So for my final Kindertrauma, I bring you one of the most obscure, but most trauma-causing pieces of media I was much too young to see. Some people had Pennywise. Some had Chucky. I had the creature from Tales from the Darkside‘s “Inside the Closet”.
Tales from the Darkside was like a cheaper, milder version of “Tales from the Crypt”. Less gore, more reliance on twist endings and psych-outs. But still, it had its share of monsters. Don’t mistake my description to think I watched the show. No, once again this lovely little memory comes courtesy of my mother, who rented it from the Hollywood Video for her class on horror. Thanks, Mom. I still love you.
For years, I thought this was “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie”. But no, these were three episodes from the show. On a rainy afternoon, I could only make it through the first before I had to leave. This one in particular is Season 1, Episode 7 (or eight, depending on what counts or not).
Sexy college co-ed Gail has struck housing gold — Dr. Fenner is renting out his third-floor room. It used to be his daughter’s and it’s the last available place in town (just go with it). She needs a place to live while finishing her graduate degree in fine arts (How did she get in this situation–kicked out? Drugs? Too much partying? Double secret probation? College houses are always packed beyond the capacity recommended by the Fire Marshall so people can split the rent).
But the veterinary professor has some rules (aren’t there always when dealing with little monsters?). He demands quiet–no radio, TV, or boyfriends. Also, there’s a peculiar small door in the room. It used to be a closet, but it’s locked now. Seems legit.
That night, Gail hears a scuffling noise behind the door and gets no sleep thanks to paranoia. Dr. Fenner kicks a box out of anger. I don’t know why. Didn’t he want to rent out the room? Is something forcing him to? (it’s not like the creature needs to eat human flesh, as we find out.) Gail even gives him a perfect out when she thinks it’s a rat. But he says there are no rats in the house. Also, he forgot to give her any keys last night, so he tosses her a ring of keys before he has to leave.
Of course, what’s a scary show without someone snooping into things they’re not supposed to. Gail uses the keys on the small closet door. Nothing there. She puts down a mousetrap and hears it go off later that night. But now the door won’t open again.
That night, her nightlight goes out. (Why does she have a nightlight? I know there are no windows in this room, but she’s a grown woman.) All you hear is the closet door opening and something running around the room. Once she gets a flashlight, she sees the closet door is open, but there’s nothing inside. The camera pans down to the thing’s jaundiced red Gollum eyes under the bed (that’s dramatic irony!).
Gail tells Dr. Fenner about it all, but when she tries to prove it, the closet door won’t open. Dr. Fenner again assures her the door hasn’t been opened for years, even though she put a mousetrap behind it. (Got some Yellow Wallpaper stuff happening.) When they leave, the thing pulls her luggage underneath the bed. This never comes up again. I guess she didn’t need her possessions that bad.
Sometime later, Gail hears the closet door open and runs to it. Inside is a bunch of little girl clothes. She rifles around, but the mousetrap snaps on her hand, and the closet door closes by itself. Further attempts to open it fail.
Now comes some belated backstory, as every good horror movie should have. Dr. Fenner’s daughter, Margaret, ran away with a house painter to Vermont. His wife died of chemotherapy due to breast cancer. How is this related to creepy stalker midget? I don’t know.
Night of the Final Day: Gail is poised with her flashlight when the door opens. She crawls up to it and shines the light, revealing this red-eyed, white-skinned monkey-thing with needle-sharp teeth. It looks like a skeleton with skin. Or some D&D monster that you underestimate and then it kills your party.
Anyway the thing kills her by breaking her neck, then pulls her into the closet.
Next morning, cut to Dr. Fenner on the phone with Gail’s mother. No, he hasn’t seen her, but he’s only the landlord after all — he doesn’t get paid extra for detective work. While this is going on, the camera is creeping around to ominous music, so we know the monkey-thing is coming for the professor. Then he gets off the phone and–“OW”–something bites him on the leg. He looks down and sees the monkey-thing (in glorious stop motion no less). This is it! He knows the truth! He can kill it! We’re saved! Happy ending!
He looks at the thing, holding his leg and rasping… AND PICKS IT UP. Ew, he’s touching it. He starts talking to it, saying she’s a pretty little girl, cooing like it’s a two-year-old child or puppy. It frickin’ hugs him. Those teeth are right by his neck, but he doesn’t care. He even cradles the thing in his arms. After some more sweet murmuring, he carries it upstairs to read it a story. The end. Here, have all my WTF’s.
All right, first off, the opening music is doing me no favors. (Goddamn 80’s synthesizers)
Second, the whole thing takes place in a single house, in a single room. It could be a play–there’s only two actors and one setting. That gives a feeling of claustrophobia, which is fitting for something about a creature trapped in the closet. Third, it uses two methods of psychological horror – gaslighting and paranoia. But there’s an actual deadly monster to be afraid of (some might argue that the gaslighting becomes obsolete once the audience knows the monster exists. I can’t disagree). Fourth, it’s directed by Tom “frickin'” Savini and authored by the writer of Beetlejuice, Malcolm McDowell. Cut, print, ship it.
I don’t remember any of that. What I do remember is that thing’s red eyes underneath the bed. I remember a clawed hand reaching out to grab her feet JUST as she lifts them out of reach. I remember the girl getting killed for no reason–no karmic comeuppance, no playing God, or succumbing to seduction. She did nothing wrong. And I remember that fucked up ending where you think the professor is going to get his… but then starts baby-talking to it.
There’s something about small creatures that are creepier and scarier than big ones. Especially in my generation–gremlins, ghoulies, munchies, critters, hobgoblins, tomatoes, rabbits. One big Jason or Michael Myers is brutal. But a hundred little beasties are unstoppable–kill one, a hundred others remain. I wonder what it was about the eighties that provoked this phenomenon. Proliferation of technology? Disease? AIDS? Foreigners? Change?
I mean talk about hitting a kid where it hurts. We got both the “under the bed” and “in the closet” — the two best places for monsters to hide. Plus so many unanswered questions. What do his wife and daughter have to do with it? Did Dr. Fenner intend Gail to be killed? Why are the dolls & clothes not there, then there, then not there again? How do the cops not get wise to this, what with girls disappearing at this house? What is this thing? How did it get that way? Is it his daughter? A different daughter? Was she born that way? Deformed? An experiment? There’s plenty of animal biology paraphernalia around the house (skulls and teeth and such), but of course there would be — he’s a veterinarian. We know it’s not Margaret because it’s named “Lizzie” by the crew. I can’t find a source for that tidbit, but one would think if it was meant to be Margaret, they’d call it Margaret. (“All there in the manual“) The only possible clue is that, as he takes her upstairs, the camera lingers on a taxidermied bear head (or wolverine, not sure) with teeth bared.
So we’ve got the dark, deformity, closed-in spaces, spooky eyes, bad dentistry, psychotherapy (Gail’s questioning her mental faculties), and sudden death coupled with evidence-hiding so no one can bring your murderer to justice. I’m surprised I’m still here and not in a padded room. I mean, jeez, how can a little boy see this much horror and trauma and not be warped.