What Made it So Scary – Tales From the Darkside

What Made it So Scary?
The Opening Title Sequence from Tales From the Darkside

Created by George A. Romero, “Tales from the Darkside,” premiered on October 29, 1983, officially ending its 90-episode run on July 24, 1988. The series featured several episodes written and directed by acclaimed horror writers/directors Clive Barker, Tom Savini, Michael Bishop, and Michael McDowell.

Although the series itself had achieved a warm reception, it was the title sequence that appeared to have really “sold the show.” Many viewers who watched it seemed to have a better memory of the first minute than the remaining 29. Now much older, I, through the eyes of a filmmaker, and Jeff Gilotti, through the ears of a musician, revisit the title sequence and determine what made it so scary.

“Tell Me When the Beginning is Over” by Jeff Gilotti

The opening sequence from “Tales from the Darkside” has always been one of the creepiest things on television to me.

As a child of the 1980s, I had the privilege of watching just about anything I wanted without any type of channel blocking or parental controls to hinder my curiosity. So, by 8 years old, I was used to horror movies, but there was something about the images of a lonely countryside–the unsettling voice over and the dreary music, which often made my older sister run out of the room and shout, “Tell me when the beginning is over!”As a composer of avant-garde and psychedelic music, I have been influenced by horror movies. If nothing else, they have taught me how to use atonal instrumentation and noises in a practical way. The title theme from “Tales from the Darkside”–performed by Donald Rubinstein–remains a good example of this approach. The one-minute composition appears to have been created entirely with synthesizers, which had become almost an industry standard by that time, paired with a slow montage of picturesque, uninhabited landscape. The audiences hears a lonely scale of notes sounding much like an electric toy piano. This is accompanied by a grumbling male voice, which seems to speak to us almost from another dimension:

“Man lives in a sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. . . .”

At the 40-second mark, we notice an unsettling shift in the synthesizer tone, likely created by bending the “pitch wheel” on the instrument, while the color photography suddenly “flips” to black and white, as if to sneak up on the audience by going from day to night almost instantly. Our narrator continues his speech:

“But. . . here is, unseen by most, an underworld; a place that is just as real, but not as brightly lit. . . a darkside.”

“The End of Scenic Country Drives” by Kevin Vogrin

Nine shots. Only nine shots create the most terrifying opening sequence of any television series to date.

Of all the adult themed horror anthologies, “Tales From the Darkside,” remains the most memorable. The simplicity of the often single-room sets and the blend of horror and dark comedy has been a major influence of my narrative film work. I often reference episodes when developing a script; more so, I find myself returning time and again to the title sequence to study its hypnotic and uncanny trance.

What makes the sequence so terrifying is a two fold combination: color and light. . . the hue and luminosity of the color and the quality of the light. Both of these elements are a product of the technology used with creation of the production. The early ’80s saw the transition from film to digital video, and with the switch, a new aesthetic emerged from the limitations of the format. Gone was the versatility of the color spectrum and details on the bright and dark ends were erased. What was left was an unnatural over saturation in color and a mystery that lies within the dark shadows. This is what makes the peaceful en plain air landscapes so terrifying. The use of the medium makes the familiar unfamiliar.

Otherwise, beautiful images of clouds separating, trees tracing overhead a bright blue sky, wheat swaying in the wind, and water flowing down a stream, transform the peaceful landscape. The pastel colors and over saturated yellows and greens of video creates an otherworldly ecosystem void of human life. Additionally, infrared film also has the same impact on inhabited environments.

Every shot is filmed during the golden hour, an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, which delivers the highest level of diffused light. The landscapes take on a softer tone and shine a mysterious aura, illuminating their pastel hues that are often not associated with those images. This time of day is memorable as it signals a winding down of the world of daylight and a transformation into the “underside” of night. Finally, senses are heightened as the element of memento mori recalls past times and moments during that hour.

Itching for more horror themed music?
Jeff’s gritty backwoods horror project, The Mountain Killers, will satisfy your darkside. And until next time, try to enjoy the daylight.

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