Episode 457: Misdirection

“I must go somewhere — find someone — no matter what the consequence!”

Well, we’ve stunned Joan Bennett, if that helps. You can check that off your bucket list.

But never mind that — the big story today is happening on the other side of the camera. Apparently, this is Take Your Executive Producer to Work Day, as we begin a week of episodes directed by a certain Mr. Dan Curtis.

Dan was the creator of Dark Shadows, and the primary creative force behind the show. He’s an interesting guy — a bold thinker, driven, aggressive, and one of television’s true eccentrics.

My favorite Dan story comes from Leonard Goldberg, an ABC executive who was interviewed for a DVD bonus feature. Before Dark Shadows, Dan was a golf show producer, but one day, he called Goldberg and said, “I have to tell you — last night, I dreamt a daytime show.”

He said, “There’s this girl, and she gets on a train, and she’s very nice and very pretty, but very fragile, and she’s going up into New England somewhere. And she’s going to be the governess for a man, who’s a very scary kind of guy, who lives on this big, lonely –“

I said, “Dan, Dan, Dan — let me stop you for a second. You’re telling me the story of Jane Eyre.” And he said, “What’s Jane Eyre?”

I said, “Well, it’s a very famous story.” He said, “Is anybody doing it for daytime television?” I said “No,” and he said, “So, let me finish.”

That’s the guy who can create Dark Shadows. I was about to say, “who can create a show like Dark Shadows,” but that’s the point — there is no other show like Dark Shadows. That’s who Dan Curtis is.

457 dark shadows popular naomi ben

Fast-forward to March 1968, when Dark Shadows has become the strangest, the most surprising and the most popular show on daytime TV. Dan decides that he’d like to try something new, so here we are — his first day as a director.

Now, here’s the list of Dan Curtis-directed projects that I’ve seen: the 1970 movie spinoff House of Dark Shadows, the 1971 sequel Night of Dark Shadows, and the first episode of the 1991 Dark Shadows revival series. They’re all terrible.

For more information on how terrible they are, see my “Time Travel, part 1” post about the 1991 pilot. The short version: Every shot is a gimmick, none of them effective. Dan likes to set up shots from high above the actors, or down by their shoes, or straight up Ben Cross’ nose. He shoots from behind chairs, from the ceiling fan — really, any distraction that he can provide that might get in the way of the actors and the storytelling. He is a completely insane director.

The thing that I can’t explain is that Dan was nominated for Emmy awards for producing and directing two TV miniseries — The Winds of War in 1983, and the 1989 sequel War and Remembrance. I haven’t seen either of these, because they hardly have any vampires in them. Maybe he matured into an incredible director in the 1980s, and then suffered a head injury right before they started on the Dark Shadows revival. I can’t say.

That’s all the context I can offer right now, as we ride along on Dan’s first day in the director’s chair.

457 dark shadows fuzzy naomi

Happily, he lives up to my expectations. The thing that I love about Dan is that it never occurs to him to play it safe. He doesn’t wake up in the morning and say to himself, I’m going to hold back a little today, and make sure things run smoothly. Hell, no. He wants to try something new.

So right away, he starts playing with the camera. The first act starts with a shot of Barnabas’ portrait, and then there’s a pan across the foyer as we settle on Naomi and Ben in the drawing room. Then the camera keeps moving, pulling in tight on Naomi’s face, as she stares off into the distance and waits for her cue.

This is an unusual shot for Dark Shadows. You’ll see occasional moments when the camera will pull in on a character’s face, but only once in a while. In yesterday’s episode, for example, they did it twice. But going from a pan around the set to a long shot to a close-up with the same camera is rare. We’re going to see a lot of new camera moves today.

They’ve got three cameras in the studio, and the editing is all done live, with the director looking at three monitors and cutting between them on the fly. Usually, that means one camera’s doing a two-shot, one is doing close-ups, and the third is waiting around the corner of the set, getting ready for the next bit of blocking.

As it turns out, one reason that they don’t do a lot of these single-camera moves is that it’s hard to stay in focus as you pull in from the room to the character’s face. As we zoom in for this close-up, Naomi is noticeably fuzzy.

457 dark shadows safe naomi ben

So Dan plays it safe for the next couple shots. We’ve got a medium two-shot as Naomi and Ben talk about Barnabas’ condition.

457 dark shadows angle naomi ben

Then we cut to another medium shot, from a slightly different angle.

457 dark shadows long naomi

But Dan can’t play it safe for long; it’s not in his nature. When Ben says that Barnabas is under a curse, we start pulling in on Naomi.

457 dark shadows reaction naomi

This time, it works; we get a really nice reaction shot.

457 dark shadows nerve naomi ben

But Dan loses his nerve almost immediately. A half-second later, we cut to another angle.

457 dark shadows down naomi be

But you can’t keep him down for long. The actors move into a new position…

457 dark shadows collinwood naomi ben

And then we cut to another angle.

457 dark shadows turn naomi ben

Naomi turns, and we immediately swoop in for another close-up.

457 dark shadows shaky naomi

Unfortunately, this happens to be a moment when Naomi is a little unsure about her dialogue.

457 dark shadows teleprompter naomi

So we end up with a nice close look at an actress checking the teleprompter for her next line. You can almost hear Dan gritting his teeth in the booth.

457 dark shadows together naomi ben

But then he pulls it together, and you can see the effect that he’s going for.

457 dark shadows start naomi

He starts with a shot of Naomi, as she tells Ben to take Daniel over to Reverend Bland’s house, to keep him safe as she finds a way to deal with Nathan.

457 dark shadows plan naomi ben

The camera pulls back, to show Ben’s reaction.

457 dark shadows advance ben

Then it moves in to focus on Ben, as he realizes that it’s almost dark, and Barnabas will be waking up in the tower room soon. You can tell that this shot was planned in advance — the close-up comes at just the right moment to emphasize his response.

457 dark shadows perfect ben

We pull in tight on the perfect shot…

457 dark shadows out naomi ben

Then back out again for the two-shot…

457 dark shadows dismount naomi ben

And then back to starting positions for the dismount.

457 dark shadows walk naomi ben

Naomi exits the scene…

457 dark shadows clumsy naomi

And the same camera continues to track her as she walks into the foyer. This is a little clumsy — she walks right in front of the camera, and it’s tough to keep her in focus — but it works. You have a sense of motion, as if you’re in the scene as a participant, watching her walk by.

457 dark shadows stairs naomi

We’re still on the same camera as she walks upstairs.

457 dark shadows pull ben naomi

And then we pull back gently for a really nice shot as Ben enters the frame to watch her go — essentially standing in the place where the audience just stood, and taking our place as the observer.

457 dark shadows watch ben naomi

We hold here, as Ben watches her cross the balcony.

457 dark shadows chair ben

And we finally cut to a different camera as Ben walks back into the drawing room. That’s about 75 seconds with one camera, doing what would probably have been six or seven different shots for one of the regular directors.

Of course, now there’s a chair in the shot, poking in at the bottom left of the frame, so that’s probably not ideal. But that’s kind of the point.

This is a daily show, filmed live-to-tape on an assembly-line schedule. They’ve already figured out how to put the show together competently. They’ve developed a routine that gets them from day to day, with the minimum number of gut-wrenching mishaps. They stretch themselves when there’s a new special effect, but when it’s just a couple people talking in the drawing room, they can go on autopilot.

But then there’s Dan Curtis, who doesn’t know how to live that way. There is nothing in this world that he’s scared of, except being bored. He’s amazing.

Tomorrow: Don’t Love Me.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

At the start of Act 1, the camera pans across the foyer. When we reach the drawing room, we can see the boom mic at the top of the frame.

At the end of Act 1, Naomi gives Ben instructions: “I want you to take Daniel into town. I want you to take him to the Reverend Bland’s. You must leave him there. I want to stay here — I want him to stay there, it isn’t safe.”

At the top of Act 3, we see Naomi standing still, frozen in the middle of closing the drawing room doors. She gets her cue, and closes the doors.

When Nathan tells Naomi that Barnabas is active at night, she’s bothered by a passing fly. It’s a long two-shot, so you can’t see the fly, but she flinches and passes her hand in front of her face.

There’s a rare tape edit just before Barnabas bites Millicent. It’s one of their better edits; they match the pose and music very well.

Tomorrow: Don’t Love Me.

457 dark shadows amazing ben

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

19 thoughts on “Episode 457: Misdirection

  1. I love these recaps. The diagnosis of Dan Curtis’ directorial style is great! I will say that seeing some of this written down makes me notice things I didn’t before. Naomi telling Ben to take Daniel to Reverend Bland really struck me. For a minute I thought you were making a comment about his personality. Then I remembered that, no, his name was Rev. Bland, which is an unfortunate. Going to hear a sermon by Rev. Bland might not make people want to get out of bed early to go hear a bland sermon. One thing I will say, whatever his other faults, I bet Reverend Trask had rip roaring, hellfire and brimstone sermons. The kind that got your heart pounding and scared you into doing whatever he said God wanted. He probably increased the menace by periodically steepling his fingers before he continued his message.

  2. Wow HODS and NODS are horrible ???? They are not by long shot. Night will be better once they restore it but even now it is very creepy. DC did many movies in the 70’s most good. Trilogy Of Terror,Burt Offerings,Dracula. Dan won the Emmy or Golden Globe for W & R. Both that and WOW are brilliant.

    1. Burnt Offerings was good and the third segment in Trilogy is fantastic (and, I think, the best piece of directing Curtis has done) but just saw his Dracula and thought it was very, very flat. The script wasn’t very good and the direction was lifeless – there’s one good shot in the film and the rest are very dull. There are also endless shots of Jack Palance going up and down stairs which are just bizarre.

  3. I’ve made this comparison before but I think HODS, NODS, and the 1991 DS are like the bootleg alternate takes of a Beatles song or the deleted scenes from a movie you love: They aren’t good on their own merits but have interest in the context of the larger creative effort. So, that version of “Revolution” when John was really high and played the guitar with his feet is worth a listen historically but you would not have rushed out to buy it if that was the only Beatles song in existence.

    I respect that people have a strong attachment to HODS, NODS, and the 1991 DS, so I will stress that this is simply my opinion. But just dramatically, examined in isolation, HODS has serious flaws: Barnabas Collins is a modernized Dracula without any of the antiheroic charm of the Vampire as Godzilla that we see during the peak of DS. Also, even when he’s a clear villain during spring of 1967, he is interesting because of the context: He’s a fricking vampire on a daytime soap opera. He’s Victor Newman… but a vampire. Just like how Angelique is Erica Kane… but an actual witch. HODS removes that context — it’s not a daytime soap. It’s an actual horror movie. We don’t have a year of Jane Eyre-style stories that establish an otherwise normal (with the exception of a few ghosts and Phoenixes) world before Barnabas shows up. Without that context, it’s a Hammer film. And that can be fun, for sure, and I appreciate that people find it fun but if you are drawn to DS because of the context (soap opera, film noir, Universal horror, Turn of the Screw, Dorian Gray, Maltese Falcon mash-ups), you’re going to be disappointed. Would we even be talking about Barnabas Collins today if he’d only appeared in HODS? Does that character do anything in the film alone that would distinguish him in cinema history?

    There’s the same problem, I think, with the 1991 DS: Tthere is no larger context to make the series as interesting as the 1960s DS. Curtis doesn’t try to, say, create a true nightime soap opera world (like DALLAS or DYNASTY or KNOTS LANDING) and then drop a vampire into it, which would be, well, interesting (imagine JR Ewing… as a vampire… Alexis Carrington… as an actual witch). He just took HODS and put it on TV. Aside from the assorted dramatic and characterization flaws that result from such a poorly thought out decision (“Uh, Dan, you remember that your protagonist is outright evil in HODS, kills almost everyone, and dies after a couple hours? What’s your longterm plan here?”),

  4. Well, the longterm plan was for Elizabeth to wake up and find out that it has all been a dream… And then Barnabas can really come and start the real storyline..

    Hey, it worked for Dallas…

  5. I watched NODS recently and I thought it was much more eerie and atmospheric – I think that NODS was the blueprint for Dan Curtis’ later film Burnt Offerings starring Oliver Reed. I read that someone actually tracked down the lost footage for NODS but that there was no audio track available. There was a complex restoration project undertaken by a private group to try and create an audio track to go along with the missing footage, which involved trying to get the actors still alive to recreate the dialogue and try and get others with voices similar to the deceased actors to complete the effort. I couldn’t find anything online to see if this was actually completed or if it was only an urban legend…

      1. I have to take Dramamine when I watch episodes that Curtis directed. Cutting from the two shot of Ben and Naomi to virtually the same two shot of Ben and Naomi looks like a horrible video tape edit.

        Like you said, the “normal” soap opera directorial style is an establishing two shot, then close-ups of each actor as they speak, perhaps an occasional reaction close-up of the listening actor. Then one of the actors turns toward camera and we pull back for some back acting.

        The style I find most jarring is that instead of cutting between close-ups, he cuts from a close up of actor #1 to a two shot and then pushes in for actor #2’s close up.

        I do have a minor issue with one of your observations… A “normal” director doesn’t cut two different cameras “on the fly”. The blocking and the camera cuts are carefully preplanned. I am sure that is what you meant ha ha.

        Nowadays, everything is recorded digitally. The director still cuts between cameras while recording, but every camera is being recorded so it can all be “fixed in post”. DS did not have the luxury of “post production” for the most part.

  6. All the restored footage has been found but Warner’s will not pay for a directors cut. NODS won the rondo award in 2013 for movie most needed of a directors cut.

  7. I realize that House of Dark Shadows is much maligned on this blog and the forum as well, but I would just like to weigh in and say how much I enjoy that film and think it works perfectly well on its own. It should never be compared to the TV show or the portrayal of Barnabas from the daytime serial because it’s a horror film with a beginning, middle, and end all in the same 97 minutes, whereas that same length would barely cover one week of episodes on the TV show, where storylines are stretched out over weeks and months and the characters have lots of time to bring to the fore all the many personal complexities that make us want to spend so much time with them week after week. On it’s own, as a one-off, House of Dark Shadows is a bloody good horror flick. And why shouldn’t nearly everyone die? That’s what happens in horror movies.

    Another point is that House of Dark Shadows–and, for that matter, the 1991 TV remake, which I’ve never seen–was Dan Curtis making the Dark Shadows, and the type of Barnabas, that HE wanted to make. Fortunately Dan Curtis was involved in another project when the casting of Barnabas was being done, and so Jonathan Frid made it onto the show–after having been recommended to the production staff by writer Ron Sproat. Barnabas was at loggerheads with Curtis as to how to portray Barnabas. Curtis wanted someone “seriously dangerous” with lots of macho presence and swagger, whereas Frid’s more theatrical sensibilities saw Barnabas as someone with a deep vulnerability, given the way he had been “tortured” from all those years in the coffin, and he played Barnabas as if he’d just been returning from prison and had to adjust to a new environment that was different from the one he’d last known, and he wanted to play Barnabas as “a nice guy” because he had to get along in order survive in this strange, new environment.

    So let’s be thankful that Ron Sproat knew Jonathan Frid during their days at Yale, because it’s for this reason that we are still talking about the Dark Shadows they presented to the public nearly fifty years so. In fact, when I think of a Dark Shadows without Ron Sproat on the writing staff to bring Jonathan Frid to the show, I feel a strange chill in the room….

    But hey, God bless Dan Curtis, too, for finally getting to make the Dark Shadows he wanted to, because I like the film very much. And God bless Ron Sproat. And, what the hell, “God bless us, every one!”–which reminds me: Wouldn’t it have been great if Dan Curtis had gotten around to filming the Dark Shadows Christmas Carol that he would contemplate doing every year when the holidays rolled around? Curtis said that was his one regret. When Curtis revealed this at one of the fan conventions, John Karlen, who was seated beside him, leaned forward and turning to his right said to another member of the Dark Shadows panel, “Rodan, you would have made a great Tiny Tim!”

    1. Very cool.

      I recently watched the 1991 series, followed by the Burton movie, followed by “House of Dark Shadows.” 1991 wasn’t flawless, but by the end, I felt it had grown and I was sorry there were no more episodes.

      (I will say that since Vicki looked exactly like Josette in that version, it would have been interesting if she had changed places with her instead of poor Phyllis Wick. What would that story have been like, with Josette suddenly arriving at the séance?)

    2. Thank God Dan Curtis didn’t always get his way. I enjoyed House of Dark Shadows — but I enjoyed it as a sort of fan fiction, a riff on “What would Dark Shadows be like if we got much more serious about the gruesome violence of Barnabas’s lifestyle?” It’s pretty one-note. You get about 20 seconds of character development and then we’re back to the biting and the blood. But it works if you kind of mash it up in your mind with the real show — sort of like the way hot pepper sauce isn’t good by itself but works if you stir it into a dish. I haven’t watched a lot of interviews with Jonathan Frid but in one bit that I did see, he seemed to be saying that even the 20 seconds of character development here and there was due to his fighting for it and wasn’t what Curtis actually wanted. If that’s true, thank God Curtis didn’t always get what he wanted on this show.

      1. p.s. What I really would’ve liked to have seen would’ve been a DS version that combined some of the character development and the romance of the soap opera with the realism and violence of the movie. I keep feeling that there’s about half an hour of the movie missing, so to speak. There’s a thrill to seeing Barnabas treated as a seriously menacing vampire. But it’s like I said about the pepper sauce. It works best for me if I stir it together with the soap opera in my mind. I would’ve liked to have seen a movie that brought the elements together in a more balanced way.

  8. Thank you for pointing us readers towards Curtis’s odd but sometimes lovely direction. I was particularly taken with the shot of Naomi seeing Barnabas and Millicent on the terrace. You don’t often see such long shots on a daytime show, one that has to work within the literally narrow confines of its sets. But that scene looked marvelous.

  9. Three cheers for Ben a Stokes and the dressing down he gives Nathan Forbes. Ben understands what a dirt bag he is – a nice dose of reality!

  10. There’s a really strange pair of angles as Ben watches Forbes enter – it’s not clear from the camera pointed at Ben’s back whether he’s hiding behind the doors, and it’s not clear from the one following Nathan whether he’s seen Ben. The BenCam is also covering the drawing room doors at such an unusual angle it took me a moment to realise that’s what we were seeing.

    I noticed the edit during the attack on Millicent, but since it was all in relative closeup I assumed it was a fault in the tape rather than an edit break – seems a strange place to cut.

  11. The shot that really slayed me was Barnabas and Millicent reacting to Naomi screaming. Their blank stares made them look like haunted animals. And Curtis held it for for not one, but two screams. A simply breathtaking, spellbinding, super spooky moment in DS history.

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