Thursday, February 3, 2011

Film Review: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE- THE MOVIE (1990, John Harrison)

Stars: 4.2 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Debbie Harry (VIDEODROME, "Blondie"), Matthew Lawrence (BOY MEETS WORLD, MRS. DOUBTFIRE), Christian Slater (HEATHERS, GLEAMING THE CUBE), Steve Buscemi (MYSTERY TRAIN, RESERVOIR DOGS), Julianne Moore (SAFE, PSYCHO '00), William Hickey (ONE CRAZY SUMMER, PRIZZI'S HONOR), David Johansen ("The New York Dolls," SCROOGED, 200 CIGARETTES), James Remar (THE WARRIORS, RENT-A-COP), Rae Dawn Chong (COMMANDO, CHAINDANCE), Mark Margolis (THE WRESTLER, THE COTTON CLUB). Cinematography by Robert Draper (HALLOWEEN 5, DR. GIGGLES). Screenplay amalgamated from work by George A. Romero, Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Michael McDowell (BEETLEJUICE, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Special makeup effects by Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero, and Robert Kurtzman. Visual effects supervised by Ernest D. Farino (THE THING, THE ABYSS, THE TERMINATOR).
Tag-line: "Brace yourself for some KILLER stories."
Best one-liner: "I've never blown a hit yet, kitty cat."

Well, my anthology horror series has given me an excuse to take this lofty tome off the shelf, dust it off, and flip through its brittle, musty pages once more.

Considered by many, including Tom Savini, to be the real CREEPSHOW 3, it features stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, and ancient Japanese folklore adapted by the likes of Michael McDowell and George A. Romero. Its director, John Harrison, did the electrifyingly spooky score for the first CREEPSHOW, and the crew features many series regulars. Additionally, many of the cast (i.e., Christian Slater and Debbie Harry) were alumni from the TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE TV show.

Divided into three segments, each part has a thoroughly distinctive feel. "Lot 249," a tale of mummies and revenge, has the visual consistency of an old Republic serial with post-RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK production value. "The Cat from Hell" sees a hitman going after a cursed black cat, has a very Vittorio Storaro-esque texture, and becomes very theatrical, not unlike the "Father's Day" segment from CREEPSHOW:

"Lover's Vow," which sees a struggling artist make a pact with a monster to avoid evisceration, feels most like it's embracing a contemporary style, and it features a thick, 'desolate yet metropolitan' atmosphere. The wraparound story is basically "Hansel & Gretel" meets "Scheherazade" in suburbia. With Debbie Harry.

So, while giving away as little as possible, I shall thumb through the veritable reams of these darkened pages- TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE features immeasurable insights into a number of scholarly disciplines. Prepare to have some thoughts provoked:

The Wrap-around Segment:

PHILOSOPHY: Is Debbie Harry a good actress? I don't know. Can we say for sure? ...Should we say for sure?

How about this: if a radio is playing "Rapture" in the woods and no one's around to hear it, does it still have that schweet rap part?

No wait– I'm sorry I said that, Blondie. Er, I mean, Debbie Harry. Yes, I know Blondie is the name of the band, not you. Sorry.

Lot 249:

ZOOLOGY: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE affords us an outstanding glimpse of the Slater Factor in its natural habitat. Not until KUFFS in '92 would we see it quite this unrestrained. Look at the following images. Rarely has the Slater Factor been captured with such gleeful, manic precision. And rarely has it been captured holding such a wicked electric knife.

SOCIOLOGY: How is it possible that I'm always rooting for the proletariat... unless the ruling class is Slater?

Look at that sweater. We should hate him. But the eyebrow has won us over. An important lesson. Conversely, Robert Sedgwick and Julianne Moore, in their respective squash court and aerobics attire, garner no such sympathy.

Smart-alecky-ness vs. pomposity. An age-old struggle, and one which is always won by the smart-alecks.

ARCHAEOLOGY: Julianne Moore handles an actual Zuni fetish doll, in an in-joke directed at TRILOGY OF TERROR's slaveringly (inaccurate) bundle of teeth.

Though I must admit, a small, polished stone carving of an animal is infinitely less fun than a 'YAAAAAH YAH YAH NUMMM NUM' yammering little fellow with a predilection for edged weapons.

PHYSICS: Can three heads occupy the space intended for two heads?

This case study shows that it is, in fact, possible.

LINGUISTICS: Why does uttering the ancient hieroglyphic curse in English cause the mummy to awaken?... More importantly, who cares!

Young Buscemi utters the malediction.

The Cat From Hell:

GERIATRICS: Is it possible for a human being to have never been young? I swear that William Hickey was like eighty years old for a span of about forty years.

"Bring me its tail, so I can throw it in the fire and watch it burn!"

And it's always the greatest actors, like Harry Dean Stanton, Walter Huston, Walter Brennan ...I could go on. Unless somebody can provide me with evidence to the contrary, I'll have to assume that Hickey sprung forth from the womb as an oldster–
I stand corrected. Though he kinda looks the same, even then (the 1960's).

MUSIC THEORY: Who'd have thought that one day we'd see New York Doll member-turned-Buster Poindexter songster David Johansen stalking a cat with a laser-sighted gun in a suspenseful horror anthology? Not I.

And who'd have thought that he would have such a subtle, classy Dirk Bogardish quality to his acting? Or that he could pull off the whole 'internal monologue externalized' thing like a true professional?

According to Harrison and Romero, Johansen and Hickey drained a great deal of gin in their down-time and held the cast and crew rapt with their constant banter and ridiculous anecdotes. Ah, to have been a fly on the wall on the set of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE...

Lover's Vow:

ART HISTORY: Balsa wood artists are an angst-driven bunch. Theirs is a fleeting art, one that can be easily smashed in fits of impassioned fury.

To be fair, we see him work with different media, but our first glimpse of him is as he's smashing a balsa construction that looks culled from an 'Odyssey of the Mind' competition.

This is easily the most dramatic segment, as nearly every omnibus requires a straight-up tragedy. And James Remar, one of my faves, has been cast against (villainous) type as a sensitive artiste. I like it. Hell, I'm always rooting for him anyway. [See also: The Slater Factor.]

HISTORY HISTORY: Speaking of factors, the RDC factor is pretty high, too, and it's occasionally wearing a fringe hippie jacket. For the uninitiated, that's the Rae Dawn Chong factor. She was comin' into the home stretch of a pretty mindblowing run of films from '81 to '91. We're talkin' QUEST FOR FIRE, BEAT STREET, Ferrara's FEAR CITY, CHOOSE ME, AMERICAN FLYERS, COMMANDO, THE COLOR PURPLE, SOUL MAN, THE SQUEEZE, THE PRINCIPAL, and Ironside's CHAINDANCE.

This was one of her great last hurrahs, and I can't decide if seeing her romantically paired with James Remar makes me happy or uncomfortable.

CRYPTOZOOLOGY: The monster is great. A detailed latex n' rubber construction, you can only shudder to think of how they'd handle it today, maybe with a CGI creature that resembles DRAGONHEART or something. At best.

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE-OLOGY: A glimpse of James Remar in an eyepatch reveals what it would have been like had Walter Hill directed ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

In the end, one of the stronger horror anthology films. Not as good as the original CREEPSHOW, but it's leaps and bounds above CREEPSHOW 2. There's not a weak segment or a groan-inducing moment in the bunch, and that's the highest of compliments for an omnibus film. A little over four stars.

-Sean Gill


TimTE01 said...

While it alternates being good and decent, it's 1,000x better than the actual 'Creepshow 3' we got. That movie makes me want to hurt others- preferably the Writer/Director duo behind it. Aaargh!

J.D. said...

Always dug the segment with Slater, Moore, et al for, as you put it, the pulpy RAIDERS feel to it. Man, I haven't thought about this film in ages but it is definitely a keeper. Good pick!

Tempest said...

I liked this film. I recall the promos and seeing Slater with the electric knife and hearing a woman scream. I did not even think why the words brought the mummy to life. I agree, we should hate Slater's yuppie character, but because it was Slater, I couldn't. I liked the modern twist on Hansel and Gretel. I agree, Rae Dawn Chong was great and you sort of have to wonder why she faded out. Lover's Vow is the most powerful story of the segments. The actor from the cat story, I have never seen him young, either. It is weird how there are some actors and actresses you only see as elderly--Jessica Tandy was one. I did see her younger in The Birds. I had no idea the doll was a nod to TOT.

Anonymous said...

This is a great one, and it comes, coincidentally, after I fished watching the Tales from the Darkside Season 2 DVDs. I must say, I was born in 1985 and the monster in lovers vow scared the shit out of me for many nights.

I say Debby is a good actor, and nails it in this one.


Sean Gill said...

I think it's best to think of CREEPSHOW III as like one of those made-up, trashy Italian sequels like those by Fragasso or D'amato, but without any of the accompanying joie de vivre or charm. Yeeesh.

Glad you enjoyed. The archeology-themed horror pieces are often some of my favorites- I also love that TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode, "Creep Course," featuring Jeffrey Jones, Anthony Michael Hall, and a lovestruck killer mummy. I think you'd get a kick out of it if you haven't seen it already.

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad that Slater with the turkey carving knife dominated the old promos- heh.

The monster in Lover's Vow is definitely one of my favorite omnibus creatures (along with the contents of 'The Crate' in CREEPSHOW and the Zuni doll in TRILOGY OF TERROR). And nobody said Debbie was a bad actor, there was just some conceptual philosophizing going on- ha! She is very enjoyable in this, and I love her drive through suburbia, waving to the local priest and behaving like a model citizen!