Monday, October 31, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #145: Tales from the Darkside: "Trick or Treat" (1983)

The low budget Laurel horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside, may be a relic from the 1980s, but it's one relic eminently worth excavating, especially around Halloween time.  

Like its brethren, Rod Serling's Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside -- produced by George A. Romero, Richard Rubinstein and Jerry Golod -- remains a highly didactic horror television enterprise, one very concerned with  social commentary. 

As I wrote in Terror Television (1999): "if one looks beneath the veneer of gore and grue, it seems fairly clear that many episodes of this series" are "modern morality plays, cautionary tales about what might happen to an individual who acts selfishly or maliciously."

The Writer's Bible for Tales from the Darkside made this conceit explicit.  "The Other World" or "Darkside" intervention featured in each 30-minute tale was a deliberate mechanism or tool by which the cosmic scales of justice could be balanced. 

And yes indeed, this notion is squarely rooted in the great and noble tradition of EC's Tales from The Crypt or Vault of Horror.

Exhibit A regarding this didactic aesthetic is the series' sterling premiere segment, "Trick or Treat" written by George Romero himself.   Although set in rural America in the 1940s, the program aired in the early Reagan years, and remains just as powerful a parable about greed in 2011 as it was during the time of its original broadcast. 

Directed adroitly and economically by Bob Balaban, "Trick or Treat" involves a nasty old miser, Mr. Hackles (Barnard Hughes) who "collects every penny" that is due him, and gives nothing back to the poor farmers in his community who support his business at a general store. 

And in point of fact, Hackles has even set himself up as a sort of local bank by offering the farmers ample credit when the chips are down.  With nowhere to turn, they accept his "kind" help, only to see him ruthlessly leverage control of their very lives.

Explicitly, the vulture-like Hackles views the people in his town as "backward" primitives, and notes that "people make their own misfortune."  Hackles also derides "the little people and their little lives."   Accordingly, on Halloween night, this "self-made" man doesn't give out candy.  Instead, he dispenses advice.  He tells young Trick or Treaters that "I made my fortune...and so should you."

In today's vernacular, then, old Mr. Hackles is clearly part of the 1 percent.

Each year on Halloween night, Mr. Hackles makes it his business (and pleasure...) to torment the so-called little people of his town.  In particular, he instructs the poor farmers to deliver to his house their children every October 31st.  There, they will be permitted to search the imposing home for his I.O.U.s.  If the children find them, their parents' debt will be completely absolved.  If not, the debt stands. 

Of course, in all the years Hackle has played this sadistic game, no child has ever found the stash of creditor's notes, in part because Hackle's arranges nightmarish "frights" for the children: booby traps and  monster effigies that scare the kids away.

Essentially, Mr. Hackles demands that the good citizens of his town literally turn their children into "debt slaves," becoming his play things for a night in the vain hope that one lucky family might get a reprieve from their bills. 

Again, this idea represents a metaphorical commentary on the nature of the American dream.   Studies have revealed that many low-income Americans don't want the rich to pay their fair share in taxes because they believe they too will one day be rich.  After all, they might just win the lottery, right?  And every Halloween night, Mr. Hackles organizes just such a lottery...but with no real winners.  It's hard to win a game in which one man (or one percent...) leverages all the power and holds all the cards.

In "Trick or Treat's" denouement, Mr. Hackles inevitably gets the tables turned on him.  This Halloween night, it is not children who show up to play his game...it is an array of ghouls, including a terrifying witch

One might say that these ghouls occupy his house, even...

In short order, these representatives from "The Other Side" play a little trick on Hackles: they cast his cash (and his prized I.O.U.s) to the four winds.  Hackles attempts in vain to retrieve his "belongings" and ends up chasing the almighty dollar right down the corridors of Hell. 

"You're getting warmer now.  Warmer..." a hideous devil informs Hackles as the miser goes at last to his just reward in the Lake of Fire.  Notably, Hackles feels treated unfairly by those who wield more power than he.

But Mr. Hackles...I thought we all made our own misfortune?  Aren't you a self-made man?

Produced on a budget of just $200,000, "Trick or Treat" dominated the 1983 Halloween weekend Nielsen ratings in major markets such as New York, thereby assuring that Tales from the Darkside would soon become a weekly series; a series that lasted for four years and eighty-nine episodes. 

Episodes such as "Trick or Treat" were generally the norm rather than the exception, and various series installments tackled issues of racism, "hate" radio and other topics from the national discourse of the day.   "Trick or Treat," of course, serves as a pretty explicit and ghoulish reminder (in the early Yuppie era, no less) that "upward mobility" should concern more than the bottom line on a bank account; that our final, eternal "upward mobility" might depend on our accumulation of other currency, namely decency, empathy and compassion. 

In other words, the episode conforms to that line from Matthew: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Today, in celebration of Halloween, I'll be blogging about other memorable episodes from the first season of this memorable horror anthology from the 1980s.

Trick or Treat...

3 comments:

  1. Just for the record I wanted to gush about the TFTD episode with Darren McGavin as a TV actor enticed by a rich, weird stranger into appearing in a "wrap-up" episode of a series he had done years before that never concluded its mystery storyline. I think it's one of the most beautiful genre half-hours in any series without Rod Serling's name attached (though that gets caveated on a technicality... the short story it was based on appeared in the 80's -era "Twilight Zone" magazine).

    DLR

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  2. Wonderful article on one of my favorite TFTD episodes, John. I always thought of "Trick or Treat" as A HALLOWMAS CAROL... Bernard Hughes as one of the finest financial vultures I've ever seen gives Scrooge a run for his money (so to speak). That climax is equal parts satisfying and horrifying... do we viewers want to consign Hackles to a fate as horrible as THAT?

    Still, a terrific choice for seasonal viewing that I'll be trying to fit into tonight's viewings. A Happy Halloween to you!

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  3. DLR: I love that episode of Tales from the Darkside with Darren McGavin (was his character named Max Paradise?) That episode has always stuck with me...

    Jose: You are absolutely right (and insightful) to compare this episode to A Christmas Carol. I wish I had thought of that in the review! I agree that this is enormously entertaining viewing, and that it makes a great choice for Halloween!

    Happy Halloween to you both!

    John

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