“My name is Victoria Winters. There are no limits to the things some men will do.”
The story so far: Don’t worry about it. Seriously. Yes, you’ve missed 209 episodes, but it’s 1967 and nobody has Hulu. As a genre, soap operas are perpetual-motion narrative engines designed for the continuous onboarding of new viewers, and Dark Shadows in this period is even slower than average. The interesting thing is still 20 minutes in the future; you’re just in time.
Right now, all you need to know is that the Collins family lives with all their sins and secrets in a big mansion on a hill in Collinsport, Maine. There’s Elizabeth, the matriarch, and her teenage daughter Carolyn; there’s Liz’s brother Roger, and his young son David. There’s also a governess, Victoria, who’s meant to be the central character, but over the next few months she starts to lose her position as the focus of the show.
There’s an unwelcome guest staying at Collinwood — Jason McGuire, an old friend of Liz’s dead husband. Jason showed up a few weeks ago, and he’s blackmailing Liz over some dark secret that’s hidden in the basement. As if that’s not bad enough, Jason has brought along his shady associate, Willie Loomis. Willie’s been bothering the young women of the house, starting bar fights in town… and showing a peculiar interest in the old family portrait that’s hanging in the foyer.
There are some other characters and dangling storylines, but nothing you should worry about. Every other story is about to get blown off the screen exactly 20 minutes from now.
So we start out with Jason confronting Willie in the Collinwood foyer. Over the last few days, Willie’s been admiring the jewelry pictured in some of the Collins family portraits, and he’s heard that some of the family members may have been buried with their jewels, in a mausoleum in the old Eagle Hill cemetery. Jason knows that Willie’s got something going, but Willie stays quiet.
Elizabeth calls Jason into the drawing room and throws an envelope of money at him — she’s paying Willie to leave town. She tells Jason to count it, but he turns on the charm, assuring her, “It’s all there. I can tell by the feel of it.” She barks at him that his friend should leave the house immediately. He apologizes: “I wanted this to be kept quiet. You know, the same way you wanted something kept quiet?” She walks out, and as soon as her back is turned, he opens the envelope and counts the money. Jason is funny. We like Jason.
Then there’s a scene of Willie in a tool shed, silently putting tools in a bag, with his back to the audience. After thirty seconds, there’s a dramatic sting and we go to commercial. That’s how things work in the early days of Dark Shadows; you just go ahead and take the act break whenever you feel like it.
Like I said, it’s okay if you’re a little lost here at the start. This is the first episode that I saw, back in sixth grade, and it’s where the reruns and home video releases always start. Dark Shadows wasn’t a vampire show when it premiered in 1966 — it was just a gloomy soap opera, with a couple of “is that a ghost or am I seeing things” moments. The show was limping towards cancellation when they decided they might as well go out with a bang, as we’ll see.
But when I started watching the reruns, nobody explained that this was 10 months into the show. I thought this was the beginning, so most of the conversations in these early episodes were just baffling. Why do they keep referring back to things that happened a week ago? And where the hell is the vampire?
So, to help us all catch up, Vicki and Liz stand around in the drawing room giving moody recaps to each other about Willie’s mysterious interest in the family history.
Meanwhile, Willie’s at the cemetery, breaking into the Collins mausoleum. I guess I should point out that there’s significantly more grave robbing on this show than you might expect on an afternoon soap opera. I don’t know what the average incidence of grave robbing is on daytime television, but I’m pretty sure Dark Shadows had more of it.
So Willie’s messing around in the mausoleum, trying to open the lid of a huge stone coffin. The lid won’t budge. He tries a crowbar. It doesn’t work. He gets frustrated, sits down and smokes a cigarette. He gets up and tries again. Same problem. This is all happening in real time.
Willie notices that there’s a decorative lion’s head on the wall, with a ring in its mouth. He tries to rig up a pulley by looping some rope through the ring. As he reaches out to touch the ring, he hears a pounding heartbeat sound. He’s startled, and moves away.
He runs to the mausoleum door. The heartbeat sound stops. He slowly turns to look back. He takes another drag on his cigarette. He cautiously approaches the lion’s head, and hooks the pulley to the ring. He pauses.
Seasons pass. Civilizations rise and fall as Willie dicks around on the mausoleum set.
Finally, he sets up the pulley, and tugs on the rope. The ring in the lion’s mouth pulls away from the wall, and Willie hears a grinding sound as the stone wall swings open, revealing a secret room in the mausoleum.
And then there’s this perfect, completely bonkers shot: Willie shines his flashlight into the hidden room, and the camera pulls back to reveal a coffin, bound by chains.
The big famous moment actually happens about a minute and a half later, when Willie breaks the chains, opens the coffin, and then gapes in horror as a hand reaches out to grab his throat. To be honest, it’s actually a little disappointing — the hand is too slow, and Willie doesn’t really know how to react.
But that crazy, sense-defying shot when Willie peers into the darkness and discovers the mystery box — that’s the moment that reached out and grabbed the audience by the throat in 1967, and it grabbed me as a sixth-grader in 1982. And if you watch this episode today, maybe it’ll grab you too.
Tomorrow: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
One of the pleasures of Dark Shadows is that they made a lot of mistakes, and all of those mistakes showed up on screen. In the late ’60s, videotape was expensive and editing was complicated, so they basically shot the show “live-to-tape” — as one unbroken take, including pauses for the commercial breaks.
So if you’re an actor and the scene ends with a vampire bite, you have to slip the plastic fangs into your mouth while the camera focuses on the other actor saying a line. And if you accidentally put the fangs in sideways, then either the other actor comes up with something else to say, or you just go ahead and do the scene with sideways fangs. Luckily, the show was filmed in New York, so a lot of the actors had stage experience, and they’ve got that resilient “the show must go on” spirit.
Of course, in live theater, you don’t have to perform five new half-hour plays every week, complete with dry ice and witch trials, so it’s still a fairly harrowing experience. We’re watching actors do a high-wire act on a foggy night, while a stagehand attacks them with a bat on a string.
People forget their lines. Props fall apart. In episode 290, the set literally catches on fire, and the actors keep going while people in the studio grab the fire extinguisher.
That actually happens. It’s amazing.
Of course, Dark Shadows wasn’t the only daytime show that had these problems. If you watched The Nurses, DS‘ original lead-in, I’m sure you’d see a comparable number of early-TV bloopers. But nobody ever sees them, because who the hell wants to watch The Nurses.
That being said, Dark Shadows was more accident-prone than most, partly because they used the rehearsal time for setting up the special effects, and partly because the show was assembled by lunatics.
So as we go along, I’ll point out some of the amusing mistakes.
Here are some things to look for in this episode:
At the end of the teaser, the camera pans from Willie to the portrait, but it wobbles a bit, not quite able to focus on the correct place.
In the drawing room scene, when Liz gets up from her chair to reassure Vicki, you can hear a lot of noise from the studio, including banging doors and people shuffling around. It lasts for most of the scene.
As Willie breaks the first lock on the coffin, he looks up to check that the camera’s still on him.
A boom mic shadow crosses Willie’s face as he breaks the final lock. For the most part, I’m not going to bother mentioning the boom mic shadows, because they’re in every episode. Sometimes the show feels like it’s actually the story of a boom mic shadow and the unhappy people who live underneath it.
Tomorrow: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
— Danny Horn