“Oh, God. Oh, God. Doc… please. Oh, God, doc. I’m beggin’ ya. I’m beggin’ ya. I’m beggin’ ya. Please, doc. Please. Oh, God. Oh, God. God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Doc. No. No. God. No.”
Merry Christmas! Today’s episode of Dark Shadows was pre-empted for Christmas Day 1967, because apparently people would rather watch football than 18th century vampires on Christmas, go figure. I want this blog to keep the Monday-to-Friday rhythm of the original broadcast, so we’re going to do some more time travel today, back to the year 1991, when NBC recklessly decided to give executive producer Dan Curtis another shot at making Dark Shadows all over again.
As we saw in the two-hour pilot episode, the Dark Shadows revival started with all the best intentions and all the worst ideas.
The main character is Victoria Winters, because after all these years we still think that’s a solid plan, but at least they did us the favor of not having her speak very much. I don’t think she has a single line in this entire episode.
We’ve also got a mentally challenged backwoods Willie Loomis, a sour-faced Julia with no sense of humor, a breathless Cinemax refugee who answers to the name of Carolyn, and don’t even get me started on Barnabas and the turtlenecks. On the plus side, we’ve got a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as David, so at least there’s some star power on the set.
NBC aired the two-hour pilot on Sunday, January 13th, and then the second and third episodes together on the next night, and pretended it was some kind of exciting four-hour miniseries event. To be clear, we’re just watching episode 2 today. I’m only human, and besides, it’s Christmas.
Tonight’s holiday entertainment begins with the traditional theme music over shots of crashing waves, with the title rendered in a font that I believe is called Fakey Gothic with Extra Serif.
Episodes of the original show always open with a teaser — a bit of atmosphere, or a recap of the previous episode’s cliffhanger — to entice the audience to hang in through the opening titles and the first commercial. The 1991 show just throws the titles at you, including a full cast roll call. This is not a positive step.
For one thing, this opening gives you a long, slow pan around the model of Collinwood that they’ve built. It’s a nice, detailed model, but it’s clearly a model, and it doesn’t stand up to this level of scrutiny. It looks the opposite of convincing.
And then they do this, which makes me wonder if they were aware that remote controls even existed. The show has literally been on the air for twenty seconds so far, and this is an image that they thought would encourage the citizens of 1991 America to stay tuned.
So it looks like we’re in for another in a long series of foggy evenings. I think that’s Collinwood back there, behind the brush fire.
“My name is Victoria Winters,” says Victoria Winters, apropos of nothing. “I am a stranger in the great house of Collinwood. But there are other strangers here, too. A man with riveting eyes — new to the land, but not to its past.”
And there’s your challenge: understand that sentence. It can’t be done.
You know, the usual Dark Shadows fan apology for the 1991 show’s failure in the ratings is that the Gulf War started the week that DS premiered, and people were watching the war coverage. Another, more plausible explanation is that President Bush declared war on Iraq as a distraction, in an effort to keep innocent Americans out of the way of this train wreck of a show.
The girl in the bed, for example, is Daphne Collins. She’s blonde and skinny, she has a boyfriend, and she prepares people’s tax returns for some reason. That’s pretty much all the intel on her so far. She was attacked by a vampire the other day, and everyone seems super concerned about her, despite the fact that she is clearly totally fine.
Daphne’s boyfriend Joe is sitting in the room with her, and Carolyn is there too. Julia gives Daphne an injection, and then Professor Woodard stops by to check in.
Woodard asks how Daphne’s feeling, and she says “Fine, thank you,” because she is self-evidently and unambiguously fine. Why are we focusing so much of our health care resources on this girl?
But the Professor has a reason for coming by — he gives Daphne a silver cross, and asks her to wear it around her neck tonight. Daphne agrees, because who even cares at this point. She’ll try anything, if it’ll thin the crowd out a bit.
Julia and Woodard step out into the hall for a conference, which starts with the question “Would you like to explain this sleepwalking escapade?” and doesn’t get a lot more sensible from there. You can tell it’s a tense conversation, because it’s shot in super tight close-ups.
Julia executes a raised eyebrow.
Julia: You still think that whoever did this might come back, don’t you?
Woodard: I don’t believe he has a choice. Sooner or later, she’s going to remember.
Unfortunately, they haven’t actually established that there’s anything that Daphne can’t remember, or that her memory returning would present a break in the case.
Stop worrying about Daphne. Daphne is fine.
Outside, it’s a remarkably bright and sunny evening as Daphne drops off to sleep. These night scenes were shot as day for night, with the effect added in post-production for the original broadcast.
When MGM Home Video remastered the show for the DVD release, they incorrectly left in the untreated footage, so it’s obvious that Barnabas is currently outside sunbathing.
This is just baffling. They didn’t notice that they took out the day-for-night effects when they remastered the episodes? It’s a vampire show. There are a lot of night-time scenes. “Remastered” means that you’re paying close attention to the way that it looks. I just can’t imagine what they were thinking.
Anyway, here’s Barnabas with crazy eyes, baring his fangs and hissing as we journey, once again, straight up into his nose.
They’ve decided to go with this weird feral hissing thing; I’m not sure where that comes from. Barnabas didn’t hiss in the original show. Who came up with the idea that vampires hiss? That’s a sincere question; if anybody knows, please leave a comment. I really don’t get the hissing.
Barnabas stares at Daphne’s window. Apparently, he can make Joe feel drowsy and fall asleep by remote control, because vampires have x-ray Ambien vision.
Daphne, also under remote control, reaches up and pulls the cross off her neck, so that was a waste of time.
Outside, we learn that they only have one fog machine. For shots of Daphne, there’s mist all around her, but when we cut to a shot of Barnabas, the fog machine is clearly located about three yards to his immediate left.
The last shot was from the point of view of a small dog positioned just behind Daphne, and now we cut to another sinus-cam shot of Barnabas. Dan Curtis is still directing these first few episodes, and he just can’t resist these gimmick shots. I’d say probably two thirds of the shots in this episode are from floor level, ceiling level, crotch level, or just underneath a character’s chin. It’s distracting.
And then they do this, which is odd. Is this what we do, we make out during the biting? That’s part of the biting experience now?
To make sense of this, it might help to take a step back and see where we are in the development of prime-time soaps.
1991 was just at the break point of a ten-year-long “wealthy decadence” cycle, with Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Knots Landing and The Colbys all drawing to a close.
This was followed by a ten-year “middle-class decadence” cycle, led by Beverly Hills 90210, which begat Melrose Place, and then the long parade of Melrose knock-offs, including Models Inc, Central Park West and Pacific Palisades.
In the early 90s, the fashion for prime-time dramas was to be “modern”, a mostly destructive term that meant a core cast of actors under 30, fast editing and MTV-style montages, and lots of passionate kissing scenes where the male characters burst through the buttons of what used to be shirts.
The 1991 Dark Shadows is smack in the middle between those two cycles, with one foot in the broken-down wealthy family, and the other in the shirt-button-popping area. That’s why we get this bite-kissing thing, which basically marks the end of subtext forever.
Now, here’s a quick note on character-building, and how to not do it. In the pilot episode, they were trying to establish that Barnabas has this deep emotional connection with Vicki, because she looks like a girl who’s in a painting. So how are we supposed to feel during this scene with Daphne?
And if feeding on the blood of the innocent is supposed to be an unbridled act of sexual passion, then what about biting Willie in the last episode? Willie wasn’t even bitten on the wrist, like the original Willie was; he had a gaping neck wound. Also, did Barnabas make out with Gloria, the girl in the parking lot? How about her boyfriend?
Again, the tone is just all over the place, and we really don’t get any support as we struggle to make sense of it. Is this supposed to be dramatic, or sexy, or funny, or scary? Or some random combination based on whatever the actor decided to bring that day?
Okay, so funeral. There’s bright sunlight and pouring rain, and since this is a depressing, heartbreaking scene, it’s a good time to talk about House of Dark Shadows.
House of Dark Shadows was the 1970 feature film made by the producers, writers and cast of Dark Shadows, while the daily TV show was still on the air. When this blog gets to 1970, we’ll see how much impact shooting the movie had on the development of the TV series. (Spoiler: A lot, and not in a good way.)
But we’ve got to consider the movie for a moment, because it’s the secret origin of Daphne.
The basic story behind House of Dark Shadows was: the TV show was very popular, especially with young people, and Dan Curtis got the opportunity to turn it into a movie.
And because Curtis didn’t really completely understand the television show that he was making, he thought it would be a good idea to tell the Barnabas / Maggie / Julia / Vicki story again, but with less character development, no charm, and a way higher body count. This did not turn out to be a good idea.
That’s because the transition from daytime soap opera to feature film changes everything. As a storytelling medium, the daily soap opera has limitations built into the format, and those limitations affect the characters and the story development. You start with maybe 15 core characters, and you’re expected to keep those characters on the show for as long as you possibly can.
That means you can’t just randomly kill somebody every time you’re stuck for a Friday cliffhanger. You have to invest in these characters. If the audience doesn’t care about them, they won’t come back for tomorrow’s show.
But the audience has already paid for a ticket by the time they see the movie, so apparently that means it’s open season on Collinses. Sorry for the spoilers here, but you really can’t talk about House of Dark Shadows without mentioning that they basically rip through the characters with a buzzsaw. Cast members would report to the movie set in Tarrytown, play out their TV character’s grisly death, and then take a bus back to the Manhattan studio to keep playing that character.
There’s a school of thought that holds that House of Dark Shadows was actually Dan Curtis’ attempt to deal with the stress of producing a daily supernatural-themed soap opera by taking the entire cast to Tarrytown, and ritually slaughtering them on film.
It’s not a very big school of thought, because I just made that up five seconds ago, but still, it’s a compelling theory.
Anyway, they killed Carolyn; that’s the point. They wanted a big, exciting first-act closer, and they had all these spare Collinses hanging around that they didn’t really need, so Carolyn became Barnabas’ first victim.
So that explains why suddenly there’s a Daphne. When she’s introduced in the first episode, they don’t explain where she fits in the Collins family tree. But they don’t really establish any of the family relationships very well, and it’s possible that I only know that Carolyn is Liz’s daughter in the 1991 series because I already knew it from the original show.
But here’s this “Daphne Collins”, who could be Roger’s daughter, or a random cousin from somewhere, or who knows what. I guess it’s too late to establish it now.
But it doesn’t matter, because Daphne is the disposable redshirt Collins.
They still want to do the Collins-girl-dies sequence from the movie, but you can’t kill off the only young female family member in episode 2. So Daphne is created and then destroyed, in another pointless Dan Curtis make-believe human sacrifice.
This rainy-day funeral scene is lifted directly from House of Dark Shadows, complete with the thoroughly unconvincing rain shower. They used fake rain in the movie too, but at least they were blessed with a slightly overcast day.
This 1991 reprise is clearly being shot on the sunshiniest day of the year, so they overcompensate with what appears to be a Noah’s-Ark level catastrophe breaking loose about three feet above the mourners’ heads. It looks like the undersea funeral for the Little Mermaid’s dad.
Then we see Julia working in a lab, God knows why. As usual, the interior weather is partly cloudy.
She tells Woodard, “This is Daphne’s last blood sample,” although technically, the vampire took Daphne’s last blood sample, so that’s a little insensitive.
Julia tells Woodard, “I didn’t tell you before, Michael, but for some time now, I’ve been testing a new vaccine on her.”
Really? Is that okay for a doctor to just go and do? Once again, the Dark Shadows definition of the word “experiment” is a little off-base.
Then there’s this unfortunate exchange.
Woodard: Julia, do you believe in the existence of vampires?
Julia: Tell me you’re not serious.
Woodard: Bodies drained of blood, human saliva in the wounds, his eyes red, and his teeth…
And that kind of takes a chunk out of Julia’s character development, doesn’t it? This is another unfortunate side effect of House of Dark Shadows. In the film, they couldn’t spend a lot of time on Julia being the only one who figures out that there’s a vampire, because they only had 97 minutes.
So they cut the Julia storyline short, which was a bad idea, and now they’re using that bad idea here, because they appear to be unable to resist repeating all the same mistakes.
Here’s why it’s a bad idea: This was the only thing that made Julia smart. The original Julia was intuitive, she thought on her feet, and she was absolutely determined to solve the mystery — even at the cost of her patient’s life, or her own.
True, she made a deal with the Devil, and then proceeded to fall in love with him, which arguably diminishes the character’s IQ to some degree. But that’s okay, because they’d already spent weeks establishing that she’s the smartest person that Collinwood has ever seen. They had some wiggle room.
Julia is supposed to be the only person smart enough to figure out what’s really going on. In this remake, I’m not even sure she’s in the top three. Woodard’s the one who’s handing out crosses; Julia’s just been frowning at test tubes.
Meanwhile, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is outside playing with a ball on the terrace. As he throws the ball, he sings, “If I catch this one, Daphne isn’t dea-ad.” Except he keeps catching it, and Daphne is still dead, so if that’s a superstition then it’s not a very effective one.
This is another scene ripped straight out of the House of Dark Shadows script, with Carolyn’s name crossed out and Daphne written in.
Then the sun goes down, not that you can tell, and Daphne rises from the grave to menace David, wearing a long white Bride of Dracula gown.
Which absolutely one hundred percent doesn’t work. I’m okay with using silly B-movie tropes, under the following conditions: it’s either a diverting spectacle, it facilitates an interesting story point, or it has some kind of metaphorical resonance that enriches the story.
This has nothing at all. It’s just Daphne in a costume, and it looks ridiculous.
Daphne comes at David, hissing and baring her fangs.
By the way, strategy tip for vampires — if you’re hoping to keep your family from figuring out that you’re a vampire, then turning one of them into a vampire and setting her loose to hiss at Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not exactly the perfect crime. What is Barnabas thinking?
Anyway, David easily sprints into the house, because vampires can’t catch up to ten-year-olds, and he makes a dash for the dining room, where everyone is eating dinner.
Roger says, “David, you’re supposed to be upstairs napping,” which is a strong contender for the stupidest line in the whole show. It’s just after sundown, and everyone is clearly eating dinner after the funeral. Why would David be napping during dinner?
Roger asks Vicki to take David up to his room, and she does, without saying a word. The purported main character is only in two scenes in this episode, and she’s remained obstinately mute, even when people address her directly.
Woodard tells the family, “I believe that Daphne was destroyed by a vampire, and that tonight she walks as one of the living dead,” which is a bit on the nose.
He tells Joe, “Please don’t take my warning lightly. Because of your particular relationship to Daphne, you’re the one she’s most likely to seek out.”
Well, the second most likely, apparently; the first was her ten-year-old blood relative, which indicates more subtext trouble.
Naturally, Joe’s response is to walk straight to Daphne’s grave, where we get some more softcore vampire action.
So now it’s Joe’s turn to lie down in bed like a big ol’ blood buffet. Hey, I’ve got a crazy idea — how about we take the injured person to a hospital? It might be time to consider that.
Meanwhile, over at the Blue Whale, Maggie’s dealing out tarot cards and then flipping them over, like she’s playing a solitaire version of Magic: The Gathering. Roger drops by, and offers to bring Maggie to the house, to visit with Carolyn.
But instead they go to Maggie’s place, where they have unbelievably sweaty sex, which is a little hard to picture, because Maggie is still wearing all of her clothes, including the long-sleeved blue shirt tied around her waist.
This scene has absolutely no connection to anything else in the episode, but they wanted a steamy sex scene around the half-hour mark, so here it is; help yourself to some of this.
They get up, and she gives him a cup of coffee, and her nipples are just kind of right there on the TV screen. Finally, the sinister true purpose of backacting is revealed. She hands him the cup and then has a conversation with him, always keeping her breasts in shot. This goes on approximately forever.
And then, just as everything seems hopeless, Barnabas shows up, and it turns out that everything really is hopeless after all.
He sits down on the couch in the study, and offers Liz his condolences for Daphne’s loss.
And then Julia glances into the mirror on the facing wall, and notices that Barnabas doesn’t appear in the mirror.
This is just colossally stupid. They actually do a whole double take, with Julia looking back and forth from the couch to the mirror twice, just in case it’s too subtle for us to grasp.
So that’s another bite taken out of Julia’s character. This scene is a reference to a clever sequence from the 1931 Dracula film, when Dr. Van Helsing manages to expose Dracula using a mirror on the inside lid of a cigar box.
On the original Dark Shadows, Julia is also being clever, deliberately setting up a situation where she can catch Barnabas’ reflection in a small compact. The House of Dark Shadows Julia does the same thing.
But in this version, it’s an enormous mirror hanging on the wall, and Barnabas and Liz both look directly at the mirror when they talk to Julia.
I don’t know what to do with all this. I’m just reporting what I see, and you can interpret it as you choose.
Next up, Joe takes his big furry torso out for a walk, straight to vampire Daphne. I have to say, I appreciate this, well done. They’re finally trying to meet us halfway.
Michael T. Weiss isn’t a very good actor, and he looks completely vacant most of the time, but he does bring the torso, and that counts for something on this end.
Anyway, vampire Daphne strikes again, in a sultry bite scene that’s shot in exactly the same way as the last one, fifteen minutes ago.
So I’m going to close this holiday special with a Dark Shadows Every Day behind-the-scenes anecdote.
I’m posting this blog entry a day late, on Tuesday, because I was on a long plane flight yesterday. I’d planned to write this post on the plane — it’s the perfect time for it, really, no distractions — but this scene is an example of why I couldn’t do it.
Just imagine sitting in the middle seat on a crowded airplane, taking screenshots of this scene. There’s a vampire lady in a long white gown, biting on a furry naked dude. Then cops run in, brandishing crosses. The vampire lady hisses at them, and they have to pull her off the naked dude and hammer a stake into her heart.
I couldn’t do it. I know that people come to read this blog every day, and I take that responsibility seriously. But there were people sitting next to me, and this kind of thing on my computer screen, and I just didn’t have the heart. Anyway, Merry Christmas.
Tomorrow: Christmas Stalking.
Next pre-emption special: Time Travel, part 3: Blood Chemistry.
— Danny Horn