Children of the eighties will get shivers down their spine anytime they hear the magic words "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... a dark side." The cult hit anthology series of horror and the supernatural played in syndication for four seasons, the first of which began in 1983 and the last of which ended in1988. Influenced by the likes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents the show didn't really deviate too far from the anthology horror norm but never the less managed to churn out more than its fare share of memorable episodes over its run.
Inspired by the success of executive producer George A. Romero's Creepshow, a great E.C. Comics inspired anthology film he made with Stephen King and Tom Savini, Tales From The Darkside developed a pretty substantial cult following over the years as it lived on in syndication for some time after it was given the axe and new episodes ceased production. It's been a pretty regular 'want it on DVD' request in genre circles for years now and Paramount started digging deep into their vaults a couple of years ago and started releasing full season boxed set. Well, all good things must come to an end and with the fourth and final season now on DVD, there aren't any new releases for fans of the series to look forward to. But let's focus on what we do have here, and that's a pretty decent selection of creepy, quirky stories from the underbelly of humanity...
Here's a look:
Beetles: An archeologist (Pat Harrington of One Day At A Time) with a penchant for Egyptian history takes in a sarcophagus which he is warned not to open. He doesn't listen, and winds up learning that the supposed curse on this piece of history is very real. Written by Robert Bloch, the man who brought you Psycho.
Mary, Mary: A female photographer named Mary is uncomfortable in her own skin takes solace in the company of the mannequins who she makes video dating tapes for. When the man who moves in across from her calls her up and pleasantly asks for a date, she becomes confused and starts to doubt whether he's interested in her, or in the mannequins.
The Spirit Photographer: A middle aged photographer named Algeron is so sure that the ghosts he seems to be capturing on film are real that he has constant arguments about the validity of his work with this close friend - but which one is right? Are his spirit photography projects real or imagined?
The Moth: A woman named Sybil (played by Blondie's Debbie Harry - who also appeared in Tales From The Darkside - The Movie is not long for this world though she takes comfort in her belief that when she dies her spirit will move into the body of a moth, so long as she can convince her mother to keep and protect that moth once she does pass.
No Strings: A sadistic mobster kills his arch-nemesis and hires a puppeteer to string up his corpse and make it function as a creepy dead puppet. With this done, the mobster decides to have him put on a show for him, but of course, he learns the hard way that nothing is ever as it seems and there are some very macabre results.
The Grave Robber: A pair of treasures hunters discover a long lost Egyptian tomb and figure they've hit pay dirt until they inadvertently wind up resurrecting a mummy. The mummy, Tapok, isn't out for vengeance, instead, he's after entertainment and challenges the pair to a game of strip poker - but Tapok has other tricks up his bandaged sleeve that they're not quite aware of yet.
The Yattering And Jack: Based on the short story by Clive Barker which originally appeared in The Books Of Blood, this story tells us of a demon who is sent to Earth to corrupt a good man named Jack. The catch? He can't touch the man or he will wind up in his power. The other catch? Jack doesn't believe the demon exists in the first place.
Seymourlama: A boy named Seymour is declared to be the religious leader of a strange group of monks who decide that he is the High Lama. His parents, however, don't understand how or why this has happened to their son and assume that there has to be some sort of strange catch to this. David Gale from Re-Animator appears alongside Divine.
Sorry, Right Number: In this episode, written by Stephen King, a woman named Katie gets a bizarre phone call warning her that her husband is going to die - he's still around, however, and appears to be fine. She ignores it, but then something happens, he doesn't make it to the hospital, and he does die. Later, Katie gets a phone call from herself, which adds to her confusion.
Payment Overdue: In an interesting twist on justice from beyond the grave, this episode tells the story of a mean spirited collection's agent named Michael who gets a taste of his own medicine when a woman he had been harassing beings to in turn harass him from the spirit world.
Love Hungry: An obese woman named Betsey will do anything to lose weight, so when a package shows up with a strange earpiece in it which promises to help her do just that, she tries it out. She finds out that it lets her hear the voices of the food she's eating, as she eats it, and things get even more odd when a pair of glasses show up in the mail.
The Deal: A screenwriter named Tom is in need of some help so he makes a deal with Satan himself but, like most who deal with the devil, soon finds out that this isn't what he wanted and so he tries to get out of it. The only way that's going to happen is if he can dupe someone else into taking his place in the bargain.
The Apprentice: Sarah is excited to start her new job at a museum that specializes in the heritage of the Puritan movement, but after a series of bizarre events finds that she's been pulled back to colonial days to be forced into what is, by all accounts, basically slavery.
The Cutty Black Sow: On Halloween night, a dying woman warns her grandson, Jamie, about a Celtic demon called the Cutty Black Sow who roams around and devours the souls of all who pass away on Halloween night. Being the good kid that he is, he decides that he's going to stop the demon from getting his grandmother.
Do Not Open This Box: When a mistaken delivery lands an inventory and his nasty wife in possession of a box marked 'Do Not Open This Box' the woman opens it and finds... nothing. The box's rightful owner comes by to claim it, but they lie and say they don't have it until he starts offering them fancy gifts in exchange. This all seems great, until they realize that the box wasn't empty at all, even if it looked that way. Jodie Foster directed this one.
The Family Reunion: A woman named Janice is telling her social worker that her ex-husband kidnapped their son, Bobby, and that she hasn't seen him since. Well it turns out that Bobby is pretty sick and that there's more to this than either parent is letting on - but Janice is going to see her son no matter what it takes. Tom Savini directs.
Going Native: A visitor from an alien world is sent to Earth to study the habits and behavior of humans. Making things easier for the visitor is the fact that it looks exactly like a human woman. After studying pictures and doing some research, the alien winds up on Earth in a support group where some unusual relationships are formed.
Hush: When a babysitter builds a toy with a sick boy she's been asked to watch, they unwittingly create a machine that has the ability to eat sound. How? By sucking the life out of any living thing that resides in the house. The machine, bent on getting everything, is after them - but if they're quiet they can hide from it... until the sick kid starts coughing.
Barter: An alien comes knocking on the door of a seemingly normal suburban home look for ammonia. The mother, who is tired of her son who incessantly practices on his drum kit at a loud volume, lets him in and tries to make a deal with him.
Basher Malone: A huge wrestler with even equally strong religious convictions is looking for the ultimate opponent. His manager (Vic Tayback), is a shifty guy but might have just the right trick - setting up a match in which his man goes up against a literal demon from hell.
Like any anthology show, not every episode is as strong as the one that came before it or as interesting as the one that might come after it but this is a fairly consistent collection of bizarre half hour stories. The series tended to have a lot of good people involved in it, which had to have gone a long way towards making the show as interesting as it was. There are some clever ideas at work here and some very original storytelling, all of which make for an entertaining collection. The series isn't as effects heavy as more modern supernatural shows tend to be, so instead the effectiveness relies on the cast members but more often than not all involved give their all and the results are strong.
Production values are generally strong enough, even if they're not mind blowing, and the cinematography and camerawork is always effective and well planned. With more emphasis on atmosphere and oddball stories, the series might seem a bit low-fi by modern standards but that doesn't take away from its entertainment value at all. The welcome addition of some surprisingly effective comedy scattered not just throughout this fourth season but through the entire series also makes much of this material easy to enjoy.
One thing worth noting, and how much this will affect you depends completely on how well you know the series, is that some of the music that was used in the original broadcast episodes has been changed due to rights issues. The opening and closing theme songs that will be so familiar to most fans of the show are thankfully intact for each and every episode, but some of the library tracks that were originally licensed for use in the episodes themselves are definitely different. Paramount has included a disclaimer on the back of the packaging noting this (in ridiculously small type - you have to look for it to notice it).
These episodes were all shot on video and broadcast fullframe, which is exactly how they are presented in this set. Spread out over three discs the episodes don't really look any better here than they do in syndicated re-runs. It doesn't look like any restorative work was done on the material and there's definite softness throughout in addition to some mild mpeg compression artifacts. Given that the video masters for this series are a quarter century old, we can't expect them to look pristine, but many fans, this reviewer included, had hoped that the video would at least be of average quality and sadly, it's not. The quality is watchable, but no better than that.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono tracks sound okay. Not great, but okay. Music changes aside, the quality is acceptable enough even if it won't really 'wow' you. Dialogue remains easy enough to understand and there aren't any problems with hiss in the mixes. No alternate language options are included, nor are there any subtitles included, though an English closed captioning option is provided.
On the third disc are two bonus episodes from the production company that worked on Tales From The Darkside - Akhbar's Daughter and Attic Suite. There's no contextual information given as to where these came from. They don't start with the same intro as Tales From The Darkside but they were obviously intended for a similar show, if not this one, and they are very much in the same vein and fit in really nicely with the feature content that makes up the fourth season proper. It's nice to see content like this included here, as previous sets haven't had much going on in terms of extra features.
While the video quality is disappointing and the extras far lighter than the series deserved, Tales From The Darkside - The Fourth Season is a fun trip back to the eighties. Not every episode is a winner but more often than not the series is at least fun and entertaining even if it isn't all that frightening. With the entire series now available on DVD, fans of the show can safely retire back to their living rooms and watch their favorites over and over again because as we all know the dark side is always there... waiting for us to enter, waiting to enter us. Until the series is revived once more, consider this release recommended, and try to enjoy the daylight.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.