General Mills did a very good job of picking supernatural creatures to star in their line of monster-themed cereals. They went with vampires (Count Chocula), ghosts (Boo-Berry), and Frankensteins (Frankenberry.) Then they stacked their second string with werewolves (Fruit Brute) and mummies (Fruity Yummy Mummy.) That isn't necessarily an inspired list, but it is sensible: they more or less picked the big bads in order of their popularity.
In contrast, Tales From the Darkside does a terrible job of picking its monsters. This movie is a collection of four tales: one about a child-eating witch, one about a mummy, one about an evil house cat, and one about a winged demon. Now, I don't object to any of these stories on principle. In fact, I can see how these vignettes would have made for great episodes of Tales From the Darkside back when it was an anthology TV show in the mid-80s. But this isn't supposed to be four mediocre TV episodes strung together - it is supposed to be one cohesive movie, and the idea of an anyone selecting that particular roll call of ne'er-do-wells for a big screen adventure just boggles my mind.
Well, mostly the cat section boggles my mind. The witch vignette gets a bit of a pass because it is just the wrap around that contains the rest of the movie - the idea is that these tales are being told by an imprisoned tyke who is trying to buy some time before he gets tossed into the oven. And while I've never found mummies to be particularly terrifying, I have to admit that any creature that comes back from the dead at least has the potential to tap into some of our deepest fears. And the winged demon story has the advantage of at least looking cool - the aesthetic of bat-wings and fangs is always going to be sort of frightening. But an evil cat? Really? They weigh ten pounds and sleep sixteen hours a day - they aren't exactly the scariest sights to behold.
Even if we accept the idea that all of those beasts are all terrifying for a second - which is a very generous concession - the question remains: what do these man-killers have in common? (Outside of being evil, I mean; that's just a given in this particular context.) I suppose that witches keep black cats around, but they exist in a completely different tradition from mummies, and the demon segment isn't rooted in any old-timey folklore as far as I know. The four villains aren't similar in attitude, or size, or type of attack, so it almost feels like the scriptwriters wrote out a big list of dark-dwelling critters and then threw some darts at it. Anthology films are almost always uneven, but Tales From the Darkside is particularly bumpy because it doesn't even have a thematic through line. Each story shares a similar semi-scary mostly-goofy tone, but tone alone isn't enough to unite so many stories that otherwise have nothing in common.
Okay, fine, we've got our cast of characters. They might be lame, they might be mismatched, but they are what they are. The next problem is: why are these stories placed in this order? The mummy is probably the heaviest hitter in Darkside's monster arsenal, so why start there and then head towards a story about an unfriendly house cat? That is definitely a step back in terms of scares, never mind star power. (The Mummy story stars a young Steve Buscemi and a young Julianne Moore; the cat story stars the guy who voiced the mad scientist in the Nightmare Before Christmas.) Tales From the Darkside is less than the sum of its parts, and a big reason why is because the filmmakers placed the individual vignettes in a truly inexplicable order.
Well, that might be overstating it a bit; yes, I'm upset that the cat segment was put in the middle of the movie, but honestly I don't think there is any place in this movie where it would have fit, and yet I wouldn't want to see it get cut out. After all, the witch, mummy and demon stories are typical enough tales that while they are functional they are also forgettable. Meanwhile, the cat segment is so unexpected that it is definitely memorable. If they had put a vampire vignette in the cat slot this film would have been much better, but it would also have been less exceptional; sometimes being incompetent is better than being generic.
It is a shame, because as a person who prefers horror-comedy to straight horror I should have been in this movie's target audience. Again: its weakest link is the cat segment, and I personally would prefer to watch a silly film about a breath-stealing feline over a generic film about the zombie apocalypse any day of the week. But while Tales' jocular tone makes it watchable it isn't enough to make the movie as a whole entertaining. Even satires have to follow the basic rules of scriptwriting, and Tales is incapable of escalating the stakes as the stories advance. You never get a sense that the overall film is heading anywhere, and that lack of cohesion makes it hard to commit to what you are seeing.
Tales From the Darkside's unrelenting failure to add up to anything is kind of surprising given its pedigree - it was produced (and partially written) by horror legend George Romero. How is it that such a respected craftsman managed to be so off-base? You'd think that the man who more or less birthed the zombie genre would have been more astute about the proper pecking order for bloodsuckers than a cereal company, but I guess not. Although I must admit that making the General Mills - George Romero connection did fill my heart up with some hope, because they are making movies out of everything from board games to emojis now, so it is probably only a matter of time before there is a Monster Cereals flick. And when that happens I really want to see Romero get handed the keys to that particular car, because the idea of a anthology flick starring Frankenberry, Boo-Berry, Count Chocula and a Killer Cat sounds amazing.
Winner: The Cat