Comprehensive Comments on “Tales From the Darkside”: Disk 11

The second disk of the last season picks up some impressive writing credits in Clive Barker and Stephen King, but unfortunately the episodes don’t end up being any better.

Let me take a brief moment here to talk about the structure of each episode, which really is constant across all of the episodes and has an impact on how I watch it, if for no other reason than that it gives me major clues as to what is going to happen or is going to have to happen in the next little while.  The episode starts with what would normally be called a teaser, as it sets the scene, hints at the supernatural horror, and usually ends on some kind of shock to lead into the rest of the episode.  However, this is not your usually couple of minutes at most teaser, but instead is usually about five to ten minutes.  Then there’s the middle section, where a lot of the plot development happens, which then leads into the last 5 minutes or so which is wrapping it all up to what is usually a twist conclusion.  So when I see the second “fade-to-black” scene, I know that things are going to be coming to a head which will usually get me thinking about what kind of ending we can get from what has happened before.  Also, if I don’t care for the episode, it also gets me thinking that the episode is thankfully almost over, which happens far more often than I’d like.

Anyway, on to the episodes!

The first episode is “The Yattering and Jack”.  This is the episode by Clive Barker, and it features a man coming home to his house on Christmas Eve, and as he does so strange things start happening, like strange noises and things getting tossed around and so on and so forth.  The man continually blames it on the foundation settling and things like that and for the most part seems to be in complete denial that this is anything strange at all, despite the fact that we know that this is supernatural because a) of how the events are happening, b) because this is “Tales from the Darkside” and in this series these things are always supernatural and c) because we see a little demon doing the things and being annoyed by the man’s cheerful nature.  The man’s daughter shows up unexpectedly and notices the strange events and is convinced that something is wrong, but the man still denies it.  When some carolers come by, the man and his daughter go out to hear them, the demon pleads with the devil for release, and the devil shows up to explain the plot.  The forces of Hell really, really want to damn this guy, and this minor demon has been charged with doing that, and he can do anything he needs to expect that he can’t actually touch the guy, or else he’ll become the guy’s slave.  The demon ups his antics and at times gets the daughter into harm’s way, which finally ruffles the guy’s cool, but he calms down and says that he’s going to go for a walk and asks his daughter to come with him.  The demon is still frustrated but is willing to wait for another chance, but the devil pops in to say that the guy is planning to reconcile with his wife — whom the demon pushed into an affair to cause her to leave him — and so the demon has to stop the guy from doing that.  He tries to lock them in the house, but they trick him by having the daughter run the back door and when he goes to keep that one locked the guy opens the front door and they start to run out, but then the demon grabs him by the arm and becomes his slave.  It turns out that the guy knew that a demon was working against him all the time and seemingly went along with it in order to get a demon slave, and when confronted with the fact that he won’t get into heaven with a demon slave resorts to his sunnier personality and repeats the common refrain of “Que sera sera”.

I give this episode credit for being one of the few to really explain the supernatural aspects well, or at least taking the time to do so, especially with the explanation from the devil in the middle of the episode.  However, this comes apart at the end because the ending still tries to explain things but they don’t make a lot of sense.  The guy mentions that his mother — the daughter’s grandmother — was a witch which would explain why he knows all the rules, but he mentions it as an explanation for why they wanted to damn him so much, which doesn’t make sense and is never explained.  This, then, undercuts the two interesting character points, which is of him being aware of what was going on and that they really, really wanted to damn him.  If he had been a witch’s son who was indeed a very saintly person that would work, but the ending presents this as him going along with it not in order to trick the demon into leaving him alone — or frustrating them enough to give up — but in order to get a demon slave, which isn’t exactly something a good person would do.  I also think this idea is a bit too big for a half-hour episode, because for it to really work we needed to see this building over time and then marvel at how he maintains his composure in light of that, but here he really looks like someone in denial because the events are too big and too supernatural to ignore.  That does work a bit with the episode but that he seems delusional doesn’t make us as sympathetic towards him as he should be.  That being said, this is a better than average episode (which isn’t saying all that much, admittedly).

The second episode is “Seymourlama”, where a bickering family on a windy winter’s night is suddenly visited by two members to a religion that have a religious leader like the Dali Lama and their leader has just died, and so they’re looking for the new one and their signs point to the snarky son.  They get the parents to sign him over by promising them riches and the like, and then the son’s soon-to-be-power goes to his head and he starts making ludicrous demands.  Eventually, the head religious guy mentions the address, and it turns out that they went to the wrong address by mistake and so they take everything back and run off next door.  The parents then seemingly aim to beat the son up for being the wrong person (and a jerk).

This has to be a comedy episode, but as usual with the comedy episodes here it really isn’t all that funny.  None of the characters are sympathetic and none of them are interesting, and other than people acting weirdly none of them are in any way funny either.  There’s no serious plot to work with, but no real comedy either.

The third episode is “Sorry, Right Number” which is Stephen King’s contribution.  The family of a writer is having a normal night at home, when the mother who is talking on the phone picks up the other line and hears sobbing from someone whose voice she recognizes.  She desperately calls around trying to find out who it might have been and can’t find anyone, but one of her sisters isn’t answering the phone, so she and her husband rush out there, but it turns out that her young son is teething and she fell asleep listening to a Walkman for some relief.  So they can’t figure out how might have called, but the voice still seemed familiar.  The wife goes to sleep and the husband stays up for a bit to tape a movie for his son, but never comes back to bed and the wife discovers that he died of a heart attack while watching the movie.  Ten years later, it’s the wedding of the oldest daughter and the wife finds the tape, is reminded of that night, and for some reason picks up the phone and, sobbing, calls their old number trying to get out a warning … but she fails, and it is revealed that it was her voice on the phone all along.

The problem here is that the main thread of the episode is the strange phone call, but it is never used, resolved, or properly developed.  For a “call from the future” sort of storyline, what you want to do is have the phone call either be causitive or destined.  In the first case, you’d do something like have the stress from her worry and even the events in the sister’s house be what ultimately causes the heart attack, but they don’t do that here.  For the latter, you could have her discover that the phone could call back in time and then try to warn herself, but she doesn’t discover that until she’s already made the call.  You could also have her do it completely by accident, but if you were going to do that you’d need to make the phone call a bigger concern throughout the episode, and it’s pretty much perfunctory, and they also ruin this by having her try to get a warning out and not just be sobbing over missing him on her daughter’s birthday.  So the only interesting plot thread is the phone call, and that is never developed and isn’t resolved.  The family drama is fine, but is itself a bit pointless and makes the phone call itself pointless.

The fourth episode is “Payment Overdue”, which focuses on a woman who later reveals that she clawed her way out of poverty and is now working as a collections agent browbeating people by any means necessary into paying their debts, and is quite successful at it.  She starts getting calls from a former “client” of hers, and then someone called Michael shows up with a payment and a religious card depicting Archangel Michael in order to clear all the debts, as the debtor is now dead.  It turns out that the debtor was very religious and superstitious.  Anyway, the woman is freaked out by all of this and for some reason invites Michael to stay for dinner and stay the night.  The debtor’s voice starts coming through anything with a speaker, and the woman is freaked out by this, and then Michael wakes up and reveals to her that the debtor was afraid of the court system because she came from a place where the courts were corrupt, and the woman’s threat to take her to court caused her to kill herself, and now Michael is here to settle accounts, which he does by essentially turning the woman into the debtor and leaving her there, like that.

This episode raises more questions than it answers, not the least of which being why the Archangel Michael would get involved in this at all, and whether the woman deserved the treatment she got, especially considering that she seemed to have clawed herself out of that sort of situation already.  The woman is not nice, but this doesn’t seem like justice, especially since she claims — and it is reasonable to believe her here — that she didn’t know how scared the debtor was of the courts and even Michael notes that her failure was merely a failure to try to understand them.  I guess that this would be a crash course in understanding them, but then she was in a far more similar situation to them already and it didn’t seem to help.  This strikes me as an episode that sounded good in someone’s head — vengeance for a lack of empathy — but it really doesn’t come off in this episode.

The fifth episode is “Love Hungry”, which features a heavyset woman who tends plants and loves to eat, who gets a call out of the blue from someone she used to know who effectively asks her out on a date.  She is aware of how heavy she is and also receives a strange package promising a foolproof weight-loss plan, where she has to put something in her ear.  On the date, she tries it, and what happens is that she hears all the food screaming in pain, and then she eventually faints.  This does not put off her suitor — despite how she thinks it should — and she tries out the next thing she gets from the diet company, a pair of glasses that lets her interact with all the food in her house as if it was alive and sentient, which guilts her into not eating.  She doesn’t contact her suitor in two months, and so he prevails on the landlady to let him in, and we discover that the woman has starved to death.

This is another nonsensical episode.  We never find out who sent her the diet aids or why someone would create that as a way to lose weight.  Also, that cooked food is sentient and can scream is patently ridiculous, and the episodes where she talks to food are more goofy than scary.  But it’s way too serious to be a comedy.  Frankly, I would have preferred they have her as a nice person get converted through this into eating the food even though she sees them as sentient and thus imply that she was now going to be a more psychopathic and evil person than what we got here.

The sixth episode is “The Deal”, where a struggling writer talks to his diabolic neighbour about his problems, and his neighbour offers to make some contacts and get him a deal.  He gets the writer a deal, but when things aren’t being done the way the writer wants the writer complains to the neighbour about it, who reveals that he’s really the devil and will give the writer control as long as the writer gives the devil his soul.  The writer eventually accepts and is given control of the studio, but then things aren’t going the way he wanted anyway, as he cannot give a woman he knows and might have been dating a part that he wrote for her, and with all the work he’s had to do he wants out of the deal, and the devil says that he can if he can find someone to take over the deal.  The writer recruits the woman by convincing her it’s a tryout for a role, and when the devil is convinced he accepts her in the writer’s stead and the writer seems to regret it before disappearing in a puff of smoke, and the devil wants to work out the details of the deal with the woman.

The ending makes no sense.  It strains credulity that the devil wouldn’t know that the woman was acting, and the episode does not make clear that her rant about her thinking he loved her was true and that she wanted revenge on him was a real thing.  And the fact that it seems like the devil is going to negotiate with her suggests that he didn’t really think she took the deal, so it’s ultimately confusing.  There is an interesting idea that comes out of this is the idea that the devil doesn’t really care if things work out better for the people who make the deals in this world as long as he gets the soul in the end, and so if people make deals thinking that they want something but not realizing what it really entails that’s no skin off the devil’s nose, but he also has no reason to arrange that either (since people coming out ahead with his deals gives people a reason to take it).  This, then, could have been the classic “Be careful what you wish for” story if it wasn’t for the ending.  And I have to note that the actor playing the devil plays multiple roles that are nevertheless still recognizably the devil and does a good job with it.

The seventh episode is “The Apprentice”, where a young woman who wants a job at a heritage park sort of thing ends up being taken through a strange closet and ends up in what definitely seems like a medieval town, and meets the daughter of the strict magistrate and owner of the park and finds that her ideas are completely out of whack with modern ones, which she thinks is sad but thinks is the result of living in the in-character town.  Eventually she lights a cigarette and the husband-to-be of the daughter accuses her of being a witch, and the daughter then tries to get the woman out of there, but she fails and the woman is locked up.  At this point, it’s clear that the woman is really in the past.  The daughter eventually returns to free her, but before they can flee through the closet — it’s locked and they can’t figure out how to open it — the magistrate returns and says that he has been bringing young women from the future to accuse of being witches to keep the community from splintering, and then strikes his daughter when she would protect the woman and then struggles with the woman, which runs up against the wheel that opens the closet.  The daughter runs through at the urging of the woman but before she can go through the mechanism is destroyed.  The daughter wakes up confused in the modern world but acts the part of someone who would be an actor in that park, and the woman is put on trial for witchcraft in what is revealed to be Salem.

The big problem here is that while the idea of manufacturing witch accusations for the greater good is an interesting one, the magistrate’s plan makes no sense.  Salem would have been a small community, and his finding complete strangers to accuse of being witches wouldn’t really play well with the people, who would be aware that complete strangers keep showing up to be witches.  Also, since this has happened before it is unlikely that none of the others would have befriended the daughter and figured it out and tried to go home.  Also, they discover that she’s a witch in a surprisingly short amount of time — like a day — which makes little sense, but it’s difficult to imagine that they could have kept up the pretense for much longer.  We really needed a better twist here, like it being the case that the daughter was the villain making these arrangements or setting them up for something.  Also, this idea is a bit too big for a half-hour episode, as we would have wanted more time to develop and build the mystery and set up a much better ending to the episode.

You may have noticed that some of the episode descriptions are really short and some of them are quite a bit longer.  The reason is that I try to summarize everything that matters to understanding the episode, and some of them are structured so that almost everything does matter and some of them have large parts of the episode that don’t really matter (except maybe for atmosphere).  That being said, I don’t think there’s any correlation between the details mattering and the quality of the episode.

The last disk is coming up next, so let’s see if it manages to go out with a bang.


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