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 MellĂ©’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.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Last Laurel

An archived article from the New York Times covering TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE shares some wonderful and surprising insights into the making of the show. Laurel Entertainment itself was a humble enterprise, its auspicious headquarters an abandoned mattress factory and its two shooting sets divided between the L. A. factory and a New York rehearsal hall that had hosted practices for Pink Floyd.

The article also goes on to compare DARKSIDE with its glossier contemporaries, the big studio-backed anthologies like Spielberg's AMAZING STORIES (1985-1987) and the revival of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1985-1989) whose budgets typically were in the $1 million range compared to Laurel's meager $124,000-per-segment.

Also alluded to is the fact that not only did DARKSIDE offer its share of competition in quality vs. budget, but that its success was fairly surprising seeing as how it had no network affiliation, instead garnering and establishing its fan base entirely through syndication on 125 local television stations. It's undoubtedly this homespun, layman's vibe that allows DARKSIDE to permeate even to this day; it epitomizes the type of after-dinner entertainment that a family could sit down to in order to raise a good shudder or two, an image that Laurel would actually literalize (and jokingly pervert) in the opening montage to their follow-up series, MONSTERS (1988-1990).

John Kenneth Muir comments in his Terror Television that syndication would soon provide a plentiful bounty for genre programs, hosting everything from similar anthologies such as FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES (1987-1990) and FREDDY'S NIGHTMARES (1988-1990) to the science fictional exploration of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994) and the gangster warfare of THE UNTOUCHABLES (1993-1994). Though these series would all go on to their varying degrees of acclaim and viewership, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE was one of the very first to prove what a rich harvest syndication could reap. 

Though it earned consistently high ratings and matched its popular success with several cost-cutting measures (which included using a non-union production crew and shooting the vignettes within 2-3 days), DARKSIDE still had its detractors. Like George Romero, its disenchanted creator and executive producer. Romero negatively commented on its low production values but did commend the virtues of the show's strong emphasis on finding quality narratives, complimenting the work of story editor Tom Allen and directors Michael P. Gornick, Tom Savini, John Harrison, and Warner Shook, all of them veterans of CREEPSHOW (1982): Gornick the cinematographer; Savini the special make-up effects artist; Harrison the composer; and Shook the wonderfully effeminate Richard Grantham in the "Father's Day" segment.

It all may add up to not much more than a hill of beans, but these small snippets that we have of DARKSIDE's behind-the-screams life are enough to add an extra note of appreciation to the fan's estimation of the show.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Send in the Creeps

Ahhh, but where would we be without CREEPSHOW?

Filmed in 1981, the horror anthology-cum-comic book tribute proved enough of a success to warrant a sequel, but more importantly to our interests here, the original CREEPSHOW served as the seed for the program that was to become TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Richard P. Rubinstein, having formed Laurel Entertainment with George Romero in the 70s, produced a series of the director’s films including MARTIN (1977), KNIGHTRIDERS (1981), and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). Rubinstein was also on board as producer for CREEPSHOW, the brainchild of Romero and novelist Stephen King, who penned the five tales comprising their omnibus project.

Having grown up delighting to the cackling mannerisms of the GhouLunatics from E. C. Comics’ stable of horror titles, Romero and King sought to create a film that replicated the retro, vibrant grotesqueries of their youth that they loved so much. And boy did they succeed there. CREEPSHOW is charming from top to tails. It’s a veritable Valentine’s to horror fans, leavening the gruesome shocks with doses of comedy that vary from the wry to pure shtick.

The Day-Glo art direction is eye candy in the truest sense, as the screen seems to bubble over with its frothy compositions that have everything from cartoon bugs enc-roach-ing on the scene to lightning bolts from the electric rainbow highlighting the actors’ screaming faces. From the second that the floating corpse-puppet grins outside of little Joe Hill’s window in the wraparound segment, we know we are in good hands.

Everybody on the scene looks to be having the time of their lives, and even icky moments like a monstrous primate ravaging flesh like so much wet tissue paper are shot with such dark glee that it’s almost impossible not to be tickled by what’s occurring on the screen. There are some moments that might lose the bite of genuine terror due to all the Super-Size styling, but the bold advertising doesn’t shirk on its promise that CREEPSHOW will be “The Most Fun You’ll Have Being Scared.”

The rock-em, shock'em atmosphere mellowed out (sort of…) when CREEPSHOW 2 was released in 1987. Michael Gornick (who served as DP for Romero on the Rubinstein projects in addition to DAWN OF THE DEAD [1978], as well as going on to helm several DARKSIDE episodes) took over the directing reins for a script penned by Romero, who adapted one of King's previously published short stories and two “original” yarns for the sequel.

An interesting note: there were originally plans for CREEPSHOW 2 to have five segments like its predecessor, but two of them were scrapped. One of the vignettes, “The Cat from Hell,” went on to be adapted three years later in a little feature called TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990).

Released just a year before TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE was to take its final bow on television, CREEPSHOW 2 seems a little less beholden to its pulpy roots and vies for a more contemporary vibe. The lack of a classical score by John Harrison certainly makes this film feel more washed out by comparison. Still, CREEPSHOW 2 offers its own brand of whacked-out horror, including the vengeance of a full-sized wooden Native American, a slick puddle of putrescence hungry for human flesh, and an irksome undead hitchhiker that owes a little to a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. 
CREEPSHOW 2 did not perform nearly as well as the original, with one critic even opining that none of the segments from the theatrical feature were "as good as...the syndicated TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE." Just goes to show that $14 million doesn't make any guarantees for solid storytelling.

But it was after the surprise hit of the original CREEPSHOW that the brains over at Laurel Entertainment began formulating the idea of distributing a television show that offered up isolated stories in a similar vein. The result came in the form of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, a title that the Cryptkeeper would undoubtedly have approved. And while the show would debut with a strong pilot and feature occasional episodes that were clearly molded from the clay of 50s horror comics, DARKSIDE would eventually go on to explore other, shadowy terrain in a manner similar to THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s accumulation of pure terror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Without the success of CREEPSHOW, it’s very likely that the world would have never seen the Darkside. And for a feature that spent its time looking back into the past, it’s somewhat ironic that the film should help pave the road ahead for Laurel’s future success in TV Land.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Welcome to the Darkside

Greetings, and welcome to Entering the Darkside, a retrospective blog on the horror anthology television staple of the 1980s, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. Here you will find a complete episode-by-episode breakdown of the show (including credits, synopses, and commentaries) as well as ruminations on different aspects of the series including its memorable opening theme, recurring thematic strains within the stories, an overview of the 1990 film version, Best Of-lists, and image galleries of all your favorite guys and ghouls from the program.

As your humble host, it is my intention to put a spotlight on TFTD and give it some of the love and attention (and maybe just a smidge of the derision) it deserves. Despite the fond memories and vibrant impressions the show made on those who watched it during its initial run between 1983 and 1988 and in the years since, critical assessments of the series are sorely lacking even in this day and age of information overload from the Internet. It’s my belief that for all the passion fans have for horror in the short medium, no one ever seems to want to talk about it in detail. Hopefully we can change that.

This project was inspired by the wonderful series of TV show-themed blogs written by Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri: A Thriller a Day, We Are Controlling Transmission, and It Couldn’t Happen Here. Click on those links to find fun, comprehensive coverage of some prime genre television. And thanks for setting the standard, guys.

My own project will not be quite so ambitious as to try and undertake TFTD in its entirety in a matter of a few weeks (or months). The schedule I hope to maintain is posting several episode reviews each month, along with whatever other treats may come our way. It is my hope that the time in between new posts will be spent generating active discussion on the series’ particulars.
My personal history with the darkside started when I was in middle school. I was an avid horrorhound (still am) and I was particularly fond of anthology films and TV programs (still am). I can’t recall the precise moment I first learned of DARKSIDE, but I do remember family members regaling me with descriptions of the opening number raising the hairs on their neck every time it started playing on the TV set in the shadowy hours of evening.

Although I could get my fix with THE TWILIGHT ZONE on the Sci-Fi Channel and TALES FROM THE CRYPT on AMC Friday nights, DARKSIDE was much more elusive, and therefore more tantalizing and mysterious. I would obsessively read episode descriptions online (in the days before screenshots were readily available, I had to suffice with the snippets of information provided by, dreaming of the spine-tingling dramas that they were based upon.

My first official taste came in the form of a VHS volume containing five episodes won off Ebay that I received as a birthday present. And that’s all I got. I’d have to take the five or pretty much forget about ever seeing the show, for the time being. But it was enough. The show’s limited means made themselves known almost immediately and I was also a tad irked that one slot of the precious tape was spent on a light, fantasy-romance yarn (“Comet Watch”) and not one of the traumatizing, darker entries I had heard so much about like “Inside the Closet” or “Seasons of Belief.” Still, I was intrigued.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve finally obtained the first of CBS’ DVD releases of the complete series, finally filling in the gaps of my viewing experience and watching the program as was intended (minus that troublesome substitution of the entire show’s musical score!).

Perhaps what I admire most about TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE is that despite its obvious financial shortcomings, it was never afraid to push the envelope and explore every facet of fantasy that the show's runners could think of. Its willingness to devote time to works that might have seemed utterly ludicrous--such as the infamous "Love Hungry"--though perhaps head-scratchingly odd, was always surprising and, for better or worse, daring.

Not only did the low budget create an insular, claustrophobic makeshift universe as in the most charming examples of B-grade cinema, but it kept the program on an under-the-radar level that gave it one all-too-important allowance: it gave the creators the ability to do whatever the hell they wanted. The utterly bizarre focuses and courses some of the stories take are a far cry from the Hollywood-slick horror shows that you currently see on the CW (a channel, ironically, that a revival of DARKSIDE has been rumored to be broadcasted on under the guidance of Joe Hill).

A crooked politician transforms into a clown in a three-ring circus. A spoiled young boy is given the chance to become the Dahli Lama. A nasty baker manipulates people with her voodoo gingerbread cookies. A woman falls in love with a mechanized fortune teller. On this show, almost all creative bets were off.

But that's what I love about it. These unique premises didn't always translate to good episodes, but the willing spirit of the Darkside, that "Little Horror Show That Could" aspect of it is what always endears it to me at the end of the day.

In the ensuing months we'll undoubtedly encounter our share of spills and frills (and kills), but perhaps when all is said and done, we'll be able to view TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE in an entirely new... light.