There are a lot of “lost arts” out there in the world and, if you ask me, anthology television horror is among the casualties. I grew up in the early 90s during a “Renaissance” of the subgenre. HBO (and later, FOX) had the perennial Tales from the Crypt, the Sci-Fi Channel was content to rerun 80s masterpieces Tales from the Darkside and Monsters on a regular basis, “Golden Age” anthology horror/sci-fi classics like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were making the rounds on cable (to say nothing of their respective 80s and 90s revival series) and even children’s programming was getting into the act, with shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps and Tales from the Cryptkeeper ensuring sleepless nights for tykes everywhere.
It was a good time to be alive.
Alas, by the time the 90s were through, anthology television horror was a dying medium. Garbage such as FOX’s Night Visions and the terribly ill-conceived Forrest Whitaker-hosted Twilight Zone revival pretty much plunged the nail into the subgenre’s coffin. Today, anthology horror has been sluggishly creeping back from the grave with genuinely good series like Masters of Horror and the occasional not-terrible feature film, such as Trick ‘r Treat.
However, I still yearn for the good ole days when you could turn on your cable box at practically any hour of the day and be met with a choice of quality anthology horror shows as far as the eye could see. With this series of articles, I want to highlight some of my favorite installments of these bygone classics (in no particular rank or order of preference). True, even during the “good ole days”, anthology horror was a pretty hit ‘n miss subgenre (I can’t be the only one who groaned whenever Tales from the Darkside did a comedy relief episode), but when it hit the mark, the results stuck with you for a lifetime.
Monsters – “Holly’s House”
“Holly’s House” was an episode that freaked the Hell right out of me in the first thirty seconds (bear in mind, I was nine.) It all has to do with that damn “robot”, Holly, and the creepy “giant doll” thing she’s got goin’ on. As with clowns, porcelain dolls exist solely to terrify small children, which is why I will never fathom how it got into the minds of adults everywhere that “kids will love them”. So yeah, an episode about a giant robot shaped like Rainbow Bright after a car accident that goes around stabbing people with scissors is pretty much guaranteed to give the under-ten crowd a year’s worth of nightmares.
As this story goes, “Holly’s House” is the most popular children’s show on TV thanks in large part to its quirky star, Holly, who is actually an animatronic robot controlled by a puppeteer using high tech glove control thingies. Anyhow, the puppeteer finds out that she’s pregnant with one of the crew member’s babies and they consider getting married and leaving “Holly’s House” behind. Holly does not approve, though, as she appears to have gained a form of sentience and does not want her “mom” to be taken away from her. Terror shortly follows.
To be realistic, all “Holly’s House” actually has going for it is the creepy design of the titular monster. But in a series called Monsters, hey, that’s all you really need. She’s used to maximum effect in some eerie atmospheric moments; shown sitting up on her own power in dimly lit storage rooms and speaking in a creepy little girl’s voice. In the best scene of the episode, the crew member decides to throw common sense to the wind, go into the empty, darkly lit set while everyone else is on lunch and “taunt” the supposedly inanimate object, striking exactly the “I’m gonna take your mom away from you” buttons he really shouldn’t be touching. Naturally, Holly comes to life and starts cutting out paper hearts with a pair of scissors, making vague comments of impending violence. The guy laughs it off, presuming that Holly is just being controlled by his fiancé behind the scenes. He gets stabbed, by the way. A lot.
The episode ends with the puppeteer going berserk when she finds her dead fiancé stuffed in a closet and smashes Holly’s face open. She then proceeds to lose her mind and winds up getting locked up in an insane asylum where she assumes the identity of Holly and creepily sings the show’s theme song to her newborn baby over and over again.
If there’s one bad thing about the episode, it’s that it acts like it wants to play the “is Holly really alive or is the puppeteer controlling her the whole time?” card, but can’t stay consistent. Holly is shown moving on her own power in scenes where the puppeteer is clearly elsewhere and not controlling her, so there isn’t a whole lot of “mystery” about it.
The damn thing’s just alive and out to kill. Which isn’t really a criticism since that’s actually scarier than if it was all the figment of some puppeteer’s split personality. When I was nine, I didn’t need to know how my toys could come to life and murder me. Just the possibility that they could was enough to make me wet the bed.
Disregarding that, “Holly’s House” is one of the better episodes of Monsters, a criminally overlooked anthology horror series from the late 80s that never gets the due it so richly deserves (or the DVD release.)
Are You Afraid of the Dark? – “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”
Hey guys, remember Snick? “Saturday Night Nickelodeon?” The block with the big orange couch? Well, I was there when it premiered and it was a pretty big deal (as far as the universe of a seven year-old is concerned). “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” was the block’s big finish, running at 9:30pm and pretty much obliterating the light-hearted warm ‘n fuzzy feelings the preceding three comedy shows might have filled you with that night. Re-watching the series, I find it’s held up pretty well over the years for a kid’s show. It’s withstood the test of time far better than its competition from back in the day; Goosebumps.
Well, if you remember even one episode of this series (that ran for ninety-one freakin’ episodes, guys), it’s probably “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”. The one with Zeebo: That God Damned Clown.
In this adventure, a prepubescent red-haired punk claims he isn’t afraid of squat, Jack. Like, to the max. So his skeptical friends challenge him to go into the “Laughing in the Dark” funhouse and steal the nose off the Zeebo the Clown mannequin, hidden somewhere in the place. As the tale-within-the-tale goes, a bank robber named Zeebo the Clown was on the run from the police when he tried to hideout in the original “Laughing in the Dark” funhouse. Unfortunately, his cigar habit did him in when he set the joint on fire and burned to death. A Zeebo mannequin was then added to the attraction in his, er, honor.
Well, the little hooligan makes his way through the seemingly haunted funhouse and eventually steals the nose right off Zeebo’s “holy shit no kid would do something like this” face. The kid makes it home with the prize, but this was the 90s and all, so his parents are working late and have left him to his own devices all day and night (despite being, what, ten?). Shit gets real when a mysterious cackling presence stalks his home, demanding he “give it back”. After being chased through the house by the ever-present but always unseen Zeebo (who menaces him through creepy phone calls, pots full of burnt cigars and threatening balloons), the kid escapes and returns the nose to the Zeebo mannequin.
It’s a kid’s show, dude. How’d you expect it to end?
Anyway, the point of the story is that clowns are scary and you should eat at Burger King, instead. Unlike Goosebumps, Are You Afraid of the Dark? often pushed the line of what you’d expect from a children’s “horror” program. People dying in gruesome ways were often a part of the back story in episodes and not all installments ended as happily as “Laughing in the Dark”. I can recall a few where some of the kids simply “didn’t make it” or were left dangling in some pretty precarious positions.
Add some blood and a more ironic conclusion and “Laughing in the Dark” could’ve worked just fine in an “adult’s” anthology horror series, if you ask me. While the child acting is a bit irksome, the episode is directed incredibly well, with some truly frightful moments (the kid seeing the spectre of Zeebo in the mirrors of the funhouse being a great surprise scare.) In fact, I can tell you the exact moment where little seven year-old Mark had to run away from the TV and not return until it was 10pm. At one point, the red clown nose goes rolling away down the side yard of the kid’s house. As he goes to grab it, the atmosphere starts to get very eerie; the punk sensing dread as he slowly makes his way toward the nose. That’s the point where I ran away during my initial viewing of the episode (I WAS SEVEN). Had I stayed, I’d have seen the kid successfully pick up the nose, only to walk away just as a cloud of cigar smoke starts billowing from around the corner, followed by a sinister chuckle.
The first few seasons of Are You Afraid of the Dark? boast some genuinely good anthology horror television that isn’t nearly as candy-coated as you might anticipate. “The Tale of Laughing in the Dark”, though, is the best of the series.
Tales from the Darkside – “Answer Me”
I love to hate Tales from the Darkside, some times. For every truly pants-shitting episode it produced during its four seasons, it had just as many embarrassing comedy relief stories that were neither frightening nor funny. The attraction to the show, though, was that when it was good, it was really, really good.
One of its best installments is also one of its most low budget endeavors, too. “Answer Me” follows an apartment-dwelling, middle-aged aspiring actress in New York City. Day and night, she’s troubled by a telephone ringing nonstop in the apartment next door, accompanied by a loud thudding sound against the wall separating their rooms. She makes some inquiries and learns that the apartment is empty; the previous tenant having strangled herself with a telephone cord some years before. Ya know, like ya do. Summoning up her courage, the actress decides to investigate the empty apartment. Once inside, she finds large dents in the wall as if something was trying to break through into her place. And inside a closet, she locates the real source of her misery: the telephone. As she attempts to get the line disconnected, she learns that the operator seems to know a bit too much about her life, her apartment and how to strangle people with telephone cords.
“Answer Me” is about as minimalist as it gets. A “one woman show”, it follows the leading lady as she obnoxiously narrates everything she does and everything she’s thinking from beginning to end. She can get on your nerves, but the point is that she’s a really bad actress within the plot of the episode, so the melodrama is clearly intentional. The most tension comes from her dialogues with the mysterious and monotone operator who is at the end of every number she dials and gradually drops increasingly disturbing lines about what happened to the apartment’s last tenant and just what’s going to happen to our star.
The episode finishes with the phone coming to life and… surprise, surprise… strangling the lead with its cord.
This installment is excellent because of how simple it is. Following the actress around her cramped apartment as she rants to herself, you feel stuffy, anxious and uncomfortable. The constantly ringing phone bothers you just as much as it’s infuriating her. So when she finally finds it and answers the call, the viewer is filled with the same dread that the character is feeling. The fact that the phone was trying to burst through the wall so it could kill her is just icing on the cake.
There’s no explanation as to how or why the phone is alive. Is it haunted by the previous tenant? Was it alive before that and strangled her, too? I don’t know, but I’m just happy that all my phones are cordless.
The Twilight Zone (80s series) – “Something in the Walls”
I hope you’ll excuse the rather poor screencap. It was all I could find online since the episode isn’t uploaded to any video sites I know of and I’ll be damned if I’m going to buy the DVD set of this mediocre series for just one episode.
If it isn’t clear to you yet, the 80s revival of anthology television horror god, The Twilight Zone, was quality-challenged (to put it politely). Still, some A-list televison managed to claw its way out of the mire on occasion, and “Something in the Walls”, written by J. Michael Straczynski, gets my vote for best of the series.
In this story, a mother has checked herself into a mental clinic so she can be surrounded by blank, white walls and dressed in drab, pale-colored clothing all day and night. Her reasoning? There are monsters that live in wallpaper patterns. No, seriously. You know how if you stare at a pattern long enough, you can make out faces in it? Well, she did that one evening and one of the faces stared back. Now the creatures in the walls are out to get her before she can reveal their existence to anyone. The white walls of the mental institution seem like a safe haven for a while, but what happens when a leaky roof causes those walls to stain in bizarre face-shaped patterns?
“Something in the Walls” is a silly-sounding concept that relies strictly on technique in order to get the horror across to the viewer. The technique used to create the creatures in the wall paper is one of the simplest and most effective special effects ever devised. They disguise a sheet of latex as a solid wall and people on the other side then press their faces up against it, making it genuinely look like blank, expressionless monsters are coming through the wall without breaking it. The effect was used briefly in films like A Nightmate on Elm Street and Ghostbusters and is one of my absolute favorites. “Something in the Walls” uses the effect to its utmost, making the almost comical threat of “wallpaper monsters” seem very, very frightening.
This one ends on a pretty tragic note, as the mother is trapped within the walls by the monsters and replaced with an evil doppelganger, who returns to her family to no doubt do unpleasant things. The final shot is a lasting one; a stain on the ceiling resembling the mother can be seen, with water dripping down like tears.
J. Michael Straczynski deservers some serious credit. I mean, if he can make kids afraid of wallpaper, then what can’t he do?
Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction? – “Kid in the Closet”
Beyond Belief came around in the late 90s as anthology television horror was beginning its death-spasms. Its premise briefly pumped something fresh into the mix, as Jonathan Frakes challenged the audience to figure out which stories in each episode were real and which were make-believe. After four years it sort of began to lose its luster when audiences figured out that the “true” stories were full of as much bullshit as the fictional ones. But why ruin the magic with facts?
The one episode everybody seems to remember is “Kid in the Closet”, and I’ll get to why they remember it in a minute.
Anyhow, in this story, a poor little boy lives in terror of a monster in his closet. His older brother and his friends tease and torment the kid relentlessly for this childish phobia. They even go so far as to chase him through the streets like an angry mob while their mother seems ambivalent to this whole thing. Some quality parenting, right there. Well, one day, the older brother and his friends drag the kid up to his closet and threaten to lock him inside. The kid thinks fast and says that if his brother’s so brave, why doesn’t he lock himself inside, first. Not to look like a chicken in front of his homies, the brother locks himself inside to prove there’s no monster. Once inside, he can be heard sarcastically screaming for help and for someone to save him from the Boogeyman. Unfortunately for him, his friends can’t tell the difference between sarcastic cries for help and the genuine article, so when something inside the closet actually does creep up on him… dude, you’re fucked.
Well, when everything goes quiet inside, the kids decide to open the door and let him out. Except when they pull wide the door, no one’s inside. The police determine that there was no way anybody could have left the closet except through the door and, in an act of true professionalism, write “vanished into thin air” on their report and call it a day.
At the end of the episode, Frakes challenges the audience to determine which stories were fact and which were fiction. Certainly the story about the kid getting eaten by a closet monster was fake, right? Nope, it was real. Happened to a kid in North Carolina in the 1970s. Sweet dreams, everybody!
Yeah, I’m fairly certain no one got a good night’s sleep that evening.
To be fair, the episode is pretty dull. You never see or hear the monster; just the door opening and closing on its own and all that that implies. I couldn’t find the episode online for a screenshot, but it’s not a big loss. So enjoy Jonathan Frakes’s beardly goodness, instead.
The reality is that Beyond Belief regularly embellished the shit out of their supposedly true stories, so taking a story about a runaway kid that disappeared and warping it into a tale of a boy who got eaten by the Boogeyman isn’t one I’d put past them. But there’s no denying that, back in that more innocent and naïve era of 1998, the reveal that this story was “true” qualified as a “holy shit” moment for anyone with a closet in their bedroom. So everyone, then.