Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”

I very recently — like on Monday — finished off a run of all eight seasons of “That 70s Show” (watch for my comments on that coming up in the near future) and have moved on to a horror anthology-type show that I picked up cheap without ever having heard anything about it (I might have heard a reference to the actual movie at one point, but don’t remember watching it) called “Tales From the Darkside”.  I both did and didn’t arrange to watch this coming up on Halloween.  The shows that I’ve been watching over the past few months were selected in an attempt to clear out all of the half hour shows out of my stack of DVDs, and as this is a half hour show it fit in that category.  However, one of the reasons to put it last was indeed that it would probably slide into the schedule around Halloween and so would be appropriate.  Anyway, I started watching it and after watching the first disk I decided two things.  First, that some of the story ideas in the show had promise but that the execution was sorely lacking and, second, because of that I kinda wanted to comment on it in more detail than my normal analysis would allow for.  Hence, I want to go through all of the episodes of all six disks and talk about them in some way.

Which leads to a few changes.  First, it’s the case that I don’t need or want to talk about each episode in detail, but at the same time there are some that I want to talk about in detail.  So some episodes will get their own post while some episodes will be combined together into one post covering all of them in less detail than the other posts.  If I only did each disk per post, that would be six posts, which would work out to six weeks in my normal horror slot on Thursdays, and as noted I will have more posts than that.  So that’s an awful lot of time to take away from horror movies, especially since I do have a backlog of horror movies to watch and comment on, and those won’t be put on hold because watching this one fits into my TV show watching time, not my horror movie watching time (which is good because I still have big stacks of horror movies to watch as well).  I could put it into other slots, but honestly I have other things to slot there as well, and trying to mix the two would only delay posts that I’d like to make longer than Id like (especially since I want to at least write these posts as soon after watching a disk as I can to ensure that later disks and episodes don’t impact my judgement of earlier ones).  Hence, this post coming out on a Saturday.  I will be writing these ahead and scheduling them for Saturdays, but if in one week I don’t have the time to write a post for a day I’ll just move these posts from Saturday to that day.  Since I’m busy, I’m hoping I’ll be able to manage all of this, but we’ll see.

Anyway, this first post is going to cover the very first episode, “Trick or Treat”, which is both an episode with a lot of things to talk about and one that also, rather unfortunately, sets the tone for the rest of the disk.  This one was written by George A. Romero of “Night of the Living Dead” fame, which makes it rather surprising that this episode’s writing is so poor.  I’m having a hard time deciding the right way to outline this one, as I’d normally do a plot synopsis first and then talk about its issues, but it’s hard to talk about the sections without talking about their flaws.  I think I’ll try to do a plot outline and then pick out the individual sections and their failings and see how that goes.

Anyway, it starts with an old man sitting with two accountants balancing his books late at night.  The movie establishes that he’s cheap and won’t hire an assistant, which explains why they have to come to his store late at night to do the books.  One of them asks for another cup of coffee, which starts a lengthy conversation about how he’s going to charge 4 cents for it — his cost + 20% — and establishes in even more detail that he’s frugal, but he insists that he is always fair and always only gets what he should.  After that, there’s a scene where the old man is in some fear and then there is an apparent monster attack, but the old man reveals that it’s just a trick, Halloween is coming up, and he loves Halloween.

We then move on to a scene in the daytime in the store, where it is revealed that he runs the general store and has collected IOUs from pretty much everyone in the town, as it’s a farming community and the crops have not been doing well lately.  A father and son come in to make a payment, and then say that they won’t be going to the old man’s house for Halloween.  It turns out that the old man on Halloween holds an event where the kids come into his house one at a time to look for his stack of IOUs, and if they manage to find them the debt their parents owe is wiped out.  The trick is that the old man tries to scare them into running out of the house before they manage to find it.  He insisted to the child that the hiding place is obvious and is fair, but we find out later that he does hide it in a place that isn’t that easy to find.  Anyway, the boy insists that he can do it but the father refuses to let him, and the old man threatens to raise their payments unless he does, but the father stays firm.  After he leaves, another father says that his son is going to do it this year, as he’s been whipping him all year in preparation for that.

Anyway, on the night we see a kid come to the house, and the old man has set it up with animatronics to scare the children.  The girl can’t take it and runs out to her mother’s waiting arms.  Then comes the boy who was whipped, and he does pretty well, but the old man taunts them with “warmer” and “colder” and uses that against the boy when he almost finds it, which makes his approach seem less fair than advertised.  Anyway, he is distracted away from the real hiding place and is eventually scared out, and we see him run to his father’s arms who comforts him, and in one interesting part we can see that the father wasn’t whipping him because he was just inherently abusive, but instead because he wanted the boy to be more afraid of coming out without the IOUs than staying inside (and seems to have regretted that at the end).

At the same time, the first boy insists that he can find the IOUs and sneaks off to do just that.  The old man gets a visit from a witch, whom he derides with a “No adults!” line.  On opening the door to repeat that, he can see that she’s floating off the ground and floats into his house, with all of the animatronics coming to life and all of his IOUs and money being spread around the house as he pleads for his money, and then he stumbles into a room with the Devil and some imps/demons who taunt him with “Getting warmer/getting hot!” until it all fades away.

The boy eventually arrives at the house and meets the witch, who just keeps on laughing — that’s all she did throughout the entire episode — and then dumps the IOUs and the old man’s money on him, and he walks away feeling happy and good about himself, despite not really having done anything at all.  As he leaves, he walks past the gravestone of the old man, marked as “A businessman”.

So let’s start at the beginning.  The first scene with the accountants is totally extraneous.  All it could possibly do is set up that the old man is a miser who likes Halloween and the following scene in the store itself establishes all of that equally well.  And at least that scene set things up for later in the episode while the first scene adds nothing that gets any reference in the rest of the episode.  It’s a long, pedantic scene that adds nothing except perhaps a cheap scare, which is not a good way to start.

Another issue is that the witch herself comes completely out of nowhere.  We don’t know why she’s there, what her purpose is, or why she’s targeting him.  If this had followed from the two accountants arranging something because of the scare he put on him or because they find him too miserly, that would at least have made that scene have a point and explained the witch, but as it is she just shows up for some unknown reason and torments him presumably to death after giving away all of his money.  It doesn’t make sense.

And worse, it actually ruins one of the main plots.  Remember the kid who insists on going there anyway even though his father won’t let him?  We would expect that his character arc would be that he goes there and succeeds, which could then give rise to the ending of the old man in some ironic and horrific way.  But he faces less than any of the other kids, and the “whipping boy” faces far more terrors than he did.  All he does is show up and get gifted with the IOUs and some money, and while the father seems to be the most honourable character in the episode there’s no real reason to think that they will use that money to help everyone else as well.  So he doesn’t earn the money and doesn’t seem like he’s necessarily going to use it more wisely than anyone else, so all of that build-up is completely wasted due to the completely undeveloped witch monster that nevertheless overwhelms it.

And the final scene is itself confusing, because seeing a grave like that usually implies that he was already dead, but we know that wasn’t true, so it’s stylistic but completely meaningless to the episode.

While the idea of an old man setting up his house to torment children while the parents make the children go because they really need to get out of debt is a good one, and there are some hints at perhaps a deeper purpose (when the “whipping boy” hugs his father, the old man comments that the people in the town have things “backwards”, but there is a wistful sense to the old man there), the execution is completely lacking.  We aren’t going to be that afraid of the special effects that a show like this can provide, so we really need the plots and the twists to do the heavy lifting, and the execution of them here completely fails to do that.  Not a good start to the series.

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2 Responses to “Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside””

  1. Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] on to “The Munsters”, “Mad About You”, “That 70s Show”, and “Tales From the Darkside” .  I also should be finished the original “Addams Family” show by the time I go on […]

  2. Thoughts on “The Addams Family” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] after watching “The Munsters” and struggling part-way through “Tales From the Darkside”, I decided to limit the latter to weekends when I had time to write about each disk and picked up […]

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