Spoilers lie ahead.
The film: In The Wraparound Story, Betty (Deborah Harry) is getting ready for a party by preparing poor little Timmy (Matthew Lawrence) as the meal. He tries to buy some time by telling her three stories; Lot 249 is a tale of college rivalries and resurrecting mummies; Cat From Hell features a wealthy old man taking out a hit on a black cat he believes to be evil, and finally Lover’s Vow, in which an artist witnesses a vicious murder, but the monster who committed it swears him to secrecy for the rest of his life.
Though Tales From The Darkside: The Movie features only one story based on a work by Stephen King, the connections with the author and his previous films run deep. George A. Romero’s TV show, Tales From The Darkside, from which the movie sprung, came into existence after the success of Creepshow. Unfortunately, rights issues prevented Romero from turning the Creepshow format into the anthology TV series that he wanted to produce, hence creating Tales From The Darkside. Some of King’s stories would appear in the series and eventually, it was followed by The Movie.
Because of its connection to the Creepshow movies and a comment from their star and FX guru, Tom Savini, Tales From The Darkside has often been referred to as the unofficial Creepshow 3. John Harrison, who had previously scored Creepshow, takes over directing duties here, with Michael McDowell and Romero adapting the three tales that appear. The one King story that makes it in is Cat From Hell, which was originally intended to appear in the second Creepshow film, but budgetary difficulties led to it being scrapped.
Without the benefit of the Creep or the comic book format to use as the film’s throughline, The Wraparound Story clings on to the familiar format of a young boy reading these stories. Only this time, Timmy is trapped in a weird Hansel & Gretel, Creepshow, and 1001 Nights hybrid as he tells the tales to Betty the witch in order to prevent her from cooking him. Debbie Harry’s deadpan villain, blithely continuing with meal prep and calculating ingredients, is one of the film’s highlights, as jarring as it is to see the lead singer of Blondie as a suburban housewife-type.
Lot 249 has the best cast of the lot as fresh-faced Steve Buscemi plays a graduate student with a fondness for antiquities, picked on by Robert Sedgwick and Julianne Moore, whose brother is played by Christian Slater. McDowell adapted an Arthur Conan Doyle story for this one and the modern update translates well into the college class system. It’s got a nicely black sense of humour too and suitably gruesome demises. If you’ve ever wanted to see Buscemi read nefariously from ancient scrolls or Slater go a little bit psychotic with an electric meat carver, this is the tale for you.
The King story, Cat From Hell, is the weakest of the lot, but is afforded the most striking visuals. The blue wash that signifies the flashbacks gives it an eerie look and the angular way it is shot helps to set an unsettling undercurrent, even if the main story isn’t so chilling. William Hickey and David Johansen throw themselves into it and Alice Drummond and Dolores Sutton serve their roles in the flashbacks with a thick slice of ham, but it doesn’t really get going until the final showdown between hitman and cat.
Lover’s Vow stars James Remar as suffering artist Preston, who witnesses a giant gargoyle monster killing a barman and is sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Remar’s anguished artist is the most sympathetic character in the film, aside from Timmy, and his story seems like it’s a happy one when he finds love and success. Of course, there’s always a twist and it’s a particularly good one in this case, transforming the story into a moralistic one of what not to do when asked by a gargoyle to keep its secret.
As with the previous anthologies connected to King, the special effects, though a little dated in places, are still one of the best elements. The scene in which the cat does a John Hurt in Alien from the mouth of the hitman is jaw-clenchingly grim. Likewise, Carola’s transformation back into the gargoyle monster in Lover’s Vow is still really impressive and provides a suitably icky finale.
Where the film really struggles is in its pacing, a problem that Creepshow 2 also suffered with when using only three stories for its anthology. The build-up for Lot 249, with its relationship politics and mythology building, is the only one where it feels deserved. Both Cat From Hell and Lover’s Vow seem to take an age to get to the kick of the story and are then both over too quickly for any lasting impact.
Tales From The Darkside: The Movie could have done with being a bit leaner and a bit meaner, with more of the black humour that bubbles up only occasionally. Lot 249 and The Wraparound Story are the only ones that really land the tone and the glimmers we get of it elsewhere are often highlights in individual stories. It never quite achieves its potential, but with the help of its cast, the peaks are fun enough to power you through the troughs.
Scariest moment: It has to be the cat emerging from inside the hitman, though the cat suffocating the hitman by entering through his throat is also horrendous.
Musicality: There are a few hands on deck for scoring this movie, including Chaz Jankel and Jim Manzie. John Harrison takes the reins on Lover’s Vow which is probably the best of them, capturing the sinister romanticism of Preston’s tale.
A King thing: Evil animals. They only crop up occasionally and it’s usually through no fault of their own (Church in Pet Sematary or Cujo), but King does like to turn cuddly household pets into merchants of death when given the opportunity.
Join me next time, Constant Reader, for the Graveyard Shift.