Saturday, December 21, 2013

December to Dismember: TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE and MONSTERS

With Tom guiding our review slay…er, sleigh into the television arena, I figured it would be appropriate to look at some smaller Christmas TV terrors.  The ol’ cathode ray tube has always been a bonding device around the holidays as folks would sit around to watch classics like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964) or 24 straight hours of A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983).  So it was nice of TV movies like HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972) to introduce the darker side of the holidays to viewing audiences.  The Brits were one step ahead of us with the BBC’s A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS series, which debuted in 1971.

Naturally, this Christmas fear also extended into the horror anthology shows.  Earlier omnibus shows like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY had shown some Christmas spirit with classic episodes like “Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid,” “The Night of the Meek” and “The Messiah on Mott Street,” respectively.  But those maintained the sappy Yuletide spirit and were a little too nice for horror fans.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that horror shows got their Xmas freak on.  By far the most famous holiday horror for the small screen anthology format is the remake of “And All Through the House” for TALES FROM THE CRYPT in 1989 (I’d like to think this was a big reaction to the sappy “Santa ‘85” in AMAZING STORIES).  But a few series were doing it before then, showing a darker side of the silent night where lots of creatures were stirring.


TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE debuted in October 1983 and went to series the following fall.  With compact tales of terror, it is actually surprising that they didn’t do a Christmas tale in the first two seasons.  That was corrected in its third season with the holiday-themed episode “Seasons of Belief,” which debuted on December 29, 1986.

The story involves a family settling down on Christmas Eve.  The father (E.G. Marshall) and mother (Margaret Klenck) are trying to get their two unruly kids to wind down for the night. Knowing Santa Claus isn’t real, the kids want to hear a new Christmas story and the dad opts to tell them the scary story of The Grither.  Living on the opposite side of Santa’s mountain in the North Pole, The Grither is a monster built from people’s fears that will attack and kill anyone who says its name aloud.  Uh oh, the young boy has said it several times and his parents inform him that the beast is now on the way to the house to get him.  The only way to prevent its attack is to finish the story before The Grither arrives at your doorstep.

A true example of the DARKSIDE formula (one set, one monster), “Seasons of Belief” is probably the best of the Xmas episodes from these series.  This relies most on the work of writer-director Michael McDowell, adapting a story by Michael Bishop.  McDowell – who would pen BEETLEJUICE (1988) and the DARKSIDE movie before dying prematurely in 1999 – sets up a great holiday mood, but with a dark edge. When the episode starts, you assume Marshall is the kids’ grandfather, but he is indeed their dad with a wife at least 30 years his junior. Also note that Marshall’s character is shown drinking the entire time he tells his story and the folks seem to be enjoying scaring their kids.  Finally, the ending is pretty dark for something involving kids.  Had I seen this as a 6 or 7 year old, I’m sure it would have messed me up.  

The following year in 1987, DARKSIDE continued on the holiday tradition with “The Yattering and Jack.” This episode was a bit of a coup for the series as it was based on a short story by Clive Barker (remember him?) and he actually did the teleplay.  Barker’s feature directorial debut HELLRAISER (1987) had just hit theaters two months prior to this episode’s November 8, 1987 airdate and he was hotter than hell (ah, boo yourself).

The story focuses on Jack Polo (Tony Carbone), a divorced middle aged man looking to spend the holidays alone.  Jack is perpetually peppy, so he always has a positive outlook on the poltergeist happenings in his home.  Mirrors smashing? Must be the house settling.  Goldfish being boiled alive in their tank?  Gotta have that thermostat checked.  All of these events are the handiwork of The Yattering (Phil Fondacaro), an invisible demon working for Satan to try and break this man in order to steal his soul.  Things get complicated when his daughter Amanda (Danielle Brisebois) shows up unannounced for the holidays.  Furthermore, the devil is getting tired of waiting for this soul and puts the Yattering on a tight schedule to get things done (“Break his pathetic human heart.”).

Originally appearing in volume one of Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD series, “The Yattering and Jack” is a nice, compact story about the battle for one man’s soul.  Unfortunately, he also wasn’t in the director’s chair of this episode because it clearly lacked the punch (and funds) to make it work.  The action all unfolds on one set and director David Odell does a nice job making it Christmassy (damn, I can’t believe Word accepted that spelling).  But the episode loses it when it comes to the titular demon.  The FX budget was obviously limited, but this demon is so botched that Fondacaro ends up looking like a mini, red John Oates on his way to an S & M club.  A far cry from how Barker originally envisioned his little devil. In the end, I’d only recommend this for curious Barker fans who want to see his work adapted...or anyone who wants to see Phil Fondacaro topless...or anyone who wants to see a frozen turkey jump onto a Christmas tree.

With TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE doing Christmas stuff, you just knew that the sister-series MONSTERS would be doing the same. Debuting in 1988 from the DARKSIDE parent company Laurel, MONSTERS was all about the horror with a new fiend showcased each week.  The timing of their first Christmas episode was a bit off though as “Glim-Glim” debuted on February 4, 1989.

The show drops the viewer right into the action as a father (Mark Hofmaier), his daughter Amy (Jenna Von Oy) and a guy named Carl (Brian Fitzpatrick) break into the basement of the town library.  The reason for their hiding is upstairs, an alien dubbed Glim-Glim by Amy.  It crashed in the town a few days previous and a virus wiped out all of the 7,000 residents save our lead trio.  The four-armed, four-eyed big green being upstairs is plowing through books trying to learn about humans and how to communicate with them.  Naturally, the adults want to kill the beast, but Amy is drawn to it.  We are told via alien voiceover how Glim-Glim is only an explorer that crashed with natural bacteria in its intestine that is deadly to humans.  The extraterrestrial has the town quarantined behind a force field to prevent it spreading and is working on an antidote, but will it be able to communicate in time with the humans.

Written by author F. Paul Wilson (THE KEEP), this episode seems like a pessimistic reaction to the overly positive message delivered by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).  After all, director Peter Michael Stone recreates the iconic “finger touch” moment.  But there is no happy ending here.  The story ends with the alien being blown away while it is trying to send the greeting “Merry Christmas” to the fearful adult survivors.  If that weren’t dark enough, the ending alludes to the fact the actions of the men will result in the end of the entire human race.  Merry Christmas, indeed.  The episode is good, but loses some points for the alien design, which looks like a big pear with four limbs stuck on it.

The show’s next (and last) Christmas episode “A New Woman” debuted in the third and final season on December 16, 1990.  The plot revolves around the impending death of a multimillionaire Thomas (Tom McDermott).  His much younger wife Jessica (Linda Thorson) can’t wait to see him croak, even going so far as to have him sign papers on his deathbed evicting a bunch of poor people around Christmas time.  David (Dan Butler), Thomas’ nephew, objects to her money grubbing ways.  Also objecting is a mysterious new doctor (Mason Adams), who warns Jessica if she doesn’t change her ways that she will live to regret it.  When Jessica takes a bump to the head while scheming to unplug Thomas’ life support, she gets to see exactly what the doc means by peaking into her uncertain (and undead) future.

Obviously this episode was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL and that makes sense as parts of that story are scary as hell.  The updates are nice as the Scrooge character is now a woman and the story comments on the ‘80s Yuppie dreams of wealth, power and greed.  I don’t know if you can accurately convey a total character transformation in 22 minutes, but the team does a good job of it.  Of course, anyone would change their ways if they were haunted by rotting flesh spouses and skeleton-faced ghouls.

So there you have it.  It's actually a shame both series didn't delve more into the Christmas season as it is extremely fertile ground for spooky stories.  Of the four, I'd probably only call "Seasons of Belief" a must-see, just because it sets the Christmas mood so well.

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. Ha I love that you mention E.G. Marshall being considerably older than expected for a father of kids that age. The same applies to another Christmas classic, A CHRISTMAS STORY.

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