“The Cutty Black Sow” is the first episode on the last disc of our final season of Tales from the Darkside. It’s also the last one written by Michael McDowell, this time adapting a story by Stoker-winner Thomas F. Monteleone. Ironically enough, given that you’ll be reading this in December and recent months have been lousy with Christmas episodes, this is another Halloween-themed entry – and maybe the series’ best one.
For those who have been following along from the beginning, you’ll note that, despite the fondness with which Tales from the Darkside is collectively remembered, and its importance in the cultural zeitgeist, it actually has precious few episodes that I would consider classics. This, however, is one of them. Not quite on the same level as, say, “Inside the Closet” or “Seasons of Belief,” it’s right up there with them and is one of the few episodes of the series to conjure real atmosphere.
It’s worth noting that Michael McDowell is the common thread of all three of these episodes, which are probably the three best in the entire series. McDowell isn’t behind the camera, though. That’s Richard Glass, an individual with literally no other credits of any kind of IMDb other than this one episode, making the atmosphere on display here all the more impressive. It also features a pretty good central performance from a child actor with the unlikely name of Huckleberry Fox. And there’s a jump scare involving the mask from Rocktober Blood.
Unfortunately, Michael McDowell, who Stephen King once called “the finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” passed away in 1999 at the relatively young age of 49. And so, while “Cutty Black Sow” is nowhere near his last work – he would go on to provide screenplays for The Nightmare Before Christmas and Thinner, not to mention episodes of Tales from the Crypt, Monsters, and more – it comes closer to the end of his career than it probably should.
“Do Not Open This Box” stars Academy Award-winner Eileen Heckart as the greedy, shrewish wife of a humble inventor who (naturally) gets her comeuppance after opening the titular box. It’s a fine enough episode on its face, but more interesting than what’s going on in front of the camera is what (or rather, who) is behind it. Actor Bob Balaban co-wrote the episode and another, much more famous actor directed it: none other than Jodie Foster herself.
It’s far from Foster’s only directing gig. In addition to a handful of movies, she’s also directed several other TV series episodes, including recent installments of Black Mirror and Tales from the Loop. At the time, however, this was her directorial debut – not to mention one of the episodes that were collected into the misleadingly-named video release, Stephen King’s Golden Tales. (In retrospect, it seems deeply weird that the one episode King actually wrote isn’t in there.)
Next up, Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) plays a father who has kidnapped his son because he believes (correctly, as it turns out) that his son turns into a werewolf. The twist is one that can be seen coming from miles off, if you’re at all used to these kinds of stories, but the buildup is handled well. There’s also something else interesting happening in this episode.
The third (and final) series episode directed by Tom Savini, who previously helmed both “Halloween Candy” and “Inside the Closet,” this one endears itself to me by featuring extra monsters! Specifically, there’s a grotesque model that the son in question spends most of the episode working on, and then there’s one of the series’ more memorable shots – something that seems to be a nod to Creepshow (there’s also a poster for that film prominently featured on the wall), and happens in a more-or-less throwaway dream sequence in which the boy sees a hideous face outside his window calling his name.
The episode as a whole is not on the same level as classics like “Inside the Closet” or “The Cutty Black Sow,” but it’s still top-shelf stuff where this series is concerned and feels like a real treat coming so close on the heels of that earlier installment. Plus, the makeup effects are nice, as one might expect from something with Savini’s name on it.
Unfortunately, because I spent so much time talking about these three episodes, I’m going to have to give the next few short shrift. “Going Native” is a sci-fi story about an alien who joins a therapy group to learn about earthlings, written and directed by Canadian sci-fi author Andrew Weiner, who also wrote the similarly-themed season 2 episode “Distant Signals.” This is followed by an unlikely one-two punch about inventions that seemingly eat sound.
“Hush” features a babysitter menaced by the latest invention of her young charge, which is basically a vacuum cleaner that’s supposed to suck up noise but instead does something more, well, menacing. It’s followed by “Barter,” which features an unusual salesman named Klaatzu who has a way for a housewife to block out the sound of her son’s drumming. The episode, intended as a parody of I Love Lucy, is one of the lowest-rated episodes of the entire series on IMDb, with one user’s review headlined, “unfunny, boring, just plain bad.”
The final ever episode of Tales from the Darkside – and, as such, the finale of our coverage of the same – first aired on July 24, 1988, and features Vic Tayback (who also appeared in the first regular-season episode of the series) as an unscrupulous wrestling promoter who pits wrestler Basher Malone (also the title of the episode) against a demonic opponent by the name of Trog. It’s yet another comedic episode played for broad laughs, and while we could have asked for a better place to end the series, there are worse ones, too.
That’s it for tonight and, indeed, for Tales from the Darkside. Something Weird on TV will be back in the new year, though, where we’ll be tackling the most obvious successor to Darkside’s mantle, the 1988 TV series Monsters. Until then, 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.