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. You didn’t know if the groundwork for nightmares was being laid, but you sat, rapt, waiting to see. As could be assumed, what scared your past self may be nothing more than hilarious to your present one, but there’s only one way to find out. “Are You Afraid of the Snark?” has one mission: to turn its critical eye to this charming kids’ show of yesteryear, filter it through the mind of a cynical adult, and see what it looks like on the other side. So grab your weird bag of magic dust and toss it in the fire. It’s time to ask yourself…are you afraid of the dark?
The Tale of the… Phantom Cab (Season One, Episode One)
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).
Tonight’s Tale Submitter: Frank
Well, it’s the very first episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and so President Gary explains just who The Midnight Society are, why they meet in the woods every week, what time they have to be home, and what it is about them they have in common.
Although it’s implied that The Midnight Society have been doing this for a while, the first episode ever is also the group’s introduction to a boy named Frank, of whom I’ll spend this entire first season being kind of afraid. As initiation, it’s up to him to tell that night’s story – his very fate with The Midnight Society depends on it.
“To be a member, you have to tell us a scary tale. Then we vote, and it HAS to be unanimous, or you’re not in,” Gary explains, resisting the urge to push up his glasses.
Frank is blindfolded all during this opener, and all during the telling of his tale, which, yeah – that’s weird.
So does he have what it takes to scare a bunch of twelve-year-olds in the dark?
There’s only one way to find out…
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. It doesn’t help when the map becomes unreadable because Buzz spills the tiniest bit of canteen water on it, which is completely absurd, but whatever, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?,” I can roll with this.
It gets dark and tensions really mount. “I should pound you!” Denny cries, while Buzz points out the obvious: someone walking right at them. At random, in the middle of the woods, at night, they meet 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 for some reason, anyway. Since Flynn has the patience of a dead moth, he agrees to help the boys back to town.
“I wouldn’t go with him,” Buzz says too loudly to his brother.
“If he tries anything, I’ll pound him,” says Denny, who weighs probably 75 lbs soaking wet, about Flynn, who stands several inches over him.
Flynn and the brothers become separated in the woods because these kids are just the absolute worst and they eventually 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.
“I don’t suppose either of you are any good at riddles?” he asks them out of complete nowhere.
The boys enter the shack, where Vink acts weird and forces the brothers to answer said riddles.
“Let’s do it, I’m good at riddles,” Buzz says, himself not even convinced of what he’s saying.
Vink presents his riddle.
“I don’t know,” Buzz says, as I can feel my blood pressure rising.
Buzz begs Vink for a new riddle until he responds by showing them a hand he’s got in a big jar. 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, Buzz solves Vink’s brain-buster of 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.
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. It’s the equivalent of a haunt for which one may pay an exorbitant fee to enter during the Halloween season, all to walk from one set to the next, none of which have anything in common other than “SCARY!”
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. That this is the episode which served as the opener for what would become a ten-year legacy of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” is the most surprising thing about “The Tale of the Phantom Cab.”
IS IT SCARY?
Not at all – at least not on an obvious level. The sudden 180-head-turn Flynn exhibits in his car is the kind of trick that will always be a little disconcerting no matter the context, but far scarier subconsciously is Vink threatening to cut the wire of his own telephone, thereby preventing the brothers from calling their parents for help, unless they agree to solve one of his riddles. Have you seen Dr. Vink? He’s what the homeless have nightmares about.
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. One might think that presenting an episode entirely about riddles, and its characters solving said riddles the audience may not know, would prove that it has a modicum of intelligence, but thinking that would make you pretty stupid.
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. Although, the episode goes far out of its way to present Buzz as klutzy, pathetic, and kind of dumb, so maybe he should have just stayed the hell out of the woods in the first place. So yeah, they deserve it.
HEY, ISN’T THAT…?
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 IT SOUND?
Flynn’s very first line – “Helloh!” – is super Canadian. And I’m pretty sure the park ranger who rescues the brothers at the end has a maple leaf patch on his sleeve.
Otherwise, there aren’t too many instances. But we’ve got a long way to go.
At the end of the episode, the Midnight Society votes via thumbs up or down to determine if new candidate 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.
“The Tale of the Phantom Cab” Is Awarded:
I declare this meeting of the Midnight Society closed. (Splash sound.)