It starts out innocently enough, with pastoral scenes underscored by what sounds like someone rolling their fingers across an old Casio synthesizer. Then the voiceover kicks in: “Man lives in the sunlit world…” It’s almost hilarious how threatening the guy sounds. “But… there is, unseen by most, an underworld…” Then the music turns nasty, the country shots flip into negative, and what should be absurd becomes something else entirely. Anthology series set the tone with their intro segments. Amazing Stories started like a hug from a third-grader, and The Twilight Zone had the comforting narration of a world-weary moralist, but Tales From The Darkside dispenses with the handholding and goes straight for the jugular. The monologue is all purple prose, but the message is clear—things are about to get serious. Lock the doors, bar the windows, and duck behind the couch; there are bad times ahead.
Inspired by the success of Creepshow, producer George Romero turned to the small screen in 1983 with Darkside, a series that strove to capture the style of classic EC Comics stories without ever directly referencing them. The first season of 24 episodes features a number of familiar faces, and runs the gamut from creepy to overtly comic, with varying degrees of success. There’s the freaky Romero-penned pilot, “Trick Or Treat,” about a miser getting his just desserts late one Halloween night. For contrast, there’s the winningly goofy “Djinn, No Chaser,” adapted from a Harlan Ellison short story about a newlywed couple forced to endure a cranky genie. And then there are the just flat-out weird episodes, like “All A Clone By Telephone,” with Harry Anderson matching wits against an unusually aggressive answering machine.
Romero acknowledges that the series was done on the cheap, and the budget shows in the dingy sets, talky scripts, and occasionally hammy acting. But anthologies are judged more by their heights than their consistency, and the best Tales manage to work with their low budgets, achieving an unsettling, spooky vibe that gets right under viewers’ skins and stays there. Episodes like “Levitation,” about a magician who understands the cost of real magic, get in Tales From The Crypt-style twists without bogging down in that series’ mean-spirited corniness. Darkside has its fair share of lemons, but while it doesn’t always live up to the eeriness of its opening, it does a decent job at reminding its audience to stay away from the shadows.
Key features: One frustratingly anemic audio commentary from Romero on “Trick Or Treat.”