Film Reviews

The Stephen King Files: Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

With Pet Sematary already here and It: Chapter 2 on the way, I’m going to gradually make my way through some of my Stephen King blind spots. Today, I explore the eternal question: is Tales From the Darkside: The Movie really even a Stephen King movie? Ok, may not so much “eternal” as “something some people might wonder about from time to time.”


By 1990, Stephen King’s novels and short stories had been adapted into over 15 movies, with 1989’s Pet Sematary being the biggest moneymaker (read more about that here). These adaptations ranged from the classic to the classless. There were enough of the latter that the world had grown weary of any movie bearing the name “Stephen King.”

Tales from the Darkside, however, seemed like a safe bet. The same producer (Richard Rubinstein) and production company (Laurel Entertainment) behind Pet Sematary re-teaming for a horror anthology starring Debbie Harry, Buster Poindexter, James Remar, Rae Dawn Chong, Christian Slater, a pre-Tarantino Steve Buscemi and pre-Mrs. Doubtfire Matthew Lawrence? And at least one of the vignettes is based on a Stephen King story?

Plus, you scored Julianne Moore’s film debut?

1990’s Julianne Moore. She will soon partner with King again on a mini-series for Apple TV, produced by J.J. Abrams and written entirely by King.

Where could this go wrong?

What Paramount, the film’s distributor, got out of it, however, was a mild hit and talk of a sequel which ultimately never happened. Since then, Tales from the Darkside has grown its fanbase over time and is now regarded as the true Creepshow 3.  That reputation isn’t entirely wrong.

The real Creepshow 3?

Rubinstein and Laurel, a company he co-founded with George Romero, had previously scored a hit with the first Creepshow film. When legal entanglements prevented them from turning Creepshow into a TV series, they created Tales From the Darkside instead. It ran for 4 syndicated seasons, ending in 1988, and was unofficially succeeded by 3 seasons of a more strictly-horror focused series called Monsters.

Somewhere along the way, though, Rubinstein’s longtime partnership with Romero ended. A Creepshow 2 came and went. With it, the dream of a horror anthology franchise built around Romero’s direction and King’s writing died. That didn’t stop Rubinstein from keeping that particular marketing hook alive a little longer.

Given such a convoluted production history and misleading marketing, it’s no wonder Tales from The Darkside: The Movie is sometimes referred to as “the real Creepshow 3.” In reality, however, it’s simply an anthology collection cobbled together from Beetlejuice writer Michael McDowell’s adaptations of old Arthur Conan Doyle and Lafcadio Hearn stories as well as a new take on Hansel and Gretel. Romero and King’s sole contribution is “Cat From Hell,” a leftover segment from the original Creepshow 2 script.

Cutting through standard Hollywood PR, Romero laid out the reality of the project in a Fangoria interview, “The Creepshow 2 screenplay originally contained five segments, like the original Creepshow. They were all based on stories written by Steve, two of which were already published; the others were sketches, ideas.”

One of the stories, “The Cat From Hell,” was published by King in a 1977 issue of Cavalier and Romero adapted it for Creepshow 2. “When Richard [Rubinstein] made Creepshow 2, he only used three of the stories. Then he took one of the other two that were left and put it in Darkside and was able to use both Steve’s and my name.”

Rubinstein didn’t reach out to Romero to make him aware he was doing this nor did he offer any additional payment or profit participation.

Ouch.

Is this a Stephen King movie or not?

Only just barely. It more belongs to Richard Rubinstein and Michael McDowell than anyone else.

Is it good, though? Is it at least watchable?

Meh to the first part, sure to the last.

Tales from the Darkside retrospectives typically include mandatory “it scared the shit out of me as a kid” stories. I can see why. Watching it for the first time as an adult, Tales from the Darkside plays very much like the next, far more gruesome step in a young horror hounds gateway into the more extreme corners of the genre. There are sporadic bursts of R-Rated gore sprinkled throughout – some at the mandatory twist ending, others before that – which still play today.

The production values, pacing, and performances are very much in keeping with the era and of the prior TV series – not surprising since the director, John Harrison, had previously helmed multiple episodes of the show.

However, this version of Tales from the Darkside takes full advantage of its R-Rating. It plays the script’s little fantasy and horror-tinged stories to expectations…until Harrison suddenly hits the imaginary “holy shit!” button. There is something refreshing about the practical effects on display, and even today the winged gargoyle monster in the third story – the unofficial mascot of the whole film – still looks good.

The plot

In the Hansel and Gretel wraparound sequences, Debbie Harry plays a modern, suburban witch planning to cook a little neighborhood boy (Lawrence) for a dinner party. She’s had him locked up in a dungeon just opposite her kitchen pantry for days, offering him cookies to eat and a book of short stories to pass the time. She claims the book – Tales from the Darkside – is an old childhood favorite, though she hardly remembers the details of the stories. To stave off the inevitable, the kid frantically reads her three stories from the book.

Cue three mini-movies, each with a twist ending.

In the first, a frustrated college student (Buscemi) unleashes an ancient mummy on his more fortunate classmates (Slater, Moore). In the next, a hitman (Poindexter) takes his strangest job yet: killing an eccentric millionaire’s (evil) cat. Finally, a starving artist (Remar) bumps into a secretive monster one second and a gorgeous woman (Chong) the next and suddenly gets everything he’s always wanted. Because that always ends well.

However, whenever we return to Harry she seems – at best – passively interested in what’s happening. It’s not that she’s not actually listening; she’s just not overly engaged with any of it, either cooking the boy or listening to another story.

I ultimately share her lack of passion for the material. Director John Harrison does plenty to give each individual segment its own distinct look. The practical monsters and gore provide sporadic highlights. The now-famous cast adds a certain extra historical curiosity.

Yet, in the realm of horror anthologies, there are better-crafted stories to be found elsewhere. (King’s segment about the evil cat is particularly overloaded with exposition.) These films typically boil down to the one or two segments which people most remember over the years, but none of the Tales from the Darkside segments particularly stand out to me as revelatory. The creatures and effects? Yes. The stories? Not so much. Instead, they work together to form something watchable, if not always overly memorable.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Should Tales from the Darkside: The Movie come with some Stephen King box set or bundle sale, it’s not a bad throw-in. Or if you’re a completist making your way through officiall and unofficial Creepshow installments, this is arguably better than Creepshow 2 and definitely better than Creepshow 3. 

Next Up: What should I watch next: Cujo, The Graveyard Shift, or the 1979 Salem’s Lot? I took to Twitter to take a vote and the result was nearly unanimous: Salem’s Lot.

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8 comments

    1. Tommyknockers! Oh, I opened myself up to that one. Truthfully, though, I have actually seen that before. It, The Stand, Tommyknockers, Langoliers, The Shining, Storm of the Century …. all those old ABC mini-series were my jam back in the day. I don’t totally know why, though. Like, I don’t know why I kept watching after both Tommyknockers AND Langoliers, yet I did. Rose Red finally broke me. I’ve been wary of Stephen King TV shows ever since. I loved the book Desperation, but I wasn’t about to watch the dang TV movie.

      Speaking of King TV…

      I am actually in the process of watching Salem’s Lot the first time right now. Holy shit does it take FOREVER for anything to happen! But, by late 70s CBS standards, the sequence with the little boy vampire outside the window is amazing.

      1. I was eyeing Desperation on Vudu last night. It’s on sale for like $6 or something like that. I never have seen the Rob Lowe Salem’s Lot. Might make for a good comparison once I finish the old Salem’s Lot. Golden Years…I swear, I know that thing exists, and I remember the poster. Beyond that, I don’t know that I’ve ever even known what Golden Years is even about. I’d sarcastically say obvious Golden Girls spinoff, but they actually did 3 of those and none of them were called Golden Years.

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