Luckily, I don't have much travelling to do during the holiday season as my family lives close by but the thought of people heading home for Thanksgiving brings to mind of one of my favorite Tales from the Darkside episodes - Season Two's "The Last Car."
An original story by Darkside's most prolific scribe, the late author Michael McDowell, "The Last Car" tells the tale of a college student named Stacey (Begonya Plaza), taking a late night train home on the day before Thanksgiving. After waiting alone on the train platform for what seems like forever, her ride finally arrives.
Making her way to the train's last car, Stacey tries to settle in for her trip but immediately it's clear that something isn't right. There's a rambunctious young boy (Scooter Stevens, who played John Cusack's younger brother in Better Off Dead), seemingly unchaperoned, who is constantly running back and forth in the car. Stranger is the fact that he seems to be in a different outfit each time Stacey sees him. First he's a cowboy, then a solider, then a astronaut. The car's other two passengers are a middle-aged man (familiar character actor Louis Guss) who carries with him a cardboard box with an inexplicably endless supply of snacks and sandwiches and a kindly old woman (Mary Carver, Arachnophobia) given to making cryptic comments.
As if Stacey's fellow passengers weren't unnerving enough, there's also the frequent tunnels that the train passes through that cause panic in the little boy and the fact that Stacey can see nothing but blackness outside the train's windows. And, that the train never stops at a single destination - even after hours of travelling.
Even a novice to the genre will be able to tell where "The Last Car" is heading without giving it much thought. But the episode unfolds in an appealingly eerie fashion and as many Darkside episodes leaned towards the whimsical and comical, "The Last Car" rates as one of the few installments of the series to go for straight scares. It's far more hokey than it is scary, but at least the attempt is there. And, personally, I find the hokiness of Darkside to be a comforting quality.
With its central character of a lone woman in transit, facing a supernatural mystery that seems to somehow hinge on her, this episode bears a spiritual kinship with the classic Twilight Zone episode "The Hitchhiker" in which a woman travelling alone never gets to where she means to but discovers she's already got to where she's going.
We never learn much about Stacey or what her home is like but this Darkside episode that embodies the low-rent aesthetic of the show and its ghoulish but genial demeanor always feels like "home" to me.
Once a fanzine publisher (Gravedigger's Union, from '94 to '97), currently I'm a contributing writer for the online horror news outlet Shock Till You Drop as well as a member of the Horror Dads, a group of genre-loving fathers who meet for roundtable discussions at Turner Classic Movies.
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