Three for Hallow’s

All holidays are a form of séance.

Halloween is no exception. Each year we engage in the ritual of conjuring the spirits of happy seasons past. We may not link hands and seal our eyes, but our efforts are no less fervent or focused. We adorn our homes with glittery talismans and inflatable idols. We trade in the shivery tambourine and guitar for a soundtrack of creaking shutters and aborted screams. And we pledge our allegiance to the almighty pumpkin spice, hoping that in its factory-manufactured taste we might replace a missing piece of our souls with an essence of autumn.

And some of us just watch TV.

Living in southwest Florida, it can be difficult entering an October state of mind when all the surrounding elements seem intent on convincing you that it’s still just summer, but with wind. And so, like the determined medium of old, I blot out the sun with heavy drapes and keep the air conditioning at an ectoplasmic chill. Only then do I turn to my shelves for solace and meditation, seeking the relics that will allow me to conjure up that curling-mist-over-pumpkin-patch feeling, that scarecrow-stuffed-with-rusty-leaves mojo, that sweet, sweet black-cat-dancing-through-devil’s-bonfire sensation. And three of my most trusted sources of autumnal power come from a little ditty of program called Tales from the Darkside.

A product of Laurel Entertainment—the joint co-founded by director George A. Romero and producer Richard P. Rubinstein that gave unholy birth to the likes of Martin (1978), Knightriders (1981), and both Dawn and Day of the Dead (1978/1985)—Tales from the Darkside originally began its life with the intention of bringing the four-color format of Romero’s box office hit Creepshow (1982) to the small screen in the form of a weekly anthology. Since Warner Bros. still owned a stake in the Creepshow property and the television medium posed certain limitations, it was decided by Laurel to forgo the film’s comic book aesthetics and to cast a wider net for stories along the speculative gamut, encompassing not only horror but also science fiction, fantasy, and the Weird, while achieving the same tone of biting morality as the film. Although Romero served as executive producer and acted as director and screenwriter on a number of episodes throughout the series’ four season run, the genre maverick was left largely unsatisfied with what he felt was a compromised production. In later years and from a further remove, Romero would express a reserved pride in the show.

Tales from the Darkside was never a production with heavy coffers; although its move to first-run syndication via Tribune Entertainment meant that the program would be free of the kind of big network censorship that Romero opposed, it also meant that the program would remain bereft of big network money.  As such, the production team would frequently have to rely on creativity, economic shrewdness, quality writing, and general know-how to keep the show standing toe-to-toe with its competition, which it usually did. (In commentaries and interviews, Romero always delighted in bringing up how the show’s contemporary, Amazing Stories, the anthology series backed by no less than Steven Spielberg, got the bigger budgets while Tales from the Darkside always got the better reviews.) This combination of dark powers resulted in a show that was frequently eerie, amusing, and wonderful, a New Wave Twilight Zone that lived up to Serling’s original in ways that the revival series from the same decade repeatedly failed to. For even when it stumbled, Tales from the Darkside’s missteps were almost always fascinating. Few of its fellow programs could say the same.

The show could hardly have made a better first impression with audiences than the pilot episode that aired a few days shy of Halloween 1983. The Romero-scripted “Trick or Treat” is, at its heart, a campfire tale, but one executed with the kind of finesse and punchy fun that makes it nearly impossible not to enjoy.

As part of an annual Halloween tradition, Gideon Hackles, general store owner and resident miser of the farming village he calls home, gives the local children the opportunity to track down the bundle of IOUs he has hidden in his palatial home. If any one of the children can claim the bundle, then all their families’ debts shall be relieved. But every year Gideon guarantees that his prop ghouls and ghosts scare the kiddies away before they can sniff the treasure out… that is until he receives a surprise visit from a very real witch intent on meting out some overdue justice.

At first glance Hackles appears the archetype of the miserable old skinflint made incarnate. We are meant to despise him; watching him put the pinch on impoverished families and laugh hysterically at terrified children certainly makes him an easy target for disdain! Romero and director Bob Balaban (a prolific actor and Wes Anderson favorite who has helmed such genre fare as Parents [1989], My Boyfriend’s Back [1993], and episodes of Eerie, Indiana and the 2001 revival of The Twilight Zone) construct the character in the same manner Romero and Stephen King had done before with Upson Pratt (E. G. Marshall), the rich old bastard devoured by roaches in Creepshow. Barnard Hughes plays Hackles with glorious relish, a delightful playing against type from the Tony Award-winning actor’s performances in The Lost Boys (1987), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), and television series such as Doc, Mr. Merlin, and Blossom. Hackles is the villain we love to hate, the kind of character whose evil nature is designed to be in direct proportion to the cosmic punishment that is inevitably hurtling their way.

It’s easy to see how Romero based the blueprint for Hackles on the original old skinflint, Ebenezer Scrooge. In this way and others “Trick or Treat” acts as a Halloween-appropriated version of A Christmas Carol. Both stories deal with an economically esteemed albeit emotionally shuttered man who receives a supernatural intervention in the midst of holiday festivities. A key difference is that the express purpose of the witch’s arrival is not to redeem Hackles, as was the mission of the three Christmas spirits, but to punish him. While Scrooge’s change of heart works well in promoting the hope and love that are the trademarks of the Christmas season, Hackles’ judgment represents the darker aspects of All Hallow’s Eve perfectly. It seems ironic to note as well that Scrooge, who detested Christmas, got off a hell of lot easier than Hackles, who adores the mischief-making of the Halloween season.

Additional viewings reveal that the relationship to Scrooge goes deeper. Throughout Dickens’ novel the reader comes to learn that Scrooge was not born a rotter, but was a hopeful young man who had the love stamped out of him through misfortune and misguided goals. The viewer does not have the benefit of flashbacks in “Trick or Treat”, but Romero cannily exposes the heart that once beat in Hackles’ chest through flashes of telling dialogue. The miser is constantly heard licking wounds from vague past hurts, grumbling how “Clerks steal from you” and snapping back at a child’s cry of “Trick-or-treat” with “I’ve never been treated to anything in my life!” His solemn entreaty to a farmer’s son to “Never listen to your heart. Never lose sight of your goal,” exposes Hackles for the spurned man that he is, a lonely vulture whose sense of fulfillment can now only be achieved through possession and sadism.

Balaban, like Dickens, sugars the pill of his main character’s nihilism with impish humor, showing Hackles leering at one of his victims as he grasps a costume pitchfork, intimating his ultimate fate. The old man’s scavenger hunt revives the thrill of the carnival haunted house, with the poor children groping in darkness as all manner of taxidermed terrors leap out at them from the shadows. Hackles jeers at them from his hidden alcove beneath the staircase, cackling through a bullhorn and controlling his rigged domain like another famous literary humbug, Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Even after he receives a house call from his own Margaret Hamilton and gazes into the hissing face of the Devil himself (who, in true E. C. Comics fashion, sardonically coos “You’re getting warmer…” to Hackles just as he had done to the visiting children), Hackles crawls after his fleeting greenbacks further and further into bubble wrap Hell. When all the codger’s riches later fall from the heavens into the hands of the farmer’s son at the end of the episode, we can almost hear the boy voice an alternate version of Tiny Tim’s famous line: “Satan bless us, everyone!”

It could be argued that Tales from the Darkside was tilling old soil when the show debuted its second holiday-themed episode, “Halloween Candy.” The formal structure of “Trick or Treat” is revived for another turn of the pumpkin: an old curmudgeon is brought before an otherworldly court in the form of an unwelcome midnight visitant on Halloween night. But here the similarity ends. Mr. Killup, played by Roy Poole (1776, Network) in his second-to-last film role, is not the clutching, theatrical villain that Hackles was but someone all too painfully recognizable: the elderly grump who lives at the end of the lane, cursing anyone who might sour their flat-lining existence with a hint of affection or joy. Killup also has a contentious relationship with his only son, Michael (Tim Choate), a put-upon caretaker who gives in acidic commentary as well as he gets from his father. Their dynamic touches a nerve of familiarity for anyone who has trawled embattled familial waters. But like those real-life relationships, theirs is not completely without love: Michael fusses with his dad’s cardigan just before leaving and, in a moment of need, it is revealed that the only phone number Killup seems to possess is his son’s.

Though the opening montage satisfies the festive sweet-tooth with images of children garbed in Ben Cooper regalia traipsing upon a carpet of dead leaves, the composite picture that director Tom Savini and screenwriter Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) paint in the episode’s establishing scene is a world away from the rustic, period fairy tale of “Trick or Treat.” The grubby set design and stinging exchanges shared between father and son give the story a depressing, mud-brown veneer of reality before later plot developments twist the narrative into stranger and surreal contortions.

The dismal mise-en-scene is carried through in Killup’s punishment. While Hackles’ flamboyant feistiness made him a fit candidate for the spookhouse predations and hellish damnation of the earlier episode, Killup, shuffling about in his neck-brace in perpetual muttering revulsion of everything around him, falls prey to a more insidious sentence. The visions he suffers feel more internalized; they could just as easily be the warning signs of dementia as an indication that the border separating the worlds of the human and the fae has been broken.

Killup continually awakens from a doze during that special time of the night when white noise dominates the TV and only the wind runs through the streets. Attempts to call his son are cut down by a monotonous operator message. An endless hunger gnaws at Killup, with any measure taken to relieve it met with a host of crawling cockroaches leftover from the set of Creepshow. Shot through it all is the sense that Killup has become unstuck in time, a mind-bending fate that McDowell liked so much that he refashioned it for his short story “Miss Mack,” appropriately published in Alan Ryan’s Halloween Horrors anthology one year later. Unlike the title character from that tale, Killup experiences his final moments as he always wished to be left in life: alone.

Well, alone save for one other.

The goblin makeup applied to actor John Edward Allen (Blade Runner) marks one of the series’ more impressive special effects creations. It’s difficult to imagine that the design wasn’t overseen (or at the very least influenced) by Savini, as the monster bears a simian likeness to Fluffy, the flesh-hungry primate housed in “The Crate” from (you guessed it) Creepshow. The creature here is not quite as sanguinary in its appetite as that lovable Arctic beastie, perfectly happy with a dish of sweets coated in mayonnaise, honey, and glue. “Goblin candy,” Killup informs an earlier trick-or-treater, dumping the mess in the poor sap’s awaiting bag. The goblin, decked in the garb of a jester, dutifully fulfills his role as supernatural trickster by playing the ultimate Halloween prank on bitter old Mr. Killup. It is a downbeat, unglamorous end that has grim ramifications even beyond the targeted individual. Ironic then that this viewer should derive such seasonal comfort from this particular tale, as it seems to assert that on Halloween night—and by extension all the other 364 days of the year—no one is safe.

Halloween was passed over entirely during the show’s third season, the final October slot given to an adaptation of Fredric Brown’s uncanny doll yarn “The Geezenstacks” and general holiday observances shifted to Christmas for the eleventh episode, “Seasons of Belief.” Tales from the Darkside’s third Halloween story aired during the series’ fourth and final season, but for some reason the autumnal chiller was shuttered away until its debut on May 8, 1988. The airdate wasn’t the only change in presentation. Adapting a story from Thomas F. Monteleone that had originally appeared in Cemetery Dance, “The Cutty Black Sow” took as its protagonist an adolescent boy who finds himself tasked with honoring a late family member’s dying wish to battle the forces of darkness come All Hallow’s Eve.

Played by the delightfully-named Huckleberry Fox five years out from his debut in Terms of Endearment (1983), Jamie takes on the burden of holding back the eponymous demon-swine (a genuine bogey figure from Welsh folklore) from snatching the souls of his loved ones, in particular that of his recently departed Great Grandma (Paula Trueman, previously Aunt Teresa in another of Darkside’s kindertraumas, “Monsters in My Room”). For reasons that might relate to the tight scheduling of TV production and the challenges of wrangling child actors in general, director Richard Glass (possibly a pseudonym as this is their sole film credit) favors close-ups of Fox’s blank face, and though the young actor performs admirably the line-readings come across as if they were only just recently memorized. The lack of a gripping central character is telling when held up against the two former holiday episodes, but taken on its own terms “The Cutty Black Sow” offers up a refreshing break from the crusty old bastards and gives us a fresh-faced and even heroic young protagonist to root for.

Robert Liiv’s cinematography is rich in the fall hues of orange and brown, stepping away from the depressing existential nightmare of “Halloween Candy” and proffering a pictorial treat that feels as warm as the family hearth. It’s great seeing the holiday approached from a child’s perspective for a change of pace, too, acknowledging that giddy excitement that flutters about the stomach as brothers and sisters begin to assemble their costumes of witch and werewolf before heading out at dusk (unaccompanied!) on their sugary quest. All these elements combine to make the episode seem like a “pleasing terror” straight from the pen of M. R. James. Appropriately enough Fox goes about his business like one of Montague’s very own investigative scholars, sifting through crinkly artifacts in a search for information regarding his expected visitor, even going so far as to take a charcoal rubbing of the beast from the cover of an old grimoire that bears a familial resemblance to the winged hellspawn from Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957).

Whatever “The Cutty Black Sow” might lack in theme it certainly makes up for in its emulation of all those classic ghost stories, making it just the right kind of shivery yarn to close out the holiday festivities. What better way to ring out a final “Happy Halloween!” than to wait for the patient and inevitable arrival of a moon-eyed, snorting specter that, in true Jamesian fashion, signals its arrival with a gross tactile sensation?

There is no better way, of course, so be off with you now! Take your overflowing plastic buckets and your bulging pillowcases back to the couch and revel in your newly-gained riches while you can! It won’t be long before that last trick-or-treater comes knocking at your door, and I can only hope and pray that you’ll have whatever it is that they’ve come for.

Vlogging Bout Dolls

Hey, everyone. I made a vlog. My first in about five years. Lots has changed, ya’ll.

In this episode, be prepared to:

SEE… my dusty as hell monster doll collection.

HEAR… my nasally, head cold-induced voice.

SHIVER… along to the fun facts and terrifying tidbits lodged in this inordinately-long dissertation on the wonderful Universal Monsters of Sideshow Toys!

By the by, I noticed after publishing this that my mustache is totally uneven. Glad I found out now before I did something really embarrassing like posting a video of myself online!

Jump for Rue Morgue!

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My article on Alvin Schwartz’s and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series made its debut in the terror-loving pages of Rue Morgue last month for their 169th issue. The article was published under their regular “Classic Cuts” banner, an ongoing feature of the magazine that argues for a work of art’s inclusion in the pantheon of genre greats in roughly seven hundred words.

As I said at the start of the piece, “[f]or readers of a certain age, no other book cleaved as deep an impression in their formative gray matter as Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Today, just mentioning the title is enough to awaken a grinning nostalgia in even the most casual literary plunderer. It seems that anyone who was a student from the year of the first book’s publication onward has at least heard of it at some point. Whether these kids knew it or not, Scary Stories had become part of their Canon.

Get your hands on the August issue to hear the rest of the gory details.

Death is Horrible: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)

 

Of the three films that Boris Karloff acted in for producer Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) tends to get the short shrift. This is a bit of an unfair match, especially when one of the other movies is THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), directed by Robert Wise and based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest horror pictures of the 1940s, with an unmatched turn from Karloff as the utterly insidious resurrection man-cum-murderer John Gray. The other film, Mark Robson’s BEDLAM from 1946, the last of Lewton’s run of terror productions, is a solid period piece that has Boris essaying the more layered but no less nasty role of asylum-keeper Master George Sims.

So where does this leave ISLE OF THE DEAD?

Continue reading “Death is Horrible: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945)”