Along with being an icon of horror known for many classic movies in the genre, the late George Romero also created one of the most fondly remembered horror anthologies in television history. With a memorable theme complete with unsettling narration, Tales From the Darkside captivated and frightened audiences from 1984-1988. The series was known for its macabre sense of humor, graphic special effects and above all else, the scares it delivered.
One of the most notable episodes of the series is season two’s “The Devil’s Advocate”. The story was poignant when it first aired in 1984 during the era of Reaganomics and in 2017 when a person can find hate filled speech by simply glancing at their Facebook feed, it may even be more relevant. Jerry Stiller plays Luther Mandrake, the host of a radio call in show. Mandrake verbally abuses the listeners of his show that dare to call in. He is quick to blame them for all of society’s and even his own problems. Listening to Mandrake berate his callers is like reading a modern-day internet forum.
Mandrake’s subtle transformation over the course of the episode is definitely the highlight. The viewer can immediately tell something is wrong. The camera work somehow makes the studio seem confining and Mandrake looks slightly different with each passing moment, until the viewer sees that he is literally a monster. The make-up effects are fantastic and look better than some of the creatures seen in horror movies of the time. The great effects also add to the overall theme of the episode. One takeaway some may get is the theme of, “you reap what you sow.” The monster has to look horrifying to truly convey this feeling, and the make up team pulls this off perfectly.
The Romero penned episode is heavy on narration and Jerry Stiller does a fantastic job in what is basically a one man show. The entire episode takes place in a radio studio. We watch as Mandrake insults his listening audience while explaining his warped world view. Stiller’s rants are what make the episode work. The passion he puts behind the vitriol he unleashes is incredibly convincing. At times, it is almost like listening to an actual radio show instead of watching a fictional television show. It is frightening to hear. When Mandrake shows he in fact does have a human side to him at the end of the episode, it is almost impossible to not feel sympathetic about his situation. The monster is just great special effects if Stiller does not provide this depth to Mandrake.
“The Devil’s Advocate” is more of a character study than a typical short story with a plot. We see a man that is so filled with hate it is sad — and sure to make you angry, and terrified all at the same time. Over the course of half an hour, the audience watches as one man learns he is literally in Hell. Or, is he simply a hate filled man that lives in a Hell of his own making? What the ending means is up to you. Just another reason the episode is great.