Earlier today, I wrote about “Trick or Treat” one of the more didactic episodes of the 1980s syndicated horror anthology, Tales from the Darkside.
Now, I want to focus on an episode that boasts no greater thematic intent than to get your ghost; to scare the hell out of you.
The episode I refer to is “Inside the Closet,” a first season entry written by Michael McDowell and directed by Tom Savini.
This particular tale involves a young student, Gail (Roberta Weiss) who rents a room in the home of prickly old professor, Dr. Fenner (Fritz Weaver). The officious prig lives alone, he claims. His wife died of cancer, and his daughter is apparently away at graduate school.
In her rented attic bedroom, however, Gail starts to suspect a different truth when she hears scratching noises emanating from inside the walls. Worse, a crawlspace door seems to open and close of its own volition.
On one occasion, Gail finds the crawlspace decorated like a child’s room. She sets a trap for rats, only to see the trap mysteriously disappear…and re-appear under her bed.
Gail’s final horrifying discovery — and that discovery’s unusual relation to Dr. Fenner — comprises the final punctuation of this particular installment of Tales from the Darkside, which first aired on November 18, 1984.
Like many episodes of Tales from the Darkside, it’s plain that “Inside the Closet” was cheaply produced. At one point, the press reported that the weekly special effects budget for the series was a mere $188.00 dollars. Here, the economical aspects of the production are seen in the small cast (just two people) and the number of sets, again just two (an attic bedroom and a downstairs foyer).
Despite such apparent limitations, director Tom Savini transforms “Inside the Closet” into a veritable horror masterwork.
With imaginative staging and mise-en-scene, he generates a sustained and disturbing atmosphere of terror until the final, macabre revelation. There’s very little dialogue in “Inside the Closet,” and thus Savini relies on two creative elements to create the dark atmosphere.
In the first instance, he deploys expressionistic angles to lift up the terror quotient. In the second instance, he lets ominous music help sell the story. In fact, the music is almost a character itself in the drama.
This is a spine-tingling and effective combination of techniques and I marveled while watching “Inside the Closet” at how expertly Savini engages the viewer’s interest and fear. There’s a great silhouette shot of Gail at the eight-minute point, for instance — pushing into the frame — as she hears a suspicious noise. Savini also deploys slow zooms and pull-backs to accent certain important (and portentous) conversations, and even works in a Trilogy of Terror-styled “homunculus” cam./P.O.V. shot.
There are also several featured shots here of slowly turning doorknobs, hinting at the unseen terror behind the door (in a manner reminiscent of Wise’s The Haunting). One provocative and carefully crafted composition involves a rack focus: an ominous shift from Gail’s foot dangling off the bed in the foreground to the terrifying crawlspace in the background.
The best of these moments involves simple camera motion: a pan down from Gail in bed — her head resting on the pillow — to the thing below her bed, eyes red, malevolent and jaundiced. It’s a frightfully well-conceived shot, and part of a truly effective stylistic tapestry.
Too bad then, that, finally, the reveal of the “monster” is largely ineffective. Once you see the beast in the daylight, it no longer scares or even impressive.
But of course, given the creature’s nature and relationship to Dr. Fenner, this quality may be appropriate too. The final, sympathetic shots of “Inside the Closet” suggest that even monsters need love too.
There’s an authentic simplicity and innocence about “Inside the Closet” that proves really appealing in this day and age of CGI, digital creatures, and high-tech horrors. The story doesn’t strive for explanations, grasp for far-fetched, gimmicky twists, or wallow in unnecessary narrative complications. “Inside the Closet” is about a monster in hiding, and the atmosphere of terror that this monster creates for one, unlucky woman. Finally, we get a shift a perspective and are asked to regard the monster differently…as a child.
And supporting everything here is the universal fear of a closed closet door, and the thing that may or may not lurk inside.
That’s plenty of efficacious terrain for a 22-minute story.
I remember first seeing this episode late at night when I was fifteen or so, and being utterly transfixed by it. I watched it again last night, and felt almost precisely the same way.