With anthology horror prowling all through the house throughout the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s (a byproduct of the decade’s conservative turn and ensuing ‘50s/early ‘60s fetish), 1990 was the watershed moment for when the monster mash got nasty. The A-list-courting Amazing Stories show from nostalgia-babies Steven Spielberg and friends meant to tingle your spine while it was patting your head to sleep. But when HBO latched its greasy, sleazy claws around the trend, it soured into the venomous, loud-and-proud midnight haunting hour likes of Tales from the Crypt by the decade’s end. (Robert Zemeckis, one of Spielberg’s cronies, was involved in the transition and directed three of the best, although not always the bloodiest, Tales when he decided to let his hair down and unscrew his A-list credentials for something grubbier and more robustly exploitative).
George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside, the show, was more or less the way-station between the A-list and the B-list in this capacity, ending right as HBO’s tales was ready to cut a rictus grin into your mouth and dabbling as the slightly unsavory tease-your-parents warm-up act to the foul-mouthed, devilishly distasteful shock-the-squares hash the Cryptkeeper would sling for the next five or so years. Darkside was never a heavy-hitter in the horror sphere (the real talent was just waiting to get into the Crypt). But with the show’s evil twin sibling making waves on television by 1989, Romero’s hubris wasn’t ready to call it in just yet, and thus Tales from the Darkside: The Movie was unleashed in 1990. It doesn’t come out swinging, but it’s not a bad last gasp all things considered.
The actual film begins on a slight misstep by pacifying the only genuinely insidious thing about the tv show: the music. The title tune here exaggerates and over-inflates, and thus neuters beyond belief, the post-Carpenter menace of the TV show’s droning, minimalist score. (Stabbing icicle-like synth notes are traded in for a jittery aneurism of bigger-is-better synth rock sledgehammers). Thankfully, it gives way to an adequate Hansel and Gretel riff from the dark side of suburbia, the best feature of which is Deborah Harry’s amusingly blunt, even droll turn as a suburban arch-matron with a taste for childhood flesh. The cheeky upper-upper-middle-class aesthetics of the kitchen lair that dwarf the dormant prison cell adorned with cookies hiding in the house’s bowels is also a nice, albeit hardly Eisensteinian, sense of visual contrast. Ready to devour a child for dinner, the kid fights back with a few distracting tales of his own, staving off death in the arena of mid-century pulp fiction and tall tales doused in amiable hedonism and hyperbole.
The first of which is a slight but spirited effort that plays out like a John Hughes movie aged a few years, let loose to drink and cavort in college, and befriending a mummy in the process. (I mean, everyone experiments a little). The production design in “Lot 249”, like the wraparound, is similarly gilded in a cheery inversion of bourgeois aesthetics, focusing on dueling college kids Christian Slater (decked out in sweater vests and the like) and the bookish, antiquarian Steve Buscemi (looking cartoonishly young despite only two years before Reservoir Dogs) whose dustier, 1920’s Jewish intellectual vibe enshrined in his glasses and plain vest suggest both his superior academic talent and his impoverished background. Writer Michael McDowell (then recently of Beetlejuice) obviously enjoys the irony of the “mummy as college dorm prank plaything” vibe, with the characters as embalmed in their bourgeois bandages as the mummy they command as a slave. (Also look out in this segment for a very young, pre-Altman, pre-Haynes Julianne Moore, and still not young enough for college).
The witty, punk-limned casting continues with George A Romero’s screenplay treatment of Stephen King’s short story “Cat from Hell”, which likewise benefits insurmountably from a deliciously whiskey-soaked, droll turn from David Johnansen (of musical devil-gods The New York Dolls) as a hit man called in to kill a mischievous black cat believed by an aging pharmaceutical overlord to be on the prowl for revenge against the company’s cat testing proclivities. Although Tales from the Crypt had already stole it, an effective title for this monster mash might have been “dig that cat, he’s real gone”. The short, the signature piece from the film, also benefits from Romero’s dry, scabrous turn as writer, cutting down on King’s usual histrionics (or at least perverting them so they are meant to be tinged with comic brio and midnight madness humor rather than taken seriously).
Romero, always playing things with an impish grin, seems fully aware of the absurdist twitch inherent to the idea of hit man vs. cat, and he thankfully carves out room for the situation to breathe courtesy of Harrison’s surprisingly perky, kittenish direction slinking around the back-alley like a, well, you know. Harrison, by trade Romero’s composer, brings an almost synesthetic sense of surreal and fried camera mischief to the direction that feels more indebted to the ecstatic logic of music than the rational cause-effect lump-sum common among storytellers. Plus, it beats the hell out of Pet Cemetery when you’ve got Stray Cats fighting New York Dolls.
The final segment “Lover’s Vow”, also written by McDowell, is a romantic-hued exercise in ‘80s melancholic erotica, and stars James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong (even as a write this parenthetical clause to explain myself, I cannot believe I typed the aforementioned sentence and that I have fairly positive feelings toward the whole thing). When a demon of some sort murders a bartender, the stereotypically drunken down-on-his-luck six-day-stubble painter (played by Remar) promises never to tell and suddenly finds both ten years of artistic success and a love interest to stave away the loneliness. Obviously, more than Remar and Chong are likely to go bump in the night before the story’s end, but it fulfills the wraparound murderess’ request for a love story, likely in the perturbed, acid-twist vibe she would have wanted.
Unfortunately, this segment lacks the sheer phantasmagoric gusto of Harrison’s loopy framing for “Cat from Hell” or his frisky visual asides from “Lot 249” (such as a camera track that reveals the unusually utilitarian mummy prepping a coat hanger for an impromptu lobotomy). But the surprisingly genuine undercurrent of sadness and guilt in this final segment is more than enough to compensate, conjuring a conclusion awash in reverie for the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the ethereal, sensual horror of Val Lewton rather than the icky ‘50s B-films the rest of the film is so hypothetically indebted to. This final segment also functions as a nice purgative for modern horror’s cynical imperative (slowly being corroded by genuine horror films like It Follows and The Witch). Even still, this final segment is more or less the appropriate brew of relative timidity and flickers of sweaty inspiration to cap off an essentially effective, somewhat nondescript horror feature where the best quality is that it is of any quality at all.