Episode 598: The Great Sproat Caper

“Where did this woman come from, all of a sudden?”

There’s a moment in today’s episode where you can see the edge of the sky.

598 dark shadows willie stokes sky

Willie and Professor Stokes are talking in the Old House drawing room, and a mysterious gust of wind blows the front door open.

And there, shot at just at the wrong angle, is the edge of the light blue scenery flat that they use to represent whatever they remember of the outside world before they were all sealed forever in the dark catacombs of ABC Studio 16.

598 dark shadows willie sky

Dark Shadows fans love being able to spot mistakes like that. Partly, we’re seduced by the schadenfreude of it all, just excited by the cheap thrill of seeing somebody’s pants fall down on more-or-less live television.

But there’s more to it than that. Spotting the bloopers creates a sense of intimacy, which partly explains why we’re still watching this silly old spook show fifty years later. We feel a kinship with the cast and the production, far more than with any other show, because we’re literally watching the show get made.

These days, thanks to internet leaks, pre-release social media campaigns, behind-the-scenes featurettes and Entertainment Weekly, we can pretty much assemble a day-by-day journal of every step in the making of a blockbuster movie.

None of that existed in the 1960s, except on Dark Shadows, which was broadcasting its own behind-the-scenes subreddit every day. At its core, Dark Shadows is actually the story of an over-worked, under-resourced team of lunatics who spend five years desperately struggling to make a daily television show.

598 dark shadows stokes door

That applies to the writing as well, which is one of the reasons I love looking closely at the show. They wrote and filmed things so close to airtime that sometimes you can almost see the writer offstage, just past the edge of the sky, making furious storyline course corrections.

I’ve been writing this blog for a year and a half, and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at finding the cracks where you can see story decisions being made — but that makes it extra frustrating on a day when I seriously can’t understand what the hell happened. Like today.

598 dark shadows stokes book

As the episode opens, Professor Stokes comes to the abandoned room in the west wing of Collinwood, looking for Adam, the enormous Frankenstein monster who’s been hiding here for the last few months.

Last night, Adam finally got Barnabas and Julia to create a Bride for him — and shortly after that, the happy newlyweds sneaked out of the Old House for parts unknown. Now Stokes has wandered up to Adam’s secret Collinwood hideaway, because he’s a Dark Shadows character, and trespassing is a form of exercise for these people.

598 dark shadows david stokes trespassing

Then young David saunters in, taking the Professor by surprise.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing in this part of the house,” Stokes says. “Carolyn told me that there were some old books up here, gathering dust, so I came up to have a look at them.”

“Oh,” David shrugs. “I thought you might be looking for Adam.”

And damn it if that’s not the best cue for a spit-take I’ve ever seen.

598 dark shadows david stokes surprise

Because David doesn’t know that Adam is hiding up here. He just doesn’t. David and Adam have interacted a grand total of one time — back in May, when they met briefly in the woods, and that scene ended in a hail of gunfire.

So I’m going to take a moment and catalog the transparent lies that come out of David’s mouth over the next two minutes.

Preposterous lie #1: “He and I were good friends.”

Preposterous lie #2: “I came up to bring Adam some new books, and he told me it was the last time I’d ever see him.”

Preposterous lie #3: Stokes asks how long David’s known Adam was here, and David says, “Oh, a long time now.”

Preposterous lie #4: “When he was first here, I was pretty scared, until Carolyn told me not to be afraid, because Adam wouldn’t hurt me.”

Preposterous lie #5: “After a while, Adam and I became pretty good friends. He used to like to have me up here, so he could show off how quickly he learned.”

598 dark shadows stokes david parallel

So, okay. I guess we’re doing a retcon.

That’s not out of bounds for Dark Shadows; pretty much the entire show is just one retcon after another. The Collinses tend to read their family history with a black magic marker close at hand, so they can scribble corrections and [citation needed] tags.

As a retcon, this actually isn’t bad — David hasn’t been on the show very much since we came back from the 18th century in April, and he must been doing something all this time. It’s not out of character for him to hang out with a friendly monster; his entire social circle is dead people. I’m sure most people watching today’s episode would just assume that this was all established in some previous episodes that they missed.

And then the bad thing happens.

598 dark shadows stokes carolyn backacting

Carolyn enters the room, and shoos David out so that she can talk to Professor Stokes. She’s got a grievance that she needs to discuss.

Carolyn:  I’d like to know why you told Barnabas that I was keeping Adam here.

Stokes:  I told him nothing he didn’t already know.

Carolyn:  He only suspected Adam was here. You confirmed it for him. Why?

That’s another retcon, I guess, because I have no idea what they’re talking about. The dialogue implies that there were at least two scenes that we didn’t see: Stokes telling Barnabas where Adam was hiding, and Barnabas confronting Carolyn about it. Neither of those happened.

Again, this retcon is entirely plausible — those interactions are entirely in character, and they could have happened while we weren’t looking. But it’s a puzzling addition to the timeline, because that’s the beginning and the end of that conversation. Stokes just changes the subject, and they start talking about something else. So why bother inventing more made-up history?

598 dark shadows stokes carolyn imperative

But that’s not the bad thing. This is the bad thing.

Carolyn:  I was shocked when I found out Adam had gone. He gave no indication he was planning to leave. He never even said goodbye to me.

Stokes:  I see. He must have a plan of some sort; they couldn’t survive without one.

Carolyn:  They?

Stokes:  Adam, and his friend.

Carolyn:  What friend?

598 dark shadows stokes carolyn wait

Which is — wait, what?

Stokes:  You don’t know about — the woman?

Carolyn:  Woman? No, of course not. Who is she?

Stokes:  An old friend of Adam’s, I suppose. I know very little about her.

Carolyn:  Adam knew no one around here. He told me that many times. Where did this woman come from, all of a sudden?

So that’s just… I don’t even know what to do with that.

Carolyn has played a pretty key role in the Adam storyline over the last several months. After Adam was created, one of the first things that he did was kidnap Carolyn, and then fall in love with her. She’s been hiding him in the west wing since July, and his growing devotion to her has motivated everything he’s done since then. And now it seems like even David is more in the loop, and his relationship with Adam is entirely make-believe.

598 dark shadows nicholas carolyn hypnotism

But that’s the curse of Nicholas Blair, a carpetbagging warlock who’s shutting down story progression left and right these days. Last Thursday, he used Carolyn in a ritual to summon a spirit — and then he hypnotized her, and told her to forget about the entire storyline.

Now Carolyn’s been wiped clean, apparently, thanks to the blue boringer that is Nicholas Blair, and he’s not even done yet.

So the only thing I can do is gesture helplessly towards the credits, and say:

I TOLD YOU RON SPROAT WAS A PROBLEM.

Cause guess who wrote the episode last Thursday when Carolyn was hypno-wiped? And guess who wrote tomorrow’s episode, when the exact same thing happens with another character? Ron freakin’ Sproat, that’s who. He’s the weak link on the Dark Shadows writing team, who still believes in recaps and reset buttons.

So that settles it. One way or another: Ron Sproat has got to go.

Tomorrow: Live, Die, Repeat.


Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

Near the end of the teaser, when the camera cuts to a close-up of David as he’s lying on the bed, the right edge of the screen looks fuzzy. It’s possible that that camera happened to be shooting at an angle where it was behind some of the fake cobweb in the room.

When David stops eavesdropping and walks away from the door of Adam’s room, you can see the silhouette of the stick holding the boom mic at the top left of the screen. If you look closely, you can also see that the sky outside the window is wrinkled.

Tomorrow: Live, Die, Repeat.

598 dark shadows stokes carolyn say what

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

25 thoughts on “Episode 598: The Great Sproat Caper

  1. The bloopers, rather than detract from the show, actually enhance the overall effect in a positive way. In everyday conversation, people often don’t speak with literary precision and occasionally talk over one another. So the line flubs and actors jumping on one another’s lines make the dialogue seem more natural by adding a more true to life effect.

    Perhaps the most significant purpose served by bloopers and camera and mic shadows and the like is the reminder that this is live theater in progress, a complete stage performance from start to finish without stopping, the likes of which today’s generation of serial television actors would never have the discipline to pull off.

    1. Yes, I view DS as very compelling live theater. And I’m pleased that Danny is one of the rare critics I’ve encountered who has put the series in context — it was quite daring special effects wise. And it went out on a tightrope that a lot of soaps of the period didn’t. So, while it occasionally fell to the ground, it more often than not succeeded.

      By the way, to your point about line flubs or what Danny has coined “Frid-speak,” I think Frid’s distress at times when searching for his line or fumbling a line added something to Barnabas’s personality. Maybe it made him feel more vulnerable or less absurdly serious about everything. HODS didn’t have the live on stage limitations and its Barnabas seems colder, less accessible (though perhaps that was intentional). And Ben Cross’s Barnabas never did it for me.

      1. Yes, his distress over trying to find the teleprompter added an emotional intensity that lent a conflicted aura to his persona, which made him seem more complex. Regarding the bloopers, I love how when Barnabas and Vicki are chatting in the foyer while the production part of the studio just off camera has caught fire, Frid and Moltke just continue on with the scene, but with Frid strategically pausing several times and making sure to get his dialogue out between audible bursts of the fire extinguisher.

        To your point about the coldness of the Barnabas in House Of Dark Shadows, yes that was indeed intentional. That was the Barnabas that Dan Curtis originally wanted to portray in the TV series in 1967. Frid and Curtis were at loggerheads over how Barnabas was going to be portrayed, but Frid won out, having his old friend from the Yale drama school on the writing staff in Ron Sproat, who Barnabas told, “Don’t write me spooky.” He didn’t want to come across as “bloodless” like Bela Lugosi. But in House Of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis at last had his way, and for once Curtis’ instinct was off the mark–because as a result Frid refused to sign on for what was intended as the sequel, Night Of Dark Shadows, and the script and story had to be rewritten to accommodate this change.

        1. There are two aspects to Barnabas Collins that made him a unique and compelling character: One was more a source of context: A frickin’ vampire on a daytime soap opera! And he wasn’t there from the start. (i.e. a vampire on the second episode of BUFFY is no big deal. It’s part of the established lore. A vampire turning up a year into FRIENDS is a game changer). But HODS didn’t have time to establish its setting as anything other than a monster movie. So Barnabas wasn’t really a game changer. He was Dracula in modern dress, which wasn’t interesting to me.

          The other aspect — and the one that I think is the most compelling — is the “vampire anti-hero.” We’d never seen that before and wouldn’t see it again until FOREVER KNIGHT and ANGEL. And of course, the emotional hero and the “logical” doctor partner would later form the core of THE X-FILES.

          That’s the Barnabas who is the protagonist of the series at what I think is its best: 1897, 1970 PT, and 1840. In these stories, he gets involved to help people other than himself. And perhaps most dramatically in 1970 PT, he remains in the parallel time, when he knows his life is at risk, in order to protect someone he isn’t in love with (Maggie).

          Dan Curtis never really seemed to get that aspect of Barnabas, preferring the (moderately) tortured vampire who is still ultimately a killer. HODS with a villainous Barnabas almost seems as tone def as Joss Whedon releasing, at the height of the character’s popularity, an ANGEL movie but set during the time when he didn’t have a soul.

          HODS, however, was at least successful for what it was. The 1991 series just felt like a disaster. Who’s the protagonist? The sociopathic vampire who killed his own cousin within the first couple episodes? Am I really supposed to root for the relationship between this guy who beats his servant and the sensitive governess?

          Now, it’s arguably unfair to make the following comparison because one could argue that if you only saw the b&w 1967 Barnabas episodes, you could never imagine him as the protagonist in 1969/1970 but, still, I didn’t see anything redeemable in Ben Cross’s Barnabas or Barbara Steele’s Julia. I didn’t see potential for those characters to become the Barnabas and Julia we all know and love.

          And the sort of retcons we see on daytime soap operas are easier to slip by than in a weekly series.

          1. Oh, I would love to see the alt-universe version of Friends where Ross dies and comes back as a vampire in season 2. It would be like the zombie season that the Lost producers always threatened they would do if ABC demanded a 7th season.

            I think the biggest problem with Ben Cross’ Barnabas and Barbara Steele’s Julia was Ben Cross and Barbara Steele. They were both extremely unappealing actors, with no chemistry with each other or anyone else. Actor appeal > character appeal, especially on soap operas. You can get away with all kinds of terrible behavior if the audience likes the actor.

    2. I know what you mean. The thing about Dark Shadows is the electricity in the air. I’m very sensitive to the charged atmosphere. We have actors walking on a tightrope, with no chance for a do-over. The kind of tension that makes live theater great, and it’s spooky. It’s a great vibe, my favorite, really. I grew up with it, so it was my “normal”, really, at one point. What came after, is what I’ve had to get used to.

  2. Speaking of Ron Sproat, he’s also the one who gave us episode #350 where Carolyn completely forgets that David had given her Sarah’s toy soldier to protect her just 2 episodes ago. It’s maddening!

    1. Yes, but the episode has some great scenes between Barnabas and Julia, along with a truly chilling cliffhanger. That’s what I love about DARK SHADOWS. It can frustrate and delight simultaneously.

  3. Woah… Barbara Steele unappealing? Danny, I notice in all your posts about Barbara you never mention her strong connections to the genre. She’s arguably the greatest FEMALE horror movie star of all time. I think the problem with Barbara in the ’91 revival series is that she’s basically miscast. She should have played a supernatural character rather than the thoroughly human Dr. Hoffman.

    1. Yeah, I’ve only seen Barbara Steele in Dark Shadows. I knew that she had a legacy in European horror movies, but I’m not really familiar with that genre, except for the ones that showed up on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

      That’s probably a big gap in my critical analysis of DS — I know very little about actual horror movies being made in the 50s/60s, so I’m sure that I miss some of the influences and connections. If you’ve got a couple recommendations for movies that you think may be DS-relevant influences, I’d be happy to check them out. 🙂

      1. Barbara Steele also has a role in the 2010 Big Finish audio drama The Night Whispers, in which Jonathan Frid reprises his role as Barnabas.

        Dan Curtis used her in his two miniseries, which is likely how she came to be cast in the series revival of 1991. In the 1960s, the movies The Ghost (1963), The Long Hair Of Death (1964), Castle Of Blood (1964), and Nightmare Castle (1965) are quite good examples of Italian gothic horror and are on DVD horror comps I have, and I believe she is noteworthy as the first actress to do full nudity in the genre.

        Ditto on the comment about Hammer’s influence on Dark Shadows, which I believe Dan Curtis has acknowledged, and which I think shows most prominently when doing the 1795, 1897 and 1840 storylines in the show’s attention to period detail and costuming as well as hairstyles, which was a hallmark of Hammer’s vivid period productions. Years before the British rock bands of the mid-1960s you’d see male cast members with wild long hair–Hammer horror was in fact the original British Invasion.

      2. I’ve mentioned that this blog is unique in that you bring a knowledge and appreciation of soaps and serialized narratives,which I appreciate. DARK SHADOWS is, as you’ve called it, a “mash-up” of different story styles and genres.

        This is why I found the 1991 DS so unappealing. By this point, Curtis could cast fans of the series (Jeanne Simmons) or someone with a horror film pedigree (Steele). Of course, none of the major stars from the original series had any background in horror or B-movies. They were stage actors. Karlen is doing CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE at times. He’s never doing Renfield from DRACULA like Jim Fyfe.

        It never seemed like Steele, Curtis, or any of the writers had any idea who their Julia Hoffman was supposed to be. Yeah, the HODS Julia was a vengeful scorned woman who sabotaged the experiment and died for her sins, but the TV Julia was far more dynamic and was your classic female soap opera lead. The series made the same mistake with its version of Angelique — going for crazy FATAL ATTRACTION stalker than the more interesting TV character, who is more in the mold of Erica Kane and Phyllis Newman — just with supernatural powers.

        Also, I think the original DS was written by guys who probably weren’t horror/monster movie buffs but were exposed to all sorts of entertainment. That’s how we got Bogart as Tony Lacy or Tom Jones in 1795 or THE MALTESE FALCON in 1897.

        It’s almost impossible to go any deeper than the surface with the 1991 DS. It was ultimately only every about DARK SHADOWS.

  4. Danny, I second the suggestion of some early Hammer films, like Horror of Dracula or Brides of Dracula. But for some great Barbara Steele action check out “Black Sunday” 1960 directed by the great Mario Bava (not to be confused with the one from the 1970’s about terrorists at the Superbowl).

    1. And not to be confused with Black Sabbath, which is also directed by Mario Bava : )

      Black Sunday is a great film, and Barbara plays a very Angelique-like witch and there’s some fantastic black and white photography. Only tricky thing is I believe Steele was dubbed in most of her European films, so not a fully accurate representation of her acting. On a non-horror note, she’s also in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and she’s absolutely stunning.

  5. Another key title for Barbara is PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Roger Corman’s 2nd Poe horror movie with Vincent Price. Among the Italian horrors, the key titles are Black Sunday, Castle of Blood and Nightmare Castle. She would often play dual roles–the good girl and the bad girl. In Nightmare Castle, we finally get to hear Barbara’s own voice for the good girl part.

  6. Say what you like about Ron Sproat but he’s had a great amount of experience writing “girl locked in a room” scenes. That scene between Maggie and Willie was honestly electrifying.

    That’s the Maggie that I want to see. (And the one we sometimes get in the Big Finish audios). Shame I hear she just becomes a replacement Vicky.

    1. Yes, an all too rare instance of Maggie asserting herself. I’ve become tired of her as of late, as she always seems so helpless. And the more helpless she becomes, the whinier her voice does as well.

      And Willie–I wonder what Broadway plays he was cycling through in his head when he was carrying on in the secret room: “Toys in the Attic?”, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” “The Iceman Cometh?” Thrilling!

      1. Yes Maggie was starting to wear on me as well. She is always crying, frightened, crazy. That was weird of Willie to drag her into the secret room and expect her to be rational.

  7. “At its core, Dark Shadows is actually the story of an over-worked, under-resourced team of lunatics who spend five years desperately struggling to make a daily television show.”

    Great line! I laughed; but then the Truth of the statement came shining through…you have a rare talent for teaching while entertaining.

    Thank God for this Blog. Something kept bothering me about this ep, and after reading your analysis it all fell into place.

    btw, you have to love the way David let Stokes go on and on about why he was in that room, only to yank the rug out from under him with the “Adam” line.

Leave a Reply to Stephen Robinson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s