The second part of our continuing coverage of Tales from the Darkside kicks off with one of the series’ most famous episodes. Adapted from a short story by Stephen King, “The Word Processor of the Gods” is the second series episode written by Michael McDowell, himself an accomplished horror novelist and the screenwriter of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, among others.
An EC Comics-esque tale of a word processor that can write things into (or out of) existence, the episode was later rolled into a video release called Stephen King’s Golden Tales, a seemingly-random collection of five Tales from the Darkside episodes, of which, despite the title, this was the only one from a story by King.
The obligatory put-upon writer in “Word Processor of the Gods” is played by Bruce Davison, who had previously played the title character in Willard and later was Senator Kelly in the X-Men films. It’s actually not especially horror-y, either for King or for this series to date, feeling like it would have been right at home in, say, an episode of Amazing Stories – with which Tales was, after all, a contemporary.
The next episode has a similarly impressive pedigree, though more of its star power is in front of the camera rather than behind. Adapted from a story by Robert Bloch, “A Case of the Stubborns” is one of the series’ unfortunately frequent overtly comedic episodes, about a cantankerous old man (Eddie Bracken) who refuses to admit that he’s dead. The supporting cast includes a very young Christian Slater as the man’s grandson and Star Trek’s own Brent Spiner playing the reverend who tries to talk some sense into the old man.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their titles, “Djinn, No Chaser” and “All a Clone by the Telephone” are two more comedic episodes. The former is notable for featuring a guest turn by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a script adapted from a story by Harlan Ellison. The latter stars Night Court’s Harry Anderson (who played Richie Tozier in the TV mini-series version of Stephen King’s It) and an appearance by the ever-reliable Dick Miller.
Fortunately, from there things swing back into more traditional horror territory with “In the Cards,” written and directed by Silent Night, Bloody Night’s Theodore Gershuny, who was married to Mary Woronov. Gershuny also helmed several other episodes of the series, which we haven’t gotten to yet. “In the Cards” follows a good-natured but disbelieving fortune teller (played by TV’s Dorothy Lyman) who gets cursed with a deck of tarot cards that only reveal bad fortunes – which always come true.
“Anniversary Dinner” is a more standard EC Comics-style “twist in the tail” story that belabors its fairly obvious reveal more than a little, but at least it’s still more horror than comedy. Luckily, it’s followed up by what is probably one of the highlights of this (fairly low-light, let’s face it) disc of Tales from the Darkside. Even though it fails to stick the landing, “Snip, Snip” is a fun episode thanks in no small part to Carol Kane and Bud Cort as dueling warlocks duking it out over a winning lottery ticket. In spite of that description, it’s actually not as much of a comedy episode as some of the preceding ones.
This disc (I’m doing them in discs because I’m watching on DVD, and it’s a convenient way to break each season into 3 parts) ends as it began, with our third episode so far written by Michael McDowell. I actually liked this one better than “Word Processor of the Gods,” even though that one’s much more famous.
A one-woman show for British actress Jean Marsh (Queen Bavmorda in Willow, among many others), “Answer Me” is actually surprisingly eerie, in spite of her often-jokey monologues, which very much take on the characteristic of whistling past the graveyard. It concerns an actress renting a sublet in New York who keeps being woken up at all hours by a phone ringing in the next apartment over. Of course, she learns that the next apartment over is vacant, and the former occupant died under unusual circumstances.
It’s a standard enough ghost story cliché, but it’s handled with enough subtlety to keep some atmosphere going and the last-minute implication that there may be a reason why our particular protagonist is the one being haunted is nicely handled. Also, there’s an ambulatory phone, before all is said and done, which is always something.
The episode is the first of four Tales from the Darkside installments to be directed by Richard Friedman, who also helmed Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge, among others. Despite this, the episode is more than a little spooky, and I really appreciated the clearly very fake New York skyline out the windows.
That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we’ll finish out the first season of this classic series, with visits from a bunch more familiar faces and a few other surprises.
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.