Something Weird on TV: Tales from the Darkside Part Eight – Saints & Sinners
The second disc of the third season of Tales from the Darkside has some strong episodes, including another that I’ve been really anxious to see, but before we get to them we have to clear our way through some dross. Written (yet again) by Edithe Swensen, “A Serpent’s Tooth” is another comedic episode, albeit a somewhat better-than-average one. This take on “The Monkey’s Paw” sees a henpecking mother who feels unappreciated by her two grown children using a magic amulet to make them do what she says – only to find herself at the mercy of her own wishes.
Next up is the last of the four series episodes penned by George Romero himself. “Baker’s Dozen” isn’t the master going out on his strongest foot, but it’s a solid episode. Larry Manetti and Therese Pare both return from previous episodes (“Printer’s Devil” and “The Madness Room,” respectively) while Mabel King (Mama from the TV series What’s Happening!!) plays “an old bayou witch woman” whose New Orleans bakery serves up cookies that can do more than expand your waistline.
It seems like a setup for another comedic episode, but it’s played straight and the resolution is more like an old E.C. horror comic – ironic rather than jokey. Unfortunately, the reprieve from comedy episodes doesn’t last. On the plus side, “Deliver Us from Goodness” is actually one of the series’ better comedy outings. Adapted from a short story by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, a sci-fi author from Jefferson City, Missouri who was considered a pioneer in invented languages, the episode features a housewife who gains unwanted sainthood, causing her to spontaneously manifest all sorts of inconvenient miracles.
The housewife in question is played by the distinctive Kaiulani Lee, who was in Cujo, while her family and friends are filled out by Mary Louise Wilson (Rachel’s mom in the original Pet Sematary), TV actor Steve Vinovich, and Jane Adams, who was in the 2015 remake of Poltergeist. Unhappy with her newfound gifts, our protagonist decides to get rid of her sainthood by indulging in sin – starting by breaking the 10 Commandments. As comedy episodes go, it’s actually pretty good!
Next is the episode I’ve been waiting for, one of the few I knew about before starting the series. And for good reason, as it’s a standout, joining episodes like “Inside the Closet” among the show’s (unfortunately few) genuine classics. “Seasons of Belief” probably should have been titled “The Grither.” One of the last episodes to be written by Michael McDowall, it also has the distinction of being his only credit as director on IMDb.
The directing chops on display in “Seasons of Belief” may be no great shakes – atmosphere is seldom the strongest suit of TV shows from this era – yet the episode as a whole is genuinely great, kept alive by McDowall’s writing, the strength of the premise, and an absolute dynamite climactic image that may be the best the entire series has to offer. To tell what it is would be giving the game away, but if you’ve seen the episode before, you absolutely and instantly know.
As I mentioned, the episode should probably have been called “The Grither,” for that monster – a sort of proto-Krampus who acts as an anti-Santa, going from house to house and slaying anyone who takes his name in vain – is the episode’s standout creation, even as he’s just a story told by two parents to keep their kids entertained on Christmas Eve… or is he?
Though McDowall wrote the teleplay for “Seasons of Belief,” the episode is actually adapted from a short story by prolific fantasist Michael Bishop, who also wrote an episode of Monsters three years later. It’s also worth noting that the father of the family, played by E. G. Marshall, is almost a full forty years older than the mother of the family, played by One Life to Live actress Margaret Klenck, who holds her own admirably.
“Miss May Dusa” sounds, from the title, like it’s going to be yet another comedic episode, but it isn’t. The setup certainly seems like it could be. A mysterious woman stricken by amnesia who we know to be Medusa long before the episode clears it up meets a blind saxophone player on the subway. The two hit it off, even fall in love, but it all ends in tragedy, as these things so often do.
Here’s the thing, though: This tragedy actually connects. Like, the ending of this episode genuinely hurts, and the whole thing is haunting and sad in a way that this show and its peers seldom managed. Chalk that up, perhaps, to the fact that the episode is written and directed by Richard Blackburn, best known for Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural or as the screenwriter of Eating Raoul. (He was also the voice of Dr. Zaius in the animated Return to the Planet of the Apes TV series from the ‘70s.)
For all its unfortunately numerous comedic episodes, this is actually something that Tales from the Darkside does fairly often: take a seemingly jokey premise and play it straight. Such is also the case with “The Milkman Cometh,” which assumes that we are all aware that there was a time when people just brought milk to your freakin’ door every day, like weirdos.
The episode has a classic horror feel, in part because it’s adapted from a short story by Charles L. Grant, and stars Robert Forster as a struggling husband who follows the neighborhood tradition of leaving notes for the milkman (who nobody ever sees) asking for things he wants, only to get them through indirect means. Of course, this is a Tales from the Darkside episode, so there is a price to be paid for getting what you wish for.
The unsung hero of this episode, though, is the extremely weird synth score, credited (in the form of “additional music”) to Hilary Bercovici and Ken Lauber. Since Lauber did “additional music” for a whole bunch of Darkside episodes, I’m going to chalk this one up to Bercovici, who only did three others but also did some of the soundtrack for Rockula, the 1990 rock-n-roll vampire spoof starring Thomas Dolby.
Unfortunately, this blissful run of non-comedic episodes can’t last forever, and the disc ends with “My Ghostwriter – The Vampire,” which, on the plus side, I would categorize as only semi-comedic. More interesting than anything in the episode itself, which concerns a hack horror writer who makes a bargain with a real-deal vampire in order to get material for his books, is its unusual pedigree.
Like several other episodes of Tales from the Darkside, this one is adapted from a short story originally published elsewhere. Unlike most of the others, this short story was originally published in issue 197 of the DC Comics horror anthology series The Unexpected. The story was written by Scott Edelman, a favorite of the show, who also wrote the stories from which both the season two episode “Fear of Floating” and “Baker’s Dozen” earlier this very disc were adapted – though those stories weren’t originally published in comic books.
That’s it for tonight. Next time, we finish out season three with some familiar faces as well as new stories by Robert Bloch and… John Cheever? 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.