“I’m not delirious. You know what she is.”
One of the things that you learn when you watch Dark Shadows is that there are several different kinds of weird. This is not a particularly helpful thing to learn, and learning it will not improve your life in any measurable way. It just happens, and there’s not much you can do about it.
There’s the everyday, domestic kind of weird, which involves eccentric people doing unusual things — say, a college professor taking an enormous feral Frankenstein home with him, and teaching it to read the word “clock” off a flash card.
There’s the fancy, bespoke kind of weird, which involves people acting in a completely illogical way just for the sake of an exciting cliffhanger — like burying their dead friend in the woods, and then realizing that he’s come back to life, and they only have half an hour to dig him up again.
And then there’s the kind of weird where you honestly have no idea why the scene that you’re watching even exists. That’s the kind we’re going to be talking about today, thanks to scriptwriter Ron Sproat, among other mistakes.
I’ll start from the beginning. On Tuesday, Willie told Maggie that Barnabas was dead. He told her that because he believed it was true, and he believed it was true because it actually was true. Barnabas was dead on Tuesday. He’s not dead anymore, because he got better, thanks to his spiritual/cosmic link with a guy who shares half his life force. This is not the weird part.
When the curtain rises on this particular scene, Vicki is on the phone with Maggie, who’s called to tell her the bad news about Barnabas. Vicki thanks Maggie for the call, hangs up, and falls to pieces.
As she collapses into sobs, enter the mysterious Nicholas Blair, who’s staying at Collinwood visiting his alleged sister, the evil witch Cassandra. Nicholas is another in the long line of amusing eccentrics who parade through Dark Shadows, knocking over tables and doing as they please. He’s a great comic villain, all iron fist in velvet glove, and I have to assume that the blocking in this scene was forced upon him at gunpoint.
He enters the room and sees Vicki, clearly weeping on the couch. And Sproat, bless him, gives Nicholas four lines to say before he acknowledges that the person he’s talking to is currently engaged in all five stages of grief simultaneously.
When he’s allowed to register an awareness of the human tragedy unfolding two feet away from him, his response is to swivel over to the drinks cabinet and offer her a brandy. He sets his hand on the bottle of brandy, and then he just leaves his hand there and continues the scene facing the audience, as if there’s something terribly interesting about the fourth wall that he can’t tear himself away from.
Vicki tells Nicholas that she’s just heard that Barnabas is dead, and we get a nice reaction moment where he grins impishly, and then forces himself to assume a look of thoughtful concern. It’s a cute little gag which more or less justifies the weird staging.
But then he keeps on standing there for several more exchanges, fully committed to the art of backacting. Vicki says that Maggie didn’t know any details about what happened to Barnabas, and Nicholas stands there and strokes the brandy decanter as if he can magically imbibe spirits through his fingers, which for all I know maybe he can.
When he’s finally allowed to move freely around the room, Vicki starts ranting about the supernatural events occurring around her, which she’s vaguely aware of but does essentially nothing about.
Vicki: You’re her brother. You should know that she’s the greatest enemy this family ever had, even though she may have married into it. She’s been its greatest enemy for a long, long time.
Nicholas: Miss Winters! You must be delirious.
Vicki: I’m not delirious. You know what she is.
And then Nicholas ends up stuck in a shot where all you can see is the back of Vicki’s head. This lasts for four seconds, which doesn’t sound like a long time but it’s long enough.
I’m hitting the blocking and awkward camera mistakes harder than I really should, but it’s just one of those scenes that you get on Dark Shadows sometimes when nothing goes right. The cameras can’t quite manage to stay in focus, the actors can’t figure out where to stand, and nobody even gets to drink any brandy.
They’re still having camera problems when Carolyn enters; they don’t pick up the shot of her as she walks in. The first time they cut to her, she’s already in the middle of the room, and we’re looking at the back of her head.
Then the dialogue problems kick in.
Vicki: Maggie just phoned.
Carolyn: But — it’s not possible. I don’t believe it.
Vicki: Carolyn, what are we going to do?
Carolyn: No, no — I would have known. I would have heard.
This does not appear to mean anything at all. They might be implying that Carolyn is still connected to Barnabas somehow, dating back to the period when she was his incestuous blood slave, which I thought we’d all agreed we were going to forget ever happened. It’s also possible that she just said the line wrong, or that Sproat got distracted, and just kept typing dialogue while he was thinking about something else.
Nicholas says, “May I pour you a brandy, Miss Stoddard?” and then I swear to God he walks over and puts his hand on the goddamn drinks cabinet. The brandy appears to be involved in its own mysterious character arc that never quite gets resolved.
Carolyn says, “How did you –” and then she says, “When did Maggie hear?” and then she says, “But Willie can’t –” and then she says, “There’s some kind of mistake,” and then she says, “I would have heard” again.
Nobody seems overly familiar with what they’re supposed to say except for Nicholas, although to be fair, he’s been staring directly at the teleprompter for seventy percent of the scene.
Carolyn says, “Vicki, I’m going over to the Old House,” and she walks into the foyer and puts on her coat, which happens to be lying on the table for no particular reason.
Then Vicki says, “But Carolyn, there’s no good going over there,” because Vicki is an idiot.
I honestly can’t explain what Vicki means here. She seems to think that once you hear that someone is dead, there’s no need to confirm that fact, or to learn any further details.
Then Cassandra enters, and Nicholas says, “Cassandra, something terrible has happened. Miss Winters has just heard that Barnabas Collins is dead. Do you know anything about it?”
Cassandra says, “Dead?” and then she walks all the way across the foyer.
Finally, she turns back and says, “Well, no, that’s not true. He’s quite alive.”
So that settles that, apparently. Vicki knows that Cassandra is the greatest enemy that this family has ever had, but if Cassandra walks into the room and says that the man she’s been trying to murder hasn’t been murdered yet, then Vicki accepts it instantly, and now they can stand around and talk about how relieved they are.
Then Vicki walks upstairs with Carolyn, who’s still wearing her coat. And there you have it, the perfect scene.
Tomorrow: Mission: Inscrutable.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Carolyn is about to strike a match and light a candle in the room where Adam is hiding, someone in the studio coughs.
When Carolyn tells David “I couldn’t find the ones I was looking for,” something clangs in the studio.
When Cassandra sits by the fire in the drawing room, you can hear crosstalk bleeding through, probably from the control room.
There’s an odd jump in the tape near the top of act 2 — it skips back a second, so that it sounds like David is saying part of his line twice: “I was trying to get my stepmother to help me with the tape recorder, but she’s too busy — help me with the tape recorder, but she’s too busy.”
In act 3, when Cassandra tells Nicholas, “I don’t know what went wrong,” you can hear someone in the studio whispering.
Behind the Scenes:
I’ve been tracking another commonly reused prop lately, thanks to the prop-spotting abilities of regular commenter Prisoner of the Night — lamps with a green glass shade. I didn’t notice them before PotN mentioned them, and now I see them everywhere. Today, one of them appears on the desk in David’s room. The Petofi box is also lurking in the hall outside, and it’s in the closing credits.
Tomorrow: Mission: Inscrutable.
— Danny Horn