Created by filmmaker George A. Romero, Tales from the Darkside was like the cheaper, schlockier, more endearing Twilight Zone. It brought viewers a different, disturbing tale of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and even some comedy from episode to episode, enlisting the talents of masters like Stephen King, Frederick Pohl, Robert Bloch, and Frederic Brown along the way.
Unlike Twilight Zone or even The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside often embraced its pulp and used its low-budget, mostly single-location settings to spooky effect. Now, all four seasons are available on horror streaming site Shudder in standard definition. Four seasons may seem like a lot to get through, but we’ve managed to sum up the show’s terrifying legacy into a short list of 10 episodes that are essential viewing. You’re sure to catch scenes that inspired horror films in the following decades.
Here’s a list of the 10 episodes you need to watch.
10. “The Yattering and Jack”
Adapted by Clive Barker this episode features a pint-sized demon, called a “Yattering”, who terrorizes an impossibly positive yet lonely old man during the holiday season. The whole thing is kind of poorly acted and paints a stereotypical picture of little people, but it’s perfectly thematic creepiness makes the story work.
Per the rules set down by Beelzebub in the episode, if the Yattering touches the man, the demon then falls under the man’s control. The desire for evil may outweigh the desire to do good, but that doesn’t mean goodness doesn’t win out in the end.
9. “I Cant Help Saying Goodbye”
Effective because of its simplicity, a seemingly idyllic suburban life is turned upside down for a single-parent family when they find out the youngest sister has the power to kill people by saying “Goodbye” to them. At once a metaphor for the emotional stress of the death of a loved one, “I Can’t Help Saying Goodbye” features a plucky performance by Days of Our Lives actress Alison Sweeney, who is another example in a the long list of supernaturally gifted, or cursed, kids on-screen.
8. “Djinn, No Chaser”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plays a genie in this episode based on a story by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison. It’s weird, campy, and perfect. Need we say more? Be careful what you wish for.
7. “The Moth”
This episode co-stars Debbie Harry, the former lead singer of Blondie, as a black magic-wielding dying woman named Sybil who enlists her mother’s help in being resurrected into the body of a moth after she expires. Harry’s southern-fried accent and commitment to being a strange but approachable witch who may or may not have murdered someone before succumbing to her fate plays with the audience’s allegiances in an efficiently unsettling way. But, it’s actress Jane Manning’s turn as the moralizing mother that truly balances the episode out.
6. “Bigalow’s Last Smoke”
This multifunctional Stephen King story is like if Total Recall was about quitting smoking. A man named Frank Bigalow suddenly finds himself in an exact prison-like replica of his apartment constructed by a company for the sole purpose of making him stop his bad habits, namely lighting up. From this simple, scathing indictment of addiction, the episode devolves into Bigalow having to deal with increasingly desperate fellow addict prisoners and Big Brother-esque terror. The original story, called “Quitters, Inc.” can be found in the King anthology Night Shift, and also in a movie version in King’s anthology horror film Cat’s Eye.
5. “Halloween Candy”
A campy delight that would nevertheless probably scare the shit out of you if you were a kid, “Halloween Candy” tells of a curmudgeonly old man who is reluctant to give out the titular holiday sweets to neighborhood children and must deal with the consequences. The saving grace of the otherwise slight episode, directed by makeup and special effects wizard Tom Savini, is the disgusting goblin creature that torments the old man. He chooses the treats over the tricks, but a time-warp of an ending will be sure to make you never question giving out candy to kids on Halloween ever again.
4. “The Enormous Radio”
Who knew an episode of a lovably schlocky TV show could get inspiration from a Pulitzer Prize winning author? Adapted from a John Cheever short story, “The Enormous Radio” is the perfect balance between high- and low-brow and is probably the closest Tales from the Darkside ever got to Twilight Zone.
It tells of of a rich, gossipy New York couple who buy a radio that transmits the dirty-laundry conversations of their equally gossipy neighbors. What they don’t realize is they aren’t the only ones listening.
3. “Distant Signals”
Futurama fans might recognize this episode as eerily similar to the cartoon’s episode “When Aliens Attack”, which features invaders who come to Earth to demand a cancelled TV show called Single Female Lawyer to tie up its various storylines. “Distant Signals” might have benefited from a bit more levity, but it ups the creepiness factor with a bizarrely straightforward performance by actor Lenny von Dohlen as the unnamed humanoid alien who demands the original cast of a failed 1960s TV show get back together to create more episodes for the benefit of his alien species. It’s a prescient satire of the greedy reboot culture that fuels Hollywood today.
2. “A Case of the Stubborns”
This episode answers the question: What if a body of a loved one doesn’t want to die? It’s worth a watch only for the progressively disgusting makeup applied to actor Eddie Bracken as the seemingly dead grandfather who doesn’t stay dead. But, the episode is also noteworthy for featuring a very young Christian Slater as a skeptical grandson, and Brent Spiner as a bumbling preacher who cant explain what happens. Letting go can be cathartic, hilarious, and gross.
1. “Sorry, Right Number”
Stephen King came up with this story specifically for Tales from the Darkside, and later made it the only screenplay he wrote to be included in any of his short story collections (you can read it in Nightmares & Dreamscapes). The macabre time travel loop of a story involves a King-esque novelist whose wife Katie receives a panicked but unintelligible phone call which may or may not cause the novelist’s death by heart attack. Five years after the tragedy, she nostalgically pops in a VHS of an adaptation of her late husband’s work, called Spider’s Kiss, only to receive some ghostly news too little too late about that original phone call. It’s a taught and spooky 20 minutes you won’t be able to shake off.Photos via Shudder, Getty Images / Kevin Winter