“Adam, this is exactly the conversation I didn’t want to have.”
It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
We’ve got an empty basement, they said. We’ve got an apparatus, and some electricity, and a Mark 7 respirator, and a whole lot of spare time. Let’s go downstairs and make a human woman.
And that totally makes sense, if you’re writing a soap opera that happens to have a Frankenstein hanging around at an entirely loose end.
Adam’s been on Dark Shadows for four months, and what was once an entertaining novelty has turned into an albatross around the show’s neck. The writers threw in a slice of King Kong by having the monster fall in love with a young blonde, and that kept things going for a while.
But now it seems to have occurred to them that in both Frankenstein and King Kong, the monster goes on an epic rampage and then gets shot down by fighter planes, which is expensive and still leaves you with a monster-shaped hole in next week’s storyline.
So — taking the next logical page out of the Universal Monsters playbook — they decided to throw Bride of Frankenstein into the mix.
Universal scored a huge success with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, kick-starting the monster movie genre in America. They released The Mummy in 1932 and The Invisible Man in 1933, and then basically stood around for the next couple years looking at each other and wondering what to do next.
By 1935, they finally gave in to temptation and started releasing sequels. Bride of Frankenstein was the first out of the gate, bringing the director and three of the lead actors back for another lap around the laboratory.
Bride of Frankenstein is a pretty heavy retread of scenes from the first movie, just shuffling the order of scenes around a bit. The original monster is still hanging around from the last movie, so instead of introducing the new monster at the end of the first act, they leave it until the last sequence in the movie.
Basically, the whole story is just an excuse to create some visual spectacles — the monster attacks, the monster makes a friend, big switches on the wall, sparking electricity, she’s alive, and so on.
Dark Shadows has been placing heavy bets on visual spectacle for a while now, and they’ve developed a lot of skill at creating eye-catching effects on a 1968 soap opera budget. So the Bride model makes sense, as the next logical step for the storyline.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be that easy.
For one thing, once they decided to go down this road, they needed to go and cast an actress to play the Bride, and that takes time.
Dan Curtis and the writers typically plan the stories about two to three weeks ahead. It’s easy for them to pivot if they’re using the actors that they already have, or — as they did with Humbert Allen Astredo — if they’ve already got an actor on deck that they want to create a character for.
But the audition process for a new actress can take a minute, and that means the characters have to stand around and stall, with a bandaged mannequin standing in for the Bride’s body. That pretty much explains what they’ve been doing with this story for the last several weeks; they’re just filling time until they choose the new girl.
And it’s not that easy to cast for this role, because there isn’t a very good model for what she’s supposed to be like.
So far, Dark Shadows has transformed the Frankenstein character into a more soap-relevant form, casting a tall, handsome actor and giving him an agonizing, unrequited crush. But it’s not obvious what they’d want out of the Bride. She needs to be beautiful — otherwise, what’s the point — but are we talking pretty, or soap-vixeny, or haunted, or what?
In the movie, Elsa Lanchester plays the Bride like she’s a newborn animal. Her head darts around as she surveys her new environment, taking in sensations without expressing any comprehensible emotion. Her head movements are kind of avian, like a chicken regarding its surroundings. Then she gets a look at Frankenstein, and she immediately freezes and screams. Later on, she starts hissing a bit.
This works really well in the movie, because it’s super interesting to look at. I actually can’t even think of a decent reference point for comparison; it’s just unlike any other performance.
But they can’t play it like that on Dark Shadows. The sad truth about Bride of Frankenstein is that the movie is 75 minutes long, and the Bride doesn’t show up until halfway through minute 70. She basically gets one minute for looking around, one minute for freezing, and one minute for screaming, and then Frankenstein pulls the emergency blow-up-the-laboratory lever, and blows up the laboratory. The Bride gets a total of three minutes of screen time.
So there’s no useful guidance on what the Dark Shadows version should be like. In Bride of Frankenstein, the Bride is basically just one more exciting spectacle to look at. Dark Shadows needs an actual character. They have to invent a whole new type of role, and it’s not obvious what that’s going to be like.
One of Dark Shadows’ developing skills is creating narrative collisions, where the writers steal a character or a plot point from another story, throw it into the show and see what happens.
So far, we’ve seen stories and characters from Dracula, The Crucible, Tom Jones, The Maltese Falcon, The Tell-Tale Heart and Gaslight popping up in strange combinations, and that’s becoming the dominant way that the writers think about how the show is made. (Post-cancellation, writer Sam Hall always said that they had to end the show because they’d already ripped off all the spooky stories they knew, and they were starting to repeat themselves. The possibility of introducing an original storyline seems to have just dropped off the table without anyone really noticing.)
Some of these narrative collisions are incredibly productive — just the combination of Dracula and The Crucible pretty much powers the A-story for four years. But there needs to be a strong character arc in the borrowed story, or there isn’t enough to do. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado made for one show-stopping incident in the Barnabas/Reverend Trask story, but Poe’s story is only one scene long. Dark Shadows needs five half-hours a week.
Elsa Lanchester only has three minutes between “She’s alive!” and “Boom”, which isn’t nearly enough. So “let’s do Bride of Frankenstein” turned out to be lots of prep work on the production side — effects, costumes, makeup, casting — with not a lot of payoff for the writers.
They manage to save some work on props — they’ve already got the bubbling apparatus, the big wall switches, the spark gaps and the Mark 7 respirator from Adam’s debut.
That does give them some mileage — in general, I’m totally in favor of Dark Shadows building story around whatever’s going to make the biggest explosion. That is one hundred percent how Dark Shadows should work.
The problem is that this particular spectacle is wearing off. Universal had four years between Frankenstein and Bride, which was plenty of time to get audiences hungry for another serving of the same meal. Dark Shadows is going to do this scene twice this week, plus a reprise at the beginning of tomorrow’s episode.
I was actually very excited a couple weeks ago when Angelique and Jeff ran the experiment, because they came up with some new lighting and camera effects that made the sequence look like Jim Morrison singing “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show. That’s one of the best visual spectacles that we’ve had so far.
They’ve taken this idea, and they’ve done the worst thing they could possibly do with it. Lord help us, they’ve made it routine.
Tomorrow: And The Walls Fell Down.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
I’m not sure exactly where the problem is at the end of Carolyn and Barnabas’ conversation in act 2, but they’re definitely not reading from the same page in the script:
Carolyn: Yes — love, Barnabas, not friendship. Love. The kind of love that — I can’t quite explain it — the kind of love I felt when I was very, very young. Love without reason, without much knowledge. Adam loves me without knowing who I really am. He gives me the feeling that I could do anything, and he would still worship me.
Barnabas: Carolyn, you have been hiding him.
Carolyn: You haven’t heard one word I’ve been saying, or you wouldn’t ask that.
Barnabas: Carolyn? You are in love with him.
In act 3, Barnabas tells Adam, “We know more or less what to accept.” He means “what to expect”.
After Barnabas announces that the sine waves have collapsed, Julia walks over to Carolyn’s table. A boom mic follows overhead.
Tomorrow: And The Walls Fell Down.
— Danny Horn