Roald Dahl was one of the finest authors of twisted, O. Henry-style short stories. Alfred Hitchcock knew this and his anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents is peppered with teleplays based on the man’s work, including many of the show’s most famous episodes: “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which Barbara Bel Geddes puts a leg of lamb to diverse uses, “Man from the South,” which featured a high stakes gentlemen bet between Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen, and “Poison,” a positively brutal half-hour of television in which a man lies motionless in bed, convinced that a highly deadly snake is resting on his chest, poised to strike at any moment, while his ostensible friend torments and extorts him. Dahl’s stories were snappy, usually stocked with abstract, grotesque distortions of humanity in place of characters (this is, after all, the man who gave us James’s nasty aunts in Giant Peach), and a cheeky, warped sense of moral justice—they were EC (Tales from the Crypt) Comic tales for those who had outgrown vampires and zombies. The late ‘70s British anthology series Tales of the Unexpected saw Roald Dahl deigning to replay Hitchcock’s format, only using (predominately) his own stories and casting himself in the Hitchcock role as the morbid, acerbic master of ceremonies. And while the stories are inevitably as invigorating as can be expected, the vast majority of the episodes are bargain-basement affairs, with virtually no aesthetic value, uneven performances, and, in the cases where the teleplays can be directly compared to Hitchcock episodes that adapted the same source stories, truly bizarre narrative choices. Take “Poison,” in which Hitchcock let the snake stand in as a metaphor, as well as a catalyst, for the complete social meltdown between friends. In the new version, the most nefarious and contemptible character is the poor guy with the snake in his bed (the opening narration makes it clear that he regards his job teaching in India to be a waste of his time). Saeed Jaffrey (in one of the DVD set’s best performances, full of intense whispers and careful enunciations) plays his would-be savior, and it still isn’t enough to save him from his own peril. Unless the snake is meant to serve as a symbol for the victim’s racism, Hitchcock’s version is a far tighter and tidier account. Ditto “Man from the South” and “Lamb to the Slaughter,” both of which seem like wan retreads with diffident performances that end up undercutting their twist endings. Still, many of the episodes that don’t have to face their Hitchcock rivals are perfectly decent on their own terms: namely a parade of theatrical, downright hammy performances. Far and away the most memorable in the whole set is raspy-voiced Elaine Stritch in “My Lady Love, My Dove.” The actress portrays a terrifyingly ribald old woman who tempts her husband into eavesdropping on their houseguests with the promise of dressing up in sexy lingerie later on. Brrr.
The episodes are pretty old, and many of them look to have been filmed with primitive video equipment, and so it's no surprise that levels are pretty hot overall. Black levels are weak, as are the color levels. There's a predictable amount of PAL-NTSC transfer artifacts, but the buzzsaw effects are surprisingly negligible. The mono sound is clear, and the opening theme music of the episodes will probably haunt your dreams after a few listens. I don't imagine these episodes could look or sound a whole lot better than this.
The only extras included are of the text-on-screen variety: a Roald Dahl biography, cast filmographies, and mildly promotional-sounding production notes. Pretty weak for such a "literary" feature.
Unless you've got a soft spot for British anthologies with fine, aged hams, you're better off buying Kiss Kiss in paperback.