Thursday, October 27, 2016

Not As Brightly Lit: The DARKSIDE Theme

If there is any one element that people remember of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE--if they remember anything at all--it is the show's intense, infamous, and marrow-freezing opening theme. They may not recall any of the individual episodes from the series' run, but ask them about the opening number and you'll start to see nostalgic smiles lighting up their faces.

The potency of the opening montage is undoubtedly bolstered by the musical score composed by Donald Rubinstein and Erica Lindsay. Donald was the brother to executive producer Richard and composer of previous Laurel productions like MARTIN (1977) and KNIGHTRIDERS (1981), the latter for which he penned the original song "I'd Rather Be a Wanderer" that he can be briefly seen singing at the end of the film. Lindsay, a former member of the George Morrison Big Band, is still going strong today as a tenor saxophonist currently heading up her own quintet.

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE lies at the midpoint of revolutionary themes created for television programs of the supernatural. Its ancestor, Gil Mellé’s opening tune for NIGHT GALLERY, was one of the first themes to be wholly conducted with electronic instrumentation, and it shares similar traits with Rubinstein's and Lindsay's piece in its unnerving, high-pitched bleats. But the score that the theme from DARKSIDE more closely resembles (and seems to have clearly inspired) is Mark Snow's iconic music for THE X-FILES. The apparent result of an accidental elbowing of the keyboard, Snow's theme plays like a faster, punchier version of Rubinstein's and Lindsay's piece, its "Whistling Joe" motif a twisted reflection of the steady, four-beat tick that plays throughout the DARKSIDE theme.

The jarring synthesizer that greets us at the start of the DARKSIDE theme immediately pricks our auditory nerves with a blaring call that clashes with the idyllic, cumulus-riddled sky that it plays over. The clear, chilly notes that follow are piercing and incessant, at odds with the dark and brooding orchestrations we typically associate with the genre. The rhythm of these notes seems to match the beat of a steady drip, like an aural form of Chinese water torture enacted upon our spines.

The next couple of images seem just as out of place with this unnerving tune. The sun shines brightly on the greenery of trees and grass, the settings of childhood play that we remember for the joy they gave us. What is this music doing here, perverting our fond memories, tainting our rosy recollections?

This is, of course, exactly what it is meant to do. It is with the next image that we begin to sense a logical order to the cheery compositions and their frightening accompaniment. The theme has thus far cleverly played on the presence of sunlight, but we don't fully process this until we see the above shot and become suddenly aware of the absence of light. The sun is still there but it's almost overwhelmed by the shadows. There's something about gloom in the presence of natural light that inspires monstrous imaginings. This bridge, for example, is probably perfectly lovely when strolled across at the height of noon. But its New England charm seems to turn sinister at this late, dusky hour. The viewer now finds himself thinking of headless Hessians and vanishing schoolmasters. This image is seen for barely a second but we receive its message fully: we have crossed over from the light and have now been deposited into the black mouth of the night.

The next two images further the visual theme of prominent darkness in the light of day. The babbling brook and rustic countryside are scenes of pastoral beauty, but with those few significant shadings of darkness and the damnably piping music clawing at our ears, we feel the hint of some unnameable horror lurking just beneath the surface, of Hell beginning to bubble over.

This shot, ironically, has always felt more potently lonesome to me than the previous two. Though we can clearly see the signs of civilization, it's the space from them that has always unsettled me. We're seeing the farm from a distance as if we have left--or, more likely, been taken--from our warm beds and are heading straight into the wilds surrounding us on all sides. We can only get a glimpse of the home we used to know as it dwindles in the contracting landscape, getting farther and farther in both space and memory. There can be no turning back from this journey. And even if we were to protest, surely no one could possibly hear us scream from here.

Our ultimate destination is here, the forest of the mind. The sun is all but blotted out by the pale, skeletal trees that cluster about in their secret earth. We have heard the sepulchral voice of Paul Sparer rise from the depths starting with the shot of the brook. Sparer was a Boston-born actor who frequently found himself playing authority figures in supporting roles on the stage and screen (lots of doctors, judges, inquisitors, chair members, military officials, and even a chancellor), including being the first of many NY-based thespians to appear on LAW AND ORDER when he guested on the premiere episode of Season One, with the occasional plum role on Broadway such as Creon in the 1982 production of Medea and the eponymous physicist in Heinar Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Can you not instantly hear Sparer intoning J. R.'s borrowing from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death; destroyer of worlds"?) 

It was Sparer's rich and regal voice that garnered him numerous voiceover gigs throughout his career, covering everything from audio books to documentaries. (And if you thought only Sparer could give the Darkside a voice, his wife Nancy Marchand demonstrated that she could speak its language when she gained later fame in life as the manipulative, love-to-hate-her mother to James Gandolfini's Tony in THE SOPRANOS.) Sparer's moody narration for TFTD is direct and to the point but the actor holds nothing back, letting each uttered word drip with menacing promise and deadly severity. His introduction clearly defines the show's premise, just as Rod Serling's clipped delivery had done for his own excursion into the fifth dimension. Our end point here, though, is decidedly more morbid:

Man... lives... in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality.

But! There is--unseen by most--an underworld.

A place that is just as real... but not as brightly lit.

Down the rabbit hole we go, our cherubic universe flipped and inverted into the phantasm-filled void that it truly is.

A darkside!

Charnel house blacks and funeral shroud grays fill the picture. The synths let out a final, prolonged shriek as the comic book-red letters of the title rise like Count Orlock from his coffin onto the screen. Our butts remain firmly in the couches and recliners of the living room, but for the next twenty minutes our consciousness shall enter a realm of death and demons, of mortification and monsters. The door opens, inviting us, daring us to enter and face the fantastic situations and horrifying choices that our human characters will be forced to endure for our cathartic enjoyment. But we would be foolish to think that we had any choice in the matter. The screen pushes us through that yawning door and deposits us on the other side, reminding us that the Darkside will always be there, waiting for us to enter and waiting to enter us.

Our time to enjoy the daylight is over. The show has begun.

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