Season two of Tales from the Darkside has been an uneven ride so far, but we’ve got a few decent episodes before we finish it out. The first of these is an A24-flavored parable about parental pressure and longing called “The Shrine.” Written by series regular Jule Selbo, from a story by sci-fi author Pamela Sargent (editor of the Women of Wonder anthology series back in the ‘70s), the episode stars Lorna Luft (Grease) and an older Colleen Gray (The Killing, the original Nightmare Alley) in her final career performance.
Gray plays a doting but also overbearing mother who caused her adult daughter (Luft) to suffer a nervous breakdown when she was younger. The daughter comes home after several years away, only to discover that she has been replaced with a sort of poltergeist-like figment that inhabits her old room and has taken over the role as her mother’s “perfect” daughter. It’s not exactly a subtle episode, but it works.
“The Old Soft Shoe” is the third series episode to be helmed by Scared Stiff and Doom Asylum director Richard Friedman, who was also responsible for a couple of Friday the 13th episodes that we covered last year. Written by Art Monterastelli, who also penned the 2007 horror film Buried Alive and the 2008 Rambo, “The Old Soft Shoe” was one of the episodes included in Stephen King’s Golden Tales, in spite of not having any connection to Stephen King.
The story concerns a traveling lingerie salesman who is considering infidelity. Waiting out a storm, he takes a cabin in a motel where a murder was committed years ago – and finds himself running afoul of the ghost of a woman scorned. Once again, the plot may be no great shakes, but the episode is fine for what it is.
It’s followed in Season 3 of Tales From the Darkside by another episode written by Beetlejuice scribe Michael McDowell – we’re about halfway through his total contributions to the series, at this point – a haunting little ditty called “The Last Car.” Begonya Plaza plays a college student who is on her way home for Thanksgiving when she boards the wrong car on the train and finds herself surrounded by the dead. Not much actually happens in this episode, but the scenes of the desiccated corpses are nicely creepy.
“A Choice of Dreams” sees Abe Vigoda not exactly playing against type as an aging mobster who has been diagnosed with cancer and given only a short time to live. He’s visited by a mysterious – and possibly sinister – scientist who offers him a kind of immortality: dreaming forever. The teleplay is adapted from a short story by sci-fi author Edward F. Shaver that initially appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in August of 1982, less than four years before this episode aired.
Besides Vigoda, another habitué of gangster movies makes a brief appearance here. In the fragments of dreams that we see, Dominic Chianese plays Vigoda’s father. The two had previously both appeared in The Godfather together, and Chianese would go on to play Junior Soprano on The Sopranos.
“Strange Love” is a spin on the vampire romance, in which a doctor (played by veteran character actor Patrick Kilpatrick) makes a house call only to find out that the husband and wife he is attending are immortal vampires. It’s the second of nine series episodes from writer Edith Swenson, who penned the unfortunate “Trouble with Mary Jane” from last month, and it, too, is not exactly a standout, with the beats coming about as reliably as one might expect.
Swensen also wrote “The Unhappy Medium,” our next episode, in which the niece, assistant, and sister of a televangelist all gather to watch his video will. Unfortunately for them, while the televangelist is, indeed, dead, he isn’t through with them yet. In fact, he is “drifting” between heaven and hell, pursued by the devil, and he intends to use them to return to earth, after a fashion.
The episode is directed by Dusty Nelson (Necromancer, 1988) and features some nicely over-the-top blue-and-pink lighting effects during the scenes when the deceased televangelist is using his niece as the titular medium. The story is also better than the last two Swensen scripts, even if the particulars this time around are a fairly standard cautionary tale about greed and hypocrisy. And we’ve got one more Swensen script to go before we close out the season.
Before that, though, we have to get through another comedic episode. This one has an odder-than-usual premise, as a man who floats away whenever he’s not strapped into lead shoes stumbles into an army recruitment office with what he claims are killers from the circus in hot pursuit. While his floating is real enough, however, his story isn’t all that he claims…
The episode itself (directed by John Lewis, whose only credits on IMDb are Tales from the Darkside episodes) is nothing special, but its casting is interesting. Our “floater” is played by Sherman Howard, better known to horror fans for his role as Bub the zombie in Day of the Dead the year before. Meanwhile, one of the figures from his past his played by Yeardley Smith, none other than the voice of Lisa Simpson.
Then we close out the second season with another script from Edithe Swensen. This one may be one of the better ones, as it circles around a wealthy young woman (Catherine Parks, from Friday the 13th Part III) who believes that she is cursed to kill anyone she falls in love with. And it opens on some evidence that she might be right, as we begin in media res as she awakens in a blood-spattered room with the body of her lover.
Naturally, before all is said and done there are red herrings and misleads as our protagonist – a psychologist with some serious ethics issues with regards to patient relationships – falls head over heels for the deadly damsel. There’s also a backstory that features some typical balderdash about Romani curses, though of course the show uses the slur, as was still quite common in ‘80s horror. The result isn’t a bad episode, and makes a nice place to end the season, even if it’s not quite on part with where season 2 began.
That’s it for tonight, but join us next time as we begin the third season of Tales from the Darkside. 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.