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Summer of ’90: Mummies and Gargoyles and Cats, Oh My! Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

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Summer of ’90: Mummies and Gargoyles and Cats, Oh My! <em>Tales from the Darkside: The Movie</em>

In horror anthology movies, the probability runs high that one or more tales will be terrible. It’s an affliction to which even the best films aren’t immune. While narrative shifts are expected and tolerated, one bad segment can derail an audience’s patience and goodwill, sending the film into a death spiral more horrific than anything depicted on screen. Filmmakers used to better their odds by limiting the number of tales being told, or better yet, by crafting their anthologies in the guise of episodic television, where the nature of the beast is measured in terms of a series rather than a single-sitting entity.

Tales from the Darkside plays both sides of this fence; before it made a beeline for the big screen, it ran for four seasons in syndication. Perhaps all that practice on TV made the filmmakers keep its three tales just about even in the quality department. Each mini-movie has the same tally of moments of greatness, grossness, and dullness, giving Tales from the Darkside: The Movie an even-handed feel. Plus, this being a horror film, viewers watching from a future point in time can enjoy spotting the newbie actors who became stars later on, and others whose stars of fame were quickly descending into obscurity.

The anthology subgenre of horror isn’t new, though its characteristics tend to reflect the decade in which it was made while also building on that which came before. Dead of Night, from 1945, is something of the standard bearer, with its wraparound story structure finding its way into many a future anthology. The 1970s films of this ilk, such as Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, milked a dark vein of humor while capitalizing on the decade’s relaxed restrictions regarding sex, gore, and nudity. And ’80s-era flicks like Creepshow and its sequel pushed and tested these elements further, exchanging dark humor for occasional campiness.

Made in 1990, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie adopts all those prior characteristics, but fails to add anything reflective of its decade into the mix. This is probably due to it originally being pitched as an ’80s-era entry in the Creepshow series. In fact, the film’s second tale, Cat from Hell, was supposed to appear in Creepshow 2 in place of The Raft. Both were adapted from Stephen King stories by George A. Romero and both serve as their respective films’ incredulously gruesome middle tales.

What Tales from the Darkside: The Movie does bring to the table is an interesting pedigree. In addition to King’s story, it reaches back to the 19th century and to Japan for its inspirations. These tales are scripted by horror veterans like Romero and Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) and, at least on the surface, try to wring an emotional response from the audience, albeit on a crude, basic level. Wraparound story notwithstanding, they want you to root for the underdog, even if the underdog represents evil.

In the adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot 249, the poor college student played by Steve Buscemi uses an ancient mummy as a tool for vengeance against the rich, preppy kids who framed him for theft (one of his victims, a gorgeous, young Julianne Moore, gets a really nasty delivery from 1-800-Flowers). While Buscemi’s “hero” roommate, played by Christian Slater, defeats the mummy in retaliation for it killing his best friend, he’s still the one scheduled for comeuppance despite not having murdered anyone. His privilege turns out to be his biggest crime.

Privilege is also a crime in Cat from Hell, which once again pits the rich against a supernatural force for whom money holds no currency. William Hickey, fresh off an Oscar nod for Prizzi’s Honor, hires a hitman played by ’80s singing sensation Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen) to avenge the deaths of his family members and butler. The murderer is the kitty of the title, and it serves as an avenging angel to the helpless victims of Hickey’s pharmaceutical company. In the foreword to one of his books, King tells a story about asking a doctor if it were possible for a kitty cat to go down the throat of a human being. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie’s best, most hilarious F/X answers that question in spectacularly bloody fashion.

The last tale, Lover’s Vow, takes its inspiration from Japanese mythology. An artist (James Remar) witnesses a gruesome murder by a gargoyle and, in exchange for his own life, vows never to tell anyone. That same evening, he meets a girl (Rae Dawn Chong with whom he falls in love and marries. After meeting her, his luck as an artist changes suspiciously, but love blinds him to any possible ties to the deadly event that torments him nightly. The final twist in is ironic proof that, in a marriage, everybody has secrets that they should keep to themselves. Director John Harrison, a veteran of the TV show, brings a surprisingly effective sadness to this tale, with Remar’s emotions in the last scene carrying us over some really crappy F/X work.

These stories are delivered to us under the guise of an annoying little kid (Matthew Lawrence) stalling for time while a witch (Deborah Harry, looking proper and retro as a housewife) prepares to cook him for dinner. Lawrence, you may recall, was once the most obnoxious part of the ’80s TV show Gimme a Break (which is saying something), so you want Harry’s sexy homemaker to broil him alive. What saves this segment is Harry’s complete commitment to seeming as nonchalant as possible. Her world is depicted with such normalcy that Lawrence’s victim seems the one out of place, and therefore expendable. That he triumphs is probably the only major misstep made in this otherwise enjoyable little movie.

Odie Henderson can blame melanin for his dark side, and can be found at RogerEbert.com and Movie Mezzanine. Follow him on on Twitter here.