“Again, fate took a hand in the form of a woman.”
Have you ever tried to describe a childhood toy to someone, and realized halfway through that time is real, and mortality is real, and you have become super mega tragically old?
Well, if you haven’t, then listen up. This is what it sounds like.
View-Master! It used to be a thing.
It’s part of our centuries-old cultural obsession with squinting at something and pretending that it looks cool. This fundamentally unsatisfying tradition began in the 1850s with the lenticular stereoscope, and has continued to plague us in the form of Stereo Realist cameras, 3-D glasses, Magic Eye posters, Muppet*Vision, Avatar, Oculus Rift and whatever the hell they come up with next.
So you may recall View-Master as the one version of this technology that doesn’t actually make your head hurt. You insert a cardboard reel into the plastic View-Master toy, hold it up to the light, and what do you get? Well, a face full of Care Bears, probably, but you never know. Next time you might get lucky.
The image shown to each eye is slightly different, so you get a gentle suggestion of depth, and everything from there to Avatar is pretty much a lateral move.
For the discriminating child of 1968, the View-Master catalog included Fantastic Voyage, Star Trek, Land of the Giants, Mission: Impossible, The Love Bug, The Mod Squad, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Daktari, Tarzan of the Apes, Birds of the World and Lassie Rides the Log Flume.
And Dark Shadows, obviously, because the adults of 1968 really did not have a very good sense of perspective. The show was popular with the young set, and the fact that it was apparently created by a team of practicing Satanists didn’t seem to bother the General Aniline & Film Corporation, so what we have here is a hot slice of the craziest show on Earth.
Each View-Master set is three reels, for a total of 21 pictures. That’s not a lot of content space, so in general View-Master focuses on representing the basic essence of a show, which can then be repeated indefinitely.
For example, the Star Trek set tells the story of “The Omega Glory”, a second season episode that has just about everything you’d want in a standard Star Trek episode. It starts on the deck of the Enterprise, where the crew responds to a yellow alert. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and some redshirt named Raintree beam down to a planet. Spock says science things. McCoy cures a disease. The redshirt gets killed. Everyone gets captured and locked up for a minute. Finally, Spock does a neck pinch, everybody shoots at everybody, and Kirk makes a speech. At this point, you can just loop straight back to reel 1 and do it all over again, for as long as the entertainment value holds out.
But Dark Shadows is different from View-Master’s other licensed properties. It’s a soap opera, a long-running serialized narrative, and it doesn’t have a basic formula like Star Trek or Mission: Impossible. There isn’t a beginning, middle and end that fits neatly into three reels of snapshots.
And the View-Master people couldn’t come up with their own story, because the GAF photographers just showed up during dress rehearsals and took pictures of whatever the cast was doing at the time. So if the show happened to be in the middle of an impenetrable, continuity-heavy five car pile-up story disaster, then that’s what ended up on the reels.
Luckily, the set comes with a booklet, which helps to fill in some of the context. The packaging calls it a “16-page folio printed in many somber colors,” which is delightful.
The text begins with “Dark were the shifting shadows that waxed and waned among the turrets and gables of the great house of Collinwood,” and then there are these scratchy, somber illustrations, which launch the reader straight into a different and a dreadful world.
One thing that I love about this whole set is that they know this show is violent and unhealthy, and they don’t shy away from it one little bit. If illustration #1 is supposed to be the hero sneaking into a woman’s bedroom in the middle of the night to stab her to death, then so be it.
Another thing that I love is the concise text on the reels. Each picture has a short caption, which is displayed in a little window. There’s only room in the window for about 60 characters, so these are basically fortune cookies. Try adding “in bed” at the end of each one:
Barnabas found Joe, stabbed, and showing fang marks, too.
Still mesmerized into the past, Eve was rejected by Peter.
“Buried alive” fear ruled life of Victoria at Blair House.
Prince of Dark drove hard bargain with Nicholas.
See what I mean? These are fantastic.
Here’s how the story starts:
It was fear, and a desperate necessity, that drove Barnabas Collins to leave the house in the dead of night to make his way to a lonely dwelling by the sea. Asleep in the house was Eve, a strange being whom he must destroy before her evil genius could destroy Adam, her hapless mate within whose man-made body pulsed the life-force of Barnabas himself.
He didn’t know that behind this reasoning was Angelique, who wanted Eve killed to thwart the warlock Nicholas, who had great and terrible plans for Eve and Adam.
So there you have it. Five character names, and at least three of them want to destroy or thwart the others. And we haven’t even gotten to the first picture yet!
This explanation isn’t quite accurate — Angelique didn’t want Barnabas to kill Eve, and Nicholas actually set up this whole scenario — but nitpicking over details would only distract us from the magic and the wonder that anybody thought it was a good idea to even attempt to explain this particular story point to children.
I’ve been trying to describe this ridiculous story every day for the last two months, and it simply can’t be done; all I can do at this point is wait until it blows over.
I think the fact that this booklet exists is proof that Dark Shadows really was that popular in fall 1968. All you have to do is drop a few character names, and everybody can fill in the details themselves. The little caption says, “Barnabas fell into trap set by Angelique to kill Eve,” and apparently that’s enough.
Anyway, Angelique vampire-bites Barnabas, and sends him back to the Old House to tell Julia and Professor Stokes that he failed. At least this picture offers some scope for the 3-D effect, thanks to the zillion candles that Barnabas scatters around his home.
This image is kind of thrilling, because Julia’s only in two pictures in the set, and this is her only scene with Barnabas. It’s also Stokes’ sole contribution to View-Master history. They manage to squeeze fifteen different characters into these twenty-one slides, which is basically the entire cast except for Carolyn and David.
The warlock Nicholas is actually the character that appears the most — he’s in eight slides, followed by Barnabas with seven, and Angelique with six. Nicholas is at the center of all of this storyline madness, although he doesn’t actually do a lot directly, so most of his pictures just show him speaking sternly to people.
I have a particular fondness for this slide, because it features my favorite prop, the Ralston-Purina lamp. And it’s smack in the middle, too, so take that, portrait of Barnabas and colorful ’60s afghan. The Ralston-Purina lamp reigns supreme.
You can tell that these photos were taken during dress rehearsal, because there are a couple places where they haven’t bothered to do the actresses’ hair yet.
This was a long project for the View-Master people — the episodes represented here took place over about five weeks, so I imagine they must have come back regularly to set up the shots. They couldn’t have staged these specially for the photo shoot, because there are lots of different sets and costumes, and the Dark Shadows production is already living fairly close to the edge, just getting the show made every single day. They don’t have extra time to dress a bunch of sets just for View-Master.
Because this is Dark Shadows, there are some bloopers to enjoy — like this picture of Barnabas spoon-feeding Joe some poisoned medicine, where Joel Crothers is clearly struggling not to laugh.
There’s also this thrilling shot, which I have to assume was not the pulse-pounding pose they were hoping for.
View-Master takes a bit of license with some of the story details, especially in the Peter-Danielle-Jeff-Eve relationship, which is so complex that it hardly even makes a difference. Here’s their version:
The workings of implacable fate lay behind Eve’s confrontation with Jeff on the terrace. In the Collinsport of Colonial days grim tragedy parted these star-crossed lovers at the very foot of the hangman’s scaffold. Jeff, whose name in that earlier incarnation had been Peter Bradford, saved Eve’s life by confessing to a murder that she, not he, had committed.
Condemned to die on the scaffold, Peter heroically rejected Eve’s pleas to save himself by surrendering his soul to the powers of witchcraft which she herself had embraced long ago. Thus an innocent man died in ignorance of the fact that Eve’s powers would work on him even in death and that the two of them would meet again after long centuries had passed.
So that’s entirely make-believe, but if you think about it, it’s just as good of an explanation for what’s going on as anything else is. This might actually be a better version of the story.
And for a lot of kids in 1968, this is actually the canonical version. The episode that was broadcast on television was gone after half an hour, never to be repeated again. The View-Master version is right in front of you, in living color and three dimensions.
My favorite slide is the big irresponsible action sequence, just waiting to be imitated on your unsuspecting brother.
Joe emerged at last from his death-like sleep just in time to hear Julia say the medicine was poisoned, and that Barnabas had tried to give it to him. Enraged, Joe seized a cord, and prowled the darkening house until he found Barnabas dozing in his chair. Whipping the cord around the defenseless neck, he jerked it tighter — tighter. Barnabas’ eyes bulged — the world turned black —
Again, fate took a hand in the form of a woman. Mrs. Johnson appeared and, with a scream, hurled herself on the panting Joe, and loosened his grip on the murderous cord. Barnabas slid lifeless to the floor.
So how awesome is that? This is toy store material in 1968.
I’m not going to quote the whole thing, as fun as it is, because you can read it at this View-Master blog — but here’s a few more favorites.
Obeying, he caught sight of something that turned his blood to icewater.
While Eve’s retreat to the past was going on at Blair House, fear permeated one of the rooms at Collinwood like a tangible thing.
In another room of the great house, time was running out for Joe Haskell who hadn’t quite succeeded in killing himself.
The evil miasma of the Netherworld curled around the golden head of Angelique and the hooded figure spoke in awesome tones.
For this she must pay with her life — and the only way to take the life of a vampire was to drive a silver stake through her breast as she lay sleeping in her crypt…
A silver stake! You have to be pretty committed to vampire slaying to keep one of those on hand.
Anyway, it ends in Hell, as these things always do. Nicholas faces his Master and is accused of allowing Eve to die, which apparently happened sometime between slide 10 and slide 20, when the View-Master photographer wasn’t around.
They never quite get around to explaining how Eve died or who killed her, but that’s what happens when you try to catch a falling star, and press it between the leaves of a book. Dark Shadows cannot be contained in 16 pages, no matter how many somber colors you use.
As the man says, “The episode ends, but not the tale, for as long as men and women live, there will be dark shadows.” Amen.
Tomorrow: Vicki Ruins Everything.
I got the booklet text and pictures for this post from the excellent View-Master 3D Spectacular blog. There are more examinations of View-Master reels there, including the live-action Batman TV show, M*A*S*H, Iron Man and Zorro.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Julia tries to reassure Liz about Barnabas being at Windcliff: “He’s getting the best — proper care.” Liz urges Julia to bring Barnabas to Collinwood instead: “You’d be here to see — take care of him personally.”
In act 1, there’s a little pre-knock clatter before they do the “knocking on the door” sound effect.
Julia protests: “Yes! I believe there is some reason you can’t — or won’t, or can’t — use your powers!”
The Dan Curtis Productions credit is crooked, and says 1966.
Tomorrow: Vicki Ruins Everything.
— Danny Horn