By the time Tales from the Darkside: The Movie hit theaters in early May of 1990, the anthology show had been off the air for almost two years. So, it’s no surprise that the movie only had a modest success. Much of the series which ran for four years in syndication aired at such odd times well after midnight in some areas, it’s a wonder it lasted so long. Despite the chilling opening, some of the episodes were very lighter in tone.
One of the most famous episodes has a young Christian Slater as a teenager whose grandfather played by Eddie Bracken passes away but rises from the dead and proceeds to decompose while confused what is going on. It was a notable black comedy mixed with body horror. But mostly, the show had mainly character actors or actors like Bruce Davison and Danny Aiello in roles before they would garner Oscar-nominated roles.
The show was replaced by Monsters, another comedy-horror anthology series. While George A. Romero teamed with his constant collaborator Richard P. Rubenstein on Darkside, he wasn’t involved on Monsters. Rubenstein’s production company Laurel Entertainment went ahead with a movie bringing in a script Romero had written of Stephen King’s “The Black Cat” that had originally been intended for Creepshow 2. Tom Savini caused some confusion when he said the Darkside movie was the unofficial Creepshow 3 leading some to suspect the movie was retitled following the less than stellar return of the second Creepshow. However, to clarrify, it’s been noted this was always intended to be a Darkside movie.
The movie consists of three stories with a frame story involving a young boy, Timmy (Matthew Lawrence before Mrs. Doubtfire and Boys Meets World) who is meant to be killed and cooked by a witch, Betty (Deborah Harry), for an upcoming dinner party she is hosting. Timmy decides to delay and distract her by reading stories.
The first story is “Lot 249,” a modern adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story about an Egyptian mummy that is brought to life. Set an unnamed college, Andy Smith (Slater) is a privileged student who lives in dormitory with Edward Bellingham (Steve Buscemi), who has just acquired an sarcophagus with the mummy. Andy becomes intrigued helping Bellingham uncover it. Yet, his friend, Lee (Robert Sedgwick) isn’t as interested.
It turns out that Lee and his girlfriend, Susan Smith (Julianne Moore in her first film role), who is Andy’s older sister, have cheated Bellingham out of a scholarship for which Lee was in competition. When Bellingham discovers a scroll in the mummy’s abdominal area, he realizes its an incantation to bring the mummy to life and has it murder Susan and Lee on two separate occasions. However, Andy suspects Bellingham is somehow involved and plots revenge himself.
The story is notable for being the first work in which mummies are portrayed as antagonistic characters. Moore reportedly had no idea her character had been murdered because she started out on TV daytime drama and would start out counting how many lines she had in a script. When she realized her character wasn’t in the script anymore, she asked what happened to her character only for someone to tell her the character dies.
The second story “The Black Cat” is probably the weakest, which sucks because it’s a good premise about whether several deaths are just an odd coincidence or is there something sinister afoot. Drogan (William Hickey in a creepy role) is a millionaire owner of a pharmaceutical company that experimented on thousands of cats resulting in their deaths. He’s hired a hitman Halston (David Johansen poorly miscast) to kill a black cat that has been living in his mansion.
Drogan says at undisclosed time earlier, the cat showed up at his property. Drogan’s sister, Amanda (Delores Sutton) began to feed and take it in. But Drogan suspected the cat caused the deaths of Amanda, her live-in friend, Carolyn (Alice Drummond), who shielded it from Drogan, as well as their servant/driver, Gage (Mark Margolis), in ways that could be considered accidents. Yet Drogan feels the cat has supernatural abilities and sent as revenge on his family and his fortune.
While this would make a good story, the second part goes to crap real fast as Halston is constantly being chased around the empty mansion after Drogan leaves. Johansen has a distinct voice that with the right character works as was the case in Scrooged. But a character like Halston is supposed to be more menacing. All Johansen does is react, yelling and screaming until we find out what the cat is really capable of. To be honest, it would’ve been better if it was just a regular cat and Drogan’s own paranoia and guilt caused everything. Hickey gives the better performance in this segment and I just wish it was a better constructed story.
The third and final story is “Lover’s Vow” a modern retelling of Yuki-onna which was originally adaptated in the 1964 Japanese horror movie Kwaidan. Preston (James Remar) is a struggling artist who lives in a loft with a skylight overseen by a gargoyle statue. One night he goes to meet his agent, Wyatt (Robert Klein), at a nearby bar where he discovers Wyatt is going to dump him as a client.
So, he gets drunk at the bar and as the bar owner is closing up, Preston goes out in the alley to urinate. But as the bar owner lock up, he hears something from the alley only to discover the gargoyle has come to life and it kills him by decapitation. Running from it, the gargoyle corners Preston who begs for his life. The gargoyle speaks and says it will spare his life only if he promises never to discuss what he saw to anyone. Preston agrees but the gargoyle swipes its claws across his chest saying, “Cross your heart” but not going so deep to cause serious injury
Running from the bar, Preston runs into Carola (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be walking the streets late at night. He’s quick not to tell her about the gargoyle but advises her to get off the streets because someone dangerous is out. They go back to his loft where Carola can phone a taxi but they end up having sex. Later, she says she knows someone who owns the best art gallery in town and puts him in touch with them.
Preston becomes a successful artist and he falls in love with Carola. They marry and start a family but Preston is constantly haunted by the killing of the bartender. Eventually, he’ll have to make a decision to keep it secret from everyone including Carola or describe what he say. Remar gives off a good performance here even though it’s obvious after a while what is going to happen.
Made on a $3.5 million budget, it picked up over $16 million at the box office. Considering in 1990, horror was basically thought to be a step up from hardcore porn, it’s no surprise the critics were mixed. In many ways, they were correct. Director John Harrison had collaborated with Romero on the first Creepshow and Day of the Dead as a composer. And the movie is filmed like an homage to Romero. The direction of “The Black Cat” makes up for its weak story but you can tell “Lot 249” has a Creepshow/Tales From the Crypt vibe.
And the latter might be the reason audiences stayed away. The second season of Tales from the Crypt had premiered in mid-April 1990 with directors such as Walter Hill and Richard Donner helming episodes. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger got in the director’s chair with an episode featuring Hickey. Why go out when people can watch it at home?
Regardless the movie is a better production of anthologies because usually the stories are hit or miss. It’s the type of movie you watch for the talent that went on to become bigger. Slater was just at that stage where his status was on the rise. Buscemi and Moore would go on to the become household names at the end of the decade. Klein’s performance feels more like a cameo. And character actor Margolis always seems to always be a delight even if it’s just a few scenes per role.
It’s worth a watch on a late night when you want to see a horror flick that is kinda fun and not too scary.
What do you think? Please comment.