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Old 11-22-2009, 06:51 PM
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Scored: 5
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Tales from the Darkside: Season Two




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: November 22, 2009

Released by: CBS/Paramount
Release date: 10/27/2009
MSRP: $36.98
Region 1, NTSC
Interlaced
Full Frame 1.33:1
1985-1986



inline ImageWhen we think George A. Romero we usually think indie pioneer. A guy always outside the system, struggling to get his vision on the screen. Each new film is a triumph even before it is seen because of the mere fact that it was actually released. There was a fleeting time though, shortly after the success of Creepshow in 1982, that Romero could actually be considered studio. Creepshow brought in big bucks for Warner Brothers and revitalized the idea of horror anthology (with Twilight Zone: The Movie and Cat’s Eye to follow shortly after) and it was that success that saw Romero at the apex of his commercial clout. What did he do? He took it to the small screen with Tales from the Darkside, which ran for four seasons before being spun off into Monsters for another two years until Tales from the Darkside: The Movie took the whole thing full circle. While Romero is still gleefully mining the now esoteric depths of his Dead franchise, it’s interesting to look back on the work he made for the mainstream, for everyone to tune into week nights in syndication. The second season is usually make or break for a series, so what side of the line does Romero’s Darkside fall?

The Story


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The season opener centers itself around a lounge act comedian, “Mr. Personalities” (Chuck McCannM. Emmet Walsh must have been busy), who is able to do uncanny impersonations of celebrities. His act is always a sellout, but he’s been doing the same thing for years. One night a doctor approaches him for a top secret duty – to make a breakthrough with a captive alien in hopes of uncovering the secret to nuclear fusion. This will prove to be Mr. Personalities’ toughest act to follow. The Impressionist is a quaint, old fashioned episode with equal parts simplicity and whimsy. A lot is refreshingly spent with McCann’s Spiffy Remo, and for 22-minutes, his character ends up with a fairly curved arc. The remainder centers around some endearing, but totally rough around the edges man-puppeting-alien-suit and a-ton-of-bright-lights-masking-for-a-spaceship effects. For a generation raised on the twists of Tales from the Crypt, the Close Encounters ending may seem anti-climactic, but even if director Armand Mastroianni (He Knows You’re Alone) is clearly impersonating Spielberg, Michel Gondry has proven that sometimes a rough imitation is more precious than the real thing. B


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Lifebomb is about a rich corporate mogul, Ben Martin (Bill Macy from Maude and The Jerk), who is one day approached by a salesman with an explosive new product. The lifebomb is an apparatus that straps on one’s back, and when the person is in danger, be it a heart attack or a physical thread, it immediately erupts, creating a giant red sheath around the client until safety is restored. Destined to increase his life possibilities, Ben enlists, but staying alive is killer. Those endearing rough edges return again, this time in the crude time-lapse effects used for the sheathing sequences. It’s a somewhat provocative little piece, with plenty of “What if?” hypothesizing about technology and relationships and age and happiness. The end is fittingly dark, and even if Macy’s forced heart attacks seem implausible and certainly repetitive, the piece itself is pretty classic “you are your own worst enemy” stuff. B


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One of the most recurrent stories in horror is the clash between rational and mystic beings. From Dracula to Carrie, these stories are often about how overlooking the special or sacred in this universe can wind you up dead. If it was done in the eighties, then it was probably about white yuppies trying to unjustly evict African Americans. Parlour Floor Front does just that, but this time the man of color is also a practicing voodooist. When a married couple tries to kick him out of their dream home, the high rise ends up becoming their tomb. This episode offers nothing new to cookie cutter formula, and certainly pales in comparison to the similar voodoo entry in The Hitchhiker. This episode deserves points, though, for just how briskly everything is condensed. One moment she’s pregnant, the next scene she’s already had a miscarriage and then the one after that well, I don’t want to ruin too much. Like other Darkside episodes, this holds appeal just by being so earnest about trying to squeeze everything into such a short, modest little package. C


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Ring Around the Redhead has a man on death row recounting the bizarre circumstances leading to his conviction. Billy Malone (John Heard, C.H.U.D.) was a well to do inventor looking for his next big innovation. He found it in Keena (Penelope Ann Miller, credited without the Ann, in her first role), an alien brought out of a giant volcanic ring in Billy’s basement. He teaches her to speak, to read and to love, but somewhere down the line he got the chair. Light and pretty insubstantial, Redhead is at least in spirit a nice throwback to the wiseguy recantations of old film noirs. Heard and Miller have no chemistry (although he does force her to read up on that, among other sciences) but are both likeable in fairly uneventful parts. It’s forgettable and lacks style, but at least its heart is in the right place. C+


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Tom Savini shows he’s more than just a make-up man as director of this next episode, Halloween Candy. In it, a cynical old scrooge vows not to give away any candy on Hallows’eve despite the insistence of his son. His frugality brings some wrath from the local kids, but it’s a demon-looking creature that is most disturbed, and disturbing, of all. Like other Darkside entries, this is captivatingly insular, forgoing plot devices and a cast of characters for a single core that the segment probes. The story seems simplistic, but the finale makes a surprising diversion into arthouse ambiguity with some calculated static shots and metaphysical ideas. Of course, it wouldn’t be Savini without some effects work, and the demon creature knock knock knocking on gramps’ door is a sickly detailed little creation. There’s even a bit of gooey nastiness thrown in, too. A great episode, through and through, this candy is all sweet. A


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Pete Bancroft (Michael Warren) is one of the biggest music moguls around, but he’s in a slump. He just can’t seem to get his great ideas and compositions on paper. Even his daughter, Justine (Lisa Bonet, Angel Heart), is making more music than him. Things change when he gets an anonymous phone call about a piano that can instantly play the players thoughts. That’s just what Pete needs, but what he doesn’t need is the satanic curse that comes with it! The Satanic Piano has a fun concept and while it doesn’t offer much new to the mix other than some awesomely synthesized piano arrangements and the all too popular horror avenue of deflecting all evil to satan worshiping heavy metal musicians. After a mostly sparse two thirds, the finale does get fittingly crazy and even offers up some nice optical effects work and even a bit of gore. Not bad. B-


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The man who created the series comes back once more to write, penning The Devil’s Advocate. This episode follows hated and controversial radio personality Mandrake (Jerry Stiller, father to Ben) and a night on the air from hell. His day goes to shit before he even gets to work, when a man is found dead in his car. Then, when he’s taking calls, the calls start coming from all times and places, from Nazi Germany to pre-industrial revolution. The reception can’t be that bad, can it? Penned by Romero and directed by Romero’s longtime cinematographer (and director of Creepshow 2) Michael Gornick, this is flashier in story than it is in picture. Stiller makes for a vicious moral judge, so even while you’re waiting for the twist he’s always keeping things interesting. The twist works quite well and is accompanied by some again effective makeup. It’s a slow burn that ends in fire. A-


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Kolchak himself, Darren McGavin, returns to his detective roots in Distant Signals. Van Conway (McGavin) was once P.I. Max Paradise, star of the small screen sixties phenomenon of the same name. It’s been a good twenty years since the show was canceled, but one day the mysterious Mr. Smith (Lenny von Dohlen) comes into the old Max Paradise production office with a lofty proposition: Millions of dollars if Van Conway and the rest of the Paradise crew can reassemble to continue the series. The only problem is that Van may be dead, and Mr. Smith may not be human. Distant Signals is a warmhearted and beautiful ode to the olden days of television, where a signal would be sent out by satellite, and where it landed was anyone’s guess. There is a wonderfully ghostly quality about the old wireless mediums of television and radio transmission, and this episode eulogizes the wonder quite capably. McGavin is in top form as the washed up actor, and the arc of the story – putting the rising action with the reveal of the killer in the show within a show is a fittingly meta look at storytelling. All the whimsy seems kind of funny with those cryptic Tales from the Darkside bookends, but whether it fits or not, it’s a joy to watch. A-


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There’s something wrong with Mary Jane indeed – she’s possessed! Her grandma (Anita Dangler) brings in the help of a couple exorcists, Jack and Nora Mills (Lawrence Tierney and Phyllis Diller) to rid her of the demon, but this isn’t going to be easy. The Trouble with Mary Jane is a tongue in cheek take-off on The Exorcist, with the exorcists bumbling around with spells and mantras while the girl bellows and foams at the mouth. The, erm, trouble with the episode is that it’s too jokey to be taken seriously and not funny enough to be enjoyed. The actors ham it up good, and even if the final twist has a little meat to it, the whole episode is pretty much excess fat. Trim it and move on. C-


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Ursa Minor concerns itself with a little girl who gets a possessed toy as a gift. When things start going bad around the house the daughter says “Teddy did it!” but the mother continually blames her brood until it’s too late. Most horror anthology series of the eighties and nineties covered the possessed doll plot, but this was at least the first to do so before the whole Child’s Play phenom. The episode, unfortunately, is a weak one, mostly because there are no special effects of any kind. It’s basically all the-parents-wake-up-in-the-morning-to-find-out-the-teddy-has-destroyed-something kind of exposition, rather than showing the doll come to life. Even at the end, when mommy is stabbing the doll with scissors, there is nothing there to suggest the doll is in any way animate. The half hour format means there’s little time to develop character, either, so this just standard killer doll stuff without any flourish to set it apart. A minor entry, indeed. C


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Kate (Susan Strasberg, Sweet 16, Bloody Birthday) is living her life backwards. People bring her groceries before she even knows she needs them, and keys are found before they are lost. The parameters of cause and effect are backwards, but unfortunately she’s the only person who seems to know it. Effect and Cause doesn’t exactly get things backwards, but the episode is nevertheless problematic. It dwells too much in the obvious cause effect relationships, reducing them to simple fade ins and outs of manifest objects. The clever premise doesn’t really have much, erm, effect, since the end fails to synthesize any of the ideas presented. The finale is muddled and the payoff too quick and too late. Points for being a sort of Final Destination predecessor, but still, not cause for much success. C-


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Timmy (Seth Green, Idle Hands, It) is having some household problems. Not only is he having trouble accepting his new Stepdad, Biff (Greg Mullavey), but he’s also seeing things at night in his bedroom: Buzz saws in the shadows, tentacles under the bed and a giant monster in the closet. Monsters in my Room is another Darkside standout. The late night disturbances become a platform for little Timmy’s progression from child to adult. There’s some pervasive oedipal tension as Timmy and Biff clash over Timmy’s mother’s affection. At the end, one replaces the other and one becomes the lone alpha male. Seth Green is solid in a very early performance, and the creature work, lighting and overall atmosphere are all top notch. One of the finer Tales from the Darkside episodes, this manages to both capture the childhood essence of being afraid of the dark while at the same time fusing it with grown up themes of maturation and competition. A-


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Comet Watch sees a bumbling astronomer, Englebert Ames (Anthony Heald, Red Dragon, Deep Rising) seeing more than just stars when he spends the night watching for the return of Halley’s Comet after a 75 year absence. With the comet comes a woman right out of 1910, the last time the comet came by. Halley himself (Fritz Weaver, Demon Seed, Creepshow) is back, too, for some fish out of water (sky?) antics and some crazy love triangles and dippers. When I think “Darkside” I think a lot darker than this, but of all the lighter episodes (and there seems to be a fair few this season) this one is one of the more fun. There’s more than just your generic culture clash stuff that was in Ring Around the Redhead, since the people deal with age, love and astronomy in 1986. The ending voice over is good for a few shooting chuckles, too. C


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Dream Girl involves a shat upon stagehand who gets his revenge by displacing all those who have disrespected him into a dream. These people, previously in positions of power, now find themselves as maitre d’s or servants. But they are in a play, too. And with people with different accents. This episode is more like a nightmare, not because of dark undertones but because of haphazard storytelling. The idea of a guy getting comeuppance through his dreams is fine, but all these assembled victims we have no clue about prior to the dream, so we really have no vested interest in all these characters. The story never explains much, either, and ends up being just a whole lot of nothing. There are a few flourishes when it comes to cinematography, with plenty of slow motion and fog effects throughout. The episode is a total mess, though, and easily the worst thus far this season. D


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A New Lease on Life is a good title after the terrible previous episode, and this tenant is more than up to task. This fine episode features an apartment complex with rates to die for. Tenant Archie (Robert Rothman) loves the price but not necessarily the rules, as he must not put holes in the wall, must not use a microwave oven and must recycle any bio-degradable leftovers in the complex trash heap. Turns out the heap actually leads to the stomach of the building, which is really one giant monster. This is a quirky episode that revels in its Little Shop of Horrors premise. The side characters are interesting, including a couple weathered moving men, and the effects on the carnivorous building at the end are just the right blend of real and over the top. The mother side plot doesn’t pay off after much buildup, but the notion of a dwelling as a living extension of the self is a rightfully richer concept anyway. B


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John Harrison, who’d also go on to direct the Tales from the Darkside movie helms this, Printer’s Devil. It revolves around a writer who can’t seem to get representation or a decent break in the business until he comes across the mystical Mr. Kellaway (Charles Knapp). Kellaway instantly solves his writer’s block and monetary problems, but it’s at the expense of voodoo magic. It quickly moves from dolls to animals, and when animals no longer cut it Junior (Larry Manetti) must make some big sacrifices to keep his good luck flowing. A fairly serious and somber slow burn, this is the kind of darker tale that seems most emblematic of horror anthologies. The initial voodoo introduction, where Kellaway uses a dummy to invoke pain on a non-paying client is pretty brutal, but it’s the ending that strikes with the most sting. Composed in a motivated crane shot, it invokes a darkside that’s finally fitting to the title. It’s haunting, and quite prophetic of the evil that man might entertain for success, and is overall the scariest moment this season. B+


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Less scary and more just traumatic, The Shrine involves a daughter coming home to visit her aging mom only to discover that she herself may not be aging. Cecilia (Coleen Gray of Nightmare Alley in her final role) hasn’t touched her daughter Christine’s (Lorna Luft) room since the day she moved out. But has Christine moved out? Cecilia’s been staying up late talking to her perfect little daughter, but Christine can’t figure out if she’s crazy, Cecilia’s crazy, or if she really hasn’t aged at all. The episode starts with strong atmospherics and a solid story foundation. The notion of a mother imagining an alternate form of her daughter to right the wrongs of an imperfect upbringing certainly makes for good melodrama. There’s even a bit of horror in the lightning clad final confrontation, but aside from that the finale leaves much to be desired. There are no answers, with all scares replaced with some saccharine reconciliation. Damnit, Darkside, get darker, will you!? C+


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Although still sometimes goofy, The Old Soft Shoe has a darker streak as it follows a lingerie salesman, Chester (Paul Dooley) as he checks into a hotel room rife with apparitions. He begins seeing a beautiful woman, also in lingerie, but what’s happening may not be reality. It is all in his mind, and more importantly, just what’s the dark secret behind room number seven? This episode offers yet another vague Darkside conclusion, but this one is a little more interesting, given that both the woman (who may or may not be real) and the man are dealing directly with lingerie. Considering the finale, that connection introduces some interesting topics on gender identity and the intertwined relationships between sex, violence and the imagination. Dooley is characteristically great here, and John “Piglet” Fiedler makes the few forced bits of comic relief somewhat endearing. It ends up being entirely worth it, though, for another fine final shot crane. B-


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The Last Car serves up a terror train of a different kind, where the only tickets are one way, and the only pathway is to death. Stacey (Begonya Plaza) boards a late night train on its way to Cranbrook (“or with my luck, Nova Scotia!”) only to find out the passengers and sights aren’t quite what they seem to be whenever they cross through tunnels. A kid’s toy gun becomes a real tool of death, and window reflections do the darndest things as the tunnels seem to become increasingly frequent. Although the episode is lazily ambiguous (par for the course for most of these Darkside entires) this episode might actually benefit from the avoidance of an overt twist. This is instead a delirious trip into subjective terror, as the passenger’s sightings continue to become increasingly macabre. There are some great optical effects present, especially where reflections would come to reveal either moving ghosts or decaying corpses. The trip turns out to be quite the terror, and the way it sticks to the simplicity of the scare ride and nothing more proves that sometimes the thrill of horror can be all about the scares rather than the reasoning behind them. B+


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In A Choice of Dreams, a corrupt mob boss suffering terminal cancer is given the option to dream after death. He’s beat women, killed men and cheated everyone in between, but when a scientist gives him a chance to keep his brain dreaming well into death, Mr. Corelli (Abe Vigoda) chooses life. The idea of avoiding that black hole that so many fear in death through science is an interesting one, but the execution here is far from a dream. It’s pretty uneventful for the bulk of it, more centering on Corelli and his past deeds and tough decision. It’s only after he finally commits to the decision, which is essentially the finale, that anything interesting happens, and even then all we get is a nicely cryptic twist. There’s a bit of medical gore, but otherwise this piece is as light on the grue as it is on entertainment. C+


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Strange Love, indeed. A doctor makes a house call when Edmund Alcott (Harsh Nayyar) pleads over the phone for aid for his wife, Marie (Marcia Cross, Melrose Place, Desperate Housewives). She’s hurt her leg, but when the doctor, Phillip Carrol (Patrick Kilpatrick), arrives, it’s already healed. Let’s just say she’s got a copious supply of external blood and a couple of very sharp teeth. She’s also growing tired of her similarly sharp toothed husband…Director Theodore Gershuny (Silent Night, Bloody Night) gives us a decent episode that’s sexy enough and bloody enough to entertain. Seeing Marcia Cross play sultry so young is certainly a draw, and she does very well here a full six years before anyone would ever take notice. It’s a wonder whether “Alcott” is a play on the common “Alucard” surname often given to vampires. B-


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A preacher is dead but more than his will is unleashed in an enclosed house in The Unhappy Medium. His family includes his money grubbing widow (Connie Stevens) and his good natured niece and nephew. Guess which one gets theirs as the preacher, Farley Bright (Pete Miller), uses his niece as a mouthpiece and his house as purgatory. When a title like “The Unhappy Medium” comes up against a video tape of a dead preacher on television, the many riffs on the word “medium” suggests this is going to be a rich episode deconstructing the various layers of reality and how the cathode ray tube can serve as a type of immortality device. Not so. What we get instead is fairly by the numbers haunted house fair, with lots of flashing lights, bodily possession and shaking cameras masking as a shaking house. So forgettable is the episode that I can’t even recall the twist and I just watched it. C-


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Fear of Floating finds a small army recruitment building bombarded by a man with a flighty secret. Arnold Baker (Sherman Howard, no stranger to Romero with his performance as Bub in Day of the Dead) has the ability to levitate, but only when he tells a lie. The more he lies, the higher he gets, and the more the world looks to be in calamity. He says he’s fleeing a circus, but there’s a short, homely woman who wants some loving…and it’s not Zelda Rubinstein. This modern update on Pinocchio is more silly than it is poignant, and the levitation effects are really weak. Bub gives kind of a fun and sleazy performance, and Yeardly Smith (Maximum Overdrive, Lisa from The Simpsons) gives a screwball one as his won’t be love interest. The moments where there’s a brief siege on the obvious set recalls yet another classic, Assault on Precinct 13, but classic it ain’t. Not even the bloody zinger of a finale. C


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Speaking of finales, we’re at the last episode, The Casavin Curse. Friday the 13th, Part 3 fans will recognize the lead here, Catherine “Vera” Parks, who plays the titular Gina Casavin. She wakes up covered in blood with her lover dead and punctured in the back with several knife wounds. She can’t remember a thing, but she thinks she might have done something bad. Of course there are a bunch of other sleazeballs all around her, too, so those suspicions quickly dissipate among the motley crew. She stays under supervision at home, and that means two things. She doesn’t have to wear any clothes, and there’s always a victim around waiting…Right from the opening frame, with some pretty brutal gore effects for television, this episode leaves a mark. The middle exposition is bolstered, shamelessly, no doubt, by Parks prancing around in various night gowns looking confused. Then we get to a sex scene and then the roaring climax, where there’s even more carnage. This is the kind of dark and trashy material from which Tales from the Crypt made a name for itself, and looking over the spotty output of this season, you’d wish that Darkside would have followed suit, too. Great finish, strictly average season. B+


Image Quality

Season Two of Tales from the Darkside isn’t the best, and neither is the video. The episodes are unfortunately interlaced (as are almost all eighties and nineties TV output on DVD, sadly) and quite soft to boot. Colors are adequately rendered, coming through vivid when they need to be. Black levels aren’t as bad as they could have been, but detail is definitely lacking. One of the episodes, Dream Girl, has harsh sharpening and digital noise, no doubt from original broadcast, but thankfully it’s one of the worst episodes of the season, so no harm. Interlacing is usually a given, but the fact that this season is always so soft is a pretty big turnoff. You try to enjoy the daylight, but it’s always too muddy to see!

Sound

Everything is English mono, and it actually sounds pretty good. The foley work done on the film is quite sharp, and there are some strong bits of low end that usually come out during the calamity of the episode finales. The high register is never shrill, even when Yeardly Smith talks, so kudos to Paramount on that. No real audible hiss is present, which is surprising given the quality of the picture. It should be noted that, like the previous season, the music for the DVD has been changed from the original television broadcast. I can't comment on the severity of the changes since I've never seen these on air, but at the very least the substitutions never seem glaringly out of place or out of time. Save for The Satanic Piano there really aren't any episodes centered around music, certainly none with big names like Vanity from the Friday the 13th series. It sucks that the music needs to be changed, but anyone who has been around the TV on DVD scene knows that these days it's virtually a given.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageGeorge A. Romero lent his voice to a commentary on the first season, and he kind of does here, albeit abridged. He talks briefly (five minutes briefly) about the sole episode he was involved with creatively in season two, “On Air”. It’s pretty clear this was taken from the same sitdown Romero gave from the first one, so this is all voice with supporting snippets from the actual episode nicely edited along with it. Romero is well spoken as always, and talks about both the political reasons for writing the episodes (and how not much has changed!) and how it was executed from the direction and acting to the makeup. It’s a nice little piece, but it’s all too brief, and as the sole extra on for this full season, it seems a little piddly, to say the least.


Final Thoughts

inline ImageThis season of Tales from the Darkside was pretty miss and hit, mostly plagued by muddled stories, uninspired twists and too many light hearted episodes. That said, there are still a few greats, like Tom Savini’s and Michael Gornick’s episodes and some amusing appearances by the likes of Catherine Parks, Marcia Cross, Seth Green and Darren McGavin, among others. The presentation is a little worse than the usual low standards of eighties television on DVD, with the video overly soft and interlaced and the music substituted from the original broadcast. There’s a short commentary from Romero on the extras, but otherwise this is as bare as Parks through most of her episode. I’m still recommending the set, because Darkside, like The Hitchhiker, deserves a better rapport than it usually receives in the anthology world, and at twenty odd minutes a pop, even the worst episodes aren’t so tough to digest. My tale from this Darkside? It’s modest, but charming.


Rating

.
Season - B-

Image Quality - C-

Sound - B-

Supplements - C-




Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 8 hours 35 minutes
  • Not Rated
  • 3 Discs
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Mono

Supplements
  • "On Air with George Romero" featurette

Other Pictures

 

 

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Old 11-23-2009, 12:56 AM
Mmmmmmm this show sucks ass.
 
 
Old 11-23-2009, 02:06 AM
HackMaster
looks intresting. still may pick it up. the quality is nt unbearable..
 
 
Old 11-23-2009, 06:23 AM
HackMaster
Are they still replacing some of the music on this new set ?
 
 
Old 11-23-2009, 06:47 PM
Moderator
Forgot to mention that - yes, the music is again changed. Since I never watched these during original broadcast (and after 25 years how could you remember anyway!) I can't say what has changed. Nothing sounded noticeably out of place, though.
__________________
Can't argue with a confident man.
 
 
Old 11-24-2009, 10:06 PM
HackMaster
the mandrake and last car ones have been changed from what i hear. I read half of them have been changed. The only thing i remember about the mandrake one (devils advocate) is that like 40's song played in the end. but i quess thats gone.. Just how bad is the picture?
 
 

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