“I’m just glad to be here.”
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Thursday’s episode of Dark Shadows was pre-empted this week, so ABC could air football on Thanksgiving afternoon. I want the blog to keep the Monday-to-Friday rhythm of the original broadcast, so today, the normal blog entry is pre-empted by our own Thanksgiving treat.
Today, we’re going to do some time travel, fast-forwarding to the mysterious far-off year of 1991. It’s a Sunday night in January, and NBC is airing the prime-time remake of Dark Shadows. This first episode is a two-hour journey into the unknown, so let’s get started…
In 1991, NBC was right in the middle of their golden age, dominating Thursday nights with a slate of top-shelf sitcoms and dramas — The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld and L.A. Law. They had Matlock, Quantum Leap, The Golden Girls — a string of critically successful hit shows that made NBC the boutique network of the day.
Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC’s Entertainment Division, was 18 years old in 1967, and he remembered Dark Shadows. It was his idea to try a prime-time revival — he contacted the show’s creator, Dan Curtis, and convinced him to give it a shot.
Curtis always styled himself as the auteur of Dark Shadows, and it’s true that — as the creator and executive producer — he guided the show through its spectacular rise and gentle fall. But he never actually wrote any of the scripts, and he only directed a handful of episodes.
In fact, the two Dark Shadows movies that Curtis directed — House of Dark Shadows in 1970 and Night of Dark Shadows in 1971 — failed to capture the magic of the show in a pretty disastrous way.
But since then, he’d directed the popular 1983 miniseries The Winds of War, and he co-wrote and directed its 1988 sequel, War and Remembrance.
By 1991, Curtis felt that he was the best choice to co-write and direct the new Dark Shadows. He was incorrect.
And you can see why right from the opening sequence, which is an adorably clumsy attempt to recapture the magic of the past by literally re-shooting the same opening that they made in 1966.
It all starts with Victoria Winters, girl governess, traveling by train to her new job in Collinsport. Vicki looks out the window, and recites a paraphrase of the opening voiceover from episode 1.
She starts with “My name is Victoria Winters,” and ends with “a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met… people who tonight are still only vague shadows in my mind, but who will soon fill all the days and nights of my tomorrows.”
They also use the original show’s music, and the shots of the waves crashing on the rocks. In fact, it looks like if Curtis had his way, he would make exactly the same show, with all the same people — except the writers and directors, obviously, because he could do those jobs himself.
So we find the people — who tonight are only vague shadows — standing around in a bedroom, talking about David’s new governess.
Liz: It will feel odd, having a stranger in the house.
Mrs. Johnson: I’m sure you made the right decision.
Carolyn: You can say that again. I hope she brings a whip and a chair. That’s about the only thing I haven’t tried with David.
And holy cow — we’re a minute and a half in, and already we have a problem. Somebody told the girl who’s playing Carolyn that this is a night-time soap opera, and her approach is to say all of her lines with a breathy, slutty giggle.
The “whip and a chair” line sounds like David is one of her regular clients, rather than her 10-year-old cousin. Luckily, the audience doesn’t know how inappropriate that is, because nobody’s explained who David is, or what his relationship is to anyone else in the scene, and they’re not going to.
Apparently, we’re supposed to already know who all of these people are and how they’re related. But here comes Daphne, who’s something of a mystery.
Daphne: Aunt Elizabeth, there’s a folder with the household checks and estimated tax down in the study.
Liz: Thank God there’s one practical Collins in this world.
And that’s pretty much all we ever know about where Daphne fits in. She’s just another skinny white girl with long hair, like everyone else on the show.
As Mrs. Johnson prepares the room for the new governess, she finds a shoebox under the pillow.
“Ooh,” Carolyn moans. “I wouldn’t open that, unless someone has a shotgun handy.” She purses her lips into a pout as Liz opens the box — and finds a dead, bloody rat.
Carolyn strokes her hair. “David’s… welcome to Collinwood,” she breathes, with a barely-suppressed erotic thrill. “Poor Victoria Winters,” she sighs, smoldering.
Carolyn — stop coming on to your mother! Did Dan Curtis tell you to act this way? Show me in the script where the bad man touched you.
But “sexy” isn’t the only character type that Curtis is unfamiliar with; he also has a problem with “comedy relief”. Here’s the new Willie, played as a mentally delayed backwoods hillbilly. In this version, he works for the Collins family, apparently as their mentally delayed backwoods chauffeur.
Willie is in his little attic above the garage, swigging a bottle of moonshine, and struggling to read some kind of riddle. He has to sound out the hard words, which means: all of them.
Willie: Three grac-es spin high a-bove. The lion looks at… the dove.
When we see his desk, he’s got a copy of The Book of the Dead, but that rhyme turns out to be the secret riddle that tells you how to find a vampire chained in the Collins family mausoleum, so who knows where it’s supposed to come from.
By the way, there isn’t actually a book called The Book of the Dead, and if there was, it wouldn’t be a treasure map for people hunting 18th-century vampires in Maine. But never mind.
Willie’s in trouble, because he was supposed to go pick up the new governess at the train station. But he was busy researching Egyptian funerary rites or whatever, so Vicki is waiting for him at the Blue Whale.
By the time Willie gets to the bar, Vicki is at a cozy table chatting with Daphne, who lives at Collinwood, so why they need the drunk hillbilly to drive her up to the house is beyond me.
But at least the scene gives them the opportunity to throw a few more random short-tempered characters at us. I’m not going to bother to introduce them, because the show doesn’t, so why should I do all the hard work?
“Welcome to Collinwood!” Elizabeth says, as we crouch behind a nearby occasional table. Dan Curtis believes that you can put the camera almost anywhere — across the room, hanging from the ceiling, lurking around the corner — and the scene will take care of itself.
This scene is shot mostly at crotch-level, which I suppose is appropriate, because this is where Vicki meets Carolyn, who’s hanging around the house wearing a miniskirt and spike heels.
And then, just in case you were getting too comfortable, it concludes with a shot from the upstairs balcony, as seen from the point of view of nobody in particular. This is the shot where you first notice that Collinwood appears to have its own internal weather system. Today’s forecast is partly cloudy.
There’s a light mist in the kitchen as well, as Willie tells his aunt that he’s found out where the Collins jewels are hidden.
Willie: I figured it out! The stuff is in a secret room, in the family tomb!
Mrs. Johnson: I don’t want to hear any more of this.
Willie: I’m tellin’ ya! The jewels were buried by one ‘a them guys in them pictures out dere! It was durin’ the Revolution — that’s this big war we had, back in the 17 hunderds? Well, anyway, this guy Barnabas, and his old man, they buried the family jewels, to keep ’em safe!
I’m trying to reconstruct Willie’s accent as well as I can, but it’s difficult, because it appears to change from one sentence to the next. It sounds like he grew up on the border between Alabama and wherever Sylvester the Cat lives in Looney Tunes cartoons.
And so Willie Loomis — obeying the primal instincts that govern all Willie Loomises — follows the trail of the fog machine to the Collins mausoleum.
As we’ve discussed, the lion looks at the dove, so Willie pulls on a ring in a wall carving, and he finds the secret room and the chained coffin. Let the dark ritual of summoning begin.
Back at the house, Vicki and Carolyn walk upstairs, and we get our one and only glimpse of the portrait of Barnabas Collins, which is on screen in the background for less than five seconds.
Nobody pauses to look at the portrait or take any notice of it, so anyone in the audience who doesn’t say, “Hey, that’s Ben Cross” is going to miss it completely. Apparently, in 1991 they assumed that everyone had hair-trigger Ben Cross detectors.
Willie finally opens the chained coffin, and a hand shoots out to choke him, and oh my God the hand has a black ring, which would probably be significant if they’d let us get close enough to Barnabas’ portrait to notice the ring, and if it wasn’t so dark in this shot.
Meanwhile, David plays an incredibly tame trick on Vicki — hiding behind a curtain in her room, and screaming when she opens it. This is good for a momentary startle, but it’s not dead-rat-in-a-box good.
David is played by the only actor on the show that anyone would recognize these days, the pint-sized terror Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was nine years old when he appeared on Dark Shadows, and this wasn’t even his first TV role — he’d already been on Family Ties and Murder, She Wrote. I believe that by this point he’d reached his full adult height.
In this version of the show, David — seen here from the point of view of his alarm clock — is a 24-hour unstoppable rage machine with no known problems. Everyone on the show is unfailingly kind and affectionate to him. This does not appear to make a difference one way or the other.
Meanwhile, somewhere near a runaway fog machine, Daphne Collins finishes a late-night accounting job at the Blue Whale. Apparently she just walks around doing everybody’s taxes; I’m not sure if that’s her job or if she just does it for kicks.
Anyway, she’s a blonde woman outside at night on a vampire show, so we may not have to worry about her career choices for very long.
Walking to her car, Daphne turns the corner and finds herself on what I’m pretty sure is the Wisteria Lane set. It seems to be a pretty lengthy hike from the Blue Whale to her car, which is surprising because the parking situation looks pretty relaxed from here.
Spooked by basically nothing, Daphne sprints to her car, but just as she reaches the car oh my God it’s the black ring that we didn’t see in the portrait or very clearly in the previous choking scene five minutes ago.
Instantly, a crowd gathers, and all I can think is, look at all those people who could have given her a ride home. But the Sheriff has some stoner zen wisdom to share with us.
Sheriff Patterson: Where did it all go.
EMT: Where did what go?
Patterson: Blood. I don’t see any blood around here. If she lost all that blood, where did it go.
The EMTs don’t have any answers, but he’s talking in a completely flat Dragnet style, and it’s possible that they don’t realize that he’s actually asking questions.
Daphne is still in serious condition by the time Liz and Carolyn get to the hospital. A doctor, Hiram — seen here from the point of view of Liz’s right shoulder blade — says that they’re pumping whole blood back into Daphne as fast as they can.
I don’t know who the doctor is supposed to be. They just keep throwing white people at the screen and expecting us to care.
Then it’s back to the mausoleum, where we find Willie still lying on the floor. At least if the Sheriff shows up, he won’t have to ask where did the blood go; it’s all over the place.
So Barnabas had to drink two whole people worth of blood tonight? This is going to get messy; I hope we have enough paper towels.
Whoever it is with the black ring steps over Willie and pulls on a ring set into the wall. A secret panel slides open, and — hey, Willie was right! They really did hide the Collins jewels in here. Or at least the Collins doubloons and assorted accessories, as seen in Pirates of the Caribbean.
I’m not jumping around, by the way — this is the actual pace of the episode, just one little scene after another. You get maybe three lines of dialogue per dramatic sting.
The sheriff checks in with Hiram, who’s examining Daphne’s blood under a microscope.
“You can stop looking for an animal,” the doctor says. “I’ve found traces of human saliva in the wound.” Great, so now we have to question all the humans. This could take forever.
Next, the Sheriff drives over to the house of somebody he refers to as “Professor”. We’re not really sure who this professor is, or what he’s a professor of, but he’s the guy you talk to when you don’t have any suspects and there’s human saliva in things.
Like most of the locations we see on the show, the professor’s house has mist blowing in from the other room. Is everybody running their humidifiers all day, or what? You don’t usually get foggy interiors like this.
Professor: You say the girl lost a great deal of blood. Exactly how much?
Patterson: Over two liters.
Professor: Almost half her blood volume! And your theory is, whoever did this took it with him.
Patterson: I know. It sounds crazy.
Professor: Not necessarily. There have been documented cases of unbalanced people who believe themselves to be vampires, and actually drank human blood.
Patterson: Two liters?
Sure, that’s like a Super Big Gulp. No problem.
The Sheriff — seen here from the point of view of the boom mic — gives the professor a full report of the incident. The professor says he’ll get on it right away.
Hey, I wonder how Vicki’s first day with David went? I thought Vicki was the main character of the show; it seems like we’ve forgotten her completely.
We’re now 27 minutes into this show, and so far Vicki has said exactly 21 sentences, which are as follows:
#1. That won’t be necessary.
#2. I’d like to go to Collinwood now, if that’s all right.
#3. I think it’ll be just fine.
#4. Thank you for all of your help.
#6. Thank you, Mrs. Stoddard.
#7. Oh, no; that’s no problem.
#8. I’m just glad to be here.
#9. That would be very nice.
#10. And David — is he asleep?
#12. David, my god.
#13. You certainly did.
#16. I’m not here to hurt you.
#17. All right, David.
#18. Let’s go to your room.
#19. David, I’m here to be your friend.
#20. Now go to sleep.
#21. I’ll see you in the morning.
That’s 94 words total, if you’re curious, or 3.5 words per minute.
But who needs character development when you’ve got weird point of view shots? All of a sudden, it’s night-time again, and a dark figure knocks on the door at Collinwood.
We see the rest of the scene from the unseen man’s point of view, as he introduces himself as Barnabas Collins, a cousin from England. Mrs. Johnson invites him / us / the Steadicam in.
While Mrs. Johnson is fetching Mrs. Stoddard, we look around the room for a bit, finally settling on the portrait for about three seconds.
Liz comes out to greet the visitor, and oh my God it’s the guy from the portrait that we didn’t get a very good look at and he’s probably wearing the black ring that we also didn’t really get a chance to see very clearly and by the way, seriously, why is it always foggy inside?
So here’s Barnabas meeting the family.
Liz: This is so extraordinary! We knew, of course, according to all the various journals, that the original Barnabas went to England in the 1700s, just after the election of John Adams.
Barnabas: A man he helped to elect, along with Thomas Jefferson as vice-president.
Liz brightens up, and says, “Yes!” as if only a legitimate Collins would know the name of John Adams’ vice-president.
Barnabas stands up and does his traditional party piece about how they built Collinwood.
Barnabas: Collinwood was first built in the moors near Lyme Regis, on the southwest coast of England. The truss and cherrywood railings were hand-carved in Germany, the marble floors cut from the finest Tuscan quarries in Carrara, the windows were purchased from the grandest baronial estates in Europe. It was all transported, piece by piece, on a sailing vessel to Boston, then dragged along this rocky coast by ox-drawn cart, to be reassembled here.
Which, obviously, makes exactly no sense at all. They tore down a house in England, and reassembled it here? It’s amazing they ever found the time to help elect John Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson as vice-president.
Barnabas wants to restore the Old House on the estate, which presumably was also transported piece-by-piece and dragged along this rocky coast at some point.
David — seen here from the perspective of Barnabas’ cufflinks — is not thrilled. He has a friend named Sarah who lives in the Old House. David and Barnabas have a staring contest, accompanied by some spooky theremin whines.
Vicki says, “David, it’s time for us to go upstairs. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Collins,” so apparently her dialogue just isn’t going to get a lot better.
Gosh, still a lot left. This is way easier when the show is only 22 minutes long and is mostly just people opening and closing doors.
The next morning, Vicki goes to the stables, which by the way there are some, and look how long sweaters used to be in 1991.
Vicki finds Willie standing around in the stables with a bandage on his neck, and a whole new set of dumb expressions. I promise that I’m not deliberately trying to take weird-looking screenshots of Willie. He really does make faces like this pretty much non-stop.
They’ve decided for some reason that Willie is a suspect in Daphne’s attack. So they call the Sheriff, who decides for some reason to question him in the Collinwood kitchen, with the whole family standing around and interrupting every five seconds.
Willie is saved when Barnabas comes by to explain that he’s hired Willie to work on the Old House restoration. Ben Cross is actually doing a nice job as Barnabas — he’s very dignified and still — although most of his performance is eyebrow-related, and we spend a lot of our time looking all the way up his nose. This must be Dan Curtis’ sinus-cam.
Then there’s a little “fixing up the Old House” sequence, where David wanders off, and comes close to finding the IKEA coffin showroom in the basement. I think this model is the KNUTSTORP.
Next up: Another vamp attack, this time featuring a young blonde woman who walks outside on her own for more than six seconds. This one’s named Gloria.
Barnabas finds her in a crowded parking lot, which isn’t particularly stealthy. As soon as he starts feeding, Gloria’s boyfriend comes by, and Barnabas has to kill him, too. It’s a good thing they weren’t on a double date, or this could have gone on all night.
At this point, I have two questions for Barnabas, which are as follows: #1. How many people do you need to eat in an average week? #2. Why are you wearing that turtleneck?
But the serious question for the show is: How am I supposed to feel about this sequence? It’s really hard to tell what they’re going for at this point.
Is this supposed to be funny, scary, sexy, sad? Who am I supposed to root for? What is the purpose of this show?
And that’s the actual problem that I’m having with this remake. I don’t think that anybody involved in the production ever asked, “Wait a minute, why are we making a new Dark Shadows?” They just kept throwing scenes together until it turned into a TV show.
I mean, that’s how they made the original show, but for some reason, that doesn’t bother me. The original show feels authentically improvised — that was literally the best that they could do with the time, talent and resources available to them. But they’ve had 20 years to think about this remake, and I don’t think they’ve used that time very constructively.
For example: Here comes Dr. Julia Hoffman, a blood specialist / hypnotist / house guest who’s going to live at Collinwood and take care of Daphne, who basically seems fine at this point anyway.
And I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but we honestly don’t need Julia on this show. We already have so many doctor-professor-investigator characters crowding the screen that we literally can’t even fit them in a shot together.
In the original show, they brought in Julia because they’d finished the first cycle of Barnabas’ story — the abduction and escape of Maggie — and they didn’t want to just do the same thing over again with Vicki. So they introduce Julia, a mythopoetic trickster-figure who hits the storyline status quo like a neutron bomb. Only the buildings are left standing.
But in the remake, they’re introducing Julia because this is the part of the story where you introduce Julia. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a reason why they’ve tried to remake the story of Dark Shadows four times — in 1970, 1991, 2004 and 2012 — and every single time, it’s been a disaster.
Every iteration, they say: okay, we’ve figured out the real core of the story; we’re going to cut out all the repetition and just keep the good stuff. Invariably, this means: Maggie and Vicki are the same person.
But maybe this story only works when you make it the way that they made it, just helplessly falling downstairs every weekday, and praying that they find something interesting at the bottom. Maybe this is a story that can only be told once. Just like life.
This episode drags on relentlessly for another thirty minutes, but from here on, it’s mostly Vicki and Barnabas staring at each other, and he keeps wearing turtlenecks. I can’t take it. I feel worn out and drained, although that’s usually how I feel about two-thirds of the way through Thanksgiving.
We’ll come back to the 1991 series for another episode, next time we’ve got a pre-emption. Christmas is coming, so you’ll find episode 2 nestled at the bottom of your stocking.
But tomorrow, we’re back to 1795, where there are witches and toy soldiers and big feathery hats, and people pretending to speak French, and theremin music. Thank goodness — civilization.
Tomorrow: A Woman Scorned.
Next pre-emption special: Time Travel, part 2: Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Note: Today’s entry includes extra jokes and sarcastic questions courtesy of my husband, Ed Kako, who watched this episode with me in 1991, because we’d just started dating and he didn’t know any better, and he watched it with me again this week, because he’s lovely.
— Danny Horn