Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Get in the holiday spirit with these horror anthology films, which offer several scary stories for the price of one.
Tales From The Darkside is the middle child of horror anthology series, coming a decade after Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and ending one year before its punny younger sibling, Tales From The Crypt. (Amazing Stories is more like a cousin.) But its horror roots are strong: Created by George Romero as a serialized spin on his Creepshow films, the TV series featured scripts from a who’s who of horror writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Michael McDowell.
The film version, 1990’s Tales From The Darkside: The Movie, has a similar pedigree, including screenplay contributions by Romero and McDowell. Director John Harrison began his career as Romero’s assistant director on Creepshow; like his mentor, Harrison was heavily influenced by ’50s EC horror comics, although the visual references here are less explicit than the comic-book animation used to frame Creepshow. Instead, we get a glossy, retro-styled wraparound story starring Debbie Harry as a perfectly coiffed cannibalistic housewife with plans to roast snot-nosed brat Matthew Lawrence for dinner. In classic Arabian Nights fashion, the resourceful youngster manages to delay his doom by reading Harry three stories from her favorite book, called (you guessed it) Tales From The Darkside.
Remarkably even for a horror anthology and arranged in order of intensity, the tales themselves, like everything EC-influenced, lean heavily on ironic twists and poetic justice. The first, “Lot 249,” is based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story and drags a bit, although it’s got mummies—perhaps the only monsters a Romero-style zombie could beat in a foot race—so that’s to be expected. Steve Buscemi stars as an antiquities grad student with a vendetta against ’80s yuppies Christian Slater and Julianne Moore, who try to swindle him out of a scholarship. (If you’ve ever wanted to see Julianne Moore fight a mummy, this is your best—and possibly only—opportunity, unless her career takes a weird turn in the next few years.)
The second story, ”Cat From Hell,” also has a bone to pick with rich people, and cat people as well. Beloved character actor William Hickey and New York Doll-turned-character actor David Johansen star, as Hickey hires professional hitman Johansen (it’s a good look for him) to kill a cat that has already decimated several members of his moneyed family. Originally written for Creepshow 2 from a story by Stephen King, “Cat From Hell” is the closest in look and spirit to Romero’s original Creepshow, saturating each scene in dramatic blue light and featuring the same kind of morally diseased aristocrats as in Creepshow’s “Father’s Day” segment. “Cat From Hell” climaxes with some cartoonishly grotesque special effects from a team led by Tom Savini protégé Greg Nicotero and legendary Exorcist makeup artist Dick Smith.
But it’s the last segment, “Lover’s Vow,” that really showcases the artistry and technical sophistication of practical effects in the last days of the pre-CGI era. This one stars James Remar as Preston, a bohemian artist type who sees something he shouldn’t have—a grotesque gargoyle chowing down on one of his fellow bar patrons—late one night. The creature spares Preston’s life, as long as he promises never to tell anyone what he’s seen. That same night, he meets a woman, Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), with whom he eventually settles down and has a couple of kids. On their 10th wedding anniversary, Preston tells Carola he’s going to tell her something he’s never told anyone, a confession that takes an ironic turn, because this is an EC comics story.
With all this in mind, is it any surprise that Savini calls Tales From The Darkside: The Movie “the real Creepshow 3”?
Availability: Tales From The Darkside: The Movie is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services.