Mar 23, 2014

ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? 1x1: THE TALE OF THE PHANTOM CAB

If you were a budding horror misanthrope in your early teens during the ‘90s, then you not only remember, but cherish, this long-running Nickelodeon series about a group of variously ethnic kids meeting in the woods at night to trade spooky tales. Perhaps you remember President Gary's opening remarks during the first episode: "We're called The Midnight Society. Separately, we're very different. ... But one thing draws us together: the dark! Each week, we gather around this fire to share our fears and our strange and scary tales." The stories were creepy, corny, fantastic, or pretty stupid, but we all remember that nervous knot in our stomachs beginning to tighten as the legitimately eerie opening title sequence began (which includes that awful clown-doll from which I used to avert my eyes). You didn’t know if the groundwork for nightmares was being laid, but you sat, rapt, waiting to see.  So grab your weird bag of magic dust and toss it in the fire. It’s time to see if you’re still afraid of the dark.



The Tale Submitted For Approval: 

"The Tale of the Phantom Cab"

The Submitter: Frank

The Current Midnight Society Administration: Gary (President, Glasses); David (Vice-President, Administrator of the Useless); Kiki (Secretary of War/Ass-Kicker, Name-Taker); Eric (Director of the Office of Management and Budget/Minister of Looking Smarmy); Betty Ann (Ambassador to the United Nations/Gary’s Unspoken Mistress); Kristen (Trade Representative/Socialite); Frank (Intern/Socialite).


The Jist

Two brothers named Buzz and Denny go for a leisurely walk in the woods until they realize they’re lost because Buzz is useless and Denny’s really into denim. They stumble across (at random, in the middle of the woods, at night) a cab driver named Flynn, who likes to smile and wear a baseball cap with the brim sticking all the way up, just like Betty Spaghetti in A League of Their Own. Even though Flynn is the boys’ only hope for getting the hell out of the woods, Denny is really rude to him, anyway. Flynn has the patience of a dead moth, however, so he agrees to help the boys back to town. BUT! They soon become separated in the woods and the brothers find a weird shack, which kid-logic says they should enter immediately. It is here they meet Dr. Vink (with a Vuh-Vuh), his first of many appearances in this series and my nighttime fantasies.

Vink acts weird, forces the brothers to answer riddles, shows them a hand he’s got in a big jar, and the kids scream and fuck off.

Outside they come across Flynn again, so they hop into his cab and vamoose. He continues this weird riddle banter and more than intimates that he was one of Vink’s many unlucky riddle unsolvers and confirms this by showing the brothers his stump hand.

The kids scream and solve a riddle and then poof – they’re fine, safely in the hands of the Canadian Mounties.

The brothers realize their love for each other and open their own homemade candle shoppe.

"Boys, help Mama zip her dress."

The Reaction

I wanted to punch, in the face-teeth, every single character in this episode. I suppose wanting to punch Denny is understandable, since he’s the older brother and by default an asshole, but we’re kind-of/sort-of supposed to root for Buzz, since he’s small, gangly, and ultimately harmless. But no, I wanted to punch him even harder.

This entire story feels cobbled together from other unfinished concepts, which is hilarious, since this whole thing, minus the framing device of the Midnight Society, couldn't be more than eight pages, for serious. You’ve got kids lost in the woods, and then this random cabbie, and then this random shack where a mad scientist lives, his sole purpose for being in that spot so he can HOPE kids who suck at riddles will stumble upon his laboratory and he can lightly scare them with all his neon props.

My ability to celebrate nostalgia is still functioning at full capacity, but I’ve got no love for this particular episode. The garish performance by Buzz Kill and the randomness of the events didn’t do much for me.

Is It Scary?

Not really – except for the sudden 180-head. But that trick will always be a little disconcerting no matter the context.

Is It Corny?

Yes. The presence of Dr. Vink can reassure that there will be some hammy performances going on, along with some bubbling chemistry sets. Plus anything having to do with riddles is an immediate one-way ticket to Corn Town.

Is It Stupid?

It’s not the stupidest of episodes, but it’s not one of the series’ highlights.

How Bad Is The Acting?

The kid who plays Buzz is downright atrocious. Every line of his is overemphasized, as if he were terrified even before anything remotely creepy has happened. HE SHOUTS EVERY WORD I HOPE YOU’RE READY. It’s hard to gauge Denny’s performance, as anyone sharing a scene with Buzz is going to end up looking like Sir Fucking Laurence Olivier.

Do The Kids Deserve Their Terror?

Denny does because he’s an asshole. Technically Buzz doesn’t, but I want him to suffer just because of that actor’s grating performance.

Why Does That One Kid Look Familiar?

You might recognize Buzz (Sean Ryan) as the kid from In The Mouth of Madness who Sam Neill encounters near the end of the film. He’s the one who asks him if he’s been in an accident, then tells him the way to town is “straight up.” Oh, and he was in Puppet Master 2, as Billy – whoever that is.

How Canadian Does Everyone Sound?

Not too Canadian. But we’ve got a long way to go.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the episode, the Midnight Society votes via thumbs up or down to determine if Frank’s tale is worthy of permanent admittance to their cult-like social club. A unanimous wave of thumbs confirms Frank’s induction, although it would have been pretty hilarious if he had been rejected – a bloodthirsty decision and depressing ending for what could have been a main character, and all this during the first episode of the series.

But no, Frank's in.

So far I'm not too worried about deciding to have taken on this column. From what I remember, this show gets better.

Terror.



On the Official Gary Creeper-Shot Rating Scale...



I Award "The Tale of the Phantom Cab..."

 


2 Gary Creeper Shots


I declare this meeting of the Midnight Society closed. (Splash sound.)

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