Sunday, August 1, 2010

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE (1983-1988)

I’ve said before that 1988 was the final milestone year for the horror genre. It was also one of the last years that independent theater owners were still kicking and screaming. Meanwhile, the straight-to-video market was blossoming. The cosmos aligned, the gates flung open, and we got a slew of small but remarkable movies during that particular year, both in theaters and on tape. It's a long story, but after that, everything went to hell.

In 1988, horror was seemingly everywhere, and a large part of it had to do with the mainstream success of slasher movie icons like Freddy and Jason. If you didn't live through it, then you can't quite understand how pervasive their likenesses were. New Line and Paramount signed off on an alarming bulk of nonsensical merchandise. Never mind the fact that one of them was a dream stalking pedophile and the other was a vengeful titty-hating mongoloid. These guys were approaching apple pie status.

Freddy was kind of like John Cena back then. You couldn't go anywhere without seeing his face on some Mexican kid's backpack. The man had lunch boxes. He had a board game. He ripped off Pee-Wee's talking doll. I actually had Freddy shampoo, which gave me some kind of skin rash. I guess I kind of deserved that for using it in the first place. He even did a music video with the fucking Fat Boys. Fuck man, Will Smith was rapping about the dude. You don't get more mainstream than that. And then of course, he got his own hour-long syndicate show, “Freddy’s Nightmares.”

By this point, Renny Harlin had mucked up the “Elm Street” franchise with an ice cream paint job, and Krueger had morphed into a general audience-friendly cornball uncle character who told cheesy jokes. He was just a rung above or below (depending on who you ask) Ghoulardi or Zacherley. In fact, if you look up the Wikipedia entry on horror hosts, Krueger is sadly listed amongst Commander USA and Elvira. Anyway, “Freddy’s Nightmares” wasn’t all that good, but it certainly added to the momentum of horror-related programming on television at that particular time.

The year before that, the Jason-less “Friday the 13th: The Series” debuted, and was going strong still. And though they had ended years earlier, revivals of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” were still in heavy weekend rotation on both the USA Network and a ton of other independent stations across the country.

I’m always surprised that very few people remember the HBO produced “The Ray Bradbury Theater” anthology, which also wound up in syndication, and was often shown on USA Network. The Bradbury show was easily the best of the anthology shows of its time. Check out the episode below, entitled “The Screaming Woman” starring a young Drew Barrymore.

Also produced by HBO, “The Hitchhiker” was yet another anthology program that went into syndication after a relatively short run. USA Network picked this one up, too. This was the crusty end of the TV horror anthology loaf that aired on my local station every weekend. If I wasn't asleep by the time it aired, it would put me out. “The Hitchhiker” was a weird hybrid of “Red Shoe Diaries” adult drama mixed with EC Comics twists. Zalman King as the Crypt Keeper kind of sounds like an awesome idea, but it never really lived up to its potential. Check out the badass theme song. I like to sing this in the shower a lot.

Another anthology show, “Monsters,” also hit the airwaves in 1988. Most of the episodes were kind of forgettable, though the show’s intro was anything but.

While the show I’m about to mention ended its run in 1988, “Tales from the Darkside” remained in syndication for years afterward with a healthy episode count that began some time in 1983. In fact, SciFi Channel still runs day long marathons at least once a month.

This Romero-produced horror anthology was a continuation of “Creepshow”’s nostalgic embrace of EC Comics moral plays. “Tales from the Darkside” had more going for it than most other shows in its vein, particularly in terms of credibility. Guys like David Odell, Clive Barker, Stephen King, the legendary Robert Bloch, and the fabulous Michael McDowell handled writing duties on various episodes, adapted from works by King, Bloch, and even Harlan Ellison. Jodie Foster even directed an episode. Meanwhile, there was a solid rotation of familiar featured faces, including Danny Aiello, Christian Slater, Brent Spiner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cab Calloway, Jerry Stiller, Seth Green, William Hickey, and Debbie Harry.

I just recently received three volumes of the ThrillerVideo releases of the show, which by far trump any of the other releases on any format just for the incredible box art alone, which look more like album art for an awesome metal band. I don’t know who did the art for this shit, but it’s absolutely stunning. The box art has obviously been cut, of course, as these were acquisitions from Salzer’s Video in Ventura, California. Special thanks to my mom for rescuing these very special orphans.

This is some personally magical stuff for me, and conjures up many fond childhood memories of staying up way too late on weekends drinking Jolt Cola and eating junk food. Truly, it was nights like those that made me into the CHUD that I am today. Sadly, it wasn’t too long after that time when late night television stopped meaning a damn thing.

In 1990, "Tales from the Darkside: The Movie" was released. I haven't seen it since originally enduring it at the local Drive-In, but I remember being bored by it.

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