Episode 400: Playing with Fire

“Victoria Winters, your name is now known to fire!”

So here’s a way that you could open your TV show: start with a long scene of a witch chatting with her homemade tarot deck, as she assembles a house of cards in real time.

“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it,” Angelique says, “since I’ve had work for you. You must see each other face to face, and watch that each of you obeys my least command.”

She’s always giving little pep talks to her props like this. It’s sweet, and it encourages them to stay engaged in the process. Also, she doesn’t have any friends.

400 dark shadows face angelique

Now, Dark Shadows was filmed “live-to-tape”, which means that the whole show was basically recorded in one take. Videotape editing was difficult and expensive in 1968, so they’d just turn the cameras on and tape a half hour of television, including breaks for the commercials. That’s why the show is known for its bloopers — moments when something goes wrong, and they just keep on going.

So it’s actually kind of remarkable that they felt confident that the card house wouldn’t just fall to pieces on camera. I think Lara Parker is channeling her anxiety about this into her performance.

400 dark shadows anxiety angelique

She continues briefing the cards with a ruthless smile. “You will hear the impotent cries and incantations of an idle fraud, who has come in search of a witch,” she says. “But he is a fake, and his worthless chant will never reach you.”

She stacks up another row of cards. “But with his help, and yours,” she says, “I will rid this house not only of an enemy — a young and beautiful enemy — but I will rid it of all suspicion that might in time be aimed at me.”

It’s increasingly becoming a challenge for me to keep an eye on how breathtakingly weird Dark Shadows has become in the last few months. Remember when the show was all about blackmailing Liz, over a murder that never even happened?

400 dark shadows hiding barnabas vicki

Meanwhile, Vicki is still hiding in the house from Reverend Trask, the Salem witch-hunter who’s determined to prove that she’s made a pact with the Devil. Barnabas has offered his protection, and he smiles as he tells her about his brilliant plan.

“I’ve decided to let him go through with his so-called rite of exorcism,” he says, which is not a sentence you hear on TV that often.

Barnabas:  I intend to give him free rein, knowing that he will go headlong to his own undoing. Let him perform his exorcism. Let him go through with this mumbo-jumbo from beginning to end, and when it fails to produce a witch, then this nonsense will be over with once and for all.

And I for one hope that isn’t true, because there’s nothing I like better than a good solid chunk of nonsense. Aficionados of mumbo-jumbo: today is your lucky day.

400 dark shadows threshold vicki barnabas

Vicki worries that Trask will find her in the house, but Barnabas reassures her.

Barnabas:  He will not come upstairs.

Vicki:  But if he has to perform this ritual —

Barnabas:  As I understand it, it is done at the threshold. According to the superstition, all witches are forced to cross the threshold at the climax of the exorcism.

Now, I have to say, that sounds kind of made-up to me. I mean, the whole idea of exorcism is made up, and the television show is made up, but that superstition feels even more made up than usual.

400 dark shadows chill vicki barnabas

Suddenly, Vicki shudders. Barnabas asks what’s wrong, and she says, “Didn’t you feel it? A sudden coldness in this room.”

So that’s how you know this is a Ron Sproat script today; he loves it when people get sudden chills. Sproat is a great believer in the dramatic potential of sudden-onset personalized climate change.

400 dark shadows update angelique

And now it’s back to Angelique for an update on the house of cards situation. She spends most of the episode sitting at this table facing the audience, like she’s the anchorwoman for Action News 1795.

Angelique:  First, the chilling cold, and then… the fire. That room is here, completely within my power!

400 dark shadows effect vicki

Then the camera pulls in for a tight close-up on the cards, and Vicki’s face is superimposed over the shot, indicating the control that Angelique has over her fate. They actually do this same effect twice in the episode. As a piece of symbolism, it’s super heavy-handed, but I like it; they don’t do non-mimetic camera moves like this very often.

400 dark shadows surrender barnabas trask

Coming back from commercial break, we’re dropped straight into the middle of a confrontation. Reverend Trask glares at Barnabas, and snaps, “Surrender the witch to me!”, which is a great example of why Trask is amazing. He is the living embodiment of zero to sixty; there’s never a dull moment.

Trask:  The rite of exorcism is a terrible and painful act. It is a direct encounter with evil itself. Now, for the last time — hand over the witch!

He’s maintaining a fiercely aggressive level of eye contact the whole time, and his volume goes up with every sentence.

Barnabas:  There is no witch —

Trask:  Then you leave me no choice!

It’s phenomenal. Jerry Lacy never disappoints.

400 dark shadows conjurer barnabas trask

Barnabas says that he won’t allow Trask any further into the house, but Trask dismisses him with a dramatic gesture.

Trask:  There is no need. From the doorway, my power touches the utmost reaches of this house.

And then he makes kind of an unfortunate gesture, unfurling his cape in a way that makes him look like The Amazing Trask. “I have never met you before, have I, sir?” he shouts. “I would like for you to choose a card. Any card! For the last time, I insist that you put your card back into the deck!”

400 dark shadows ritual trask

Trask walks to the door, and takes his position.

Trask:  The next mortal to cross this threshold shall be known to hold the power of evil.

This marks the beginning of a six and a half minute exorcism sequence. That’s at least twice the length of the average exorcism scene on daytime television in 1968, which just goes to show how much the Dark Shadows producers cared about their audience. They know that you have other entertainment options; that’s why they’re committed to bringing you more exorcism footage than any other soap opera on the air.

400 dark shadows forked trask

Trask picks up a forked stick, which he apparently brought with him.

Trask:  I give warning to the powers of darkness that the powers of light are at hand! Yield yourself to their command, and spare yourself their awesome force, which is about to strike your very soul!

I’m doing it again, just quoting huge chunks of Trask dialogue, but I can’t help it. There’s something about a Trask rant that I find endlessly compelling. You can’t help but pay attention, just to see what comes out of his mouth next.

400 dark shadows rant trask

Trask:  Victoria Winters! The powers of light have come to do battle with the powers of darkness. Your destruction is at hand.

400 dark shadows v for trask

And then he takes a piece of yellow chalk, and draws a circle on the ground with a V inside it. Like you do.

This routine has nothing to do with Salem, by the way. They’ve been name-dropping Salem for a while now, because we’re leading up to a witch trial story. But the Puritans didn’t do rituals like this during the witchcraft scare. They prayed over people, obviously, and they shouted at accused witches, but they didn’t use a ritual like a trap.

The evidence that they used to convict Salem witches was mostly the “spectral evidence” testimony of the afflicted victims. There was actually some tension around the idea of using special rituals, or countermagic devices like witch bottles, because they were seen as the Devil’s tools, a potentially corrupting influence on their own.

In Salem, the cathartic, noisy rituals happened at the examinations, trials and hangings. Apprehending and securing the accused witches was the subdued, thoughtful part of the process.

400 dark shadows noisy angelique

But Dark Shadows has recently discovered the dramatic value of a good, loud spell-casting, and today we get two opposing spells cast at the same time. That means there’s twice as much nonsense dialogue, which I appreciate.

Angelique:  I call upon the heart of fire that burns within the heart of ice. The fire that freezes, and does not consume itself.

Obviously, this means practically nothing, and she’s just getting started.

Angelique:  I summon the eye of fire that burns within the icy eye, that watches over all things evil.

She’s directly facing the teleprompter through this whole scene, so there’s good reason to think that that’s actually the way that line was written in the script.

“The eye of fire that burns within the icy eye”! You have to give Sproat credit for this one; this is some top shelf mumbo-jumbo.

400 dark shadows icy eye angelique

She lights a match.

Angelique:  Heart of fire! Heart of ice! Fiery eye of coldest evil! Burn! I command you to come — and burn! Burn! Burn!

400 dark shadows burn angelique

And then she starts burning the cards, which is amazing, because a house of cards is a common metaphor for “something that’s about to tumble down in an uncontrolled heap.” She’s got an actual house of cards in front of her, on live-to-tape TV, and now she’s setting it on fire.

It turns out Mad Men is right; in the late 60s, they really didn’t think about fire safety the way that we do now. They just burned stuff, and it usually worked out okay.

400 dark shadows fire vicki

And as we go to a commercial break, we see Vicki in her room, listening to Trask’s bonkers dialogue through the window — and then a fire breaks out behind her. They really believed in giving the audience value for money with the commercial breaks today.

400 dark shadows chalk trask

Coming back from break, Trask is still drawing on the ground.

Trask:  Victoria Winters! The dust now knows your name, and the Earth shall proclaim it to the sky!

You know, I should really just collect all of the awesome Trask dialogue, and have a special theme day where that’s all that I say to people. I wonder how long it would take for me to get tired of doing that. Off the top of my head, my estimate is that I could keep it up for approximately forever.

400 dark shadows dust trask

Trask:  Come forth to this threshold! Cross from darkness into light, before the burning fires of goodness drive you forth, in terror and in fear!

400 dark shadows lighter fluid angelique

Meanwhile, Angelique’s got her own burning fire of goodness going on. Just look at it go!

Angelique:  Eye of fire! Heart of fire! I summon you from the evil icy wastes of the world beyond!

400 dark shadows faster angelique

She’s speeding up a bit, because this card house has about three more seconds, tops.

This scene is actually mentioned in Kathryn Leigh Scott’s 1986 book My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows as one of the more harrowing on-screen moments.

“There was a lengthy commercial break… and an overly eager prop man continually popped in to add just another ‘spritz’ of lighter fluid to ensure that the pile of cards would burn on cue. Unfortunately, they blazed in one terrific ‘whoomph’ and, long before Lara had a chance to finish her long-winded incantation, she was left to work her magic over a few scraps of ash.”

400 dark shadows fire hazard

“Burn! BURN!” Angelique cries, as the towering inferno actually topples over onto the table, right in front of her. There’s a chance they might seriously injure somebody today.

400 dark shadows match trask

Soon, Trask has his own blaze going, lighting the ends of his stick with a match. “Victoria Winters!” he shouts, dropping the lit match onto the studio floor. “Victoria Winters, your name is now known to fire!”

400 dark shadows afghan vicki

And yeah, it sure is. There’s fire breaking out all over the place in Vicki’s room, and she uses the Collinsport Afghan to try to put it out. Fortunately, in this case it’s just Chromakey fire, or we’d be losing good props.

400 dark shadows burn barnabas

And as chaos breaks out all over the house, Barnabas walks past Angelique’s old room in the servant’s quarters, and hears her chanting over her pile of ash: “Heart of fire! Heart of fire that burns in the heart of ice!”

This is going to give Barnabas the clue he needs to figure out what’s really going on around here. That’s right — everything is going up in smoke today. These days, they take Friday cliffhangers seriously. We’re going to burn down the whole show.

400 dark shadows torch trask

At the door, Trask is still wielding his flaming stick.

Trask:  Evil — show thyself! The powers of darkness are conquered now! Come forth! Come forth! You are summoned by the forces of everlasting light!

400 dark shadows stamp trask

And then he just drops the burning branch on the studio floor, and stamps on it to put the fire out.

It’s amazing; this whole sequence is charged with a crazed intensity that just blows the viewers away. People complain that Dark Shadows is boring — and it is, sometimes, I know that it is, I complained about it for months and months — but right now, it’s a thrilling, emotionally charged inferno of nightmares and shouting and magic spells and dust and flame and perfection.

400 dark shadows darkness vicki trask

Fleeing for her life, Vicki bolts downstairs, screaming: “Fire! Fire! Somebody help! Everybody run! Help!” And she runs out the door, and straight into Trask’s clutches.

And he’s grinning like the crazy agent of destruction that he is, and always will be.

Trask:  The powers of darkness are conquered now! The powers of light are triumphant!

Vicki:  Please! Please let me go!

Trask:  Down, witch! Down on your knees!

400 dark shadows down vicki trask

Trask:  DOWN, DOWN! DOWN INTO THE DUST! I HAVE THE WITCH! I HAVE THE WITCH!

Yes, he does. He has the witch, and he is triumphant, and we are changed, forever.

Now that you’ve seen this — how could you watch a normal TV show, ever again? But don’t worry, you won’t have to, because next week…

Oh, just wait until next week. You’ll see.

Monday: Bewitched.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

In the teaser, Angelique tells the house of cards, “You are the halls of her room. You are the place where she is lying now.” She means “the walls of her room.”

In Angelique’s last scene, there’s a script lying on the bed behind her.

Monday: Bewitched.

400 dark shadows script angelique

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

17 thoughts on “Episode 400: Playing with Fire

  1. On the other hand, notice that BARNABAS HAS A PLAN. That is a sure fire (ha!) way of things going South in no time.

    His parents should have really named him Baldric.

      1. I guess Barnabas’ plans are not cunning enough. It never stops him from making them…

        (I remember, back in the eighties, I had an idea of Barnabas being involved in the Watergate. I commented it to a friend and he said “Of course, with that amount of incompetence, Barnabas had to be involved!”)

  2. One of the more mesmerizing scenes from the show. One question though, as Barnabas passed by Angelique’s old room (what was he doing in the servants’ quarters anyway?) and overheard her chanting her spell, why didn’t he open the door and walk in?

  3. Danny, I hope someday you will compile a Top 10 list of your favorite DS episodes. This one is a personal favorite for me. I’ve never been able to get Angelique’s insane incantation out of my head. “Heart of fire that burns in the heart of ice!” What does that even mean?

    As for those people who think DS is boring? Oh, they are so not worth knowing. 🙂

  4. Angelique’s ‘Burn Burn Burn’ rant is similar to one of Christopher Lee’s in the early 1960’s movie Horror Hotel (aka City of the Dead). Lee played a professor in a New England College teaching a course in (what else) witchcraft. He winds up sending one of his favorite female students (a naive character much like Vicki) into the fog shrouded town of Whitewood MA to gather info for her witchcraft thesis. And of course she stumbles right into a coven of witches to become their ‘Candlemass Eve’ sacrifice.

    1. And let us not forget the classic “Burn, baby, burn” as Richard Benjamin shouts as he sets George Hamilton’s coffin on fire in “Love at First Bite” (first vampire with a great tan).

  5. Oh, yes. If I ever need an exorcism done, I’m getting a Trask to do it. g

    And Barnabas has A Clue… that’s always dangerous.

  6. Judging by your last screencap, the Ravioli Afghan has been in the Collins family’s possession since 1795! (It’s on Angelique’s bed, beneath Lara’s script…) 🙂

  7. Thank you for clarifying that the Massachusetts Puritans would have had no ritual like Trask’s batshit rain dance. Calvinist’s would never tolerate such Popery.

    But I also want to give a legitimate shout out to Sproat on this episode. I’ve paid so much more attention to the writers since following your blog and I agree with you that he’s often writing the weakest episodes. But I think he nailed this one. He’s clearly better at writing incantations than dialogue.

  8. Vicki is using the COLLINSPORT AFGHAN to put out the fire.
    I was willing to cut her some slack until now; but this is too much.

    Vicki is an idiot.
    Vicki ruins everything.

  9. I thought Trask was going to break out in a “power of Christ compels you” chant. That would have been cool if Friedkin had lifted that from DS.

    Typical Vicki move. She had an 18 room mansion with an attic and basement and she chooses to run out the front door into the arms of Trask to avoud a small fire. My God, couldn’t the writers have come up with another way to get her to go outside. No wonder AM wanted to leave, that is embarassing.

    1. She is specifically told that witch will “run to the threshold” of the house. Yet, she runs there anyway. Un-frickin-believable.

  10. Commenting from four years in the future, I just wanted to point out there is a large vase of water and basin on Vicki’s dresser that she could use to put out the fire. Although I’m not sure water has any effect on the supernatural chromakey variety of fire.

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