The anthology movie seems like it is always going out of style, and yet it seems to crop up again and again, a renewable novelty. Horror is the most common theme of anthologies, which help to focus horror's greatest strength (shock, novel imagery, wild twists) while downplaying the genre's general weaknesses: tedium and repetition. But it also taxes the faculty of the genre that is often in short supply: inventiveness. Horror movies tend to try to stretch something that's barely an idea into feature length. An anthology needs several ideas just to justify its existence.
One of the historical wellsprings of ideas for horror anthologies have been comics and television. EC Comics, source of the '50s comic book moral panic that led to the comics code and home of Tales from the Crypt, was the origin of several film adaptations in the '70s, not to mention the HBO television series that began in the late '80s. It was also the inspiration for Creepshow, the anthology film devised by Stephen King and George A. Romero as a love-letter to the horror comics of their youth. Later, Romero sought to turn it into a television series, though because the rights to the film were split between various companies, a brand new IP was devised: Tales from the Darkside.
That ran in syndication for four seasons, from 1984 to 1988, where through 100 episodes it told tales of horror and suspense, several of which were written by or adaptations of famous authors such as Harlan Ellison, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. This film, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, serves as a capstone to the series, a semi-sequel to the sadly abandoned Creepshow films, and an early salvo into the shallow pools of '90s cinematic horror.
Directed by John Harrison, a long-time George Romero associate who had directed several episodes of the television series, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is a high cinematic gloss version of the television series. It contains three unrelated stories, one based on a story by Stephen King, one on an Arthur Conan Doyle horror yarn, and a third loosely inspired by a Japanese ghost story. They are connected by a wrap-around story involving Debbie Harry as a disarmingly pretty witch who is preparing young Matthew Lawrence for her oven. To keep her busy while he devises a plan of escape, he tells her stories from the big book of Tales from the Darkside.
One of the striking things about this film, 30 years later, is how remarkably good the cast is. The first story, "Lot 249", is a fairly standard tale of an Egyptian Mummy coming to life to kill the unfortunates who get in its way. The standard story has a very unstandard cast of Christian Slater, Julianne Moore (in her feature debut), and Steve Buscemi as the nerd who wakes the mummy to get his revenge. The second story, a very slight Stephen King tale called "The Cat From Hell", has as its two principals the '80s horror movie mainstay William Hickey and the ridiculously entertaining David Johansen, who was at the time enjoying a career revival as his Buster Poindexter persona. James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong are the highlight performers of "A Lover's Vow", the final story.
The Tales from the Darkside television series was a syndicated show, and not a high budget one. It had a story quality as variable as any other anthology, but the production values were the same as many '80s shows: they did the best with the little they had. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie looks positively opulent compared to its television counterpart, and though it's John Harrison's first feature film production, it does not visually suffer from budgetary constraints. Each episode has its own distinct feel and color scheme, and there are several sequences with the clever use of camera movement and foregrounding that make the best of the material provided to create stylish and suspenseful shots.
The weakness comes largely from the material. There are three stories here, and the first two have stories that are barely worth telling. "Lot 249" involves the use of a mummy to get revenge for the loss of an essay contest. "The Cat From Hell" wants to get revenge for the use of his species in animal testing. There's little more to the story than the premise played out in the barest, simplest way. The direction and the performances elevate the pretty thin material.
"The Lover's Vow" has a better story. An artist at the end of his rope is confronted by a horrible supernatural entity - a gargoyle, which rips a man to pieces in front of him. It lets him live, if he promises to never tell anyone that he has seen it. The Artist, James Remar, still shocked from his encounter, rescues/kidnaps a woman on the street, Rae Dawn Chong, and impels her into his apartment. For safety's sake. They canoodle, and his artistic career takes off. Only, in keeping the secret, he also has to keep his best art, renditions of the monster, under wraps. It creates a tremendous pressure, since he has to keep the secret from her even when they marry and have kids. The climax of this story is strange, grotesque, and far out of left field where the previous stories were more obvious and, though stylish and fun to watch, a little staid.
But they look great, and they all have fun effects and monsters. The mummy from "Lot 249" is a great feat of makeup and performance, and his murders are thrillingly nasty. "The Cat From Hell" is an over the top comic book style production, with David Johansen's tough guy hitman coming to pieces having to go toe to toe with a little black kitty cat, and an astoundingly ridiculous conclusion. "Lover's Vow" mixes the weird with the poignant, and manages to be the goriest of the three stories. This was an early effort of the famed KNB special effects company, and for lovers of practical horror effects it deserves admiration and attention.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, thanks to its lucky casting and tasteful production (but not too tasteful, since too much taste is the enemy of horror) has aged better than many of its contemporaries. It has a certain '90s slickness, but that's welcome when so much of what happened to horror in the '90s was cheap, styleless, and bland. For ancient people like me, it feels like a last hurrah of an era. For contemporary viewers, I think they might find unexpected, in imperfect, pleasures here.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie has been released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory, a division of Shout Factory. The disc includes two commentaries, one an archive release with director John Harrison and screenwriter George A. Romero, and a new commentary with producer David R. Kappes. There's an extensive documentary split up into several chapters, Tales Behind the Darkside (105 mins) that covers the production of each segment of the film. Beyond that, there are trailers, still galleries, and a compilation of behind the scenes footage (12 mins).