The third season of Tales from the Darkside opens with another strong episode – and the third of the series so far penned by series co-creator George Romero. “The Circus” is like a mean-spirited Ray Bradbury story, in which a skeptical reporter arrives at an unusual traveling attraction, where a Dr. Nis claims to promote the sense of wonder in his clients. For, he warns, if a believer should be confronted by a ghost, they would simply be frightened, while if a nonbeliever were to find themself in the same situation, they might die of shock.
Besides gothic atmosphere and a circus setting (which is, of course, appreciated), the episode boasts an array of classic creatures, including a vampire, a werewolf, a Frankenstein-like reanimated corpse, and a mummy. Since the show is mostly just a running monologue by Dr. Nis, it’s good that they got an actor with solid delivery and a unique voice to play him – in this case the unmistakable William Hickey, who played Andre Toulon in the original Puppet Master, and provided the voice of Dr. Finkelstein in A Nightmare Before Christmas, among many others. He also played a role in the “Cat from Hell” segment of the Tales from the Darkside movie, which hit screens four years after this episode.
“I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye” is a quiet, small-scale story in which a little girl can seemingly foretell peoples’ deaths – and is compelled to tell them goodbye before they go. This leads to friction within her family, as they come to blame her for the deaths, especially once she gets angry enough to imply that she can cause them.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this ultimately rather sad episode is that the doomed, asthmatic vocal instructor fiancé of the little girl’s older sister is played by none other than Brian Benben, of the Dolph Lundgren “classic” I Come in Peace. Speaking of Christmas movies (that is one), the actress who played the little girl grew up to be in a whole bunch of those Hallmark Christmas romance type movies with titles like Time for You to Come Home for Christmas, as well as a mini-series called Murder, She Baked.
The next episode is our first comedic one of season three, even if it’s got a little more sting in its ending than most of the comedy episodes. It concerns a family who has recently won a stack of money as they’re approached by an old family friend (and the wife’s old flame) who has invented a pill that gives you perfect recall, making you essentially the smartest person in the world. All he needs is a little capital to get the investment going…
The screenplay, by series regulars Michael Kube-McDowell and Jule Selbo, is adapted from a story by legendary sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl and the episode is the only one directed by Bryan Michael Stoller who, in the last decade, has made a cottage industry for himself directing feel-good dog movies such as First Dog, The Amazing Wizard of Paws, and Santa Stole Our Dog: A Merry Doggone Christmas!
This is followed by yet another episode written by Edithe Swensen, who penned four last season. Fortunately, this one is more in line with “The Casavin Curse” than most of the others. In it, a young wife who suffered from a nervous breakdown after her husband – who looks like Chuck Norris – cheated on her is convinced that he’s up to his old tricks by the ghost a woman who shot her own husband in their house years before.
Next up is one of the episodes I’ve been looking forward to since I started the series. Less because I knew anything about the episode itself than because of its source material, a story by Fredric Brown that lent its title to the collection of his tales put out by Valancourt Books a few years back. Luckily for me, it’s also one of the better episodes of the series so far, up there with classics like “Inside the Closet” and “Levitation,” and almost certainly the best thing we’ve seen since season one.
It starts out simply enough. A little girl receives a dollhouse from her uncle, complete with a little doll family named the Geezenstacks who mirror her own family. Unfortunately for her dad, they seem to mirror them a little too closely, with whatever happens to the Geezenstacks happening to the real people, too. It all builds to a nicely-delivered double twist ending that, while not wholly surprising, still isn’t exactly the first thing you expect.
However, it’s the atmosphere of the episode that really makes it stand out, as much as the story itself. To this point, atmosphere has been in relatively short supply in a lot of episodes of Tales from the Darkside, but “The Geezenstacks” delivers nicely. The dolls themselves are just creepy enough to be unsettling without breaking credulity, while the episode’s score does considerable heavy lifting with an eerie and haunting violin soundtrack that sells every moment of the uncanny beautifully.
Helmed by Bill Travis – whose only directing credits are four episodes of this very show – “The Geezenstacks” stars veteran actor Craig Wasson, known for Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and Body Double, among others, and is notable for being the only IMDb credit of two of its actors, Lana Hirsch, who plays the little girl, and Stephanie Cassel, who has a brief, unspeaking, and uncredited role as a real estate agent.
“Black Widows” is another piece written by Beetlejuice scribe Michael McDowell. We’re well into the back half of his contributions to Tales from the Darkside at this point, with only three more McDowell episodes to go. This one isn’t necessarily a classic, as the twist is pretty obvious from the jump, but the pacing of how it unspools is certainly a credit to McDowell’s writing. It’s also got a solid cast, for a single-location episode with only a small handful of characters. Theresa Saldana (Raging Bull) plays the young woman who learns her family’s dark secret on her wedding night, while Margaret O’Brien, a child star in the ‘40s who showed up in a bunch of low-budget horror fare later in her life, plays her mother.
The final episode of this disc sees an arrogant art dealer who buys stolen work from a fence getting his comeuppance at the hand of the Inquisition. While it’s anothr decently atmospheric episode, despite having only two real locations, it’s a weird move to make the Inquisition the “good guys,” even roundaboutly as they are here.
Also odd, despite his hardly appearing in the episode, inveterate character actor Roberts Blossom gets top billing as the inquisitor. It’s directed by cinematographer Gerald Cotts, who also helmed several other episodes of Tales from the Darkside and Monsters, including one of my most remembered episodes from that latter series, “Parents from Space.”
That’s it for tonight, but season three is already off to a better start than season two, so here’s to hoping the trend continues! To help it along, we’ll have some veteran TV actors, some more comedic episodes (more’s the pity), and a classic Christmas story featuring the Grither! 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.