“Is it necessary to continue to threaten me? I know the status of our relationship.”
Today’s episode opens with a shot of David walking through the woods, with a sunny meadow behind him. This is the show’s first use of chromakey, a new special effects technique that they’ll come to rely on for all sorts of supernatural malarkey. This shot only lasts about ten seconds, but it’s an incredibly important moment in the development of the show. Also, it looks awful.
Chromakey is very familiar to modern viewers; it’s also called “bluescreen” or “greenscreen”. You film the actors in front of a colored screen, and then you replace that color with the input from a different camera. It’s used for TV weather maps, and for the news correspondents on The Daily Show reporting “live” from unlikely locations.
If the lighting is set up properly, and if the actor isn’t accidentally wearing something blue, then you can create the not-very-compelling illusion that the actor is standing in front of something. And if the lighting isn’t set up properly, then it looks like this.
Oh, just look at it. It’s dreadful. They appear to be lighting it from the front, casting shadows onto the blue screen and messing up the color, so there’s jagged blue lines around all the foliage.
The best-known use of early chromakey technology is Doctor Who, back in the Third Doctor’s era. The BBC called the process Colour Separation Overlay (or CSO), and the Doctor Who producers thought it was made of magic. They used it for caves and alien worlds, and for a long series of completely unconvincing giant monsters.
All you need to do to mess up an old-school Doctor Who fan’s day is to walk up to them and say “CSO”, and then just sit back and watch the fun. The ensuing conversation will include at least one of the following phrases — Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Giant Robot, Loch Ness Monster — and a selection of curse words.
But the interesting thing is that Doctor Who started using CSO in 1970, and they were only making 25 episodes a year. Dark Shadows was using chromakey three years earlier, in the summer of 1967, and they made five episodes every week. They were using cutting-edge technology on the fly, shooting live-to-tape with no editing and no retakes.
That kind of lunatic, mad-scientist ambition will typically create either a huge success, a disastrous failure, or — as in the case of Dark Shadows — both, often at the same time.
David meets up with Sarah, his friend who just happens to be the ghost of Barnabas’ little sister. After all this time, David still doesn’t realize that Sarah is a ghost, which is pretty strange, considering how ghost-aware he usually is.
A few months ago, David ran into a brainwashed Maggie at the Old House, and he thought she was the ghost of Josette Collins. Now he’s friends with an actual ghost, and it doesn’t seem to occur to him that there’s something weird about her.
Now, one of those mistakes would make sense — he lives in a fictional world that includes ghosts, so he’s not crazy for believing in them. But making that mistake twice, in the space of a few months, is basically grinding up his character for the sake of plot mechanics.
David used to be a stubborn, sullen boy, resentful of his cold father, and grieving over the mysterious disappearance of his mother. But all of these ghost encounters are turning him into kind of a happy-go-lucky, dreamy kid.
For example, he tells Sarah that he was down by the ocean this morning.
David: If I’d known where you lived, I could call for you, and you could come too.
Sarah: I’d like to tell you, David, but I can’t.
David: Why not?
Sarah: Because it’s very hard to explain.
And then they just start chatting about how much fun secrets are.
David: I sure would like to know why you’re so mysterious.
Sarah: Because I have to be.
David: If you have to be, you have to be.
See what I mean? Weird kid.
David says it’s time to go home for supper, but Sarah offers to show him a secret place to play. It’s on Eagle Hill, where the cemetery is.
Now, they’ve established that the Eagle Hill cemetery is located five miles north of Collinsport, so it’s not really a place that two kids can walk to and still get home by dinnertime, but Sarah says she knows a shortcut.
At the Old House, Barnabas is out of his coffin already, but he’s not his usual perky undead self. He droops into a chair, and asks Willie when Julia is coming back.
Julia’s been experimenting on a cure for Barnabas’ vampirism, giving him injections to change the cellular structure of his blood. She seems optimistic, but now he’s feeling weak.
And, man, he really does look terrible. The Dark Shadows makeup department is not fooling around. Even for a dead guy, he looks bad.
So now he’s questioning the value of Dr. Hoffman’s experiments. He’s got a plan to destroy Burke and seduce Vicki, and he can’t do that if he’s dragging himself around like this. This is not the romantic look that he’s going for.
But here comes Julia, with a big smile on her face like she’s visiting her best friend in the world, rather than an insane ghoul who considers murdering her on an hourly basis.
He tells her that he’s feeling weak, and she’s delighted. “I see,” she smiles. “Then it’s taking effect!”
But he’s not having it. He rises with difficulty and looms over her, telling her that they’d better be making progress. She goes downstairs to prepare some tests.
Barnabas tells Willie that he’s not sure that he can trust Julia and her strange theories.
“I don’t understand these injections,” he croaks. “They could be harmful. If for one moment you suspect that what she’s doing could be something like that — you must destroy her. Do you understand?”
And look, Willie has a haircut today, and a nice new shirt. He looks great. He shouldn’t have to put up with nonsense like this.
Okay, back to the kids. Sarah’s five-mile shortcut takes David to the cemetery, and the Collins family crypt. Taken literally, this is impossible, but you have to look at it metaphorically, as a spiritual journey. Or maybe they just don’t care about geography on this show. It’s either that or the metaphor thing.
David is mildly freaked out that his friend has brought him to the creepiest possible place, but he tries to stay positive.
David: Well, gee, Sarah, it’s interesting and all that, but what can you do here? I mean, what kind of games do you play?
Sarah: Oh, sometimes I just come here to sit and think. Sometimes I come here to cry.
David: I don’t want you to cry, Sarah.
Sarah: Oh, I won’t cry… not now, because you’re my friend. I’m proving to be a good friend by bringing you here.
David: That’s right. I know lots of kids that wouldn’t share a secret like this.
This is late August, by the way. Dark Shadows has turned into a surprise hit over the summer, and by now there’s a huge audience of schoolkids who have spent their vacations playing vampire and victim.
Imagine what would happen today if an afternoon television show showed a middle-school kid getting lured into a creepy cemetery in the middle of the night, and presenting it as an exciting secret place to play. The world was different back then.
And it’s about to get even more different, because Sarah instructs David to pull on the ring in the lion’s mouth and open the secret door.
By the way, doesn’t the mausoleum set look fantastic in color? It’s the first time we’ve seen it. The stone walls are a deep greenish-gray, and with the lighting, it almost looks like an underwater cavern.
There are some people who say that Dark Shadows was better and more atmospheric when it was in black and white. Those people are wrong, and they should be ashamed of themselves.
The door slides open, and Sarah leads David into the secret chamber.
David says, “Hey! There’s a coffin,” which is a very Dark Shadows-y thing to say. This is the only show on television where people come across unexpected coffins.
The episode ends with Sarah insisting that David open the coffin and look inside. And he does, because why the hell not. I love this show.
Monday: Out of Order.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Sarah enters her first scene in the woods, her long dress catches on a branch.
David and Sarah sit on a big rubber log. You can see it buckle under their weight, especially when Sarah sits down.
David bobbles a line with Sarah:
David: It’s dinner time. Don’t you ever have to go home to dinner?
Sarah: No, I don’t.
David: Well, you’re sure lucky. Don’t you ever have to… can you stay out as long as you want, or… ?
Monday: Out of Order.
— Danny Horn