“What is this place? Whose coffin is this? Is it mine?”
Well, I guess summer break can’t last forever, so here’s Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, reporting back to work for another day of standing around with a glazed expression. Joan Bennett used to be a movie star back in the day, so she gets an extended summer vacation from Dark Shadows.
Her break was even longer than usual this year — it’s actually been ten weeks since Liz was packed off to Windcliff Sanitarium, following a witch-induced nervous breakdown. I don’t know what she did this summer, but she’s tan, rested and ready to die.
As I’m sure you’ll recall from several months ago, the evil sorceress Angelique had insinuated herself into Collinwood by posing as Roger’s innocent new bride, Cassandra. Liz accidentally uncovered a fairly minor part of Cassandra’s plan, and the witch dealt with the situation by casting a spell on Liz so that the only thing she could think of was her own impending death.
At the time, it wasn’t really much of a story, just a contrivance to get Joan Bennett on the next plane to wherever she was going at the time. And now, most of a summer later, they’re determined to justify the dangling plot point.
Unfortunately, this is a terrible story decision for three important reasons, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you can probably predict why.
Anybody feel like a pop quiz? As Sherlock Holmes said: You know my methods. Apply them.
Okay, reason number 1: The story’s moved on. Cassandra isn’t even around anymore. If it wasn’t for Joan Bennett’s vacation schedule, then Liz would have been here when Cassandra “died” and came back as vampire Angelique, and the obvious thing to do at that point would be to show that the spell on Liz had broken.
But Liz was off-campus for another month, so the only way to explain Liz’s continued absence was to claim she was still moping around Windcliff. Now they’re stuck with this uninspiring storyline, with no clear exit strategy.
Reason number 2: This is the second time in a year that Liz has been obsessed with her own death. Between Joan Bennett’s two characters, she’s already had three suicide attempts since last July.
Finally, I’m sure that regular readers have already divined reason number 3, the worst thing I can say about this storyline: It makes Liz less interesting.
In fact, it slows her all the way down to a crawl. Her first scene begins with a long, slow pan across the Eagle Hill cemetery, as a church bell rings twelve times. Most television shows wouldn’t bother to invest thirty seconds of screen time to inform viewers that it’s midnight. It’s not the rocket sled to excitement that they seem to expect.
Then Liz does an extended thinks monologue, which is basically the Dark Shadows equivalent of a drum solo.
Liz (thinks): Buried alive! To wake up in a coffin! Buried in the earth — and to still be alive! To die, gasping for breath, crying out, and yet no one can hear! No one can hear! What could be worse? What?
I mean, she’s got a point. It’s just not a particularly helpful insight.
The only way that this story actually works is if it’s a metaphor for Joan Bennett’s role on the show. She was a big name when Dark Shadows began — but now she can leave the show for ten weeks, and the story impact is precisely zero. Some of the teenage fans who started watching since school let out probably don’t even know who she is.
So I can see how the character might be feeling a little left out, especially because there’s another haunted female who’s also stumbling her way through today’s episode.
Enter Dr. Julia Hoffman, who’s also gone spooky, just looking off into the distance and babbling about Tom. She’s fallen under the spell of sexy vampire boy Tom Jennings, and when Dr. Hoffman falls under a spell, you can hear the thud from two channels over. She actually emotes to such an extent that she loses consciousness, and has to be carried to the sofa.
Roger sighs, “Barnabas said she was ill, but I had no idea she was in this condition.” Yeah, you’re telling me. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as this condition.
When Julia revives, Roger hands her a brandy, which is apparently made of medicine. It’s always alcohol with these people, alcohol and sedatives.
So Julia gets to act weird and irrational, sleep late, drink brandy, get carried from one room to another, and still have adult time with the cutest guy on the show. Julia is a rock star, there’s no other word for it.
But the strangest thing about this episode is that nobody bothers to remind the audience why Liz is experiencing her share of the crazy. When Roger and Nicholas find her in the graveyard, there’s a fleeting reference to Cassandra, but they don’t bother to connect the dots for anyone who’s forgotten about this incidental plot point from mid-June.
In fact, anyone in the audience who didn’t have a photographic memory for lunatic Dark Shadows plot points probably thought that Liz and Julia’s conditions were related. Whatever the hell this is, it seems to be catching.
So Roger brings Liz home, stashes her in the drawing room, and then tells Mrs. Johnson to call Windcliff, and let them know that their inmate population is about to go up to the tune of one.
But Elizabeth hears them, and when Mrs. Johnson comes into the drawing room, Liz says, “Were you planning to make a phone call, Mrs. Johnson? If you were, you needn’t bother trying. I’ve cut the wire.”
(An explanatory note for younger readers: “Cutting the telephone wire” is a 20th century storytelling trope that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the old-timey equivalent of not getting a signal.)
But Mrs. Johnson just goes into the study to use another phone, so Liz’s cunning plan didn’t accomplish much. Collinwood is a big house; it’s hard to arrange a full-scale communications blackout at short notice.
Julia comes into the room, and the ladies proceed to have an intramural spookiness competition. There’s a spasm of dognoise outside, and Julia bolts from the house, with an anguished Liz trailing behind her.
And that’s how we end up with one of the greatest scenes in the history of American theater. I will now quote this scene in full, because it is otherwise indescribable.
Julia: I heard you calling me. Where are you? Where are you?
Liz: Dr. Hoffman!
Julia: Mrs. Stoddard! You followed me here!
Liz: I had to!
Liz: What is this place? Whose coffin is this? Is it mine?
Julia: No. No, it has nothing to do with you. Now, get out of here.
Liz: But you said you’d talk to me, you said you’d talk to Roger!
Julia: No, I can’t do anything now. Just get out of here!
Liz: But —
Julia: Get OUT of here! Get OUT! Get OUT! GET OUT!
So she gets out. Nobody upstages Dr. Julia Hoffman, do you HEAR me, NOBODY!
And then, just as you think there’s no way for the scene to get better: Sexy vampire boy.
Tom’s been settling into his undead look over a few episodes, and by now he could front for The Cure, with no questions asked. He kind of looks like Twilight’s Robert Pattinson except he’s sexy, and you don’t want to punch him.
So he goes in for the bite, which is the perfect ending to a perfect day. As far as I’m concerned, they can do this forever.
Tomorrow: Fridspeak Friday.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Roger gives Mrs. Johnson instructions: “Stay with her while I get the car, and then call Windcliff. Tell her that — tell them that I’ve found her, and that I’m bringing her back.”
When Julia runs to the drawing room mirror, you can see a camera turning around in the foyer. Thirty seconds later, when Liz follows Julia out the front door, you can see the same camera in shot. Whoever was running that camera must have been having a bad day.
As Liz enters the crypt, she brushes her hand against one of the stone pillars, which wobbles alarmingly.
When Tom “appears” in the crypt, they make the same mistake with the lighting that they made last Friday — he’s supposed to step out of the shadows, but you can see him pretty clearly, just standing there and waiting for his cue.
Behind the Scenes:
The crypt set is a redress of the back half of the set they used last October, for the weird library/tomb where the recast Caretaker and the recast Dr. Woodard did some research on Sarah Collins.
Tomorrow: Fridspeak Friday.
— Danny Horn