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Paramount Studios presents
Preston: You're a monster.
DVD ReviewThe classic E.C. comic books of the 1950s (Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear) established a uniquely American style of horror story, in which the primary characters' misdeeds inevitably led to a shocking, twist-driven, often graphically grotesque climax ("Choke! Gasp!"). The controversial comics were eventually forced out of print when the industry subjected itself to the draconian Comics Code, but their hold on the public imagination gave rise to a couple of horror anthology movies in the 1970s and, more recently, a successful HBO television series. They also served as the inspiration for the 1982 George A. Romero / Stephen King feature film collaboration, Creepshow, and its success led to Romero's TV anthology of the 1980s, Tales from the Darkside. In 1990, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie was released, bringing a larger budget and recognizable stars to the E.C.-inspired horror anthology genre.
John Harrison directed this collection of three stories, wrapped in a pseudo-fairy tale framing device, starring Deborah Harry as Betty, an upscale witch, and young Matthew Lawrence as Timmy, her intended dinner. Attempting to forestall his fate, Timmy tells the witch scary stories, which, of course, make up the bulk of the film. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lot 249, heavily modernized, leads off, recounting the story of put-upon college student Bellingham (Steve Buscemi), who uses an ancient Egyptian mummy to exact ritualized revenge on his enemies (Christian Slater, Julianne Moore and Robert Sedgwick). Stephen King's Cat From Hell follows, as an eccentric millionaire (William Hickey) hires hitman Halston (David Johansen) to take on a black cat with an uncanny ability to kill. Finally, Tales from the Darkside veteran Michael McDowell contributes Lover's Vow, in which an artist (James Remar) swears on his life never to tell anyone about the murderous demon he encounters late one night, only to find the secret haunting him ten years later.
This movie version of Tales from the Darkside benefits visibly from a larger budget and makeup effects consultation by Hollywood legend Dick Smith, but the stories themselves aren't nearly as solid as the best episodes of the original TV series. Lover's Vow is the strongest of the three, with convincing performances by Remar and Rae Dawn Chong, and a climax that manages to be simultaneously dark and poignant. The other two stories, established authors notwithstanding, are almost completely devoid of humor and charm—they clunk along in thoroughly predictable fashion, and the occasional glimmer of fun gets lost amidst the hokey, conventional storytelling.
There are some nicely realized moments, and almost all of the effects are handled on-set, lending a comfortably "live" feel to the proceedings, though some of the puppetry is clumsy, especially in Cat From Hell. Big-name talent lends respectability to the project, and director Harrison is visually competent, making effective use of old-fashioned "wipe" transitions and other cinematic devices, giving a different visual style to each story. But one can't help feeling that the exigencies of low-budget production that gave the TV series its verve and inventiveness were sorely missed when the movie came along. There's something crucial missing here, some sense of risk and joy, lost under the comparatively sophisticated acting, music and effects work. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie isn't nearly as much fun as it should be; see it for Lover's Vow, if at all.
Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C-
Image Transfer Review: Paramount presents Tales from the Darkside in its original 1.85:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, with an anamorphic transfer drawn from a clean source print. The moderately-budgeted production is visibly grainy, with a soft look in general, and the photography favors dark, obscuring shadows that lend a murky appearance to the image overall. This isn't a transfer flaw—what shadow detail is available seems to be presented properly, but the film's dark look becomes tiresome after a while. A decent digital presentation, but not easy on the eyes by any means.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Tales from the Darkside includes its original Dolby 2.0 Surround audio, a monaural French track, and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Musical low-frequency content is substantial in the 5.1 mix, with heavy bass "stings" here and there, and a few split surrounds enhance the film's atmospherics (which aren't bad in 2.0 format either). The film has an audibly low-budget analog character, largely centered, with slightly muddy dialogue, unnatural sound effects and subdued music. Nothing impressive here, but the DVD transfer is accurate enough.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director John Harrison and screenwriter George A. Romero
Extras Review: Paramount scares up 13 picture-menu chapter stops, optional English subtitles, and a few standard extras:
The film's theatrical trailer is rendered in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, looking grainy and slightly dated. The trailer emphasizes the authors and George Romero's involvement, with rapid-fire shock moments providing the visuals.
Commentary by director John Harrison and screenwriter George A. Romero:
Director John Harrison (Frank Herbert's Dune) and screenwriter/horror legend George Romero contribute a running commentary, aimed at "the fans" with an emphasis on the stars and the visual style of the movie. The two filmmakers share some entertaining memories about the film's budgetary limitations and production schedule, and Romero also contributes some notes on Creepshow, with which he was more directly involved. There are some silences early on, but it's a solid, entertaining commentary track given the material at hand.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsTales from the Darkside: The Movie attempts to bring George Romero's anthology TV series to the big screen, with mixed, surprisingly charmless results. Paramount's DVD provides a decent presentation of the movie, but I'd enthusiastically recommend Creepshow or Creepshow 2 over this one for your Halloween viewing.
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