Anthology movies are thankfully enjoying a bit of a comeback right now. With movies like Tales of Halloween and the V/H/S franchise, it’s nice to see more of a specific sub-genre of filmmaking that just wasn’t being made for a good number of years. There was a time when anthologies were considered box office poison and a surefire way to make a movie that nobody would see. Even now, they rarely get wide theatrical releases and are next to impossible to produce on TV. The American Horror Story format is taking off, but it’s a far cry from the accepted traditional structure of an anthology series.
In the 1980s, though, anthology movies were commonplace. Not all of them were terrific, but films like Creepshow and From a Whisper to a Scream became cult icons. In the ‘90s, anthologies became sparse. More and more of them were produced as TV movies instead of theatrical releases, like John Carpenter’s Body Bags.
Released in 1990, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie marks that turning point. It’s sort of the last hurrah of the 1980s anthology. It features a standard anthology format: a wraparound segment and three individual stories. If there’s a basic beginning structure to this kind of film, that would absolutely be it. And that’s a good thing, too. Some movies veer off the path with too many segments and sometimes they forgo the wraparound completely.
Tales from the Darkside features some of the wit and dark humor that the series was known for, but the film is very much its own beast. It could easily have been released as an unrelated anthology. Right from the wraparound, setting up the titular Tales from the Darkside as a storybook, it becomes its own thing. Debbie Harry playing a witch preparing to eat young Matthew Lawrence, who bides his time by reading to her, it might actually be the best wraparound of any anthology flick.
By and large, the only thing that can dampen a great anthology is an imbalance in the stories. It happens to almost all of them. Some of the stories are stronger, some are weaker, some just appeal to different tastes. Admittedly, Tales from the Darkside is not completely immune to that. One is definitely the weaker of the three segments but the other two are so strong that they easily carry the extra weight.
The first segment, “Lot 249” is based on a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a legend for the fact that he created Sherlock Holmes. With rising stars like Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and Christian Slater, it assembles the best cast you’ve ever seen for a short about a shambling mummy picking off college students and subjecting them to different aspects of mummification.
Always having been a fan of mummies, this one always delighted me. It’s a mummy story that appealed to my love of slashers, it definitely had more carnage than the Universal features I was used to seeing. More than that, the mummy itself just looks great. This is one of the best we’ve ever seen on film. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Monster Squad in terms of cool makeup design.
“Cat from Hell” is the weakest of the segments, which is surprising because it’s the one based on a story by Stephen King. Sometimes, though, King’s ideas don’t translate so well to film. That’s definitely the case here. It’s cool to see Puppet Master’s William Hickey as the old man hiring a hit man to take out a cat, but it’s virtually impossible to tell when the segment is playing up its inherent silliness and when it’s playing it deathly serious. The wise approach would have been to handle this short as a black comedy all the way through, but that’s not the direction it wound up going in.
Luckily, it’s followed by “Lover’s Vow,” which is one of the best segments of any anthology horror film ever. It’s in the top five. Hell, there are times when I think about it and wonder if it might not just be the very best. Inspired by an old Japanese folk tale, this segment was written by Michael McDowell, best known as the creator of Beetlejuice. In it, James Remar witnesses a horrible murder at the hands of a gargoyle. He is warned never to tell anyone what happened, or the gargoyle would be forced to come back and kill him. That very same night, he meets the woman he winds up falling in love with.
Things play out in such a smart way. “Lover’s Vow” is really only a horror short at the very beginning and very end, that’s what’s brilliant about it. The rest is a genuine love story. It’s like the first five minutes of Up, but without the same sense of melancholy. It perfectly sets up a story about two people who are kind of down-and-out and pick each other up, and eventually start a life together.
Because it needs you to care when it strips those things away. I guess the twist is really obvious as an adult, but when I first saw it as a kid, I didn’t see it coming at all. It scared the crap out of me. Even now, I think there are few if any scenes scarier in an anthology flick than the way Rae Dawn Chong’s voice just slightly alters when she steps back and shouts “You promised you’d never tell!”
If this segment was the only good thing about Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, it would still be worth rediscovering. It would be worth watching for that alone. But thankfully, that’s not the case. This is a fun, tongue-in-cheek anthology flick that’s both creepy and campy in the best way possible. Sometimes that’s all you want. It’s a great evening’s entertainment and I feel like it still doesn’t quite have the audience it deserves.
But I have faith that people will start rediscovering this one, especially now that it’s making its rounds on streaming services. In time, it could at the very least have a similar cult following to Creepshow 2. Many people consider Tales to be the real Creepshow 3, but George Romero claims that was never the intention. There were plans to make another Creepshow, again as a collaboration between Romero and King, but they fell through.
In some ways it might be better that Tales from the Darkside: The Movie stands on its own as an anthology. There are elements of Creepshow in there, but also elements of Twilight Zone and even the British Amicus anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Its influences are surprisingly wide and varied and that, I think, is ultimately the key to its success.