By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we shamelessly promote and defend some of the worst films ever made. This week’s installment features the star-studded horror anthology, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie.
Who doesn’t remember network television’s shitty answer to Tales from the Crypt? George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside aired in the mid 80’s, alongside other watered-down horror and sci-fi anthology shows, such as Spielberg’s delightfully awful Amazing Stories. Despite Romero’s involvement, and the show’s theme of adapting short stories by some of the world’s most famous horror and science fiction authors, it was considered an overall flop. After 4 years of riding the “after midnight” coattails of Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, Tales From the Darkside went off the air to make room for producer Richard Rubinstein’s new syndicated trash heap, Monsters. A couple years later, and likely influenced by the utter failure of Monsters, something wonderful happened: Romero decided to re-boot Tales into a feature film.
I have complete confidence in saying that this is one of the most accidentally perfect movies ever made. The cast, especially, is assembled with almost Mr. Magoo-like precision. The opening credit role will have you completely puzzled, while thoroughly ecstatic. We have writers Stephen King, George Romero, and Arthur Conan Doyle, all adapted by Michael McDowell of Beetlejuice fame. Really, ninety percent of your brain is saying, “huh, this might be good”.
The opening sequence, titled “The Wraparound Story”, borrows from the classic story of Hansel and Gretel. A young paperboy, (Matthew Lawrence), is kidnapped and put into a cage by a woman, (Debbie Harry), with plans to cook him up for her dinner party. To distract her, the boy reads her stories from her favorite book, “Tales from the Darkside”. The big payoff here is watching Harry try – and fail – to act her way out of a wet paper bag. (That, and dreaming of unusual ways to murder Joey Lawrence’s little brother Matthew.) Debbie Harry’s acting “style” is reminiscent of really bad porn, but that’s not a bad thing: it doesn’t matter who you are, you wish there was a Blondie porn, and this gets you a little closer to that dream. Couple that with a visceral desire to see Harry kill young Lawrence, and the “Wraparound” quickly becomes an anticipated segue-way between acts. (Really, Debbie Harry could read the phone book between each act and I’d still be into it.)
Our first story, written by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is “Lot 249”. Here we see, perhaps, the most surprising cast of the film. While the roles of protagonist and antagonist are fairly blurred, the story follows two main characters, Bellingham and Andy, played by Steve Buscemi and Christian Slater. Julianne Moore plays Slater’s sister Susan, and everyone’s favorite Die Hard villain, Robert Sedgwick, plays his best friend, (and Susan’s boyfriend), Lee. Like many short stories, the plot is pretty simple. Bellingham, Andy, Susan, and Lee are graduate students. Bellingham is nerdy, poor, and pissed off. Andy is his odd-couple roommate. Lee and Susan are simply awful people, and awfully rich people at that. Bellingham and Lee are the final two students in the running for a scholarship, and Susan helps Lee cheat and win by writing his essay and framing Bellingham for stealing an artifact from the university museum.
Cue the fucking vengeance.
In order to pay for his education, Bellingham sells stuff, weird stuff. His latest acquisition is the mysterious “Lot 249”. Knowing he has been cheated out of his scholarship, Bellingham assures Andy that Lot 249 will more than “make up for it”. He insists that Lee and Andy be present when he opens the wooden crate to reveal an Egyptian sarcophagus, complete with mummy. Buscemi proceeds to remove the wraps from the mummy and shove his hand into the incision, finding an ancient scroll. (Mummy + mummy scroll = mummy problems, we all know this.) Later that night, Andy overhears Bellingham loudly reciting the words from the scroll… in English. Of course, like all mummies do when their scroll is read aloud, the mummy comes to life. Because Bellingham awoke the mummy, he’s the mummy’s master (you know how mummies work, I don’t have to explain this.)
So, fueled by the power of revenge, the mummy goes after Bellingham’s rival, Lee. Of course, this mummy only kills people in ways that relate to his mummy lifestyle. Thus, he grabs a wire coat hanger from the closet, and pulls Lee’s brain out through his nose. While all of this is going down, Susan is visiting with Andy, in order to plant the stolen museum artifact in Bellingham’s room, completely unaware that her boyfriend has been taken to pound town by the undead. She returns home to find a brain plopped into the fruit bowl on a side table, Lee lying dead in the kitchen, and an obvious mummy walking out of the back door. Here, Moore successfully depicts the most unemotional reaction to a dead boyfriend scene in history, while the cinematographer oddly pushes a Bride of Frankenstein feel to the proceedings. We switch back to Bellingham’s apartment, where the he is finally caught with the stolen “Zuni” artifact missing from the university and expelled. Knowing that Susan had framed him, she becomes the next victim of Bellingham’s mummy.
Susan is alone at home, and guess what happens? That’s right, the mummy cuts her open with a pair of scissors, and stuffs her with flowers and cotton. (That’s real mummy shit.) Knowing that Bellingham’s “Lot 249” is the reason for the death of his sister and best friend, Andy goes full Slater on Bellingham. He ties him to a chair and threatens to “roast his nuts” if Bellingham doesn’t hand over the scroll. After a good 10 or so minutes of Andy delivering one-liners, chuckling like a maniac, cutting up the mummy with an electric turkey carver, and spraying Bellingham’s crotch down with lighter fluid, Andy gets his hands on the scroll. He promptly burns it and, for whatever reason, lets Bellingham go.
But what would “Lot 249” be without a good Romero twist? The segment ends with Buscemi’s character laughing his face off in the back of a punk rock taxi driven by b-movie notable, Ralph Marrero. Bellingham had switched the scrolls, giving Andy a scroll of “ancient pictogram pornography”. He recites the words and boom, Susan and Lee are half assed mummies knocking at Andy’s door. Coat hanger, knife, and flowers in hand.
The second act is written by the almost always disappointing Stephen King, entitled “The Cat from Hell”. (Stephen King has a cat thing; dude’s terrified of them.) Fortunately, this segment, like the others, has a bizarre cast that was so thoughtlessly thrown together that you barely notice the storyline. William Hickey, one of the creepiest guys ever to grace the screen, plays the old man (Drogan) who lives alone in a mansion. David Johansen plays a hit man who was hired by Hickey. Like the first segment, director John Harrison doesn’t hold back on the noir feel. Johansen’s character, Halston, arrives at the mansion to meet with Drogan regarding a potential contract. I must say, Davis Johansen has some serious on-screen appeal. He’s like Nick Cave, Jim Jarmusch, and Jim Carrey rolled into one human who’s had the talent sucked right out of him. It’s compelling, to say the least, and the Buster Poindexter jokes are endlessly on tap. Here, Darkside throws the twist at you early, the contract is for a small black cat that has inhabited the mansion.
Drogan, the head of an evil pharmaceutical empire that – you guessed it – experimented on cats, explains that the cat has been sent to avenge its fallen brethren. It’s killed his sister by tripping her down the stairs, her best friend by literally face-fucking her to death, and his butler (played by the equally scary, Mark Margolis). Halston finds this all to be hilarious and accepts the hit like a sucker.
As one would expect, Halston is left alone in the house with the cat. He has every opportunity to say, turn on a light, but Buster doesn’t play that way. Instead, he walks around the darkened house, pouring drinks and continuously proclaiming “I ain’t ever lost a hit”. From time to time, he opens his adorable little assassin box and selects a useless weapon, like a fucking piano string, to kill the cat. Needless to say, this cat pwnes the shit out of Halston for the next 15 minutes, nearly castrating him at one point. Eventually, he goes full Slater too and just starts shooting at everything while dropping one-liners. The cat, however, is not impressed. The clock strikes midnight, which everyone knows, is killing time for hell-spawn cats. Halston shoots the clock, like 20 times, only to find the cat hiding behind it, unscathed. As Halston screams nearly every obscenity imaginable at the evil feline, the furry little guy seizes the opportunity.
Yeah, the cat jumps down his throat. It’s amazing. The only thing that tops it, is when the cat comes back up. Drogan returns to the house, expecting to find Halston and a dead cat. Instead, he discovers a dead Halston with a belly full of pussy. In perfect campy timing, the clock starts working again and rings out the last bells of midnight. The cat jumps out of Halston’s corpse, jumps onto Drogan’s lap, and actually scares the guy to death. It seems like a let down, and then you remember Buster Poindexter deepthroating that cat, both ways. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when a cat is born, this is probably not far off.
Back to “The Wraparound Story”: our young Timmy is running out of time. Harry, however, allows him to tell one last story, as long as it’s a love story, because she’s romantic. (Come on, look at her, she’s very romantic.) He fumbles through the book and finds the perfect closer, “Lover’s Vow”.
Based, roughly, on a Yuki-onna tale by Lafcadio Hearn, “Lover’s Vow” follows a brilliantly simple storyline. Late one night, two men are leaving a bar when one man notices something strange in the alleyway. He goes to check it out, and a giant slimy gargoyle creature appears and proceeds to claw his hand and head off. The other guy, our main character, witnesses his friend’s demise as the gargoyle approaches him. He begs for life, so the creature makes him a deal: he may keep his life in exchange for a promise. He may live, as long as he never speaks a word of what happened that night.
Before all of this happens, we’re introduced to our main character, Preston, a starving artist played by James Remar. Remar is best known for being in fucking everything for the last 15 years. Usually, he’s the cop in whatever you happen to be watching. He also seems to specialize in playing the father of crazy people. He’s Dexter’s dad, Ryan’s dad in Wilfred, and the paterfamilias of the Gecko brothers in From Dusk till Dawn. Preston’s work isn’t selling, prompting his agent (Robert Klein) to drop him. He decides to drink away his problems at his friend’s bar. Upon leaving the bar, the aforementioned shit goes down. After making his “vow”, Preston rushes home, only to run into Carola, played by Tommy’s little angel, Rae Dawn Chong. Like a true gentleman, Preston grabs Carola and shoves her against a wall… because he cares. He explains that it’s too dangerous for her to be walking around this late, and she agrees to go home with him. (Yep, that’s how it’s done, fellas.) Carola, somehow, seems instantly taken by Preston’s rape-y approach and serial killer designed apartment. She stays the night, they bone, and that’s that. Though Preston is still a little shaken up over the death of his friend, and is fanatically making demon art, he and Carola move into together, the next day.
Flash forward 10 years. Preston and Carola are married with 2 kids and, with the help of Carola, he’s become a successful artist. As they prepare to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, Preston finds himself ridden with guilt. He’s given Carola everything she could ever ask for, but he can’t tell her the truth about the night they met. With an unmanageable amount of weight on his chest, Preston confesses the actual events of the night, 10 years ago, when he made his promise to the gargoyle demon thing. In doing so, he breaks his vow, and the shit hits the fan.
Preston’s confession leaves Carola speechless. For a handful of perfectly timed seconds, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then, she let’s out a roar and the best-delivered line of the movie, “you promised you’d never tell!” It’s actually heartbreaking, in a bizarre way. Her skin begins to break away, revealing her true identity, the gargoyle thing. Preston attempts escape, only to discover that his 2 kids have also turned into gargoyles. He accepts his fate and turns to face Carola, professing his love for her one last time before she rips his throat out. She then, with her little baby gargoyles in tow, flies through the roof to return to her perch atop the building, turning back to stone.
Back to “The Wraparound Story”, where a deeply moved Debbie Harry is preparing to gut Timmy and pop the little shit into the oven. In the final minutes of the movie, it becomes pretty obvious that all of the writers took off a few days early and let a Grip, or the like, finish up the script. Timmy begins to frantically narrate his own story of being held captive by a woman who plans to eat him. Harry actually throws out some her best lines in this scene, leaving you wondering whether she’s a terrible actor or a comic genius. Moments before he’s to be sliced, belly to chin, Timmy reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of marbles, which he then throws on the ground. Of course, and as the laws of bad movies dictate, Harry immediately slips on the marbles, impaling herself on a bunch of spikes placed on a butcher block. She then rolls back into the kitchen and Timmy grabs the keys and unlocks himself, still narrating the whole thing like a weirdo. He shoves Harry into the fiery oven that seems to swallow her whole, lucky oven.
Since the days of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, we’ve seen these movies churned out, year after year, usually destined to air late night on some low budget cable station. They’re almost always bad, but therein lays the beauty of the anthology. What sets Tales from the Darkside apart isn’t the cast, the writing, and certainly not the effects. Trust me, no one on set ever spoke the words, “hey, this is going to be really good!” Lord knows, Darkside was intended to make a quick buck at the box office and never be seen again. What makes Darkside memorable is a perfect, though unintentional, balance of the most basic human emotions. It’s scary, funny, and at times, quite sweet.