Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Pain Killer"

Original Airdate: October 14, 1984

Directed by Armand Mastroianni.

Written by Haskell Barkin.

Starring Lou Jacobi (Harvey Turman), Peggy Cass (Nadine Turman), Farley Granger (Dr. Roebuck), and Fay Sappington (Mrs. Tracey).

SYNOPSIS: Harvey is feeling the pressure from his wife Nadine as she pushes him to become an executive at the computer firm he currently works in as a maintenance man. When Harvey’s back starts seizing up without any observable physical ailment besieging him, it becomes clear that the senior is just suffering from good old emotional tension. But the sinister Dr. Roebuck has an unorthodox prescription in mind for Harvey. Namely having his naggy wife bumped off!

I... am... Iron Wimp.

CRITIQUE: If you viewed Tales from the Darkside’s third official episode as a letdown from the previous entries, you really couldn’t be blamed. The earlier stories are grand epics compared to the extremely low stakes that are at play in “Pain Killer.” It’s an episode where the entire dramatic arc hinges on our clueless protagonist’s nasty cramps, with the mysterious workings of Granger's mad medico of fleeting interest for all the impression they make. One needn’t look any further than the moment when Harvey realizes after his wife’s “happy accident” that his back no longer hurts, a revelation that is promptly followed by an ominous sting of music. It’s about as exciting as it sounds, which is of course to say not much at all. 

This is a more homey kind of a tale, one that veers into Hitchcockian territory at the second act mark when Dr. Roebuck recommends wiping out Nadine to alleviate Harvey’s nerves. It’s an idea the Master of Suspense was more than familiar with, but try making “Pain Killer” into the next DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and you’ll be sorely disappointed.

In that light it’s certainly appropriate having Farley Granger on hand. The actor, who starred in both ROPE (1948) and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), is a true silver fox as Roebuck, his voice the velvety cooing of a much younger man. His role is, unsurprisingly, the most assuredly performed and intriguing. The script by Haskell Barkin only recognizes Harvey and Nadine as two caricatures, so Jacobi and Cass can’t be held entirely responsible for the flatness of their characters. Cass whines and bitches and Jacobi shrugs and mutters as is becoming of a henpecked husband and his battle ax of a spouse. 

Our leading contender for Miss Darkside 1984.

Still, it's hard to generate much interest in Jacobi's plight. He looks like someone's roly poly grandfather, just as vexed by a nefarious homicide cabal as he would be by a mustard stain on his sweatshirt. The entire supernatural conceit--if it can even be called that--of Roebuck's ring of pay-it-forward patients who provide their murderous services after their own "illnesses" are taken care of is treated so haphazardly within the duration of the episode that the viewer fails to feel its importance and gravity. There's certainly no harm in keeping the finer details in the shadows so as to further build the mystery, but the head-scratching fashion that the episode ends in is clearly the work of a writer just as undecided as we are. Is Roebuck a brilliant sociopath? The Devil? The world may never know...

And where the hell did that thunderstorm come from?

In truth, "Pain Killer" is not the worst thing you'll ever see. Despite its relative ineptitude it never panders or insults the intelligence. Barkin even manages to sneak in a few insightful bits, such as when Nadine scolds Harvey over his supposed pains ("You were giving in to it. That was your problem."), little realizing that her words perfectly reflect their own fractured marriage. There is also one darting glimpse we get into more interesting terrain when we see Harvey return to his disordered house to scarf down the chocolate sweets that were forbidden to him when Nadine was around. It might have proven more fruitful had Barkin chosen to examine how Harvey's life would become even worse without the presence of his emasculating (but in-control) wife, perhaps even with the arrival of new and even more torturous physical pains than his back troubles. But there I go rewriting someone's material.

For what's it worth, this episode also gives us our second consecutive angry telephone greeting. Cass almost trumps Keenan Wynn's gruff address from "I'll Give You a Million." I know if I heard her "Hello" I would just hang up. This may just in fact become a regular Darkside hallmark and require the implementation of a drinking game. Now there's something to make these episodes more interesting!

"My patient is in so much pain..."


RATING: 1 1/2 Lizzies

COMING UP: Danny Aiello finds out that all bets are off in "The Odds."

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"I'll Give You a Million"

Original Airdate: October 7, 1984

Directed by John Harrison.

Teleplay by Mark Durand and David Spiel, Story by John Harrison.

Starring Keenan Wynn (Duncan Williams), George Petrie (Jack Blaine), Michael Freeman (Richards), Bradley Fisher (The Devil).

SYNOPSIS: Duncan Williams and Jack Blaine are two filthy rich silver foxes who delight in inflicting as much misery as possible on their fellow man. Seeing an interesting direction to take their usual betting habits, Duncan proposes to offer a cool million for his partner's eternal soul. Blaine at first sees it as a simple jest, but after signing the dotted line he begins to feel uneasy about the sale. As well he should, because Blaine is not long for this world...

CRITIQUE: So nice to see a familiar face popping up in the Darkside. Keenan Wynn, unforgettable to fans of genre TV for his turns as Captain Joe 'Mad Dog' Siska from Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the memorable growl of the Winter Warlock from Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), is here essaying the part of the Monopoly guy Duncan Williams, and his usual bursts of explosive fury--save for one moment where he answers the phone with the greeting of "HELLO?"--are traded in for a more subdued performance where he's allowed to show a quieter form of evil.

My favorite exchange is when Petrie, literally at the end of his rope after receiving news of assured death by liver failure from his doctor, beseeches Wynn to keep the money and relinquish his contract, telling Wynn that he can enjoy the million more than Petrie can now. Wynn just smiles at him from under the brim of his dandy gardening hat and whispers "I'm enjoying this immensely."

"I'll Give You a Million" further perpetuates the notion TFTD established with "Trick or Treat" that the absolute worst kinds of people are old, rich white men. We're first introduced to the duo during an afternoon limo drive as they regale each other with anecdotes of their heartlessness. They casually talk of business and riches they've acquired with the help of "sex, bribery, and homicide" and refer to their exhibitions of humiliating and terminating underlings as "public executions." They have become emotionally numb by their vast wealth; the only way they can really get anything out of life that they haven't already is instigating suffering in others and wagering thousands of dollars on shots during a pool game.

When Duncan wheedles Jack about the staged suicide of a competitor that he was involved in, Jack seems mildly ashamed and looks to brush over the subject. But it's clear from the get-go that these are both equally devious men, and even the casual viewer will already sense that these two characters are being set up at the end of the lane in preparation for the cosmic bowling ball that's heading their way.

The episode seems like something of a "gentleman's club" tale, a sordid account narrated over a snifter of whiskey next to a roaring fire as the fellows of the group listen in with morbid interest to that dreadful business of ol' Blaine and Williams. "But what happened to them?" one of the younger, fresh-faced aristocrats might ask. "Well," the narrator would hesistate. "No one can be entirely sure. The common assumption is that..." And here he might laugh to repress a shudder.  "Well, it really is the damnedest thing."

The narrator wouldn't be too far off, as damnation is surely what awaits the bastards. Because the episode goes from its previously subdued path straight into comic book territory at the climax by way of "The Monkey's Paw." Williams is alone in his huge, dark house as a thunderstorm rages outside, the news that Petrie has indeed died placing a grim weight upon his heart. What exactly does that entail for Williams, the official owner of his late friend's ever-lasting soul?

He finds out soon enough, for right at the front door is Blaine, or what remains of him. The ashy corpse (which looks from its appearance that the death was from a fall into an industrial size cheese grater) holds its neon-bright spirit in a glass case, offering it to Williams so that "He" might not come in time to take it away first.

This is a nice high point for the episode, recalling the similarily garish horrors that were on display in "Trick or Treat." There's a little bit of recall to Creepshow in there too, as William's sweaty mania and shooting of the green-hued revenant reminds one of Leslie Nielsen's useless fight against the waterlogged zombies in "Something to Tide You Over."

Random Observation: At one point Duncan muses during the stormy night "Next thing you know the lights will go off" only for the lights to flicker ominously. I was honestly hoping that after that Wynn would look around and then mutter under his breath "Next thing you'll know I'll be in a Bangkok harem."

Williams had chastised his friend earlier for "reminiscing about Sunday school," so it's too bad that he doesn't get to see the mysterious "He" that Blaine was warning him about before he collapses dead straight from a heart attack. For it is here that Dave Vanian of The Damned the dark angel Satan himself enters, looking all decked out for a night at the local brimstone cabaret. It's another nice touch, the goopy cadaver one-upped by the vision of Lucifer in tails. He coos in a multi-layered vocal track ala Linda Blair before claiming both of the dead men's souls to take back with him to the goth night club down below.

And with a final flair of fireworks straight from the mind of Al Feldstein, Satan sears the words "PAID IN FULL" into Duncan's chest. Because like our two unfortunate businessmen, the Devil has to get his kicks from more unorthodox methods.

"Never listen to quacks, Jack!"


RATING: 3 Lizzies


COMING UP: Farley Granger offers bitter medicine in "Pain Killer."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"The New Man"

Original Airdate: September 30, 1984

Directed by Frank De Palma.

Teleplay by Mark Durand, Based on the story "The New Man" by Barbara Owens.

Starring Vic Tayback (Alan Coombs), Kelly Jean Peters (Sharon Coombs), Chris Herbert (Jerry), Billy Jayne (Petey Coombs), Paul Jenkins (Robert Johnson).

SYNOPSIS: Alan Coombs is a real estate agent who has just resumed control of his life after a raging bout of alcoholism almost marked the end of his family. On his way home one day, Alan's son Jerry comes to the office to escort him home for dinner. But Alan doesn't have a son named Jerry. He desperately tries to convince his wife and teenage son Petey of this but they just suspect that Alan has returned to his old ways. But if Alan is right, then who is Jerry? And what does he want? 


CRITIQUE: If there was any episode that showed TFTD's allegiance to The Twilight Zone, this one would be it. While other entries from the series are similar to episodes from Serling's anthology, "The New Man" carries quite a few tropes that were made popular in that earlier program. Barbara Owens' original short story, as a matter of fact, like many of Darkside's sources was culled from the pages of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine.

Coombs is the suffering and recovering alcoholic we find in "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" and "The Night of the Meek," his grasp on reality gradually revealed for how tenuous it is like William Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Cliff Robertson in "The Dummy," characters who had their sanity and reason called into question after witnessing their inner demons take form. Jerry is the same breed of enigmatic, diabolical child as Anthony from "It's a Good Life." And the general, skeptical disbelief from the rest of the cast is a device that was par for the course in countless vignettes from TZ. Coombs' alcoholism is a hallmark that even calls back to noir tendencies in film and literature, recalling protagonists like that of Cornell Woolrich's Black Alibi whose bender-blackouts made him a prime murder suspect.

Alan's other, normal child

The paranoia of Coombs' situation is where "The New Man" gets its mileage, though the rest of the affair may seem kind of humble. At its weakest, the family drama looks like something that was shot at the local community theater where the actors are glancing in the wings at cue cards that read "Approximate turmoil." Vic Tayback is the glue that keeps it all together. He's one of those great, no-nonsense actors who's instantly likable for how real he looks, paunch and jowls and all. He's got a nicely grounded presence, and the confused rage that boils inside of him builds to a nice climax at the end of the episode. The way his wife and Jerry talk about him at dinner the same way they would for a dog that's made a mess while he stands there just listening is particularly effective.

Not quite as effective is Kelly Jean Peters as Coomb's wife. She has too much of a Mrs. Cleaver-cuteness to her that keeps her conflict and anger from coming off as strongly as it should. Her descriptions of their past struggles like having to go without shoes while Alan spent all their money on booze just sound a little phony, but her small aside while she tries to sit everyone down for a peaceful dinner ("The grocer's so nice when you don't have to buy on credit") hits the message home perfectly.

The paranoia loses some of its oomph after the episode delivers its final "twist." After Coombs tears Jerry's room apart, he finds a bottle of happy in the top drawer and then chugs himself into a stupor. Later at the agency where Coombs worked, a new hotshot salesman (who just so happens to have recently adopted the status of tee-totaler) is accosted by none other than the very same young Jerry, claiming to be his son. For whatever reason, Coombs' checkered-suited, cigar-chomping boss doesn't recognize the little demon as having been Alan's kid, but that's probably due to all the congratulatory liquor he keeps having to drink by himself.

Other logical inconsistencies abound as well. For instance, if Alan really did miss two days of work, why didn't Sharon mention this during the preceding breakfast scene?  Did Alan walk through a wormhole on the way to the office? And after Sharon clears out with the kids, why are so many of Jerry's things left in his room for Alan to tear to pieces when there isn't even a can of Who-Hash in the rest of the house?

But it's the ambiguity that drives Coombs' plight, the uncertainty of the supernatural the element that holds our interest the most. When we find out that the boogeykid is real, what came before doesn't seem so scary. The idea of a monstrous, otherworldly child who lives solely to push weak men off the precipice into the darkness of their own inhibitions just doesn't have the same chilliness as those characters living in constant doubt as to whether they were the real monster the entire time. (Proof that Jerry really is an alien? He owns shirts with his own name on them. - Ed.)

 And has no chin

When we see Coombs show up at his office a disheveled mess with no memory of the last two days, we can't be sure if he really is just slipping off the wagon. It's an engaging arc, but "The New Man" sadly wimps out at the last minute and says "Yeah, it was this ghost-boy all along." When it turns out that Shatner was right about the gremlin, it's eerie and invigorating. When we find out Tayback was in fact the victim of other forces, it feels limp and cheap.

However, it's clear that the lesson to be learned at the end of the day is that these guys just need to find another agency to work for.

"Who's the lucky father of this young, little... creep?"


RATING: 2 1/2 Lizzies

COMING UP: Keenan Wynn finds out that there's no soul in business in "I'll Give You a Million."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

"Trick or Treat"

Original Airdate: October 29, 1983

Directed by Bob Balaban.

Written by George A. Romero.

Starring Barnard Hughes (Gideon Hackles), Joe Ponazecki (Atticus Kimble), Knowl Johnson (Billy Kimble), Eddie Jones (Victor Muldoon), Patrick Wilcox (Timothy Muldoon), Frances Chaney (Witch), Ed French (Devil).

SYNOPSIS: Gideon Hackles is the resident miser of the farming community he lives in, holding the villagers in a steel grip of debt. As part of an annual Halloween tradition, Hackles gives the local children the opportunity to track down the bundle of IOUs he has hidden in his spookhouse-rigged estate. If any one of the children can claim the bundle, then all their families’ debts shall be relieved. But Gideon guarantees that his prop ghosts and ghouls scare the kiddies away before they can sniff it out… that is until he receives a surprise visit from a very real witch intent on meting out justice.

CRITIQUE: As far as first impressions are concerned, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE could hardly have made a better one than this episode that premiered a few days before Halloween 1983. “Trick or Treat” is a simple campfire tale, but it is executed with such finesse and a palpable sense of fun that it’s impossible not to enjoy it.

Gideon Hackles is the archetype of the miserable old skinflint incarnate, all nastiness and spite with nary a shred of compassion or sympathy to be found in him. We are meant to despise this character; watching him laugh hysterically at terrified children certainly makes him an easy target for disdain! The part is played with a real relish by Barnard Hughes (in a far cry from his turn as the kooky but lovable grandfather from THE LOST BOYS [1987]) that allows Hackles to become the villain that we love to hate, the kind of character whose punishment acts as a cathartic release for the viewer.

In many ways “Trick or Treat” acts as a Halloween-appropriated version of A Christmas Carol. Both stories deal with a heartless man who receives a supernatural intervention in the midst of holiday festivities. The difference here is that Hackles is not only unmoved by his disturbing visitation, but the express purpose of the witch’s arrival is not to redeem Hackles, as was the mission of the three Ghosts of Christmas, but to punish him. While Scrooge’s change of ways works well in promoting the hope and love that are the emotional trademarks of the Christmas season, Hackles’ judgment represents the darker aspects of All Hallow’s Eve perfectly: damning and terrifying. It seems ironic to note as well that Scrooge, who detested Christmas with a passion, got off a hell of lot easier than Hackles, who adores the mischief-making of the Halloween season.

Though the story itself is unassuming in its emulation of the classic Comeuppance Tale, it still has small touches of artistic flair. When we first see Hackles, for instance, he is balancing his books with two bankers, a visor strapped to his head that casts an emerald shadow over his eyes. Right from the start Hackles’ obsession with money is made clear: he sees everything through a greedy, green veneer. The sight of him grinning impishly as he grasps a devilish pitchfork  almost overdoes it, but it’s too sugary-sweet to resist. Hackles may be an archetype, but he is a fully-realized archetype, with Romero providing him with some choice dialogue that complements his outward appearance and shows us the depth of his insatiable hunger. This is perhaps perfectly captured when Hackles sees a father hugging his traumatized son and, sneering, he spits “Backwards. People in this valley have it all backwards.”

Hackles not only finds compassion distasteful, but he views the families of the village as a lower breed to himself. He claims that they are slaves to their own circumstances, such as the failure of their crops during a given season, and that they create their own misfortunes. The irony here is that Hackles doesn’t realize that he himself is a slave, except in his case he harvests currency, jewelry, and property collaterals. When the witch lays siege on his house, blowing his personal treasures all about, his instinctive reaction is not to run away in terror but to pathetically clutch at his money. He doesn’t even realize that he has literally stumbled through the very gates of Hell as he madly grasps at the billowing bills.

Even after he gazes into the hissing face of the Devil himself (who, in true E. C. Comics fashion, sardonically coos “You’re getting warmer…” just as Hackles had done to the visiting children searching for their prize), Hackles crawls after the money further into the Pit. So the master of fear and intimidation now finds himself on his knees before the Lord of Fear, a towering figure that smirks at him as the old man boorishly collects his harvest. When Hackles’ riches fall into the hands of young Billy at the end of the episode, we can almost hear him voice Tiny Tim’s famous line, except given the context of this story it would probably be more to the tune of “Satan bless us, everyone!”

Hackles’ scavenger hunt resurrects the thrill of the carnival haunted house, with the poor children groping in darkness as all manner of ghouls and ghosts leap out at them from the shadows. Hackles jeers at them from his hidden alcove, cackling through an amplifier like another famous humbug, the Great Wizard of Oz.

Though these sights are meant to kindle a sense of fear, they possess a charming, nostalgic quality to them that is in fitting with Halloween. The witch emits a laugh that could give Margaret Hamilton a run for her money, and a rather silly wooing sound effect is used to accentuate her ascent on her broom. The vision of Hell is equally effective and attractive in its own way, as the whole business is accomplished with the use of a red lamp, a fog machine, and walls covered in what appears to be bubble-wrap. This particular aspect of the episode demonstrates the series’ ingenuity and shows what could be accomplished with a solid sense of know-how.

DARKSIDE's pilot is all treat and no trick, and one that fans should indulge in every All Hallow’s season.

"It's Halloween, gentleman! Halloween! Have you forgotten? My favorite season."


RATING: 4 Lizzies

COMING UP: Vic Tayback reconsiders the positives of vasectomy in “The New Man.”