MOVIE REVIEW : 'Darkside' a Clever Cut Above Horror Fare

In a conformist time, horror stories are often the dark twitches underlying complacent society's frozen smiles. Take "Tales From the Darkside: The Movie" (citywide), a bloodier version of the horror anthology TV series. On the surface, it's another slash-and-bash-a-thon. But we're also treated, sometimes cleverly, to an eerie mating of Gothic sadism and contemporary upscale amorality.

The movie keeps coming up with cautionary tales about evil modern life: the greed, lies, villainy and killing rage lying just below polished exteriors. Rich, dumb college students take advantage of their poor competitors and get paid in kind, a sleazy old pharmaceuticals king is plagued by a murderous cat-vendetta, and a SoHo artist achieves dubious happiness by making a pact with a monster.

In all these movies, the Gothic devices of the past--hellcats, murderous mummies, winged, gargoyle-devils--descend upon malefactors of the present, tumbling right out of the old E. T. A. Hoffman-Edgar Allen Poe fantasy bag.

And, in the framing story, the cue is "The Arabian Nights." Like Sheherazade, the desperate Timmy (Matthew Lawrence), imprisoned in a dungeon by his rich-witch captor (Debbie Harry), who wants to cook and eat him, tries to stave off the oven with increasingly horrific tales. In all these stories, it's suggested that modern life is amoral, full of treachery and evil. With one notable exception, there is no justice. Both good and evil suffer in the grip of fate or irony.

"Tales From the Darkside" was mostly whipped up by George Romero's horror team. His producer is the "Darkside" TV show's Richard Rubinstein; the director, John Harrison, was Romero's assistant on "Day of the Dead." Romero himself wrote "Cat From Hell"--adapted from a Stephen King story; everything else was written or adapted by Michael McDowell, co-scenarist of "Beetlejuice."

As a horror show, it's a cut--or a slash or a bloody whack--above most movies of this type: cleverly written, cleverly cast. Harry exudes cheerfully vicious yuppie smugness, Christian Slater and Steve Buscemi are properly bent as college students involved in a mummy's curse rampage. William Hickey and David Johansen are stylishly rotten as the pharmaceuticals king and the hit man he's hired to rid him of a possibly demonic cat. James Remar and Rae Dawn Chong make an edgy love-binds-all-wounds SoHo artist's couple in "Lover's Vow" the most passionate of the pieces.

Harrison, making his directorial debut, uses too much ritzy film noir styling and self-conscious comic book frames; his mood is often too jagged and nervous and tongue-in-cheek. And that post-'80s horror movie disease--the sense that a yuck or an upchuck is preferable to a frisson or shiver--is present here, too. But there's more brain than usual beneath the blood and guts of "Tales From the Darkside" (MPAA rated R, for violence, language and sex). And Johansen makes such a terrific foul-mouthed ape of a hired killer that it's almost worth it to see his expression when the hell-cat takes its penultimate pounce.

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