Rod Serling’s immortal gift to mankind, The Twilight Zone, will forever reign as the king of television horror-SF anthologies. It will never be excelled. Zone had worthy contemporaries, too. The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents rightfully have taken their places among the legendary, One Step Beyond was available on Hulu for a while, and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller was, until a couple years ago, airing late at night on one of the OTA subchannels.
That the bar for excellence was set so high so early did not deter later generations of TV producers, directors, showrunners, and writers. Many in the years since have striven to create their own unforgettable horror anthologies, and many indeed have succeeded. Every decade has its own standouts in the genre. Serling himself reloaded in the 1970s with Night Gallery, and people a bit younger than myself still speak affectionately of Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? I’m confident that today there are thousands of American and British kids, mostly in their teens but a few maybe a bit younger, who turn off every light in the house before watching Black Mirror in deep, intent silence.
This blog at this stage however is concerned with the 1980s. We had our anthologies then too, and they were nothing to sneeze at. About the same time that I was struggling to find and later enjoying the finer titles in Tyler Elementary School’s library, I was also seeking every opportunity to be terrorized by television.
Tales from the Darkside was the best of the decade. It even surmounted Zone, Limits, and Hitchcock in one significant aspect: Whereas all four had memorable title sequences, Darkside’s intro was positively gut-wrenching, inducing bottomless dread even upon repeated viewings. (Darkside and Limits had notable exit sequences too.) It started with pastoral images of clouds and fields, covered bridges and pebble-strewn creeks, accompanied by a light but minor-key synthesizer melody. Imagine a clown making balloon animals for children at a party, but he’s covered with oozing sores. Now imagine the sort of calliope music that might play during such a scene. That’s what Darkside’s theme music sounded like.
There was, of course, a voice-over:
“Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But there is, unseen by most, an underworld. A place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit … A dark side.”
“But there is” cues a change of scenery, from placid pastures to gaunt white aspens so thick the dreary sky can barely peek through. At “a dark side,” a scene of leafy trees at the edge of a field is inverted to a negative image and the synth goes full-on dark wave with a long minor-chord drone. This was the part that twisted the insides of many a little kid; any American now between about 35 and 45 could tell you about it. I remember at night the view from my bedroom window looked a lot like that final, negative image, with the sky purple from reflected city lights and the trees standing out as pitch black wraiths. The showed debuted in September 1984, and a lot of nights the following summer I surreptitiously closed my window after my parents put me to bed.
The series was created by George Romero and there was some very top-shelf writing talent behind some of it. Romero wrote a few episodes and Stephen King contributed two. A paperback author named Michael McDowell wrote a bunch. Like other anthologies, there were some “based on a story by” episodes, that adapted the work of Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison.
I don’t remember any of the episodes as clearly as I remember the intro, but I do remember a few. Jerry Stiller starred in one as a talk radio shock jock resentful of the entire world, especially his callers, who on one particular day are dialing in from 1922, 1967, and sometime during America’s Wilson-era involvement in the Mexican Revolution. On top of that, before getting to work he went to his car and found a dead man slumped behind the wheel. FORESHADOWING!
Another episode, “Seasons of Belief,” had my friends and I reaching through windows, doors, and pass-throughs to grab each others’ heads for the rest of an evening. A pair of smart-assed, jaded kids are given something to believe in on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Santa Claus. In a hilarious but probably unintended “Christmas Story” kind of touch, their parents are played by Margaret Klenck (born 1953) and E.G. Marshall (1914).
In “Word Processor of the Gods,” a writer less frustrated by a block than by his hectoring wife and slobbish son hooks up a computer built by his late, cherished nephew and finds it’s good for more than just printing fiction. That was a Stephen King one, the story ended up being included in his collection Skeleton Crew. In another, Harry Anderson plays a television writer who becomes dependent on his answering machine for ideas. Have you ever noticed writers love to write about writers?
Tales from the Darkside had a successor, Monsters, which aired from the time Darkside ended in 1988 until 1991. I didn’t watch Monsters nearly as much. Usually if I saw it, it was because I was stuck in an ER waiting room late at night. (I had relatives who were frequently ill at the time.) I remember the pilot, “The Feverman,” in which a sick girl is taken to a local healer who has a terrifying folk cure for her illness: He draws out a hulking, gristly physical embodiment of her fever and fights it to the death, hand to hand.
Romero wasn’t the only big name to try his hand at anthology TV. Stephen Spielberg got into the act too, with Amazing Stories, which lasted two years on NBC, when I was in first and second grade. Like Darkside and Zone, Amazing Stories didn’t skip on talent; most episodes were based on stories by Spielberg, though Richard Matheson contributed a few. The list of directors is even more distinguished: Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Clint Eastwood, Irvin Kershner, Robert Zemeckis, Tobe Hooper, Todd Holland, Danny Devito, Burt Reynolds, and Timothy Hutton.
Unlike Darkside/Monsters, Amazing Stories debuted smack in the middle of Sunday night, at 7 o’clock if I remember correctly. Despite the impressive roster of writers and directors, things didn’t go well and the series was moved to 8:30 p.m. Monday, airing just after ALF, for its second season.
The most memorable episode as far as I’m concerned was “The Sitter.” It’s about two little boys who terrorize all their babysitters. One of the kids was played by Seth Green, who became famous a few years later as “the Cha-Ching Guy” just before being decapitated in a car accident. Anyway, one day a new babysitter shows up, and she’s smoking a cigarillo and speaks with a thick Caribbean accent. No matter what they do, the boys can’t rattle Jennifer, the new sitter, who parries their pranks with what appears to be magic … or voodoo. “Jokes on old Jennifer sometime loop the loop,” as she says. As the plot’s final crescendo commences, she informs them there’s a duppy in their bedroom closet. Or, as I misunderstood it as a first-grader, a “deputy.” The brothers put on their adventure clothes and launched their final sortie against Jennifer, and at the episode’s most critical moment they sought shelter in the closet, revealing THE DEPUTY. It looked and sounded a lot like Slimer, but corporeal and hairy, and though it was only on screen for an instant, for months I was gripped by the fear that there was a deputy in my closet.
Years later, when YouTube became a thing, I tried to find the episode online. As you might imagine, feverishly Googling variations on the phrase “amazing stories the deputy” didn’t do me any good. It took “Mr. Brown” by Bob Marley and the Wailers to set me on the right track. Thank you, Bob, and thank you too, three john crows.
Another episode starred Jon Crier as an undergrad science prodigy who invents a pink concoction that looks like amoxicillin and smears it on photographs, making their subjects come to life. So, of course, he starts dumping it onto his skin mags, trying to find the right dosage to bring Miss Whatevermonthitwas into his life. This was maybe a little too PG-13 for a seven-year-old. The following day I reviewed the episode in my second grade writing journal and read my highly detailed synopsis to my classmates. It’s a pretty cringy memory; there were a lot of those that year. Looking back on it, second grade was the year when I transitioned from fairly normal child to pre-adolescent weirdo.
In its season 1 Sunday night time slot Spielberg’s TV project had competition from another formidable name: Walt Disney. Though it had hopped around from network to network, a (mostly) Sunday night presentation of a Disney show had been a part of America’s TV landscape for the better part of three decades, dating back to just after my father’s birth. In the mid-80’s it was on ABC at 7 p.m. as The Disney Sunday Movie. Most of the movies were made for TV. The only two I really remember were Mr. Boogedy and The Bride of Boogedy, which aired in April 1986 and April 1987, respectively. Mr. Boogedy looked like a toned-down Freddy Krueger and was the hateful ghost of a dead pilgrim who, along with two more benevolent spirits, haunted a family’s new home 300 years after fragging himself in a sorcery accident. Richard Masur played the family’s dad, and Kristi Swanson, Bud Bundy, and the whiny kid from ALF played the children. John Astin plays a neighbor. Among the little boys in Mrs. Mello’s first grade class, Mr. Boogedy was a smash. It hit the same spot as something like Saturday the 14th, if you remember that one.
Ray Bradbury was on the anthology scene at the time too, for two seasons on HBO and four on the USA Network. Some episodes were original teleplays and others adaptations of his fiction, but every episode of Ray Bradbury Theater was written by the man himself. I’ve never been much of a Ray Bradbury fan, but I suppose I can thank him for the sight of a deboned Eugene Levy puddled on a floor, gurgling and trying to talk. Hell’s bells, even Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock were back posthumously. A Twilight Zone reboot and a new Alfred Hitchcock Presents both ran from 1985 to 1989. Wes Craven directed an excellent episode of the new Zone, “Dealer’s Choice,” that had built-in appeal for a boy growing up in a family of Poker players. The only thing I remember about the new Hitchcock was it was hosted by Alfred Hitchcock, who had been dead for about five years at the time. I understood that they were using previously taped intros, but I still thought it was fucking odd.
And speaking of big names, you can’t talk 80’s horror without Freddy and Jason, and they had TV shows too. I don’t remember ever watching Freddy’s Nightmares, and all I remember of Friday the 13th: The Series was a two-parter in which some Satanist was trying to fulfill a prophecy that would unleash Lucifer upon Earth. It wasn’t actually an anthology series, it had a cast of characters who ran an antique shop full of infernal knicknacks and every week they embarked on a different struggle against darkness. Imagine The X-Files with no mytharc and Ed and Lorraine Warren’s rec room instead of a basement office at the FBI. It was like that.
My parents loved The Hitchhiker, which I was not allowed to watch. Speaking of HBO, you might be wondering where Tales from the Crypt falls into this story. The short answer is “later.” Tales from the Crypt didn’t debut until summer 1989, meaning the bulk of the series aired during the 1990s.