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Friday, February 12, 2021

5 Tales of Love & Horror from TV Anthologies [Series of Frights]

Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories  each one adhering to an overall theme  from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.

Whether it’s new or old, romance isn’t always easy in horror. Honeymoons are cut short, infatuation can amount to terror, and adultery is severely punished. Love and anxiety are among the most common emotions, and when they’re presented in the same scenario, the results can be disastrous.

Stories of love as well lust are popular in horror because just like anything having to do with fear and survival, they speak directly to the most basic of human conditions. Those in love in the genre sometimes get their happy ending, but many others are victims of romance’s mean streak.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965)
Guest for Breakfast

It’s not uncommon for marriages to experience a rut, but for the Rosses, wedlock feels more like a death sentence. The disagreeable couple, bickering once again one morning before the husband rushes off to work, is met with an unexpected visit. Brandishing a gun and the threat of murder, a fugitive forces his way inside and declares he’ll take one of the Rosses as a hostage while then shooting the other.

Much to Chester Lacey’s (Richard Shepard) surprise, Eve (Joan Tetzel) and Jordan Ross (Scott McKay) have no apparent desire to protect one another. They each explain why they should be the one to live; Eve’s presence in the getaway car wouldn’t raise suspicions with the police, whereas Jordan can finance the entire escape. Chester’s incidental attempt to strongarm the pair into archaic gender roles — he wants Eve to cook him a meal and he assumes provocation will bring out her husband’s instinct to protect — is all for naught seeing as the Rosses are dead tired of one another. Or so it would seem.

Although this classifies as a home invasion, there isn’t much of a home to invade. The Rosses aren’t exactly warm toward one another; they’re so cut off from their kinder emotions that their default is now open and motiveless hostility. Audiences perturbed by the two will do well to remember that divorce actually decreased around the late 1950s before it jumped in the next decade. So, it’s not at all surprising the Rosses were still together despite their mutual antipathy.

When push comes to shove, humanity wins and the ordeal mends what is broken. Everything that happens before that is a comical look at brittle marriages with performances to match. It’s a bold episode that feels ahead of its time.

Jealousy (1984)

In a format similar to Trilogy of Terror, Angie Dickinson plays the protagonist in each of the unrelated three stories in Jeffrey Bloom’s 1984 TV-movie Jealousy. While it’s true this telefilm isn’t thoroughly or outright horror, the opening entry “Georgia” edges near the threshold. The title character is a concerned mother who fears her new husband Daniel (Paul Michael Glaser) is having an affair with her daughter.

As tawdry as the plot may appear, “Georgia” largely handles its distortion of the Electra complex with a great amount of restraint. Dickinson’s character stares at the very situation which fuels her paranoia and then imagines salacious scenarios that gradually eat away at her from the inside out.

As expected, Georgia’s stoicism falters and she succumbs to her suspicions in the most volatile way imaginable. It doesn’t seem like Bloom could get any more dramatic, but he outdoes himself with a twist so absurd it’s almost brilliant. That single reveal is what unquestionably brings this story closer to the realm of psychological horror.

The movie starts off with a brassy bang too impossible to live up to. That concussive conclusion lingers on the mind and eclipses the next two offerings also inspired by inordinate jealousy. “Georgia” is a story about twisted family ties and delusional yearning that finally settles in far more troubling territory.

Monsters (1988-1991)
The Waiting Room

As its name implies, Monsters focused on all kinds of supernatural creatures. Yet “The Waiting Room” breaks from the series’ overall formula and is more like a holdover from Tales from the Darkside; which is, by all accounts, Monsters’ predecessor. Benjamin Carr’s story is about as close to Gothic horror as the late-‘80s anthology ever got, and the antagonist would hardly be considered a traditional monster, either.

On a snowy evening, newlyweds Katherine (Lisa Waltz) and John (Christian LeBlanc) arrive at an isolated hotel on their honeymoon with the groom’s father, Benjamin (John Saxon). After the son goes missing in the middle of the night, the father explains that John’s disappearance has to do with a mistake he himself made on his own honeymoon in this same hotel. Benjamin cheated on his wife with a stranger (Denise Gentile) he met in a dark room that exists outside of time and space; he later fled after promising her a child. Since then, Benjamin has evaded her infrequent visits by simply turning on the light before he enters any room. Now, though, the woman has come to claim what she believes is hers.

There’s something to be said about the episode’s emphasis on keeping promises — what triggers Benjamin’s curse is his breaking his promise to the woman in the room — and the damage resulting from half-hearted pledges. Benjamin’s selfishness as a father comes up, too, and the problem at hand only ends when he’s forced to honor the vow he made to the mother of his other child.

A singular antagonist, who isn’t necessarily evil, is a chief reason why this story stands out. Her ambiguity not only draws men like Benjamin in, she also intrigues viewers who want to know more about her. The episode is a welcome departure from others largely because of its surreal atmosphere; the risk of displacement gives “The Waiting Room” a wonderfully nightmarish quality.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-1996, 1999-2000)
The Tale of the Dream Girl

Who says love isn’t scary?” Sam (Joanna Garcia) asks her fellow Midnight Society members as she raises her next story “The Tale of the Dream Girl.” Like Sam’s other submissions, this one is centered on tragic romance entwined with the supernatural. A teenage boy becomes the obsession of a beautiful girl whose attraction to him has to do with a mysterious ring.

Siblings Erica (Andrea Nemeth) and Johnny (Fab Filippo) discover a girl’s ring that somehow gets stuck on the brother’s finger. Nothing tangible can remove the ring that belongs to a girl named Donna Maitland (Shanya Vaughan). Just as a terrified Johnny convinces Donna to leave him alone, he comes to find they share a connection.

This account of rediscovered love is often overlooked when contemplating the popular children’s anthology. Possibly because it lacks the ghouls and other fright candy of more popular episodes, fans may not remember how devastatingly this story ends. Writer David Preston and director David Winning lead audiences into a standard spook tale before unveiling the most bittersweet outcome in the show’s whole history.

From the better-than-expected and heartful acting to the distinctly sentimental music choices, “The Dream Girl” goes the extra mile when conveying the idea ghosts don’t always mean harm. Are You Afraid of the Dark? absolutely helped reinforce countless young people’s interest in horror, but it also reminded them even darkness can be comforting.

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
None But the Lonely Heart

Tom Hanks, who was on the cusp of big stardom when this episode aired in 1992, stepped behind the camera and cut his teeth on Tales from the Crypt. He indeed appears in the episode, but it’s Treat Williams who plays the loathsome lothario at the heart of this karmic story. A homicidal womanizer, who woos then kills rich and lonely old ladies, finally meets his match.

Treat’s character Howard is a criminal Casanova who has left a string of dead bodies in his wake. His basic M.O. is marrying affluent and elderly widows so he can later murder them for their fortune. However, his new mark Effie (Frances Sternhagen) is the opposite of the women he’s dealt with in the past; she’s an amorous dame whose liveliness gives Howard a run for his money.

Writer Terry Black (sometimes Donald Longtooth), whose debut screenplay Dead Heat starred Williams, had a penchant for dark humor; he was responsible for episodes like “Korman’s Kalamity,” “The Reluctant Vampire” and “Beauty Rest.” His adaptation made notable changes to the source material (Tales from the Crypt #33), but those disparities work in this episode’s favor. There’s a gainful scenic route before the inevitable finale.

“None But the Lonely Heart” is Crypt firing on all cylinders. From comedy to gore, the episode embodies everything that makes this series so beloved.


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