Comprehensive Comments on “Tales from the Darkside: Disk 5”

What I’ve noticed about “Tales from the Darkside” so far is that it has always had potential but keeps squandering it.  Even in Season 1, the ideas in the episodes were usually interesting, and the performances tended to be fairly good, especially considering that they often got big and recognizable names to fill the roles.  While the writing in Season 1 could be uneven, in Season 2 the writing in and of itself seems at least serviceable.  But the stories always fail them, never being developed and resolved in an interesting way, which is especially reflected in the endings.  More on that as we go along.

Anyway, this is the second disk of Season 2, so let’s go through the episodes.  Again, nothing in particular stood out, either really good or really bad, so I’m just going to do all eight episodes in this post.

The first episode is “The Trouble With Mary Jane”, where a couple of somewhat shyster psychics are called to a mansion to try to deal with a young girl who has been possessed by a rather … seductive demon.  The grandmother, I think, offers them $50,000 to deal with the demon, and while the wife doesn’t want to get involved the husband is insistent that they should do it for the money and potentially the fame.  He first tries a more standard exorcism, which results in the two of them being injured as the demon blasts them with winds.  Then he tries summoning a more powerful demon to cast the first one out, but when it plunges the room into darkness making it so that he can’t read the ritual anymore the demon ends up inside the girl … sharing the body with the first demon.  Finally, he tries a much more complicated ritual which does get both demons out of the girl … and into the bodies of the couple.  However, the female demon ends up in the man’s body (which puts a big dent in her ability to seduce and destroy men) and the male demon ends up in the man’s body, and the two of them leave with the demons bickering with each other over that swap.

I think this episode was supposed to be a comedy, given how ridiculous it was and that Phyllis Diller was the headlining star.  However, it’s just not all that funny.  I think the big issue is that the things they try aren’t ridiculous in and of themselves, and what happens to them doesn’t seem to be the expected or natural consequence of what they were trying to do.  So the things don’t happen because of their own stupidity or their own mistakes, and so come across as pretty contrived.  And contrived situations aren’t all that funny unless the humour comes from something else, like the reactions to those contrived situations, which we don’t get here.  So it fails at being a comedy and it’s too silly to work as a straight horror, so there’s really nothing here for the audience to work with.

The second episode is “Ursa Minor”, where a somewhat happy family of a father, mother and daughter are celebrating the birthday of the daughter, and the father — who is pretty much a drunk — has given the daughter a teddy bear that she loves but that he can’t remember buying for her.  Things start to happen around the house, with the mother blaming the daughter but the daughter insisting that the teddy bear did it.  This keeps happening which bothers the mother, and the fact that the father doesn’t care about it strains their relationship.  This is not helped by the fact that he resents her studying for her Masters and she resents the fact that his various shops don’t bring in enough money for them.  She decides to dispose of the bear and replace it with a doll that resembles Goldilocks, and the story of Goldilocks and the three bears is a running theme in the episode.  However, the bear seems to escape the trash bin and threaten the little girl, and with the father in the clinic due to an infected gash on his leg that he received while arguing with her she has to handle it alone, and ends up stabbing the bear with scissors.  Then, a big bear shows up and the episode ends with them huddling in the little girl’s room as the bear smashes its way into the room.

The idea here was pretty good, and the performances worked well.  However, it never really explains where the bear comes from or what the little teddy bear was doing or was after.  It also, worst of all, doesn’t even tell us what happened at the end, although we can presume that the bear kills them.  But you should never kill the adorable little girl in general, but if you want to go for a real Downer Ending you should at least make it clear what happens to them (although you need not make it graphic; they could have easily shot a short scene with the grieving father and a comment about it being strange that it looked like it was done by a bear).  And they did have the room to do that because the family drama is utterly irrelevant to the plot and to the characterization, and the father’s drunkenness could have easily been replaced with him simply working really hard and being tired from that.  Still, a decent idea with serviceable writing and good performances ruined by an ending that raises questions but never answers them, leaving us confused and annoyed at not getting an answere.

The third episode is “Effect and Cause”, where an artistic woman is hanging out with her friend when an ambulance shows up to deal with a woman who had broken her leg, and then she falls down the stairs and breaks her leg.  As she recovers, strange things keep happening, like the grocery boy showing up with a delivery when her stocks are full, and the food disappears as he relates what she ordered.  Her sister doesn’t believe her, while her friend ends up being convinced by a set of card tricks where the cards that turn up are not cards that can appear in any deck.  Once they all leave, things start going incredibly haywire, but her sister again won’t show up and she can’t reach her friend.  Finally, the malfunctioning gas range fills the room with gas, while the authorities show up to ring her malfunctioning and shorting out doorbell, and so presumably the spark ignites the gas and she dies in the explosion, but the episode ends at that point without revealing that.

The woman is weird but a bit sympathetic, so the ending where she seemingly simply dies is very disappointing.  Also, the episode starts with her receiving some paintings to paint over to do her own painting and she talks about karma, and that idea is completely dropped and replaced with the altering reality plot.  But that’s not explained either, and so we never really find out what the deal was and why everything suddenly goes haywire.  I would have far rathered that the episode had her playing with it and, perhaps, even changing her own reality for the better — as a bit of a rebuke to her sister, who prefers order but the main character could have outdone her with her less ordered mind — than this Downer Ending that doesn’t explain anything.

The fourth episode is “Monsters in My Room”, where a young boy living with his mother has his stepfather come home and try to make a real man out of him, when he really isn’t that sort of kid at all.  We also see a monster in his closet and a monster under his bed.  Eventually, Christmas happens and the stepfather gives him a toy machine gun and the mother gives him the big cuddly panda bear stuffed animal that he wanted, to the disgust of the stepfather.  That night, the monsters start to reveal themselves to the boy, who panics, again to the disgust of the stepfather.  The mother goes out to deliver gifts to the neighbours, and the monsters reveal themselves again, but the boy stands up for himself and scares them.  He then goes to the bathroom but discovers a witch — that looks like the witch from the first episode — there, and ticks off the stepfather by not wanting to go to the bathroom there.  The stepfather chases him back to his room and starts to paddle him, but then the monsters gang up on the stepfather and kill him.  The final scene is the boy saying that the stepfather was killed by the monsters and not the heart attack that it was believed to be, and that the stepfather was the coward and not him, which gets him sent to his room which now has a sign saying to beware of the monsters.

The idea that the boy could have been scared by the monsters and developed the courage to face them down, in part because the stepfather wouldn’t help him, wasn’t a bad one.  And it’s not even a bad trope to have the monsters that the stepfather wouldn’t believe in kill the stepfather at the end.  However, the stepfather never had the chance to face them at all, and while he isn’t nice it does look like the stepfather’s insistence on toughening up the kid helped him, even if for no other reason than that the rejection of him and that made him stand up for himself.  So there is no consistent theme to justify the ending, and none of the development fits with that, so the episode, from a narrative perspective, is quite muddled.

The fifth episode is “Comet Watch”, where a comet-obsessed man wants to see Halley’s Comet, but his wife of a number of years wants him to stop playing with that old telescope and attend a dinner party to further his business interests, provided by her father.  As he watches the comment, a winsome young woman jumps out from the telescope itself, running from someone.  The two of them form an attraction, and then Edmund Halley himself jumps out chasing her.  It turns out that the two of them ended up transported to the comet where it both took them on a trip with it and preserved them so that they haven’t aged at all.  Halley wants the woman to return with him, and the man doesn’t want her to, and the wife, of course, wants the other woman to, and as they fight over it Halley and the wife end up transported to the comet.  The man and the woman seem prepared to start a nice life together, while Halley and the wife — both of whom are overbearing — have to spend 75 years with each other.

I … really have no idea that this episode is supposed to be.  It’s more romance than comedy, but really seems to be trying for comedy in most of its scenes.  The performances work well enough so that it isn’t terrible, but it works best as moderately entertaining fluff than as any kind of real and interesting episode.

The sixth episode is “Dream Girl”, where the director of a play notices that a lot of people are disappearing, and then insults the janitor, and then the janitor stares at her so that things go white, and then she ends up in a strange set in a sexy maid/waitress uniform, with the janitor ordering her and the writer of the play around for a while.  The scene changes to another one, with similar themes, although the writer insults the janitor’s writing of the scene which breaks it up.  They reveal that he’s been there for a while, playing similar scenes out for quite some time.  Later, in another scene a stagehand who also insulted the janitor appears as a lech so that the janitor can rescue the director from him (to the annoyance of another woman who is there and is playing the girlfriend of the janitor).  They determine that they are in a dream and set out to wake the janitor up by shaking him awake in the dream world while there isn’t a scene running, which works.  The director insisted that after that they should all fall asleep and put the janitor into their dream, and so she takes some sleeping pills and tries to sleep … and ends up in the dream of the stagehand where the stagehand is in charge.

The idea itself is a good one, although it’s been done before and better in other works.  However, again they refuse to explain how any of this works or has happened, which is really bad when the director wants to bring the janitor into their dreams and we need to know why she thinks that would even work.  It’s also not clear why she wanted to do that, except perhaps to be able to stop him permanently or, more likely, for revenge.  Also, if they were trapped in his dream when he was sleeping and not dreaming they should have been able to escape the dream instead of being able to wake him up somehow.  Also, the director is portrayed as someone who treated other people fairly badly and so they could be doing these things to her — and the others — out of revenge, but then she’s portrayed sympathetically and so it isn’t clear why she’s in the janitor’s dream or, in particular, the stagehand’s dream at the end.  It actually would have worked so much better if she had been in the dream of the other woman, who was doing this to eliminate the competition and to lord things over her, while getting herself a devoted janitor as a figurehead and a shot at the handsome stagehand.  That would have been a great twist that would have fit in well with the rest of it, and we could have handwaved away how it worked by assuming that it was some ability the woman picked up somewhere.  As it is, the idea is fine but the execution is lacking, even though, again, I like the performances.

The seventh episode is “A New Lease On Life”, where a man moves into a new apartment that is ridiculously cheap that has some strange rules but not obvious catches … other than some creepy maintenance men and a creepy landlady.  He immediately breaks one of the rules and hammers a nail into the wall to hang a picture of his mother, which causes the walls to bleed.  He then later meets his next door neighbour who refuses to leave her apartment most of the time, but also doesn’t seem to have water anymore, and tells him to leave as soon as he can.  He later hears the maintenance men demanding she move out, and then when he looks it looks like they dump her body into the trash, which is supposed to be for organic waste only.  Later, the landlady notes that he’s not giving much organic waste and invites him over for dinner, and asks him to dump an almost complete turkey down the chute as leftovers, but he takes it to his apartment to not waste it, which causes everyone to panic and force him to dump it in.  He gets annoyed at all of this and dumps broken plates and plastic in the chute, which it is implied kills the thing inside there, and when they all chastise him for that he argues that they were going to kill him anyway, and they point out a dragon tattoo on his arm showing that he could have belonged there, but then the tongue of the monster grabs and eats him, and the episode ends on a horrible joke about them not being able to stomach him.

This is not a very good episode, mostly because it makes no sense.  The rent is cheap and the building is for the most part self-repairing, and so if it was even possible that he could be someone who belongs there it would have made far more sense for them to approach him reasonably than in the incredibly creepy fashion that they did, and once he started getting nervous they should have brought him into the secret, especially since they were clearly willing to kill to protect the secret and so if it bothered him they could have just killed him then.  Also, none of them seem like people that no one would miss — he had a decent job, for example — and so killing people off instead of converting them puts everything at risk.  Also, they never explain what the creature is, although they imply it’s dragon-related, even though it doesn’t look like a dragon at all.  So the episode makes no sense at all and the ending doesn’t help that at all.

The eighth episode is “Printer’s Devil” where a struggling writer who is getting nowhere repeatedly hears an ad from an agency claiming to be able to get anyone published and in desperation — having not eaten for three days — goes to them.  The head of the agency accepts him and claims that he can use magic to get anyone published, and then collects a debt owed to the writer using a kind of voodoo doll.  He then tells the writer that to get published he needs to produce writing that the agent wants, and also needs to get into animal sacrifice.  Later, the writer is a success and hooks up with a female editor who rejected his work because he didn’t have an agent, showing that his life is a success (although the agent notes that the attraction is due to the agent using his powers on her to make her favourably disposed towards the writer and it went a bit too far).  A year later, the writer has to kill more and more animals and the woman, who seems to be in love with him, is getting sick of it and threatens to leave if he doesn’t stop, so the writer does.  Later, the two of them are broke and out of luck again, so she encourages him to talk to the agent again, which he does, and the agent says that he will take him back and will even let him publish what the writer considered his magnum opus novel — that he was working on at the beginning of the episode — and all the writer has to do is commit one big sacrifice … which turns out to be to sacrifice the woman, which it really looks like he’s going to do but the episode ends before he does it.

This episode actually works fairly well.  While there are questions that are raised by the episode, none of them are important so the basic plot is simple and easy to understand, and resolves in a natural way.  About the only thing that doesn’t really work is that the love interest is portrayed as an attractive yet abrasive woman from the start, which makes them having such a solid and loving relationship and her being more loving and kind seem a bit out of place.  It would have probably worked better to have the writer have a dedicated love interest from the start, who sticks with him through thick and thin and shares in his success, is annoyed by the strange animal sacrifices, but then is what he has to sacrifice at the end.  Since the agent’s secretary was interested in the writer and at the end the agent says that the writer is all hers, this would imply that this was the plan from the beginning, to give him the success, yank it away, and then demand that he sacrifice his love interest to get his novel published, which leaves him available for the secretary to have and ties him to the agent in a way that he could never escape.  Still, that would be a speculation, and is a minor issue in the episode.

What I’m seeing so far is that the best episodes — “Printer’s Devil”, “In the Cards”, and “Anniversary Party” — are simple ideas that don’t require a lot of development and so don’t leave us with more questions at the end than we have answers.  We can follow the plot the entire time and don’t need to know the origins of the things, nor do those origins matter to the plot.  The worst episodes are the ones where they try to get too cute or aim for big twists at the end, especially if they take too much time on unimportant things and not on developing the framework for those twists, or on developing the story itself so that we can all follow along.  Again, confusion kills horror and any horror episode where the audience is confused about what’s going on is not going to leave the audience horrified, and leaving those questions open leaves a bad impression of the episode in the minds of the audience.  I think a big part of the problem is that the writers aren’t really used to the fact that they only have a half hour — well, less, given commercials — and so take time to do things that aren’t necessary, which leaves them without enough time to do what is necessary.

Anyway, the next disk ends Season 2, so we’ll see how that works.

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