ACDaptations: Tales from the Darkside - The Movie - Lot 249 (1990)

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.

This same description of tales of terror could so easily apply to much of Conan Doyle’s gothic work and so, when the series took to the big screen in 1990, it is unsurprising that it turned to Conan Doyle. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is three stories in one, in which Conan Doyle’s source materials provides the first outing. The unashamedly weak linking sequence has Blondie’s Debbie Harry as a suburban housewife who plans to stuff and roast poor little Timmy as the main dish at her dinner party. To stall his kidnapper, Timmy entertains her with three stories from a book she has given him to keep quiet entitled Tales from the Darkside. First up, is Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249 (1892), presented here simply as Lot 249.

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.”

So says the delivery man who deposits the crate in Bellingham’s room. In this version, Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) is a Masters student from a poor background: “I wasn’t born with a silver trust fund in my mouth,” he notes bitterly to fellow student Andy Smith (Christian Slater). Bellingham trades ancient artifacts to pay his way, and Lot 249, a sarcophagus complete with mummy, is his latest acquisition. Bellingham’s back story – for all it is ridiculous – make us somewhat more sympathetic to Bellingham than we might be, particularly as Bellingham is being victimised in other ways too. Lee Monkton (Robert Sedgwick), a lazy entitled rich kid, has just beaten Bellingham to the Penrose Fellowship by means of subterfuge: his submission was written by his girlfriend, Andy’s sister Susan (Julianne Moore), who also threw out an anonymous allegation of artifact theft against Bellingham to put him well and truly out of the running.

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.

The lid comes off the sarcophagus and we see the bandaged mummy inside (there is a very nice mummy’s eye view of the lid being removed). It is all too much for Lee, who heads home to Susan to discuss Bellingham’s growing suspicions. Susan decides to talk to Bellingham, who has the hots for her, to keep him off the scent. Meanwhile, Andy helps Bellingham inspect the corpse. The bandages come off, revealing the desiccated figure underneath, replete with sunken eyes and exposed teeth. Bellingham describes the embalming process, giving the audience a foretaste of the gruesome body horror to come. Cutting into the mummy’s side, he reaches his hand into the torso and retrieves a scroll which he claims he cannot read.

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.

As with much of this adaptation, the big difference is that the movie shows what is left unseen in the short story, and it is less effective as a result. In the original, Smith is alerted by a scream and finds Bellingham in his room, his heart ‘going like a pair of castanets,’ and the mummy half-rising from the coffin. It is our first sight of the creature: ‘The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its clawlike hand and bony forearm resting upon the table.’ Bellingham is shaken by the experience and we are left wondering what happened. Here, we know Bellingham has reanimated the corpse deliberately, but we don’t yet know why.

Here is where it goes full Tales of the Darkside. The mummy breaks into Lee’s house and, while Lee nervously searches his apartment armed with a tennis racket, it retrieves a metal coat hanger and bends it into a slender hook. When the mummy corners Lee, it lifts him off the ground and gives him a makeshift lobotomy through the nose. Susan arrives to find Lee dead and sees the creature departing. It is all pretty disgusting, but it is not over yet.

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.

The next scene has the lights go out in the stairwell again. Bellingham investigates and is knocked unconscious. He awakens to find himself tied to a chair in his room, and Andy dropping pages of Bellingham’s Masters thesis at his feet. Lightly, Andy tells Bellingham “I’m going to start a little fire under your chair and roast your nuts.” There’s an unwarranted levity in Slater’s delivery that deliberately undermines what we’ve seen happen to Lee and Susan: the lightness is how Tales from the Darkside calms viewers from the horrors they have seen. The comedy continues with Andy cutting up the mummy with an electric carving knife and throwing the limbs and scroll into the fire.

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.

So is Tales from the Darkside’s Lot 249 really all that removed from Conan Doyle’s 1892 original? Only cosmetically, and that perhaps tells us more about the original than the remake. When Lot No. 249 first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in September 1892, contemporary reviewers described it as ‘gruesome’ and noted the unsavoury horrific elements. One reviewer even note a playful toying with conventions, akin to that of Darkside: “Mr. Conan Doyle’s story may be regarded in the light of a capital skit on recent novels devoted to resuscitating Egyptian wonders.” (Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 3 Sept 1892).

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).


Comments

  1. Interesting, albeit weird that so few creative people actually improved tales, once the copyright expired and all it took was a solid proofreading & some more modern formulations & adaptations.

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