Episode 554: Fresh Blood

“Why would you imagine dogs howling?”

It was the best of times.

“Mail for the show recently has been running to almost 6,000 letters a week since Barnabas soared to fame, with Frid himself receiving nearly 5,000 of that total.”

It’s late summer 1968, and Dark Shadows’ ratings have skyrocketed from 2.8 million viewers to 4.5 million, since Jonathan Frid debuted as reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins.

“Ben Cooper has licensed a line of masks and costumes based on the Dark Shadows theme and featuring Barnabas. Western Publishing is also on the way with a boxed board game, comic books and puzzles.”

Call it magic or genius or just being in the right place at the right time, but apparently what American housewives and teenagers want more than anything in the world is a vampire soap opera at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

“Several weeks ago, Frid appeared in three Stern Brothers stores in the New York City area as a guest at fashion shows displaying ‘Monster Shoes’ — the latest in girls’ and women’s footwear. Stern’s officials described his appearance as one of the biggest in memory.”

There’s just one problem: Barnabas Collins isn’t a vampire anymore. He used to be, once upon a time, but he was cured three months ago. Any viewers tuning in to see neck-biting will be sorely disappointed, and so will their 4.5 million friends.

554 dark shadows barnabas howling

It’s a weird move for the show to make, taking the vampire out of the vampire show just at the point when the audience is really getting excited about him. The only way to explain it is that Barnabas had been tearing through the supporting characters, and that’s not sustainable long-term. Barnabas was popular, they wanted to keep him around, and the only solution that they could see was to make him human again.

So what we have on our hands at this point is a nerfed vampire. He’s not seducing innocent young girls anymore, or plotting to cut their boyfriend’s head off and wear it as a mask. This is the new, respectable Barnabas, who cares about other people and worries about his family.

All week, we’ve been talking about the danger of opening scenes with Barnabas sitting around and reading. Besides the aesthetic and narrative concerns, there’s also the practical, commercial angle. Nobody’s going to buy a Halloween costume depicting a fangless guy in a burgundy smoking jacket, curled up with a book.

554 dark shadows barnabas jeff woods

So it’s a huge relief when today’s episode opens with some good old-fashioned dognoise.

Barnabas is out in the woods helping Jeff search for Vicki, who’s been kidnapped for some reason, but his heart isn’t in it. He hears dogs howling, which is apparently the early warning system for impending vampire skulduggery.

“They must sense something is happening,” he says to himself. “What could it be?”

554 dark shadows tom nicholas cellar

Well, I know what the dogs are so excited about, and here he comes — Tom Jennings, a local handyman who’s helping Nicholas fix up his new house.

Nicholas is a satanic sales associate of some kind, who’s recently moved to Collinsport to promote a mysterious new line of devilry. Nicholas was the supervisor of the wicked Angelique, the scourge of the Collins family, but she interfered with his plans, and he punished her by aging her into a dusty old bag of bones. Angelique expired in an armchair, and now she’s resting in peace, more or less, in a coffin in Nicholas’ basement.

But that shouldn’t make anyone suspicious, because who looks in basements? The only potential snag is if Nicholas hires a guy to fix the wiring and check on the foundations. Enter young T. Jennings, today’s lucky winner.

554 dark shadows tom nicholas coffin

Tom is played by Don Briscoe, the cutest guy that they’ve cast in the last two years. The only hunks in the original cast were Joel Crothers and Mitchell Ryan, and Mitch left over a year ago, replaced by the unloved Anthony George. That left Joel as the show’s only eye candy, playing cutie-pie fisherman Joe Haskell in the present day, and the roguish Lieutenant Nathan Forbes in the 18th century.

But the show has been investing more heavily in the men’s department lately, starting with Roger Davis and Robert Rodan. Yes, Jeff is irritating and squinty, and Adam’s whole story is based around the idea that he’s Hollywood ugly, but they’re a step in the right direction.

And it’s thanks to Roger that Don’s on the show. They were college friends from Columbia, and Roger encouraged Don to audition. So it turns out Roger Davis is good for something after all.

554 dark shadows tom accent

Don was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and he gives Tom an aw-shucks, down-home Southern accent. I don’t know if anybody mentioned to him that the show is set in Maine, but if they did, then he must not have been listening.

But you can’t blame the guy for being nervous. He was fairly new to television — he’d been a recast for a minor character on Days of Our Lives for about two months, plus an episode of I Dream of Jeannie and commercials for Folgers Coffee and Palmolive soap. And now he’s here, the cute new boy on the hottest show in America, and he’s in the basement of a haunted house, trying to act like coming across a surprise coffin is a totally normal part of a person’s day.

554 dark shadows tom nicholas normal

Tom is an especially interesting character for this moment on the show, because he’s the first example of something that we haven’t seen before — a regular Joe who happens to stumble onto the supernatural, and pays the price in blood.

So far on the show, vampire victims outside the Collins family have fallen into a few clearly defined buckets — con men, investigators, and prostitutes. None of them deserve their gruesome fates, of course, but in all three cases, the character is aware that they’re operating in a dangerous environment.

554 dark shadows tom woods

But Tom is the first guy who’s living a perfectly normal, carefree life, right up until the moment that he opens the wrong door. This is the point in the show when just living in Collinsport becomes a health hazard.

So it’s a big day for everyone — for the dogs, for Tom, and for the 4.5 million vampire enthusiasts tuning in from coast to coast. Dark Shadows has figured out what to do with a vampire show after your vampire isn’t a vampire anymore: you call in reinforcements. This might turn out to be an exciting summer after all.

Tomorrow: All Tied Up.

Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

In act 3, Barnabas and Julia are talking in the foyer, and Barnabas is clearly reading off the teleprompter. Julia turns toward the drawing room, where another camera is waiting for the next shot. Barnabas stays where he is, facing the wrong camera, and he keeps reading his lines. You can tell that he’s not where he’s supposed to be, because the beginning of his next line, “He said he wanted his revenge,” isn’t picked up properly by the boom mic.

Tomorrow: All Tied Up.

554 dark shadows tom bit

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

7 thoughts on “Episode 554: Fresh Blood

  1. If you’re going to have a vampire soap, you may as well have a vampire on it once in a while, particularly if your leading vamp has traded in his fangs for quiet and cozy evenings by the fireplace. For better or worse, despite the fact that the show is much more than that, a vampire soap is how Dark Shadows is perceived in the collective mind of the public, thanks in large part to the long shadow cast by Frid’s famed portrayal of Barnabas. In between time travel epics, whenever the present day pacing of story reveals signs of lagging, the introduction of a new vampire always seems to lend an air of mystery and suspense that cannot be matched by other spooks that come and go, as if the show is returning to the core inspiration of its supernatural roots–or maybe it’s because, in symbolic terms, the vampire is the most popular supernatural figure. The show will always return to the vampire motif to the end of its run, with the exception of 1840 parallel time–but even then there is a vampire reference in the final scene of the last episode, with a close-up reaction shot of Bramwell/Barnabas, as if to acknowledge the element that ultimately made Dark Shadows the stuff of legend.

    1. Great analogy – I think that right after the vampire comes the witches/warlocks and werewolves. While the ‘man-made man’ is an interesting story on it’s own it really doesn’t have the same scare factor as the others. Also the fact that this creature was ‘created’ by a mad scientist who just happened to be at the hospital at the time the vampire was brought in to the ER is too far fetched for even DS standards. Now we’re supposed to go along with the creation of another being brought to life by no less than the vampire and his own version of a mad doctor. The intro of the Jennings clan couldn’t have come at a better time. I wonder if these are the relatives that Joe Haskell visited years ago when Barnabas was feasting on their farm’s livestock?

  2. I like Mitchell Ryan but don’t think of him as a hunk a near middled aged man with nice features. Joel Crothers is younger and Don Bricone is a 20’s something pretty boy. John Karlen is attractive in a way Being middle aged I like the middle aged men like David Ford, Louis Edmonds and Jonathan Frid myself.

  3. 1897, 1970 PT, and 1840 are examples of the series figuring out how to depict a vampire protagonist. He still has his 1795 moments in 1897 and 1970 but by PT of that year and 1840, he’s a fairly benign vampire. We see no evidence of his attacking random women on the docks (though he does put a couple women under his spell).

    Perhaps the series still believed in 1968 that its “star” must be “normal.” I’m glad it eventually realized otherwise.

    1. You are right. By PT Barnabas has become very similar to the Barnabas of the Marylin Ross novels. Yes, he still feeds (he has to) but the effects are quite mild – we can see this M.O. in his dealings with Buffy Harrington. Compare his dealings with Ruby Tate with what he does with her. He takes her indoors, tries to keep her calm, and when she faints, it is on the bed. After that, we can assume that he follows this M.O., and that’s why there are no reports of any attacks. He has learned to fly under the radar.

      (I guess that it is the same pattern that Henry Fitzroy follows in “Blood Ties”. You can easily believe that one realizes that there is a vampire around. Women with scars on their throat who all they can remember is that they had great sex…)

      That’s why I think that if there is a reboot, it should follow the PT pattern, with the vampire being introduced, but being low key at the beginning to allow the other characters to shine, and avoid getting the vampire into a dead end that needs a trip to the past to extricate him.

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