After the success of George A. Romero's horror anthology film Creepshow, Romero began to look into the possibility of turning the film into a television series. A variety of rights issues made it difficult to use the film's title, but Tales from the Darkside was basically Creepshow: The Series. The series aired 89 episodes between 1983 and 1988, and was followed by Tales from the Darkside: The Movie in 1990. As you might expect, it's basically another Creepshow movie – certainly moreso than the much-maligned Creepshow III (which was made without the involvement of Romero, Stephen King or any of the other Creepshow crew members).
The film is divided into three half-hour segments, all of which are connected by a cutesy wraparound story. The movie begins with a young boy (Matthew Lawrence, Mrs. Doubtfire), who has been kidnapped by a cheerful housewife (Debbie Harry, Elegy) with a cannibalistic streak. The housewife plans to roast the boy for supper, but the boy must find a way to stall for time while he concocts an escape plan. He volunteers to read his captor a few scary stories, and she reluctantly agrees.
The first tale is “Lot 249,” based on an old short story penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this updated version of the tale, a nerdy young college student (Steve Buscemi, Boardwalk Empire) purchases a mummy in the hopes of selling it to a collector for a sizable profit. At least, that's what he tells his pal Andy (Christian Slater, True Romance). His real hope is that he'll be able to resurrect the mummy and make it do his murderous bidding, as he hopes to get revenge on the two fellow students (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights and Robert Sedgwick, Die Hard with a Vengeance) who cheated him out of a scholarship.
“Lot 249” is a merely okay, as a decent storytelling hook and some good performances (particularly Buscemi's turn as the spiteful amateur Egyptologist) are undercut by the story's inability to find the tone it's looking for. Director John Harrison (who helms all three of the segments with the same blandly competent TV-movie efficiency) can't seem to decide whether he wants to generate laughs or scares, so he aims somewhere in the middle and comes up with a segment that largely feels like a missed opportunity. Still, the story's intentionally anticlimactic finish is amusing, and it's fun to see Julianne Moore making her big-screen debut in a flimsy scream queen role.
The best segment of the bunch is “The Cat from Hell,” the film's Romero/King installment (the former adapted the latter's short story). It's the fiendishly entertaining story of a retired pharmaceutical magnate (William Hickey, Prizzi's Honor) who hires a professional assassin (David Johansen, Freejack) to murder a cat. The billionaire killed thousands of cats in medical experiments over the years, and now he's convinced that his own pet is out for revenge (and claims that the cat has already killed the rest of his family). It's a ridiculous little tale, but this one nails the creepy/clever tonal balance and climaxes with a spectacularly gross, memorable visual effect. Plus, the cat delivers the film's best performance, capturing the murderous rage and aloof vanity the part demands.
Disappointingly, the film's final segment is the weakest (despite Debbie Harry's claims to the contrary). Admittedly, it starts with a compelling, Twilight Zone-style premise. A man (James Remar, Dexter) and his friend are attacked in an alley by a giant gargoyle. The friend is killed, and Remar pleads for his life. The gargoyle agrees let Remar go, but only if he promises never to tell anyone what he's seen. Remar agrees, of course. Shortly thereafter, he meets a woman (Rae Dawn Chong, The Color Purple), falls in love, gets married and has children. Meanwhile, we wait for the hammer to drop. The problem with “Lover's Vow” is that too much of it feels like filler – it has a good beginning and an okay ending, but everything in-between is a terminally dull love story involving characters who feel like nothing more than pawns of the plot. The payoff isn't worth the wait.
So, like pretty much every horror anthology ever made (give or take Trick 'r Treat), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is a mixed bag: one good segment, one middling segment and one weak segment. I'll admit to some conflicted feelings about whether to recommend it, but the generally uninspired craftsmanship of the whole affair (flat direction, generic synth music, a pretty clumsy framing device) is just enough to make the film feel like a misfire overall. Still, “The Cat from Hell” is awfully fun, especially if you like cats.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 1990