Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 3

So, I liked disk 2 a bit better than disk 1, and so had a little bit of hope going into disk 3 … which was dashed.  I will say that disk 3 isn’t terrible and doesn’t have as many really bad episodes as disk 1 did, or at least ones that were ruined for me, as it looks like the basic writing issues are mostly patched up.  However, with that out of the way I think it only highlights the big flaw the series has, and which is common in the horror things I’ve been watching over the past few years, which is a limited interest in actually explaining to the audience what is going on.

The best episodes of the series so far, at least for me, are “In the Cards” and “Anniversary Dinner”, and one of the keys to that, it seems to me, is that those are two episodes where what is going on and what is the ultimate cause of the horror are completely unimportant.  It might have been nice to know who created the cursed Tarot cards and why they did that, but there is a hint that someone did it to punish people who would use them but not believe in them, and also it isn’t actually important to the plot at all, since the plot focuses on the torment and stupid mistake of the woman and not on some sort of overarching supernatural threat.  And in “Anniversary Dinner”, the surface explanation seems to be a reasonable one:  this is an insane couple who enjoy doing horrible things to people.  So the fact that the history and backstory isn’t really explained is not really an issue and the episode is as if not more enjoyable for that not having been done.  Which is good, because in half-hour episodes there isn’t really a lot of time to do a lot of things, so the story had better decide what is important and focus on getting that out and leave out anything that isn’t important.

The problem with most of the other episodes, though, is that the horror or supernatural element really would benefit from being explained and they never actually do it.  They could avoid this by making the elements simply malevolent and hurting anyone they can get access to, but the stories themselves always imply some kind of direction and purpose behind the attacks, because they use specific elements and even target specific types of people.  So it’s not just random malevolence that we would all have to fear.  But then we don’t understand what it is about those specific elements and specific types of people that inspire the attacks, and don’t understand what they want, which makes us less scared and more confused.  The ideal from a horror show like this where the events are set in what to all appearances is the real world is the idea that this could happen to any of us, and so leave us with a lingering fear as the end narration suggests.  But if the horror is karmic retribution, we don’t feel afraid because we think we are virtuous, and if the horror targets specific people then we aren’t afraid because we are not them either, and ultimately if we think that there’s a motive but can’t figure out what that is we come away feeling more confused than terrified, and so we don’t at all think that this is something that might happen to us in this world.  Now, in a horror series like this one we definitely want to have some karmic retribution ones (and you could build an entire series out of that) and some comedy ones like “A Case of the Stubborns”, but most of the episodes are ones that are not really karmic retribution, seem directed towards a purpose, but are ones where the purpose is never revealed and nothing is ever explained.  So that spawns in me the reaction of wondering what was going on more than being scared of that happening to me.

So, let me move on to talking about the episodes.  As with disk 2, nothing really stood out on disk 3, so I’ll cover all of them in brief in this post:

The first episode is “The Tear Collector”, which was one of the more entertaining episodes, mostly because of the heroine.  She’s a woman who has been said and depressed and pretty much crying all the time all her life, so much so that it means that she can’t get dates or, really, have any kind of happy life, which she wants (and her roommate keeps bugging her about).  One day while out on the town she is accosted by a homeless person and runs into a debonair man who, seeing her crying, says that her tears are beautiful and asks her to come by his place.  She does, and he ends up harvesting her tears and says that real and true tears can heal hearts.  He wants to fill a glass swan with them, necessitating that she come back a number of times to do so.  She, of course, starts to fall in love with him, and so turns up at one point just to see him, where she sees him in a room with his collection of tears listening to one of them (he had shown her the room earlier).  She tries to talk to him but he insists that taking her tears is all he can do, dashing her hopes of his being in love with her.  She fills the swan and then leaves, but sees another woman entering as she does so, and so she sneaks back in and steals her swan, knocking over some of the other containers in the process to the sound of wailing.  He demands the swan back, asking if if there isn’t enough sadness in the world, but she runs off and into the street, where she’s almost hit by a cab and drops the swan, shattering it.  The passenger gets out and apologizes, and through a series of comments gets her to smile and says she has a beautiful one, and so it really looks like she’s happier now without her tears and will be living a happier life from now on.

The protagonist is interesting and sympathetic, and it’s nice that she ended up with what looks like a happy ending, which is why this episode is more enjoyable.  However, there are two big, interesting and important questions that the episode raises and never answers.  First, why was she so sad for all of her life, and how is it that his harvesting and collecting of her tears and her smashing that makes it so that she’s no longer so sad?  This is her big character point from early in the episode and the resolution of this is key to the happy ending, and yet we never really get an answer to this.  Second, what did the collector want with her tears?  There are conflicting ideas that he wants it to be able to heal broken hearts or that he wants them so that he can feel emotion at all — he looks like he’s crying while listening to them and is fairly unemotional otherwise — but again this is never explained, despite it being a question that we should really want to know the answer to after watching the episode.  I enjoy the episode because I like the protagonist and her story, but have to recognize — and did feel, at the end — that there’s a lot going on in the episode that should have been and was never explained.

The second episode is “Madness Room”, where a man, his younger wife and a family friend/businessperson are sitting around in his old mansion when playing with a Ouija Board gets the wife to relate the story of the “Madness Room”, a room in the house that was sealed because everyone who stayed in the room goes mad.  They then set out to find the room using the Ouija Board and a number of other clues, and do manage to find a disturbing room.  The wife seems to go mad and shoot the friend and herself, which causes the man — who had a heart condition — to have a heart attack and collapse … but it turns out that it was all a plot so that the wife and friend can get together and have the man’s money, but the instructions had said to lock the door and then toss the key in a crack, so the man had done that, which means that none of them can get out.  As the friend is about to suffocate the man the man tosses a lantern into a corner, starting a fire, and as none of them can get out the wife demands to know why the friend spelled that out as the instructions on Ouija Board and he insists he didn’t, at which point it looks like the ghost of the previous owner that they were pretending to contact starts laughing maniacally, suggesting that it was the one who added it after all.

I predicted that this was all fake from early on — there’s a look between the two when she answers the door for him — but it did work as a decent “Wife and friend fake supernatural event to kill husband by natural causes” plot.  The supernatural element was totally extraneous and even ruined the ending of the episode because there was no real indication of a real ghost beforehand and we don’t really discover what the ghost’s motive was, or even why the ghost would be there at all (since the story of his death was entirely fake).  So if it had stopped with the death of the husband and them getting away with it, or even with the husband in a fit of spite dropping the key in a crack so that they’d all starve to death, it would have been a decent episode.  As it is, the supernatural element only raises new questions at a late date that doesn’t let us enjoy the ending and even the karmic death of the wife and friend.

The third episode is “If the Shoes Fit …”, where a candidate for mayor is staying in a strangely deserted hotel and ends up explaining to the bellboy that politics is about making people happy, not about telling the truth.  Later, when he sends his suit out to be pressed the bellboy returns with a clown suit, which the politician reluctantly puts on, but then when his campaign manager shows up to take him to an event the suit is normal, and then it’s a clown suit again and he ends up riding off into the sunset in a clown car with political slogans on it.

If this was meant to be a commentary on politicians and politics in general, it isn’t all that bad of a one, but then it really doesn’t fit well with the rest of the series.  There’s no real horror and a bit of comedy, but there’s not enough comedy to make it a comedy episode, and so … yeah, I can only guess that it was meant as a commentary on politics, but that’s not because it does a good job of doing that, but instead because that’s the only thing it can be that even remotely makes sense.

The fourth episode is “Levitation”, where a teen and his friend come to a circus and freak show to see a formerly famous magician who was touted as being the only person to do Houdini’s levitation trick.  He doesn’t do that or anything of significance in his show, which angers the teen and so he pushes his way into seeing him to demand why.  It turns out that he did the trick three times successfully, but the fourth time he used his daughter and something went wrong, which is why he doesn’t do real magic anymore.  The teen goes to the next show and heckles the magician until he agrees to do the levitation on him, but as the magician does so he collapses and the teen floats out of the tent and into the sky.

What we have here is a half hour episode where nothing happens and nothing is explained, which is really how I felt after watching this.  They don’t even manage to imply that this sort of issue is the same thing that happened to the daughter, and I don’t know enough about the teen to feel that sorry for him for the situation he got himself into, if he in fact does float off into space and ultimate death.  This has to be the most pointless episode so far.

The fifth episode is “It All Comes Out in the Wash”, where a shady businessman approaches a Chinese laundry where the proprietor offers a full service that, it is revealed, is more washing their consciences than their laundry.  The businessman signs up and it seems to be working, but the proprietor keeps raising the prices, so he breaks the rule and calls him to complain, at which point the proprietor cuts off his service and the service of the guy who recommended it to him (when that was breaking a rule as well).  The businessman talks about hanging tough as the laundry piles up, but then eventually finds out that his friend committed suicide and so calls and apologizes to the proprietor … who calls back to say that he’s won the lottery and so is closing the laundry.  The businessman talks about being able to take it, but then commits suicide by throwing himself out the window, as his friend had done.

This is an episode where knowing exactly what was going on would have greatly improved it.  Was the proprietor providing a real service?  Then maybe they could have found someone else, or maybe he would have passed his business on to someone else.  Was the proprietor merely scamming them and the easing of their conscience that they experienced merely a placebo as they thought that was happening?  That would be interesting and would explain why the only punishment was not picking up the laundry, but there really isn’t anything to support that other than that it would be really interesting and we don’t find out about any kind of supernatural element that could be doing this, and buying a condo in Florida is not actually something that a supernatural agent cleansing consciences would do.  While leaving things open to interpretation is not a bad thing, in general what you need to do to make that work is make it so that there are multiple interpretations that all fit what happened in the episode without the episode being inconsistent (which is why that’s so hard to do).  Here, there are multiple interpretations only because something must be the case and the episode doesn’t give any evidence indicating what is the right case.  I like the “it’s a scam” explanation, but it’s inconsistent with the rest of the series (see “Madness Room” above, for example, where a supernatural element was welded on to make it be supernatural).

The sixth episode is “Bigelow’s Last Smoke”, where a man who is a smoker wakes up in a simulcra of his apartment, but is locked inside.  It turns out that he signed up for a radical program to get him to quit smoking, and so he ends up constantly trying to smoke and getting punished for it, enduring their propaganda and a fake confederate.  Eventually, he wakes up and has no desire to smoke, and thinks it was all a dream, but then the person who talks to him from the program appears again and notes that now they’ll start on his addiction to caffeine.

Considering that he signed up for this himself, it’s difficult to feel that badly for him or to feel that, at the end, he will be in there for life as opposed to until he loses the addictions that he himself probably wanted to lose.  And the punishments don’t really seem all that horrific since he himself spends so much time trying to cheat even though he knows that he will be punished, and especially since the worst that happens is some loud noises and things being taken away.  So I don’t really feel sorry for him, don’t really care if he escapes, and don’t really care if he overcomes his addiction.  Ultimately, all I want is for the episode to end.

The seventh episode is “Grandma’s Last Wish”, where an aging and somewhat senile old woman is living with her rowdy and somewhat idiotic family.  As she’s getting more and more senile, the family looks to put her in a nursing home, and give her one last wish for the last week that they’ll all be together.  She makes a wish, but doesn’t tell them what it is, and so over the next week they all seem to get older and older and hurt themselves so as to be more helpless.  At the end, the man comes to take her away and the entire family is now incredibly old, and the original old woman comments that wishes do come true.

This one is just incomprehensible to me.  While the family was annoying, they did ultimately seem to care about her, and so her glee at turning even the teenage girl old seems mean-spirited.  We also have no idea why she wanted that or what she, herself, got out of it.  There’s an entire subplot where the home seems shady but she ends up having to go anyway, and it doesn’t even seem like she got their vitality from aging them (she does seem to improve a little, but not much).  Also, there’s no explanation for why this wish was granted or who was doing that.  I can’t cheer for the old woman but can’t feel that sorry for the family either, and so ultimately really do not care about any of this. 

The eighth episode is “The False Prophet”, which features a woman who is heading to Texas on the advice of a fortune telling machine to find the man of her dreams.  The bus stops at a rest stop and she goes into the diner to get some food, where she discovers another fortune telling machine that is supposedly the “son” of the original one.  This machine seems to be … interested in her, and tries to convince her to not go on to Texas and stay here instead, and also warns her against a “false prophet”, who seems to be a religious man who enters and tries to seduce her.  She keeps asking the machine for advice, and eventually she ends up being absorbed by it and calling for help while the man, who is not a false prophet, looks on in puzzlement and some horror.

So, interpreted broadly, I guess that the prediction was right and she should have avoided the false prophet, which in this case would be the prophecy machine here.  Then again, the machine implies that this was something set up between it and his mother, which would work against that interpretation.  Regardless, we have no idea what happens to her to what the purpose of doing this actually is.  And she can’t stand in for us because she’s somewhat dim and incredibly naive, and so we have to think that we’d do better than her at this, and she isn’t all that sympathetic because she’s really the sort of annoying person that would buy into all that New Age crap.  The story definitely would have benefited from more explanation highlighting the sinister aspects of this, which they didn’t do.

Also, if you’ve noticed that the episode summaries here have gotten really thin, that’s not because I’m getting tired of writing them and so skimming them.  Those really are the highlights of the episodes and what is really important in them, and I’m as surprised as you are that they’ve gotten so short and thin.  Which I suppose only highlights the problem with it, as the episodes run for the same length but seem to do so much less in that time.

Anyway, that ends season 1.  Up next, the first disk in season 2, where things will hopefully get better but, in reality, I don’t have much hopes on that score.

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