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Review: ‘Tales From The Darkside: The Movie’ is Emotive and Most Definitely 80’s

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For a smallish movie this one boasted big names, and not just those from the world of horror. As well as containing stories by George A. Romero and Stephen King the cast includes veteran actors like Mark Margolis (Breaking Bad, Scarface) and rising stars Christian Slater, Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore. Though lesser known Rae Dawn Ching stands out as deserving most praise.

As with other anthology movies like Vault of Horror and Asylum we get a “Wraparound Story” that bookends the other tales of terror. This one stars Blondie’s Deborah Harry as a church-going suburban woman whose kitchen happens to come with a built in dungeon. She’s locked a boy inside as she prepares to kill, cook and serve him to her dinner guests.

Usually a ticking clock scenario is saved for the third act but in this case it opens the film. The guests will arrive soon and Blondie has little over an hour to “eviscerate” and prepare the boy. To keep her distracted he reads three stories from a book, each one varying in production value.

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The first one “Lot 249”, involves Christian Slater and Steve Buscemi encountering a mummy. Slater plays a rich college student with all the pretension of his character in Heathers, only much less likeable. Buscemi plays his less well off peer. I have to assume he’s a mature student since he’s clearly already in his 30’s.

The camera work is static and dull. It certainly feels more like a TV show than a cinematic feature. One exception is an interesting continuous shot of the mummy stalking a victim and disappearing behind a corner.

The budget has gone pretty much solely towards the practical effects. This is repeated in all three stories. The mummy looks convincingly old and dusty.

The score sounds like it was recorded on a very cheap keyboard (and probably was.)

Julianne Moore’s performance might be her worst ever. It’s not particularly bad, just unimpressive considering her body of work. Perhaps if they put as much effort into writing her character as they did in making the mummy’s scroll look authentic she might have done a better job.

The set design is also uninteresting considering how Buscemi’s character is supposed to be a collector of rare and exotic items. Though there is a tiny (possibly accidental) visual gag: there’s a lampshade that looks a bit like a pyramid.

There isn’t much tension. None of the characters are likeable so why should we care if they’re killed by a guy wrapped in 2000 year old paper? The mummy itself is fairly impressive considering how poor other aspects of production are. Though it is never scary.

The second story “Cat From Hell” involves a hitman being hired by a millionaire to kill a cat running around in his vast mansion. It has the feel of a play with the millionaire (played by poor old William Hickey who looks like he’s at death’s door) recounting to the hitman (Davis Johansen, the taxi cab ghost from Scrooged) why the cat deserves to die.

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There are flashback scenes in tinted blue with ageing veteran actors dressed like they went to the Great Gatsby’s party and never left. It’s very reminiscent of silent cinema.

The transitions from flashback back to present are very well done. For the most part it’s a performance piece with Hickey carrying the story and giving dialogue about the evil of cats a lot more weight than it has any right to be. One memorable aspect is his repetition of the hitman’s name, Mr. Halsten (pronounced Holsten.) I wondered why the writer would want to hammer that name so many times into our heads. Later I noticed product placement for Holsten beer. So that’s that mystery explained.

The score is more effective than in “Lot 249” and the set is appropriately sparse. Despite this there are scenes that are laughably reminiscent of that cat fight scene in Scary Movie 2.

Like the first story none of the human characters are likeable but this time they are professionally portrayed. There is one impressive disgustingly memorable special effect.

“Lover’s Vow” is the final and by the film’s own admission “the best” story of the three. James Remar (Dexter’s dad and Ajax in the Warriors) meets a violent gargoyle.

Each of the four stories has a different composer and this one by John Harrison stands out. It is brilliantly emotive and most definitely 80’s. It’s set mostly at night in smoke filled New York lit by neon. It feels like a music video by Whitesnake (in a good way).

Unlike the other stories there is genuine tension, especially if you’ve seen it before and know how it ends. On second viewing you’re also treated to visual and dialogue clues you may have missed.

The gargoyle is an extremely impressive practical effect. Clearly a lot of time and professional effort went into making the movements of the creature’s body and face look real. The sound design is also well done. The ripping sound when it kills and the distorted voice when it talks were made by someone who knows what they’re doing.

This segment also has characters you actually care about. Compared to the others this is (sort of) human story. It’s a heartbreaking, gothic, gory and sexually charged Kafkaesque nightmare.

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