Welcome to SCARED IN SEGMENTS, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
Mentioning Tales from the Darkside evokes vivid memories for a lot of people. From the chilling theme song crafted by Donald Rubinstein to the many iconic episodes from the show’s four-season run—the television series reminds us of how “the Darkside is always there.” The series came to be when executive producer Richard P. Rubinstein teamed up with longtime creative partner George A. Romero. Their friendship dates back to the seventies when they created a production company called Laurel Entertainment. The pair collaborated again in 1983 on a pilot which eventually spawned one of the most influential horror anthologies to grace the picture tube. Eighty-nine episodes later, Tales from the Darkside aired its series finale in 1988. Rubinstein then unleashed a similar anthology called Monsters later that same year.
Romero had no involvement in Monsters, but he and Rubinstein reunited in 1990 for a film adaptation of Tales from the Darkside. Directed by John Harrison—the first assistant director on plenty of Romero’s films—and co-written by Romero and Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice), this anthology is fairly dynamic in its execution. Although it takes more cues from Creepshow than something like Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt. For example, it has a wraparound narrative as opposed to an omniscient character who introduces the segments.
According to director Harrison and screenwriter Romero on the DVD’s commentary, the movie was filmed in New York, and save for exterior scenes and the Tarrytown mansion in “Cat from Hell,” the film was almost completely shot on sets built inside an old high school. Darkside was an experiment in filmmaking for Harrison as he dabbled with different styles for each of the stories so they could be unique in appearance. Whereas with Creepshow, his mentor Romero instilled a unifying comic book motif. As a result, “Lot 249” has a 1940s serial aesthetic with a hint of German expressionist lighting; “Cat from Hell” was heavily monochromatic, and “Lover’s Vow” was rich in pastels.
Released on May 4, 1990 to 1,535 theaters, the movie earned a modest $16.3 million against a $3.5 million budget. Critics in general did not respond well at the time—Entertainment Weekly giving it a grade of “C-“—but nowadays, people have granted it more clemency. In particular, they recognize and respect the film’s imaginative visual effects made possible by talents such as Greg Nicotero (Army of Darkness) and Dick Smith (The Exorcist).
Laurel Productions planned to release a sequel written by McDowell, Romero, and Gahan Wilson, but it never materialized. Had it gone through, the proposed followup would have included two more Stephen King adaptations (“Pinfall” and “Rainy Season”).
The only home video release beyond VHS and Laserdisc is a near barebones DVD from Paramount that surfaced in 2001. It continues to be repackaged, but the content remains the same. The lack of a remastered release for fans doesn’t reflect the film’s quality. Not only is Tales from the Darkside: The Movie a tremendous good time, but it’s also a standout in the long history of horror anthologies.
THE FRAMING DEVICE—“WRAPAROUND STORY”
A suburban housewife named Betty returns home from the grocery store to find young Timmy locked in a cage inside her kitchen pantry. However, she’s not shocked seeing as Betty‘s the one who put him there. To stall for time before the witch kills and cooks him for a meal, Timmy shares some stories from a book Betty gave him—Tales from the Darkside.
Clearly a modern iteration of “Hansel and Gretel” minus Gretel, this framing device establishes the darkly comedic tone present for the majority of the film. Playing the child in distress is Matthew Lawrence (Pulse), and the witch Betty is portrayed by Deborah “Debbie” Harry of Blondie fame. Fans of the Darkside show will recognize Harry from the episode “The Moth,” which coincidentally was written by Michael McDowell.
The wraparound echoes a theme found throughout the original Tales from the Darkside series—something that seems normal is quite often the opposite behind closed doors. We have the quaint small town setting along with an affluent surburbanite performing typical household roles. Yet beneath all that is the dreadful underbelly we’ve come to expect in this context.
Harrison has said the order of stories in the movie is different from that in the script. Since the wraparound had already been filmed, he had to edit it accordingly. He created some continuity issues, and sharp viewers can tell by looking at the various times on the kitchen’s wall clock.
As far as most framing stories go, this one is straightforward. It’s more conventional than some, but it never overexerts itself either. Harry and Lawrence are goodish in their respective roles, and it wraps up with no muss, no fuss.
STORY 1—”LOT 249“
To prevent their classmate from winning a scholarship, two grad students frame him for a crime he didn’t commit. The wronged classmate then unleashes a mummy to exact his revenge.
Loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249,” this segment fluidly combines comedy with the macabre. The mummy’s inherent fearfulness is occasionally undercut by some slapstick, but Harrison and Romero wanted there to be some laughs as a way to startle viewers when the scares do resume.
“Lot 249” features eighties holdover Christian Slater (Heathers)—who starred in a Darkside episode (“A Case of the Stubborns“) at the age of fifteen—and Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore (Hannibal) before they each found greater fame. Buscemi was previously in an episode of Monsters, and to this day, Moore remembers her first film role fondly. So the familiar faces coupled with a whimsical plot all culminate into an affable starter that paves the way for even more ominous offerings.
STORY 2—”CAT FROM HELL“
A rich old man (William Hickey) hires a professional hitman (David Johansen) to kill a murderous cat. The assassin’s refusal to take his client seriously ends badly for him and anyone else who has crossed paths with this fatal feline.
The brand of humor shifts from physical to gallows in “Cat from Hell.” If you succumb to any laughs during this tale, it’s likely because of the director’s execution style. The actors play things straight as can be, but the occasional sight gags and undue reactions from certain characters are more than enough to lighten the ghastly mood. While John Harrison adapts Stephen King’s short “The Cat from Hell” almost faithfully, he exaggerates elements to the point where it’s delightfully comical.
There’s a splendid theatricality to “Cat from Hell“—the overall monochromous mien, the wholly saturated colors, the effects used for transitioning from flashbacks to present time—that gets overlooked when discussing this short.
This segment would have been a part of Creepshow 2 if the budget had allowed it. Considering the similar tones between both films, “Cat from Hell” would have fit in with the peripheral stories of either anthology just fine. The short’s absurd nastiness is why it’s the cat’s meow.
“The short’s absurd nastiness is why it’s the cat’s meow.”
STORY 3—”LOVER’S VOW“
A struggling artist (James Remar) finds himself in immediate danger when he witnesses a man being murdered by a winged monster. In return for his silence about the incident, the creature spares his life. That same night, the man meets his future wife and the mother of his two children. Their union incidentally revives his career and the artist becomes successful. Everything seems right in his life, but the man cannot shake what happened that fateful night. His reluctance to forget the past will soon come back to bite him.
The humor is paused in time for what is arguably the best story here. Drawing inspiration from Masaki Kobayashi’s interpretation of the yuki-onna of Japanese folklore, the last segment is a solemn parable of keeping promises and self-destruction. And what is likely the most indelible element of “Lover’s Vow” is the gargoyle’s creature design. The practical build-up for the monster’s grotesque transformation is stunning even by today’s standards.
The casting of Rae Dawn Chong as the love interest was met with some pushback from the studio. In other films of this era, interracial relationships were purposeful and used to convey a social theme. Harrison instead didn’t address the two main characters’ different races at all—his choice was progressive and a comment on how said relationships shouldn’t be taboo to begin with.
Of the three entries, this one has the most deliberate pacing and the most salient twist. Audiences already have it figured out, but that doesn’t prevent “Lover’s Vow” from hitting its mark with flying colors.
Most anthologies follow a very specific formula, or they incorporate tropes intrinsic to the sub-genre. What boxes does Tales from the Darkside: The Movie check off?
Host / Narrator … ☑
Not your average horror anthology host, but little Timmy indeed narrates the stories. Though he’s no Cryptkeeper or The Creep.
Framing device … ☑
Everything branches off from the “Wraparound Story.”
Multiple directors … ☒
The only director was John Harrison.
Crossover / Hyperlink quality … ☒
Other than being part of Betty‘s book, the stories were freestanding.
Based on an existing work … ☑
“Lot 249” and “Cat from Hell” are respectively based on works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King.
Was Richard Matheson somehow involved? … ☒
Writer Richard Matheson was all over television anthologies once upon a time, but he never wrote or provided source material for either the Tales from the Darkside series or the movie.
Horror effects aficionado and icon Tom Savini (Friday the 13th) has been credited with calling this film the “real Creepshow 3,” but his statement was more about the spirit of Darkside. There’s no official evidence that the film was ever intended to be sequel to Romero’s classic anthology. Regardless of what Savini meant or how he’s been misinterpreted, his sentiment still stands—Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is an omnibus of veritable gore and unfading visuals that have somehow improved with age.