[31 Days of TV Anthology Terror] Tales from the Darkside: Answer Me

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To celebrate horror on television, I’m looking back at 31 tales from various anthology series. They’re the ones I vividly remember or respond to the most. No matter what, though, they are proof that horror and suspense aren’t limited to the big screen.

Tales from the Darkside was a series full of enigma. The restrained budget led to co-creator George A. Romero‘s eventual departure, but it also forced the showrunners to get creative. This included using small casts and keeping the action to single locations. Although not every story was overtly supernatural, there was an undeniably macabre air to each one.

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One of the most peculiar episodes in the first season was “Answer Me,” a story conceived by Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) and D.W. Schuetz, and directed by Richard Friedman (Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge). It’s told very much like a one-person play where Jean Marsh (Return to Oz) is the only actor physically shown on screen. Her character of Joan, a struggling British actress living in New York City, is subletting an overpriced apartment (mind you, $600 was considerably different in 1985). As Joan tries to prepare for her auditions, she hears a phone’s incessant ringing in the unit next to hers. Yet, upon inquiring about the tenant, Joan learns the place is empty.

“Answer Me” is classic Darkside — it twists something so innocuous and turns it into an instrument of fright. Horror in general had long villainized the phone by this point, but, as viewers come to learn, it’s not really the device that’s evil here. In fact, it’s completely arguable that there is no true antagonist in the story. “Answer Me” sounds like a typical ghost story on paper, but there is another interpretation worth indulging.

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Something the show did occasionally was take psychological issues and reframe them so they might appear supernatural. “Florence Bravo” is another  fine example of this. Cleverly, “Answer Me” could very well be about a woman at her breaking point — rejection after rejection has caused Joan to take her own life. When she calls the landlord about the unit next to hers, Joan is told the place was once occupied by an “English girl” who died of suicide. And, much like the dearly departed, Joan is friendless. This all begs the question if everything that happened in the episode is really an echo of the past. Certain details like how the former neighbor took her life (pills) and how Joan eventually dies herself (strangled by the ringing phone) also contradict the notion that the women are one and the same. Even so, it’s a curious theory.

Taken at face value and seen only as a woman succumbing to her own fate with some assistance from the ominous appliance in question, “Answer Me” is a memorable oddity. It’s equally witty and suspenseful. There is no origin or explanation for anything that happens, but that inscrutability is what keeps us returning to the Darkside.

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