Discover more from Rerun Rewind
Try to Enjoy the Daylight: My Top 5 Favorite Episodes of Tales From the Darkside
It’s one week from Halloween, and I’m winding down the spooky season with roundups of some of my favorite anthology series. Watch this space for more!
Tales From the Darkside was an anthology series that ran from 1983 to 1988. It had a very low budget, but it was fortunate enough to have some incredibly talented writers, actors, directors, producers, and special effects experts who came together to make it an entertaining, spooky, suspenseful, and just plain fun show that is still much beloved by fans of the genre. Sadly, it’s not streaming anywhere at the moment, but you can buy the entire series on DVD for about 20 bucks.
One of the best things about Darkside is its excellent ratio of good to bad episodes, something not many shows of this type can boast. It was quite hard to choose my top five favorite episodes, but somehow I managed to narrow it down.
Here are my top five my favorite episodes of Tales From the Darkside…
#5: Ursa Minor
Season two, episode 10, “Ursa Minor” follows a struggling family of three: grad student and future social worker Joan (Marilyn Jones), her drunk husband Richard (Timothy Carhart), and their daughter, Susie (Jamie Ohar). On Susie 's birthday, she wakes up to find a Teddy bear, which Joan assumes was a gift from Richard. However, Richard (presumably because he’s drunk) doesn't remember where the bear came from.
It's not long before mysterious things start happening in the house: Dirty paw prints are left on the wall and items are knocked off of shelves. Joan accuses Susie of doing these things, but Susie consistently claims, “Teddy did it.”
(Side note: If this phrase sounds familiar it's probably because I used it as the name of the publishing company I created to self-publish my books. My husband and I also used it as the name of our production company back when we used to make video game reviews on YouTube.)
Eventually Joan starts to suspect there might be something supernatural about Susie’s Teddy. She consults a professor from the university, Dr. Stilliman (Malachy McCourt), who's supposed to be some kind of expert on magic. He tells her that bears have long been symbols of dark magic, citing the constellations ursa major and ursa minor. He advises her to buy her daughter a doll, “something pink and synthetic and utterly without magic.”
Joan follows doctor Stilliman’s advice and gives Susie a baby doll that she names “Goldilocks,” and she throws the offending Teddy bear in the trash. Of course, as evil toys are wont to do, Teddy comes back and destroys Goldilocks. Now Joan and Susie are terrified of Teddy, and Richard is staying overnight at the clinic with an infected cut in his leg.
Joan makes another attempt to get rid of the bear by stabbing it with a pair of scissors and ripping out its stuffing. This further angers Teddy, leading to a shocking climax that you’re just gonna have to watch for yourself.
Who doesn't love a good evil toy story? This episode is sort of an homage to The Twilight Zone’s classic “Living Doll,” but updated for the 80s.
Timothy Carhart is endlessly entertaining as Richard, the drunk broke loser father who finds all the Teddy stuff amusing. As always, Marilyn Jones is very convincing as the frustrated mother at the end of her rope. Malachy McCourt is hilarious as the goofy old professor explaining the dark magic of bears and how we have cut the bear down to size with “Smokey, Pooh, and of course, little Teddy.”
It sounds like a pretty generic anthology offering, but the stellar performances and natural dialogue elevate it to a very entertaining and creepy episode with an unexpected ending.
#4: The Word Processor of the Gods
Season one, episode eight, “The Word Processor of the Gods,” centers on Richard Hagstrom, a struggling writer played by Bruce Davison.
(Side note: Yes, there are a lot of characters named Richard on this show. Don’t ask me why. It’s an anthology thing.)
Richard has a wife named Lina (Karen Shallo), who constantly berates him for not making enough money, and a son named Seth (Patrick Piccininni), who totally ignores him. Richard's brother was a total asshole, yet somehow he managed to marry the love of Richard's life, Belinda (Miranda Beeson), and raise the perfect son, Jonathan (Jon Shear), that is until he drove his car off a cliff, killing all three of them. Richard, unsatisfied with his own life and devastated at the loss of Belinda and Jonathan, wishes more than anything that he could somehow go back in time, marry Belinda, and make Jonathan his son.
Richard thinks he just might get his wish when a neighbor of his late brother (Bill Cain) shows up at his door with a birthday present for him from Jonathan: a homemade word processor. When Richard fires up the ramshackle machine, he quickly realizes that everything he types comes true. First, he experiments by making a sack full of gold doubloons appear and deleting his wife’s picture from the wall. Then he gets more adventurous. He types out his son's full name, then deletes it, which makes Seth disappear as if he had never existed.
The more Richard uses the word processor, the more it starts to break down. Richard senses that the machine won't last much longer, so he has to work quickly to make things right. Will he make his wish come true before the word processor explodes? You'll just have to watch the episode and find out for yourself.
Of course an episode based on a Stephen King story is gonna be good. It gets even better when you add Bruce Davison as the star. Bruce is such a versatile and brilliant actor who's convincing in any role he plays. He managed to both endear and disgust audiences as the titular character in Willard. As Dr. Stegman in Kingdom Hospital, he made a despicable character likable. In “The Word Processor of the Gods,” he’s perfect as a shy, sweet guy who was dealt a shitty hand. In contrast, Karen Shallo as Lina is perfectly obnoxious, uncaring, glutinous, and grating. She's so good at playing this unlikable character that you can't help but be impressed.
One thing that's unique about this episode is that it actually has a happy ending. You won't find many Darkside episodes like that.
#3: I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye
In season three, episode two, “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye,” Libby (Loren Cedar) just got engaged to Max (Brian Benben), who suffers from severe asthma. They share the happy news with Libby’s mother, Flora (Helen Duffy), and her little sister, Karen (Alison Sweeney). As they’re walking out of the kitchen, Karen suddenly pauses, puts her hands on Flora’s face, stares into her eyes, and says, “Goodbye, Mommy. Goodbye.” Moments later, the defective oven explodes, killing Flora instantly.
Later, Karen does the same thing to her friend, Susie (LaGloria Scott), just before Susie gets her scarf caught in the front door, slips on some ice, and breaks her neck. This leads Libby and Max to suspect that Karen can actually kill people by saying goodbye to them.
At this point, the episode becomes similar to The Twilight Zone’s “It's a Good Life,” with Libby and Max constantly trying to affect positive, happy attitudes around Karen and giving her everything she wants so she won't say goodbye to them. The tension becomes too much for Max, the asthmatic, and he calls off the wedding. As he's leaving, he knocks over Karen's doll and accidentally steps on it, crushing the doll's head. He’s so afraid that Karen is going to kill him that he has a massive asthma attack. As he's gasping and wheezing for air, Karen puts her hands on his face and says, “Goodbye, Max. Goodbye.” Seconds later, Max is dead.
Devastated, Libby shrieks at Karen, “Why don't you say goodbye to me?!” That's when Karen reveals that she can't actually make people die by saying goodbye to them. She just “can't help saying goodbye.” I won't tell you what happens next. You'll have to check out the episode yourself.
Two words: Brian Benben. The future star of Dream On makes an early TV appearance in this episode and blows away all the other actors with his stunning and realistic performance. When he has an asthma attack, I feel like I can't breathe. That's how convincing he is.
Brian also has one of the funniest lines in all of Darkside: When he's nervously making coffee, and Libby asks him to give her a hug, he replies, “I'm at a crucial point here with the coffee.” It's such a natural and funny line that doesn't really fit in the incredibly tense scene. I kind of feel like he adlibbed it. It totally comes out of nowhere and cracks me up every time.
I love horror stories about creepy kids. Somehow when it's a cute kid scaring you, it's way more frightening. This episode does not disappoint in that department. Alison Sweeney is an adorable blonde, blue-eyed little girl whom you would never suspect could be capable of anything evil. When she says goodbye to people, she gets this intense look on her face and says it in such a serious way that catches you off guard. That combined with the tension between Max and Libby as they walk on eggshells around Karen keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. The ending will leave you shocked and horrified, but above all, entertained.
(Side note: Surprisingly, there is no character named Richard in this episode. I know, I’m shocked too.)
#2: Distant Signals
In season two, episode eight, “Distant Signals,” a mysterious man who calls himself “Mr. Smith” (Lenny von Dohlen) approaches a screenwriter named Gil Hurn (David Margulies) and asks him to write an ending for a short-lived detective series he wrote back in the 60s. The series, which was called “Max Paradise,” was about a private detective with amnesia who was trying to re-assemble the puzzle pieces of his life. The show was abruptly canceled due to poor ratings, and everyone involved tried to forget it ever existed.
Then along comes Mr. Smith with a briefcase full of gold bars, insisting that his group of “foreign investors” is very eager to see Max Paradise finally finished. Mr. Smith even tracks down the original star of the show, Van Conway (Darren McGavin), who’s now an alcoholic bartender convinced he can’t act anymore. Mr. Smith gives Van miracle “vitamin pills” that get him off the booze and back in front of the camera.
With all the pieces in place, the final episode of Max Paradise comes to life, and Mr. Smith is overjoyed. The twist is in whom Mr. Smith actually represents, which you’ll have to find out for yourself.
I love “Distant Signals” because it’s like a love letter to classic television. Mr. Smith is a true die-hard fan who treats Max Paradise with a reverence and awe rarely attributed to television, even though I think it merits it. Mr. Smith and I are kindred spirits. Plus, he does what we all dream about doing. Who hasn’t wanted to assemble the cast and crew of a prematurely canceled show and pay them to create one more perfect episode?
“Distant Signals” has some standout performances by Lenny von Dohlen as the mysterious Mr. Smith and John Bennes as Loomis, Max Paradise’s limping nemesis. And Darren McGavin is magnificent as usual, delivering his dialogue with his signature charm and flare.
Overall, I find it, as Mr. Smith says, “Very symmetrical. Very pleasing.”
(Side note: Another rare Richard-less episode. But just wait for number one...)
#1: The Geezenstacks
Season three, episode five, “The Geezenstacks,” begins with a real estate agent named Richard (Larry Pine) who finds a dollhouse mysteriously left behind in an empty home. Inside the dollhouse are four of the creepiest dolls you’ve ever seen. They have paper-white faces, black hair, exaggerated black eyes and lips, and black funeral-style clothes.
Richard gives the dollhouse to his young niece, Audrey (Lana Hirsch), who immediately proclaims that the dolls are a family named the Geezenstacks. She introduces the dolls one at a time, and each one corresponds with a member of her family: Mr. Geezenstack, Mrs. Geezenstack, little Audrey Geezenstack, and Uncle Richard.
As Audrey plays with her new dolls, her games seem to predict things that happen to her family in real life. First, she says that Mrs. Geezenstack bought a new coat, then her mother, Edith (Tandy Cronyn), comes home wearing a new coat. Then Mr. Geezenstack gets sick right before Audrey's father, Sam (Craig Wasson), comes down with the flu.
Sam seems to be the only member of the family who notices the bizarre connection between the Geezenstacks and their real lives. As the episode goes on, Sam becomes more and more unsettled by the dolls. When he questions Audrey about them, she just shrugs with a blank expression.
Eventually, Sam becomes completely consumed by the dolls, and Edith and Richard tell Audrey that they have to give the Geezenstacks away. Audrey says that’s OK because they’re about to go on a “very long trip.” You’ll have to watch the episode to find out what she means.
“The Geezenstacks” is as close to a masterpiece as an episode of an 80s anthology series could ever get. Everything about it is perfect: the acting, the directing, the script, the sets, the lighting, the props, and especially the music. Oh my God, the music. Unlike most episodes of Darkside, which have typically 80s heavily synthesized scores (nothing against it, I love typically 80s heavily-synthesized scores), “The Geezenstacks” features an elaborate orchestral score that is so beautiful it has no business being in trash like this (nothing against it, I love trash like this). The episode plays out rhythmically and melodically like a symphony, and the music is almost like another character moving along with the action.
Craig Wasson’s performance as Sam amazing. His expressions expertly show his gradual decline into a kind of madness brought on by the creepy dolls and his family’s refusal to believe that something’s off about them. Lana Hirsch, who plays Audrey, surprisingly never acted in anything else, which is a shame because she gave a very convincing performance. Her blank expressions and tone of voice added to the unnerving atmosphere.
Without giving anything away, I’ll just say the ending is very symmetrical. Very pleasing.