Another installment of our irregular feature on adaptations of Conan Doyle stories on stage and screen. Here we revisit 1990's Tales from the Darkside - The Movie and its all-star cast version of Lot No. 249 (1892).
If you were in any way interested in horror in the 1980s, you probably watched Tales from the Darkside. Created by horror supremo George A. Romero as the spiritual successor to his 1982 movie Creepshow, the anthology horror-comedy show ran for 90-plus episodes over four seasons between 1983 and 1988. The series amassed an army of great writers including Stephen King (who made his screenwriting debut with Creepshow), Clive Barker and Robert Bloch. The format was simple: everyday lives go increasingly off-kilter in genre-bending tales encompassing horror, science fiction, fantasy and black comedy – each topped off with a twist ending.
Notorious for its use of graphic violence, inuendo and dark comedy, Tales from the Darkside feels far removed from classic Conan Doyle and yet the core ingredients of Lot No. 249 can be found here. The setting is transposed from the University of Oxford to an Ivy League institution, and from the late Victorian era to the then-present day. The character names are mostly the same: Abercrombie Smith becomes Andy Smith, William Monkhouse Lee becomes Lee Monkton and Edward Bellingham is simply Bellingham. The central premise – a vengeful student unleashes a Mummy on his enemies – remains intact. Even the story beats are broadly the same. Tonally, however, it is somewhat different…
“That Lot 249 was a heavy mother.”
Keeping up? The set-up is pretty complicated and flung at the screen in the space of five minutes, but it has some merits. The class element is a nice touch that gives Bellingham more of a reason to dislike Monkton, while the Victoriana of Bellingham’s room and costume mark him as the sort of eccentric who might be persecuted. Monkton, rather than the plot conduit he is in the original story, is unpleasant and superficial which encourages us to take Bellingham’s side. Susan is the real revelation: unlike the ‘off screen’ Evaline in Conan Doyle's tale, Susan is knowingly complicit, intelligent, manipulative and has agency. By slimming down the cast of characters – removing Abercrombie Smith’s friend Hastie and the wonderfully named Reverend Plumptree Peterson – each gets more to do and Susan comes to the fore.
However, that night, Andy hears Bellingham reading the scroll aloud. The mummy’s hand grasps the side of the sarcophagus (fortunately it understands modern English) and the lights go out. The creature bursts free, brushing past Susan and Andy in the darkened stairwell, leaving Bellingham to claim there was a thief in his room.
After the funeral, Susan tells Andy what she saw and he decides to investigate. But Bellingham is being evicted by the university (Susan planted an artifact on Bellingham’s mantelpiece earlier). The curator of the museum, pouring over Bellingham’s possessions, notes the empty sarcophagus. Andy asks Bellingham where the mummy is and receives a wry smile.
Back at the apartment, the mummy attacks Susan, cutting open her back and stuffing it with flowers in another re-enactment of the mummification process. It is a truly repellent scene, graphic and distasteful. Lee’s death, though horrible, is darkly comic. This just feels nasty and is made all the worse for the reaction from Julianne Moore. Andy discovers her body, wrapped in bloodied packing tape.
Andy doesn’t get the real scroll though for Bellingham takes it with him and uses it to send Andy some visitors in the night: Susan and Lee, now reanimated mummies, ready to do Bellingham’s bidding…
Leaving aside the ending, Tales from the Darkside’s take on Lot No. 249 is sympathetic if not faithful to the original, and there is much to recommend it, if one can set aside the massive tonal shift to dark comedy. The condensed cast of characters reduces the number of moving parts in the story, and the performances from Slater, Buscemi and Moore are terrific. The story beats are mostly the same, with the reanimation, two attacks and the ultimate destruction of the mummy. Only the coda is different. And there are a couple of interesting additions to the story – Bellingham’s class struggle and the notion that the mummy is creating other mummies – though neither have the airtime to be developed.
A century on from its publication, what was horrific and wry for the 1890s was made so again for a 1990s sensibility. All that changed in between was our calibration of what constituted horror.
Tales for the Darkside: The Movie (1990) is available on DVD and blu-ray.
As an aside...
- The other stories in the movie were Cat from Hell, Romero’s adaptation of a Stephen King original, and Lover’s Vow, based on Japanese folk horror. For those left wondering, little Timmy succeeds in turning the tables on his captor who ends up in the excessively large oven.
- Lot No. 249 was adapted by Michael McDowell who two years earlier had written the script for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). He was known for his works of Southern Gothic, often set in Alabama. He also wrote for other anthology series including Tales from the Crypt and Amazing Stories.
- The mummy is much as described in Conan Doyle’s original: ‘The features, though horribly discoloured, were perfect, and two little nut-like eyes still lurked in the depths of the black, hollow sockets. The blotched skin was drawn tightly from bone to bone, and a tangled wrap of black coarse hair fell over the ears. Two thin teeth, like those of a rat, overlay the shrivelled lower lip.’
- Tales from the Darkside has an impressive array of actors early in their careers. Christian Slater had previously appeared in the TV version of Tales from the Darkside in 1984, before making his name as Adso in The Name of the Rose (1986). Buscemi was about to make his name with the Coen Brothers in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991). Julianne Moore, putting in her first big screen appearance here, rose to fame a few years later after The Fugitive (1993). Moore and Buscemi were re-united in the brilliant Coen Brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski (1998).
- Michael Deak, who played the mummy, was a visual effects and make up supervisor.
- Just as Tales from the Darkside had its origins in Creepshow, so the movie is often considered to be the unofficial Creepshow 3, arriving in cinemas three years after Creepshow 2.
- When Andy’s apartment is broken into, he is seen asleep on the couch watching Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).