“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…”
So begins the opening monologue that accompanies every episode of Tales from the Darkside, a horror anthology series of half-hour episodes that ran from 1983, when the pilot episode aired just before Halloween, until July of 1988, when it was succeeded by Monsters, another horror anthology show from the same production company.
Created by George A. Romero, who also wrote the pilot episode, Tales from the Darkside was originally going to be a Creepshow TV series. Romero’s Creepshow had come out just the year before the pilot hit airwaves, and its popularity led Romero and Richard P. Rubinstein’s Laurel Entertainment to consider a series. However, Warner Bros. still owned certain aspects of the Creepshow brand, so for that and other reasons, it became Tales from the Darkside instead.
Even as early as the show’s opening titles – a series of shots of roads and woods that gradually fade into negative, as that aforementioned voiceover narrates – it is obvious, with the benefit of hindsight, that Tales from the Darkside is a bridge between two stylistic periods of anthology horror on TV. On one side, you have shows like The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and Night Gallery. On the other, the series that Tales from the Darkside prefigured, including Monsters and Tales from the Crypt.
As much as anything else, Tales from the Darkside is fascinating as a time capsule of a moment caught equidistant between both of those poles. And the pilot episode kicks us off in excellent fashion. Written by Romero and helmed by actor/director Bob Balaban (Parents), the pilot episode takes place, suitably enough, on Halloween night.
In a sort of play on “A Christmas Carol,” it sees a miser who enjoys Halloween perhaps just a bit too much – and for all the wrong reasons – tormenting the local children with a “game” in which he challenges them to come to his mansion to find the IOUs that will save their parents from financial ruin, only to frighten them off with animatronic spooks. Of course, this being an EC Comics-style horror story, he naturally gets his comeuppance before all is said and done.
Unlike Friday the 13th: The Series, which we covered last season, I’m not going to say that I hadn’t seen any episodes of Tales from the Darkside prior to revisiting it for this column, but I certainly hadn’t seen many. Indeed, I was mostly familiar with the show via its feature film counterpart, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, which hit theaters just a couple of years after the show’s cancellation.
So, most of these episodes will be new to me, and we’ll be tackling them in as much detail as our limited space here will allow, starting with the first proper episode of the regular series, “The New Man,” which originally aired on September 30, 1984 – almost a year after the pilot.
Adapted from a short story by mystery and suspense author Barbara Owens, the episode stars Vic Tayback (one of several actors who look a lot like William Castle) and child actor Chris Hebert, who was also in The Last Starfighter. Here, he plays a kind of pooka-like figure in the vein of William Browning Spencer’s short story, “Penguins of the Apocalypse,” to torment Vic Tayback’s recovering alcoholic.
Next up, Keenan Wynn and George Petrie star in what essentially amounts to a script-flipped version of the “Bart Sells His Soul” episode of The Simpsons, notwithstanding that this came out a decade earlier. It’s also the first of eight episodes directed by John Harrison, who would later helm Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. This is followed by an EC Comics-style tale of uxoricide-by-proxy starring Farley Granger that’s also the first of four episodes that will be helmed by Armand Mastroianni, familiar to longtime Something Weird readers as the director of several standout episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series.
Then we break out what passes for star power on network TV in ’84 with the story of a bookie (Danny Aiello) who never refuses a bet and a mark (Tom Noonan) who only bets on long shots. Of course, both of them have a little something to hide, as we see when a bet is placed on when Aiello’s bookie will die. The next two episodes boast little enough to write home about, save that the first, about one half of a pair of twins who comes back to life via computer, guest stars Tippi Hedren of The Birds fame, while the second is directed by frequent Romero collaborator Michael Gornick, who was DP on Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow, and more.
When it comes to the last episode on the first disc of the DVD set featuring the entire series, though, and the place where we’re going to stop for this first installment, we need to slow way down, because there’s a lot to talk about. If nothing else, “Inside the Closet” brings us one of the series’ most iconic creatures, in the form of the pale, toothy, bloody-eyed thing that is lurking in the eponymous closet. To the extent that Tales from the Darkside has a mascot, this beastie might be it.
But that’s far from all that we need to discuss in relation to this episode. It’s also directed by none other than Tom Savini (marking his directorial debut) and stars Fritz Weaver, who was also in Creepshow, among many, many others. Perhaps most significant, though, this is the first of eleven episodes to be written by Michael McDowell, a popular horror author of the ‘80s boom who also penned the screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, among others.
Do a little online sleuthing and you’ll find plenty of people calling “Inside the Closet” one of the scariest things ever put on TV, and while the episode may be fairly tame compared to some of the shit that our modern shows get up to, it’s still classic horror in a way that few other episodes of this series have been so far. It’s also a high point of this first part of the show, and a fitting note on which to end the first segment of our coverage of Tales from the Darkside.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we’ll tackle a bunch more of this classic series, including episodes adapted from stories by Stephen King, Robert Bloch, and Harlan Ellison and guest-starring the likes of Brent Spiner, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Dick Miller, and Carol Kane, to name a few.
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.