Tales from the Darkside: Season Three

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  1. rhett

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    [​IMG] Reviewer: Rhett
    Review Date: October 20, 2014

    Released by: CBS/Paramount
    Release date: April 27, 2010
    MSRP: $22.99
    Region 1, NTSC
    Interlaced
    Full Frame 1.33:1
    1986-1987

    inline ImageWhen you watch enough horror, “form” starts to take greater shape then “content” – the tropes of the genre begin to be more noticeable than the stories themselves. You look for and recognize things like The Final Girl, the gore, the T&A, the “It’s only a cat” scare, the POV shot that’s not actually the killer, the red herrings and all the other ingredients that make up the movies we all love. Watching horror on television brings about a completely different kind of form, one more governed by time and budget. Splitting the story up with planned commercial breaks, wrapping things up at the 20-minute mark, keeping the scares safe for television, making the most out of a single set. When a show can rise above these constraints of form, that’s when greatness happens and that’s when TV can approach the gravitas of the silver screen. With Tales From the Darkside, you have the guiding hand of a cinematic horror legend, George A. Romero, and with Season Three, you get some of the best episodes of the series. But do they rise above the form?

    The Story

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    George A. Romero writes and his cinematographer compatriot, Michael Gornick, directs the season opener, The Circus. Bragg (Kevin O’Conner of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and It’s Alive III) is a newspaper mogul interested in a travelling circus that promises vampires, lycanthropes and undead monsters. Despite the show’s success, they only ever go to small towns and stay never longer than a day. Bragg asks why, and is given a head rolling tour by the leader, the Max Schreck-ian Dr. Nis (William Hickey, later to star in Puppetmaster and the Darkside movie). Initially it begins as a talky, but captivating piece with the rich, layered dialogue that Romero does so well. The sharp retorts and back and forth repartee the actors establish with each other is so good you almost completely overlook the fact that half the episode completely ignores the lavish circus set. As good as Romero is with dialogue, he’s always been one for a good scare or two, and here he has fun with a pseudo Universal Monsters revival with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. All three are cast with a grotesque realism that turns a pastiche into something scary anew. When the vampire bleeds a lamb to death it’s clear this isn’t going for camp. An on-screen beheading proves that Romero isn’t interested in being shackled down by regulations of TV programming, either. The twist provides a brutally unsettling shock, and this episode proves once again how good Romero was (is?) at mixing the cerebral and the visceral. A great opener, and one that answers the initial question quite confidently: Yes, great TV can rise above form. A-

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    It’s a tall order having to follow a Romero episode, but John Strysik’s I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye is certainly up to task. This one situates itself in a bright suburban living room, but that doesn’t stop it from still digging into some dark subject matter. The film follows young Karen (Alison Sweeney, who’d go on to host The Biggest Loser and become a regular on Days of Our Lives) who’s sweet as can be to her mother and all those around her. One day when heading off with her older sister, she cryptically, repeatedly, tells her mother “Goodbye”. Moments later, the mom dies in a tragic explosion. It was eerie enough for her sister’s fiancé, Max (Brian Benben, of Dream On and I Come In Peace) to remember. When she says goodbye once more to a school friend moments before she slips on ice and breaks her neck, Max and her sister discover it’s all more than mere coincidence. It’s a simple concept done with little style, but Sweeney’s unsettling stoic delivery and the episode’s unflinching dealings with child death and murder make this something that would never make it to air today. Were the locations not so brightly lit I doubt they would have gotten away with it all back then, either, but oh man, what a finale. You can’t get much darker than that. A-

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    Based on a short story by renowned science fiction writer Frederik Pohl, The Bitterest Pill has at its heart the trappings of solid science fiction. It posits a potent what-if scenario – what if a pill could free the clots in your mind to make you recall every fact and experience you ever faced in life? How smart would you be? How easy would it be to profit from the stock market? For the shlub couple who become millionaires from a lotto ticket, such questions don’t really hold much relevance. They do to their son, though, who watches from afar as an old friend turned pill popping psychotic pitches his prescription to the new millionaires. Neglect proves to be the bitterest pill of all. In the case of this episode, neglect falls too on the story and direction, which both lack a proper sense of drama. Too much of the episode is devoted to slapdash histrionics as the friend from their past does his best to telegraph Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch for most of the runtime. After all those shenanigans go nowhere, we’re left with a rushed and implausible finale that leaves more ends loose than tied. It’s a shame, too, since Pohl’s story certainly promises the kind of psycho-evolutionary social commentary and wit worthy of Philip K. Dick. C

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    Florence Bravo sees a familiar Romero face, Day of the Dead’s Lori Cardille as a disturbed housewife whose restlessness gets the best of her in a house with a dark history. Years ago the woman of the title lived in the same house Emily (Cardille) and David (David Hayward, The House Where Death Lives) recently purchased, and through unknown circumstances she killed her husband right there on the kitchen hardwood. As Emily spends more and more time alone in the house while her husband works, she starts to feel more and more like Florence, up to the point where she starts suspecting her husband of infidelity. What transpires is a mix between The Amityville Horror and Robert Altman’s Images, where a curse and a deranged mind meet a deadly crossroads. On the surface this is yet another horror spin on domesticity in the age of feminism, but Cardille’s excellent performance and a dark, haunting style elevate this well above the norm. The ending is dark and moody, even romantic, crossing a Romeo & Juliet fating with some lesbian overtones, all under a moonlight hue. Great stuff. A-

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    Meet the Geezenstacks. They’re the perfect model American family. Husband, wife, kid, dog, and a beautiful house. They’ve got it all…except they’re all mere figurines. Children’s toys. To little Audrey (Lana Hirsch), though, they’re much more than that. She talks about them as if they were real, as if they were family. Such banter starts weighing on the pressured father, Sam (Craig Wasson, Body Double, Dream Warriors) to the point where he decides to get rid of the family once and for all. Instead, he becomes their houseguest. While it takes a bit to get going, The Geezenstacks is a fun little episode that gets deliriously meta for the finale when Sam finds himself trapped inside the miniature dollhouse. The effects aren’t quite realistic, but the illusion is still there and the concept is novel enough for a few good laughs. There’s a few frights, too, thanks to the creepy design of the dolls. B

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    The Websters have a big eight-legged secret and the men in their lives are the joke. Black Widows sees a mother (fourties child star of films like Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, Margaret O’Brien) and daughter (Theresa Saldana, Raging Bull) pair that at times can conjure up the qualities of a spider. Mommy’s known this for ages, but Audrey is finding out the hard way as she’s about to marry her fiancé, Robert (Joe D’Angerio). As Audrey begins exhibiting more and more spider-like qualities, her mom must tell her the truth behind her condition, what happened to her father, and what could happen to Audrey’s fiancé if she’s hungry enough. An effective episode that uses the successful formula of setting up curious, well-tuned mystery for the first half and delivering creative, clever effects for the second. A death via a clothesline spider web is most amusing. The episode never takes the time to explain just why the hell they have such a condition, but it’s treated in such a straight, bizarre, Carrie-esque fashion that the web it spins is good enough. Jack Hill might have liked that finale. B+

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    Heretic follows an antique dealer (Bruce MacVittie, The Stand) and thief who comes across some crates from an old excavated monastery. Always one to rip off others for the bottom line, he himself feels ripped off when everything inside the crates appears to have little of value. That is except for one vintage painting which was hidden deep in the bottom of one of the crates. It’s worth a mint, but before he can unload it, he’s going to have to live it. This is formulaic comeuppance-by-way-of-deceit stuff, but what gives it production value are the few bits where the dealer heads into the painting and into another time, like the Spanish inquisition, for one. Also of note is the presence of Deranged star Roberts Blossom as the inquisitor. C+

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    Next up, A Serpent’s Tooth finds a widowed housewife, Pearl (Renee Taylor), losing control of her rebellious children. She turns to a friend for help, but it isn’t until she gets a serpent’s tooth that she’s finally able to conjure the power to control her kids. The only problem? It takes any of her commands literally, including her old housewife mantras. When she lectures one of her kids at the table – “Your tongue is going to get stuck that way!” – it does! Taylor gives a strong leading performance in one of the few episodes in the Tales canon to explicitly address the times with the teenagers sporting some serious 80’s stylings. Tooth bites right at the Generation gap, as the mom is able to finally get control over a generation that had, since the 60’s, been running the show. There are some nice effects throughout, including the final, salty reveal. B

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    Baker’s Dozen – Romero pens this one, but don’t expect many of the flourishes usually reserved for the horror cultural critic. This one initially promises some of the racial progressiveness evident in Romero’s Living Dead films, following the exploits of a powerful black woman in New Orleans. Any possibilities of class critique are wasted, though, as the baker proves to be little more than an Aunt Jemima with a chip on her shoulder. What’s worse for Romero is that the story is all over the place, skipping time unconvincingly and failing most critically to setup the final twist. It can’t possibly be considered a twist when the villain has to literally explain why she’s dying as she’s doing so. Considering the central device in the film is voodoo inspired – with actions taken to gingerbread men manifesting themselves in reality, it’s a real shame that there are zero effects done in the episode. Romero was aboard, where was Savini? Instead, we get the standard shot of a person in pain, cut to a shot of the gingerbread man followed by a shot of the aftermath. Katrina should have struck this part of New Orleans instead. D+

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    Back to housewife drama, Deliver Us from Goodness is an over the top look at what happens when God looks too kindly on his children. Homemaker Valeria Cantrell (Kaiulani Lee, Cujo, The Fan) lives a good life – too good, it seems. God won’t stop shining his angelic light upon her, and it really starts to cramp her social life, especially considering her husband is trying to run for office. In order to break this “curse”, she makes a point of breaking each and every commandment in hoping God will forsake her and let up. It’s a good concept, but the execution is a little too jokey. I love how wearing a Bruce Springsteen shirt is considered rebellious and sacrilegious…how far we’ve come, haven’t we? Now he’s adult contemporary. Steve Vinovich, from Awakenings and Mannequin, looks happy to be aboard as the dad. C

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    Want a dark Christmas-time story that’s not The Nightmare Before Christmas or the All Through the Halls Tales From the Crypt episode? Well, Seasons of Belief, is just the perfect gift. Written and directed by Michael McDowell, who’s go on to pen The Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice, this episode predicts both films with its fusion of childhood anti-heroes crossed with a disturbed slant on the most cheery of holidays. When a couple of kids (one of which is a very young Jenna Van Oy of Blossom fame) profess to their parents that they no longer believe in Santa, mommy and daddy (Margaret Klenck and the great E.G. Marshall, respectively) sit them down for a children’s story like no other. They talk about a devilish Christmas critter, “The Grither”, and how he gets those who don’t believe in him. It’s a very clever allegory to the power of legend, and how regardless of whether something is real or not, it’s believing that keeps it alive. The tale is campfire-story engaging, and wow, the climax really doesn’t puss out, even with the kids in there. The last line “…it wasn’t Santa Claus!” is pretty damn haunting in context with the finale. Many Darkside episodes feel like lower-grade versions of other popular scare stories, but this one is one of the true originals. One of the season and series highpoints. A+

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    Miss May Dusa may have a less than subtle reference to Medusa in the title, but the episode itself is surprisingly shrewd and collected. It begins with a burglar who after looking eye to eye with a mannequin, becomes one himself while the mannequin takes life. Don’t expect to find Kim Cattrall or a flamboyantly gay Hollywood anywhere, though (that’s two Mannequin references this review, yikes!). This mannequin is actually Medusa incarnate, although she has a serious case of amnesia. She runs into a coy saxophone player on a downtown subway, and through their lengthy, effervescent conversation, she learns more about herself, her past, and the curse turning whomever she looks in the eye to stone. The two leads, Sofia Geier and Gary Majchrazak, demonstrate a lot of chemistry, and in parts this is borderline touching. It’s clever updating of Medusa lore to modern times makes for kind of a tragic love story. Star cross’d for the horror set, Miss May Dusa works…especially as a short format horror episode. B+

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    For the next episode, The Milkman Cometh…but does he deliver? Garry (Alligator’s Robert Forster) is a struggling father looking to provide for his family. His wife, Ruth (Shannon Wilcox), has had a hard go with pregnancy, but Garry just wants it all to work out. His fortunes look to change, though, when his neighbor Howard (Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel, who also has the slasher film Double Exposure on his resume) gives him a taste of the good deal he’s been getting from the milkman. Apparently he drops off more than just milk, satisfying any wish that’s left in writing on the porch. Garry immediately starts to benefit from the goodwill, but when the wives of other homeowners on the block start to die, he fears karma may next take Ruth. Buoyed by a strong cast of vets, The Milkman Cometh is a dark, depressing and sobering look at domestic complacency. Forster plays that grizzled good guy so well, and here he dips it in alcohol for a little extra kick. The ending doesn’t quite payoff the way it could, but the filmmakers do effectively keep the milkman in the shadows. Rather than just a character, it’s clear he’s more a personification of temptation, and if it ain’t the serpent’s apple, it may as well be mother’s milk. B-

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    The title, My Ghostwriter – The Vampire, pretty much sums up this next one. Peter (Jeff Conaway, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, Grease) is a hack writer and an all-around asshole. His secretary, Jayne (Jillie Mack, wife of Tom Selleck), hasn’t been paid in ages, always promised that forthcoming cheque, and he hasn’t had a good idea since pretty much Bram Stolker’s days, probably. Good thing, then, that a 900 year old vampire, Count Draco (Roy Dotrice, who was in the original Tales From the Crypt), comes to Peter to share his life story. In exchange Peter gives him a place to crash during the day, and as a result Draco ends up netting the writer millions. Eventually the count starts taking issue with not getting credit for his life story, and well, plagiarism sucks. It’s another parable about greed, this time with a vampire slant. There are a few decent effects, like the bat changing into the count, but the episode does cheap out on showing us any flashbacks to Draco’s past, which would have helped considering how he recalls his past at length to Peter. A little fun, a lot of camp. C+

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    My Own Place sees a bright eyed Wall Street wannabe, Sandy (Perry Lang, Sean S. Cunningham’s Spring Break), getting a steal on an apartment downtown, only to find out he’s not the only tenant. There also seems to be a quiet Indian (Harsh Nayyar), who also shares the place. Needless to say, his constant presence puts a cramp on Sandy’s relationship with Laura (Nancy Travis, So I Married an Axe Murderer, The Vanishing). Laura can’t see the Indian, though, and as the days go by Sandy starts seeing more than the Indian – he’s thrust into a weird and vulnerable past that can’t be his. Clearly an attempt to contrast the shallow capitalist life with the spiritual, karmic life of the east, My Own Place works as an effective little mindmelder. The leads are fresh, fun faces, and the story actually has a deeper metaphysical heft to it, too. Every place has a history, be it in the wear and tear of the building or in the resonance of the experiences contained within it. My Own Place effectively explores that. It’s written (along with Lang) and directed by Silent Night, Bloody Night director Theodore Gershuny, but don’t hold that against it. B

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    You’ve probably heard this one before, but Red Leader is about a corrupt land tycoon, Alex Hayes (The Peach Pit’s own Joe E. Tata) who’s sorting out the inheritance of his equally evil partner, Jake Caine (Carmine Caridi, Godfather II & III), who died unexpectedly. In his office, Alex has to deal with Jake’s money-grubbing widow (Brioni Farrell, Appointment With Fear) and then eventually the titular leader, Satan himself (Peter Bromilow). Satan wants Alex in hell with him to help run things, but Alex can’t imagine a world where money is meaningless. It’s Dante’s Inferno with a yuppie office doubling for purgatory. While it may ultimately be just a couple people on a single set, the look has a stylishly cold and soulless grey palette and 80’s-as-hell modern décor that’s at least visually interesting. It’s kind of funny now watching Tata play in a suit when he’d soon become one of TV’s most identifiable blue collar workers in Beverly Hills 90210. It’s derivative and predictable, but it’s got that classic Darkside feel to it – and it should, directed by series stalwart John Harrison, who’d become so entrenched in Romero’s TV anthology universe he’d later go on to direct Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. C

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    John Harrison returns to direct Everybody Needs a Little Love, but this time he’s got a story by Psycho writer Robert Bloch. Like Psycho, this one features a murderous woman who might not exist – two buddies, Roberts (Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach) and Curtis (Richard Portnow, Se7en) decide after a night of heavy drinking to steal a mannequin in order to have the relationship all their married friends have. Roberts wakes up the next morning with a hazy memory, but he could have sworn the mannequin was following him with her eyes last night. He stops by Curtis’s the next night to get a better look, and while she seems a dummy to him, to Curtis she’s a living thing. “Eats like a bird”, Curtis says, in an obvious nod to Bloch’s most famous of motel keepers. Things get more confusing for Roberts until at the end he finds himself in an interrogation room for a murder he swears was committed by a mannequin! This one has a decent setup and a nice noir feel, with shadowy living room drama set to a jazzy trumpet score. It’s sort of undone though by a muddled finale that trades off really explaining this whole living mannequin thing in favor of an obvious punchline reveal. Jerry Orbach is one of the TV greats, and his reading of this line here is telling of the episode: “Middle of the road…that’s the most dangerous place to drive.” – that’s always true with horror – be bold or be boring, and this one, despite the visual and acting polish, is as plain as porcelain. C

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    Two witches, one age old and one young and blessed by circumstance, strike up a deal to share a powerful talisman throughout centuries in Auld Acquaintances. Directed by Richard Friedman, who’d go on shortly after to direct the slashers Doom Asylum and Phantom of the Mall, this simple little one-rom tale rises above its source material with two grand, theatrical performances and some sharp dialogue. A rare female-written episode, this one aptly captures the, pun intended, catty relationship between the two witches and the actresses are, um, spellbinding in belting out that back-and-forth. Both Sally Gracie (Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated The Rain People), as the old witch, and Linda Thorson (TV’s The Avengers) as the ingénue do good work in portraying themselves in the 1600’s and then later in the 1980’s present. Aided by subtle, but convincing, makeup they are able to convey the lengthy weight of this conflict in the sparse set and short timing of the story. While it might lack the murder and menace of more traditional horror anthology episodes, Auld is a great example of how the cost-cutting single set episodes of later Darkside can work quite well when the script, performances and direction all embrace the drama of the situation rather than trying to thrill with limited special effects. It’s with convincing characters that this one casts its spell. B+

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    The old adage about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is the springboard for The Social Climber. Rob (Robert Romanus, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) is a shoekeeper’s apprentice. Young, with a fiancé and a mind full of dreams, he yearns for the grand lives of many of his clients. Rob gets his wish when he discovers that his boss (Albert Hague from the anthology film Nightmares) has a magic shoe hammer that allows the wearer of the shoes to experience the opulence and opportunity of its owners. What transpires is a classical morality tale of greed and knowing one’s lot in life. While it is directed by He Knows You’re Alone wunderkind Armand Mastroiani, it feels more the work of its writer, Ellen Sandhaus, with a greater maternal emphasis on relationships and domesticity than on horror or thrills. It’s mostly mundane, but Romanus is perfectly seedy as the man of the title, and the episode at least finishes with a delightful twist. The leathery, age old morality tale though, could use a polish. C

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    In The Swap, the fickle, wart-ridden Bubba (Charles Ludlam) is the son of an infamous conjure woman in the Louisiana bayou. When he suspects his gorgeous wife, Anna Belle (Maria Manuche) of having an affair with the farmhand Claude (James Wlcek) he devises a plan for revenge, but the two lovers have plans of their own. A forgettable episode filled with forgettable people, hardly anyone involved, from the actors to the writer and director, ever went on to do much of anything after this episode, and it shows. The main actor, though, had a reason. Ludlam would die months after filming from AIDS; you wonder if his contempt for the younger, sexually charged characters in the episode is less acting and more nihilistic truth. That subtext is the only interesting thing in this flat attempt at steamy, deep south noir. D

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    It’s heaven versus hell in Let the Games Begin. OF course, in Tales from the Darkside fashion, that battle is two people talking in a room rather than a grand battle of the elements. Harry (Earl Hindman, Wilson from Home Improvement) drops dead in a hotel room and an angel and a devil battle over where the fallen fellow’s fate belongs. It’s mostly large scale theatrics as each tires to one up the other in commanding Harry’s attention, but in the end they end up finding more attention in each other. Hindman plays fun stooge, but David Groh and Jane Summerhays are forgettable as the leading rivals. Less a Megadeth album cover of death and struggle, and more like a 90’s Def Leppard song. “Can’t stop the hurt inside…when love and hate collide.” Blech. D

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    Season three tunes out with a period critique on technology and keeping up with the Joneses in The Enormous Radio. Married couple Irene and Jim (Christine Estabrook and John Rothman, who’d both go on to sizeable careers as character actors) purchase the eponymous AM/FM tuner and suddenly are able to dial in to the conversations of all of their neighbours in 50’s America. At first it’s a novelty, but as Irene spends more days in the living room when her husband’s at work, it quickly becomes an obsession that ends up taking over her life in more ways than one. While it may not be a traditional Tales episode, it certainly resonates with a somber critique of Norman Rockwell America. The production values are strong, with surprising period detail and a good use of space throughout the classical home. It’s the writing, though, that’s the biggest coupe, based on a story by Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist John Cheever. Cheever made a career out of critiquing the malaise behind the pomp and circumstance of rich North East America, and for filmies is probably best known (or at least should be!) for his harrowing, subversive studio film, The Swimmer (recently released on Blu-ray by Grindhouse of all companies). That same tearing apart of the façade of normalcy and manners that permeates his work is front and center here in The Enormous Radio. While it might not horrify in a traditional sense, it does manage to unsettle, especially with its perfectly understated final shot twist. True horror is often not what’s in the room with you, but what’s lurking outside of it. B+


    Image Quality

    inline ImageA year might have passed since the previous season, both in terms of filming and DVD release, but these transfers still retain that same muddy, soft, interlaced look evident in Season Two. The odd speck here and there reminds us these were shot on film, but unless they do a full-scale restoration to the tune of Star Trek, and they never will, we’re stuck with these tape sources. There’s an average of 7 shows a disc, so that’s roughly 2 ½ hours of video per disc, but CBS/Paramount has given the episodes respectable bitrates thanks to using the more spacious dual-layer discs. Still, no matter the bitrate, there’s no getting around the source material, and these episodes definitely look of their time. Colors are acceptably saturated, and darks hold pretty well, but this is still 28 years old.

    Sound

    Like with Season Two, the audio for these episodes sounds a whole lot better than it has any right to. Sound effects are crisp, dialogue is clean, and the music, which has predictably been substituted to avoid copyright costs and claims, sounds about as full as it could sound on a mono mix. Given that they were able to substitute music, it’s clear then that CBS had available to them isolated tracks to work with (sound effects, dialogue and music) and that therefore helps today when trying to preserve these stems for DVD. It might look a little soft, but it’ll certainly sound clear.

    Supplemental Material

    Extras must have been left behind in the sunlit world, because there aren’t any here in the Darkside.

    Final Thoughts

    inline ImageSeason Three of Romero’s Tales From the Darkside has its share of ups and downs, but on the whole some of the series’ best episodes are contained within. Seasons of Belief should be perennial scary Christmas watching, and the first two episodes, Romero’s decapitation-laden The Circus, and the conversely shrewd but unsettling I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye, are both classic stories in their own right that supersede the limitations of the television format. Add in some star turns from familiar genre faces like Lori Cardille, Robert Forster, Jerry Orbach, Craig Wasson, and Creepshow’s own E.G. Marshall, as well as writing and directing from some real respectable artists, and you’ve got yourself a pretty commendable season on the whole. The creative people here made the most of low budgets and the often single-set locations to tell a variety of stories, from ones about vampires to Salem witches. CBS couldn’t get around the old, cheap, tape sources for these visual transfers, but they’re good enough, and they sound surprisingly good all things considered. There are no extras, but as the end credit narration pleads…"try to enjoy the daylight" – there’s 8 hours of quality horror television here for a dollar an episode.

    Rating

    [​IMG] Season - B+

    Image Quality - C-

    Sound - B

    Supplements - N/A

    Technical Info.
    • Color
    • Running time - 7 hours 56 minutes
    • Not Rated
    • 3 Discs
    • Chapter Stops
    • English Mono
    Other Pictures

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    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 7, 2015

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