The final disc of Tales from the Darkside‘s third season kicks off with a ham-fisted white guilt episode that manages to be racist and orientalist in the bargain so… quite a coup, I guess, if that’s what you’re going for. The less said about it the better.
Unfortunately, “Red Leader,” the episode that follows it up, is only a minor improvement, a mostly-forgettable semi-comic tale about an unscrupulous businessman who is being recruited for a position in Hell. One of many not-great episodes penned by Edithe Swensen, it’s also one of several helmed by Tales from the Darkside: The Movie director John Harrison, and features Carmine Caridi from the Godfather films. Its most memorable element is Peter Bromilow as the eponymous “Red Leader,” however, with his very striking eyebrows.
Things pick up a bit in the next episode. Adapted from a story by Robert Bloch, “Everybody Needs a Little Love” is a tale about two drunks who get jealous over a mannequin that one of them brings home from his job at a department store. It’s a spare episode, directed once again by John Harrison, that gets most of its atmosphere from the dimly-let sets and the hardboiled narration by the one and only Jerry Orbach.
Sadly, the teleplay rushes the ending a bit, because there are some nicely grisly reveals there that happen so quick you’ll miss ‘em if you blink – even though they’ve been foreshadowed heavily for a while. Really, though, it’s Orbach combined with the episode’s noir trappings that make this one stand out. Well, that and the fact that the episodes preceding it haven’t exactly been any great shakes.
“Auld Acquaintances” puts us back in the hands of Edithe Swensen, this time directed by another series regular, Richard Friedman. It’s a two-shot chamber piece, as a pair of witches meet in a witchcraft museum to exchange a talisman that they’ve been passing back and forth for 300 years. It seems that the pair of them met back in the 1600s when one was a dyed-in-the-wool witch and the other was merely accused, and they made a pact to share the talisman year after year – only naturally, they’ve grown to hate each other in the intervening time. Sharing is hard, after all.
“The Social Climber” is another single-location episode, though it has a few more characters. Robert Romanus plays an apprentice cobbler who dreams of a more glamorous lifestyle. While the guy who plays his boss, Albert Hague, may not be as familiar a face, he’s actually probably more famous – he’s the guy who wrote the music for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, among others!
Directed by Armand Mastroiani, who has helmed several previous series installments as well as a few of the better episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series, “The Social Climber” takes a long time to get where it’s going, spending most of its running time as a character study about the restless young lead and his wise employer. Ultimately, though, the cobbler’s magic shoes – which are only intended for the “right” people – take their toll in the episode’s ironic comeuppance.
“The Swap” is yet another in a long line of cautionary tales about the dangers of living with people who absolutely hate you and want you dead. While this may seem like the kind of thing that should go without saying, apparently lots of people still need reminders. In this case, I guess things ultimately work out according to plan for the guy everyone hates and wants to kill – the deformed son of a conjure woman, played by playwright and actor Charles Ludlam – even if he has to get murdered in the process.
It’s not exactly an episode that would probably fly by today’s standards. The basic premise is that the aforementioned character has a pretty young wife who has to satisfy his “gentlemanly desires” every night as part of their marriage agreement in order to inherit his money, and it ends on a distressing note of implied sexual assault played as comeuppance.
Next up, an angel and a demon spar over the soul of a dead man in the Antony and Cleopatra suite at his class reunion hotel. They come up with a game to attempt to lure him out of the room, one by appealing to his friendship, one by appealing to his lust. As you might expect, it’s another comedy episode, from the same scribe behind “My Ghostwriter – The Vampire” from earlier this season.
Can the last episode, “The Enormous Radio,” salvage what has been a rather lackluster finale for season 3? Well, it’s from a short story by John Cheever, so that’s probably a start. As you might imagine, with such an unlikely pedigree, “The Enormous Radio” is really more depressing than horrific. Directed by Bill Travis, who previously helmed one of my favorite episodes, “The Geezenstacks,” this story of a couple who acquire a large and anachronistic radio that allows them to overhear the private conversations of their neighbors is as understated as you might expect from a John Cheever story, filled with quiet desperation rather than comic book horrors.
It might not be an ideal season finale, but it beats much of what has come before, at least on this somewhat unfortunate last disc. Not to worry, though, we’ve still got one more season of Tales from the Darkside left to go, and it promises us more stories by the likes of Robert Bloch, Michael McDowell, and even… Clive Barker? Be sure to tune in next time and, until then, try to enjoy the daylight…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.