“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
Trask: Victoria Winters! The powers of light have come to do battle with the powers of darkness. Your destruction is at hand.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.”
“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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
— Danny Horn