Tales From the Darkside!

Living in Canada, without access to premium television channels and the syndicated television programs they offer, I was never able to see Tales From the Dark Side, Monsters, or Tales from the Crypt. Aware of their existence by way of more fortunate genre-loving children, the shows attained a level of importance and mystery I associated only with the major horror franchises, the Fridays, Halloweens, and the like.

I finally got a chance to see a few episodes in my teens, when my local video store obtained a few VHS collected ‘best-of’ tapes. The episodes I watched on video have been largely forgotten. One was a diverting piffle about a magic computer, which may or may have not starred Harry Anderson, and another, which I have a much better memory of, starred Darrin McGavin, and was an ode to canceled television shows, and the aliens who want to know how their stories wrapped up. Kind of exactly like that one episode of Futurama. I’m thinking it was called ‘distant signals’, but I could be wrong.

It’s important to note at this point that the episodes I saw were, by and large, harmless. Nothing on the scale of Twilight Zone’s ‘Shadowman’. Because I hadn’t watched much real horror at this point in my life, I imagined myself immune to fear, and comfortable with any fiction, no matter how supposedly terrifying. Then I reached one episode that absolutely shocked me with its effectiveness. I was only able to watch it once, and the memory of it chills me to this day. After seeing that episode I swore off the series as a whole, and haven’t looked back since.

Now that it’s fifteen years later, the series is available on DVD, and, according to a list, I’ve seen 60% of the goriest movies ever made, I thought it might be time to revisit the series in general, and that episode specifically. Of course, I don’t know what that episode’s name was or what season it was in, so I’ll just have to watch the whole thing. It might take a while.

So, with no further ado, let’s start with the show’s pilot, ‘Trick or Treat’, which was apparently aired as a Halloween special the year before the show proper began. But first, let’s take a look at the show’s memorable opening sequence, in which a deep-voiced man opines about the nature of reality.

Episode 100 – Trick Or Treat

Written by George A. Romero

The episode concerns a Scrooge-like businessman (hereafter referred to as ‘Scrooge’) who has an entire small farming community in the grip of his hand. How has he managed this? By running the general store, and selling everything on credit, insisting that people put up their farms as collateral for the loans. How cheap is he? When professional accountants come in to do his monthly books, he charges them for the coffee they drink using the same formula he does for everything else: Cost + twenty percent. In a fun bit of casting, one of the accountants is played by Max Wright of “Alf” fame.

It turns out that in addition to being miserly, Scrooge’s favorite thing is Halloween, which he demonstrates by frightening the accountants with a giant stuffed rat on a string. It’s as unscary as it sounds. That’s not the most objectionable part about his activities, of course. No, Scrooge likes to celebrate Halloween with a devious game. He hides all of the town’s IOUs somewhere in his house, and then invites the children over to search for them. The idea is that if any child can find the IOUs, the entire town’s debts will be forgiven. The catch is that he’s turned his house into a labyrinth of scares designed to scar the little kids for life.

For a good five minutes the episode covers the various ways that Scrooge terrifies the kids, intercut with the closest thing we have to a hero, Billy Kimble, deciding to, against his father’s wishes, try his luck in the evil mansion. At this point in the story I was pretty sure where the show was going, especially considering the way the episode sets up the hiding place of the IOUs. You see, Scrooge has stated that he never cheats, and that the children have a fair chance of finding the IOUs. While this is technically true, they are hidden in the house, he’s chosen to hide them inside the fireplace, just above the flue. In a shot from the chimney’s POV, we can see that he’s stretching to be able to put them up there. There’s really no way a child could reach all the way to the IOUs. So he is cheating, after all, but in a really sly, underhanded way that even allows him to convince himself that he’s on the square.

So obviously I thought there would be some ironic comeuppance with the heroic Billy having to start a fire for some reason, destroying the IOUs. That wasn’t to be. No, the writer, one George Romero, had a much stranger, less interesting ending planned. At the end of the evening, instead of Billy turning up, a real witch does.

Yep, that’s her. She shows up and breaks into the house, hovering around, creating winds that blow the IOUs everywhere, and cackling maniacally. Then she brings Scrooge’s various statues to life, who escort him through a doorway into hell. Then Billy shows up at the house, and mistaking the witch for Scrooge, he announces that he isn’t scared. This impresses the witch, who hands Billy the IOUs and all of Scrooge’s money. The end.

What? That’s not ironic! A witch just killed the guy! That doesn’t have anything to do with anything save a tenuous Halloween connection! Have they even heard of irony? It wouldn’t have even been especially hard to do!

Let’s say, for example, that Scrooge had a walk-in freezer in his house for some reason (like he’s so cheap and organized that he buys a year’s worth of food at once and freezes it on his shelves, for example), and after it looks like all the children of the town have given up for the night, he goes in there for something and winds up locked inside. There’s room for a supernatural comeuppance here, with the door swinging shut of its own accord, or something like that. Anyhow, when little Billy comes in late at night, he could open the freezer looking for the IOUs, and then find the half-frozen Ebeneezer inside. Being an generally good sort, the kid could have brought Ebeneezer to the living room, wrapped him up in blankets, and then started the fire to warm him, all while the old man was too weak to stop him.

See? That’s an ironic ending, with the old man getting a real comeuppance as all his precious IOUs are destroyed by the act of saving his life.

This ending with the witch coming absolutely out of nowhere to kill him not only doesn’t make sense, but doesn’t work as a real twist either. It’s just ending the story with an awkward Deus Ex Maleficara.

Hopefully things get better from here.

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