, whose other credits include titles like Jailbait Babysitter, Garden of the Dead, and Grave of the Vampire, not to mention the weirdo regional flick Dream No Evil, which was included in Arrow’s American Horror Project Vol. 2. It’s also the only writing credit of its screenwriter, Thomas Epperson.
From there, though, the show dips quickly back into the realm of comedy – or at least of satire – with an episode about a politician whose belief that politics are just about putting on a good show becomes increasingly literalized. Sadly, it’s an episode that only feels more relevant in the post-Trump era and one whose ending sequence, had more people actually seen it, would probably provide us with the gif we all use for when politicians are being clowns.
“Levitation,” on the other hand, is in contention with the pilot and “Inside the Closet” for my favorite episode of season one. Adapted from a story by Joseph Payne Brennan, a Weird Tales author and one of the earliest bibliographers of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, the episode is directed by John Harrison, who helmed several other installments of the series, not to mention Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and, more recently, a number of episodes of the new Creepshow series on Shudder.
The presentation is fairly pedestrian but the story is solid and subtle and the episode is carried almost entirely by actor Joe Turkel, who plays a put-upon magician with the secret to “wireless levitation” who has been reduced to performing in a back-alley carnival after his last attempt at carrying off the feat some 25 years before went tragically awry. Turkel has been in nearly 150 different things, including playing Dr. Tyrell in Blade Runner just a few years before this episode hit the airwaves, but he is probably best known as Lloyd the bartender in Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining.
The hit parade of minor genre royalty keeps on coming with the next episode, “It All Comes Out in the Wash.” While it’s mostly a one-man show for Vince Edwards, who also gets top billing, the excitement for genre fans will come from spotting the prolific James Hong (David Lo Pan himself in Big Trouble in Little China) as the laundromat operator who can wash out anything – even sins. Hong was already prolific, even then, and had loads of credits already under his belt, but he wouldn’t appear in Big Trouble in Little China until the following year.
“Bigalow’s Last Smoke” is another episode written by Michael McDowell. While bearing no actual relationship to Stephen King’s 1978 short story “Quitters, Inc.,” the episode feels at least of a piece with that tale. It stars Richard Romanus (the voice of Harry Canyon in Heavy Metal) as a smoker being put through extraordinary measures to curb his addiction, and features a guest turn by perennial “that guy” actor Sam Anderson.
The last two episodes of the season are both written by inveterate TV scribe Jule Selbo, who will also pen seven other episodes before we’re done, not to mention three episodes of Monsters, the show that is essentially a sequel to this one. Directed by actor Warner Shook, who had small parts in several Romero films including Knightriders and Creepshow, the first of these two episodes also has a title structure that is “Someone’s Last Something.”
“Grandma’s Last Wish” is ostensibly an EC Comics-style twist in the tail about an old lady wishing that her insensitive family would learn what it feels like to be old, but really it’s about trying to cram as many annoying sounds into 25 minutes as is humanly possible. “False Prophet,” the final episode of the first season, is a bit more of a return to form, taking place in a bus stop on Christmas and circling around a woman who relies perhaps a bit too much on an astrology machine.
The woman in question is played by Ronee Blakeley, who will be familiar to horror fans from her role as Nancy’s mom in A Nightmare on Elm Street just the previous year. Helmed by Gerald Cotts, who also directed “A Case of the Stubborns” earlier this season, this final episode isn’t exactly a whimper, but it’s certainly not a bang, either.
That’s it for the first season of Tales from the Darkside, but not to worry, we’ve still got three more seasons to go, filled with lots more weird tales, familiar faces, and unlikely stuff going on behind the scenes. Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.