Saturday, December 14, 2019

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

... aka: Contes de la nuit noire (Tales of the Dark Night)
... aka: Darkside, les contes de la nuit noire (Darkside: Tales of the Dark Night)
... aka: El gato infernal (The Infernal Cat)
... aka: Geschichten aus der Schattenwelt (Stories from the Shadow World)
... aka: I delitti del gatto nero (The Crimes of the Black Cat)

Directed by:
John Harrison

The popular Tales From the Darkside TV series, created by George A. Romero and prompted by the success of his anthology movie CREEPSHOW (1982), began life as the Bob Balaban directed / Romero co-written short "Trick or Treat" in October 1983. It wouldn't be until around a year later that the series - produced by Richard P. Rubinstein and Romero's Laurel Entertainment, would officially begin. Despite looking incredibly cheap and often-times beyond hokey, Tales was a moderate success in syndication as late night TV filler, lasting four seasons and 90 episodes. While it lasted, it managed to attract some pretty big names like Tom Savini, Clive Barker, Stephen King, Robert Bloch and even Jodie Foster, but I always have to give the biggest props to Donald Rubinstein and Erica Lindsay for their amazingly eerie theme music used in the intro, which, combined with Paul Sparer's narration, always scared the ever-loving crap out of me as a young child. In fact, I never had an issue watching the episodes themselves but would often mute the TV and look away or change the channel for a minute as to avoid watching the freaky ass credits!

I gotta say though, that the mere existence of this big screen movie version of the show just always seemed a bit... odd... to me. For starters, the series ended two years earlier so they weren't exactly hitting the iron while it was still hot. Second, the same team's CREEPSHOW 2 (1987) was released just a few years earlier to scathing reviews and failed to match either the financial or critical success of the first. Third, the original series - fun as it could be at times - never was really ready for prime time and always aired really late at night. Finally, Rubinstein / Laurel Entertainment's Tales off-shoot Monsters was currently in the middle on its second season on TV. In fact, a new episode was airing the exact same night the TFTD movie opened in theaters. So were rabid Tales fans up in arms that the series came to a close and clamoring for this? Probably not. However, in this case the gamble paid off. This performed better at the box office than C2; debuting in third place its first week and bringing in over 16 million dollars on a 3.5 million budget. In other words, there was just enough of an audience to merit this after all. It certainly didn't hurt matters that this is actually quite good.

Stepping into the director's chair for his feature film debut was frequent Romero collaborator John Harrison, who was then best known as a bass guitarist and for doing scores for Romero films like Day of the Dead. He'd also served as an assistant director to Romero on several occasions (including on Creepshow) and directed eight episodes of the Tales series, which may explain how he managed to get this wide-release, major studio (Paramount) gig as a first film.

Debbie Harry (who previously appeared in a 1987 Tales episode "The Moth") stars in the mediocre wraparound story as Betty; a wealthy, churchgoing suburban cannibal. She's already kidnapped young Timmy (Matthew Lawrence), is keeping him chained and locked up in a room and trying to fatten him up with a steady diet of chocolate chip cookies. To pass the time while she's preparing for a dinner party where Timmy's set to be the main course, she gives him a copy of her favorite book from childhood: Tales from the Darkside. While she's plotting out her menu and prep times, Timmy buys some time distracting her by reading three of the stories. This returns to their story briefly in between segments and then wraps up with the conclusion at the end.

First up is "Lot 249," scripted by Michael McDowell (who had written eleven episodes of the Tales series) and based on an Arthur Conan Doyle story. Nerdy, poor and unpopular college student / museum volunteer Edward Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) has just been screwed out of an important fellowship by rich jock plagiarist Lee (Robert Sedgwick), whose essay was actually written by the scheming Susan (Julianne Moore), the woman Edward lusts after who's also the sister of Lee's best friend, Andy (Christian Slater). Turns out an anonymous "tip" falsely accusing him of theft took him out of the running just long enough to disqualify him. But Edward hopes to turn that all around. He's just purchased a sarcophagus containing a 3000-year-old mummy (Michael Deak) that he plans to sell for big bucks. He locates a scroll hidden inside the mummy's belly, translates the hieroglyphics and manages to resurrect the mummy, who stalks around campus doing his bidding.

There's a great mummy design and some amusingly gruesome mummy-themed murders, including someone's brain getting pulled out of their nostrils with a clothes hanger and someone gutted with scissors and stuffed with flowers, plus dismemberment and decapitation with an electric carving knife. Despite that and the future-star power of Buscemi, Moore and Slater, this is still entirely predictable and the least interesting of the three tales. DAWN OF THE DEAD can be heard playing on a TV set and Day of the Dead co-star Ralph Marrero ("Rickles") has a cameo as a cab driver.

Story #2 is "Cat from Hell," which was adapted by Romero from a Stephen King short story. Late at night, experienced hitman Mr. Halston (David Johansen) is dropped off at a gloomy old mansion to meet with a potential client, wheelchair-bound pharmaceutical magnate Drogan (William Hickey). Drogan offers him 100 thousand dollars to take out a family enemy. The weird part? The enemy is a cute, seemingly-harmless little black cat. Drogan relates some flashbacks to the feline wiping out his sister Amanda (Dolores Sutton), her friend Carolyn Broadmoor (Alice Drummond) and butler Dick Gage (Mark Margolis) by knocking one down the stairs, latching onto another's face to "steal their breath" and causing a fatal car accident. Any attempt to get rid of the cat has failed and it keeps returning to the mansion. Now Drogan fears he's next. As it turns out, the old man's company has killed around 5000 cats through animal testing and now he and his family, who've made a fortune from a highly-addictive and expensive drug, are getting a taste of supernatural kat karma.

This is a pretty good little Gothic / macabre animal attack piece. It's atmospheric, the leads are both good, the cat action is fun, there's one extremely memorable kill involving the cat jumping into a mouth then clawing its way inside a stomach through a throat (!) and, best of all, it's surprisingly stylish and creatively directed and shot, right down to blue tinting used for flashback scenes and some cool black-and-white cat POV shots tinted blue and purple around the edges. A clip from MARTIN (1977) is seen on a TV set. This was originally going to be filmed for the second Creepshow but ended up here instead.

Finally we get "Lover's Vow," which was again scripted by McDowell but this time an original idea clearly influenced by the Japanese folklore tale Yuki-onna / "Snow Woman," which saw its most famous adaptation as one of the tales in the classic anthology Kwaidan (1964). Struggling New York City artist James Preston (James Remar) hasn't sold a piece of art in four months, the gallery representing him is giving him one day to get his stuff out before they junk it and, to top off his wonderful evening, he finds out his agent Wyatt (Robert Klein) will no longer be representing him. But, hey, things could always get worse! After drowning his sorrows at a local bar, he witnesses his bartender friend getting decapitated by a large, winged, fast-moving gargoyle. The gargoyle then gives him an ultimatum: "Your life in exchange for a promise." He's not to discuss what went down that night, not tell anyone he ever saw the creature and never describe what it looks like or what it's told him. After he makes the promise, the creature flees into the night.

Preston bumps into the mysterious and alluring Carola (Rae Dawn Chong) soon after. The two quickly become lovers and she moves in with him. Carola puts him in touch with the owner of the hottest art gallery in town, his work is soon selling for tens of thousands of dollars and Preston's life starts turning itself around. She becomes pregnant and the two eventually marry. Ten years later and now with several kids, Preston's guilt over staying silent that fateful night in the alley behind the bar keeps haunting him and keeps manifesting itself through his art, including obsessively drawing the gargoyle. Can he keep the secret inside for the rest of his life... even from the woman he loves the most?

While the twist at the end won't be much of a surprise to most viewers, this is still a well-done story boosted by a heartfelt performance from Remar and an impressive creature design (including a nifty transformation scene) courtesy of KNB EFX Group, who also handled the fx for the other stories, as well. Dick Smith is credited as the effects consultant.

Even though I remember liking this OK years ago when I last saw it, I walked away this time with the realization that this is actually one of the best horror anthologies of the 80s and 90s. Though clearly flawed, especially the predictability of each of the stories, it's still a worthier successor to the more tongue-in-cheek Creepshow than either the first "official" sequel or that 2006 abomination Creepshow 3. In late 1990, a Tales sequel was announced (with McDowell, Romero and Gahan Wilson having already penned a script adapting stories from King and Bloch) but was never made. Ditto for several attempts to reboot the television series.

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