“Instead of a dream, you threaten me with a gun. Are you bored with your tricks and your spells?”
In yesterday’s post, I did a little compare and contrast exercise between Dark Shadows and a March 1968 episode of General Hospital, which was DS’ lead-in at the time. What I found was two shows that share the same network and afternoon timeslot, but feel like they were made in different decades.
By 1968, General Hospital’s storylines were starting to break away from the old-fashioned kitchen sink approach to soap opera, where the stories are supposed to be a slice of life that the audience can personally relate to. The GH episode that we looked at includes a girl who’s accusing her stepmother of killing her father, and a woman who’s struggling to put her life back together after a traumatic car accident that resulted in a miscarriage.
Those situations aren’t really a part of typical daily life, especially when they happen to the same extended family at the same time, but they’re not outrageous.
Meanwhile, a Dark Shadows episode starts at unbelievably insane in the first scene, and then ratchets the tension up from there.
For example, we open today’s episode with the sorcerous soap vixen Angelique holding a gun on Barnabas, who’s recently been freed from her vampire curse, thanks to the intervention of a runaway mad science experiment. Angelique’s powers have been taken away by her satanic shift leader, and she’s come to say goodbye to her ex-husband before she becomes the 200-year-old mortal woman that she truly is.
Barnabas seems to be taking the weapon-brandishing pretty lightly.
Barnabas: This is another one of your vicious games.
Angelique: No, it isn’t.
Barnabas: Instead of a dream, you threaten me with a gun. Are you bored with your tricks and your spells?
Angelique: They’ve all been taken away from me, because I’ve wasted my time on you.
Barnabas: There is even justice in Hell, then.
It’s phenomenal, especially compared to what’s happening on GH.
As we saw yesterday, General Hospital will spend a whole scene patiently mansplaining to the audience what a subpoena is, over and over.
That scene was about as patronising as you can get, starting with the district attorney saying, “Now, you understand, Miss Prentice, that what we are trying to prove is that they murdered your father.” They clearly don’t have a lot of faith that the audience can keep the storyline in their heads from one day to the next, and that attitude gets projected onto the characters, who need their own lives explained to them over the phone.
Meanwhile, on a contemporary episode of Dark Shadows, they throw in lines like “Instead of a dream, you threaten me with a gun,” which makes perfect sense if you’ve been following the show, but for a new viewer doesn’t even sound like a sentence.
The costumes are all shades of dark gray, the violins are trilling away in the background, and the set is stocked with flickering candles on every surface. The camera zooms in on the gun; there are meaningful pauses and dramatic stings.
Today, everything about Dark Shadows is designed to support big, epic themes — love and death and passion and revenge. Nobody drops by for a casual chat anymore; it’s all ominous mysteries and life-or-death confrontations. It crackles with energy.
And strangely enough, this intensity is partly the result of Dark Shadows having a lower budget than General Hospital. I only referenced two GH scenes in yesterday’s post, but that episode has four different story threads, involving ten characters. Most of those characters show up for a single scene, remind the audience that they exist, and then walk offstage again.
On the one hand, having four stories in a day means that General Hospital is theoretically increasing the narrative complexity, with the opportunity to have multiple story threads overlapping and colliding on a given day. But in practice, they don’t really overlap at all. In the episode I looked at yesterday, characters will mention other current stories at the top or bottom of their own scene, but they’re not really connected.
Meanwhile, Dark Shadows can only afford five actors in an episode, which means there’s usually only one or two story threads in a day. That’s not always an advantage, but on a big day like today, it means that everything in the episode is focused on Angelique, who’s falling to pieces before our eyes.
The witch is feeling the full weight of her mortality, and her gun hand starts to shake — giving Barnabas the opportunity to wrestle the gun away from her, and deposit it on the mantelpiece. Angelique slumps into an armchair, pulling up the hood of her cloak to cover her face.
That’s a moment where Dark Shadows’ relenteless focus really pays off, because we know what it means when a character suddenly hides under a cloak. She’s probably going to turn into a skeleton or something.
On General Hospital, if Nurse Lucille put her hood up, the audience wouldn’t think much about it one way or the other. But a shaky Angelique hiding under her cloak is more than just a costume change; it’s a neon sign flashing “Don’t touch that dial.” And you don’t, because something good is coming.
And here she comes now. Back at Collinwood, Julia saw Angelique’s portrait start to blister and peel, and she’s come running over to the Old House to tell Barnabas about the latest supernatural manifestation.
She finds Angelique sobbing in a chair — and when Julia approaches, the witch gets up and makes for the door.
And now we’ve got a whole new type of crazy to play with.
Julia: Barnabas, you must stop her! If she is human, you must destroy her before she can get to Nicholas! Barnabas, don’t you understand? It’s your chance! It’s the only chance that you can escape her!
Barnabas: I had my chance.
He walks over to the mantelpiece, and picks up the gun.
“I value life, now that I am a human,” he says, looking directly at the teleprompter. “Is it that simple? Even the life of a woman who has done everything she can to make my life a Hell?”
And that’s another noticeable difference between Dark Shadows and vintage General Hospital — the actors’ desperate reliance on the teleprompter. Dark Shadows was taped as one long half-hour take with no retakes or editing, because videotape editing was expensive and difficult. It looks to me like GH worked the same way at the time — the static camera shots and general lack of ambition are partly a defense mechanism designed to keep things running smoothly.
With a bigger budget per episode, General Hospital doesn’t have to give all the dialogue to a small handful of actors. Ten actors don’t need the teleprompter nearly as much, because the workload is distributed among a larger cast.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a better performance. The actors don’t blow their lines or screw up the camera blocking, but that’s pretty much all you can say about them. They mostly just mope around, saying all their words and then knocking off for the day.
But Dark Shadows isn’t content with being adequate; they want life to be bigger and more exciting than that.
Barnabas: Let her beg Nicholas to undo what he’s done. Let him finish her. That is the only way I will be truly free.
Julia: Barnabas, you can’t feel this way. You can’t simply be that passive about it. I won’t let you lose this moment.
(She reaches for the gun.)
Julia: I won’t.
That’s actually a nice cliffhanger moment, and on another soap, that would be the end of the day. On Dark Shadows, that’s how we get to the second commercial break.
So now we’ve got two characters discussing whether they should murder the villain. Sam Hall is writing this whole week, by the way; that’s why it’s full of quotable dialogue.
Barnabas: I am simply going to watch. I may learn a great deal about Nicholas if I do.
Julia: Well, you may go on learning, but I’m going to be more practical.
Barnabas: No, Julia. No!
It’s big stuff today, not a magazine or a subpoena in sight.
Meanwhile, Angelique has stumbled her way back to Collinwood, and hurls herself at the front doors, shrieking for help.
Roger comes to the door, and Angelique crashes to the ground, revealing the payoff that we’ve been waiting for since she put up her hood ten minutes ago.
She’s old and wrinkled, and her hair is gray — and Roger, her own husband, doesn’t even recognize her.
And the show is still going; that wasn’t the cliffhanger either. Barnabas and Julia head to Collinwood, and Julia’s still packing heat. This is apparently an open carry soap opera.
Barnabas: Julia, give me the gun!
Barnabas: If Angelique is here —
Julia: Barnabas, please. Let me end this.
The lunatic intensity of the scene is enhanced by Julia doing what actors always do when you hand them a gun, namely: point it at the person they’re talking to. Julia is actually rolling the weapon around in her hands, stroking it and aiming directly at Barnabas’ midsection.
Holy cow, seriously — watch where you’re pointing that thing!
Julia: Barnabas, if she can be done away with, perhaps I can — go back to my own life.
Barnabas: You are forgetting a murder charge!
Julia: I am remembering what she is!
Barnabas: Give me the gun, Julia!
Julia: Barnabas — no one would convict me, knowing what we do about her!
Barnabas: No one would believe you, Julia! Now, give me the gun!
It all ends in chaos and confusion, obviously, as it always does — a half hour of barely-controlled mayhem.
All that for a Tuesday! Imagine what they’ll get up to when they’re actually trying.
Tomorrow: Bleak Lives Matter.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, when Angelique says “I hate you,” a boom mic hovers overhead.
When Barnabas puts the gun on the mantel, there’s a rustle from the studio, and a chair scrapes across the floor.
In act 2, Barnabas tells Julia, “Please — let her go to Nicholas, and find her.”
When Barnabas grasps Julia’s arms and tells her not to follow Angelique, a fly buzzes around his shoulder and lands on him.
At the start of act 3, when Julia’s got her hand on the mantelpiece, she says, “If you won’t forget — if you won’t do something about Cassandra, then I will! How could you forget the years of agony that she caused you?” As she’s saying this, the boom mic can be seen clearly overhead, in a lovely double-blooper moment.
Between the Old House and Collinwood, Angelique has lost her black and white lace cuffs.
Tomorrow: Bleak Lives Matter.
— Danny Horn