“She’s not like other people. She never was.”
Happy Thanksgiving! It’s not actually Thanksgiving for me, and it’s probably not Thanksgiving for you, but it is for the housewives, teenagers, assorted mental cases and inadequately supervised middle schoolers who make up the 1968 Dark Shadows audience.
On pre-emption days, I take a look at the 1991 Dark Shadows revival series, because apparently I don’t know what’s good for me. Here’s the rundown so far:
Episode 1 : Mostly gimmick shots, indoor mist, no clear idea what the purpose or tone of the show should be.
Episode 2 : Mostly about sweat and sexy biting time, including several ideas borrowed from House of Dark Shadows which weren’t even good the first time.
Episode 3 : Hot tentacles stretch upwards.
Okay, is everybody oriented now? Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s begin.
Previously on Dark Shadows: The severe and unreadable Dr. Julia Hoffman is helping secret vampire Barnabas Collins to control his urges for blood, a research program that so far has not been a roaring success.
Dr. Dave Woodard has been hunting for the creature responsible for several recent violent deaths, and he’s followed his nose all the way to Julia’s lab, where he broke into her desk, found her notebook, and took photographs of all the relevant pages.
Then Woodard went home and called Sheriff Patterson, telling him that he had photographs that would prove who the killer was. That’s a redshirt move if I ever saw one, so naturally the next thing that happened was that Barnabas appeared, and grabbed Woodard by the throat.
And now everything is fine.
That previously is mine, by the way. The episode doesn’t start with any reminders of what happened last time, so I took it upon myself to bring you up to date. Previouslies are commonplace on television now, but in 1991 they were still optional.
I didn’t actually remember the “Woodard takes photos” plot point when I started watching this episode, so my notes for this first scene are a lot of variations on: What are they talking about? What film? To be fair, you’re supposed to watch these episodes a week apart, and I watched episode 3 six months ago, but still. Throw the audience a bone.
Anyway, Sheriff Patterson and Julia have come to Woodard’s house to collect the film, but the doctor — who’s still alive, apparently — gives them a mystifying little song and dance along the lines of I made a mistake, I never had any evidence, whoops, my bad, thanks for stopping by.
By the way, I know that these screenshots are terrible — all murky and underlit, and shot from weird angles — but it’s not my fault; that’s the way that the show looks. Executive producer Dan Curtis is still sitting in the director’s chair, and there’s a lot that he doesn’t know about how to frame and shoot a scene.
Anyway, the thing that you can’t really see properly is that Dr. Woodard handed the film over to Sheriff Patterson, and now the Sheriff and Julia are heading out the door.
As they’re leaving, Woodard says, “Oh, George…”
And then this. He’s a vampire! Ta-dah!
So then we’ve got ourselves an action sequence. Woodard throws Patterson to the ground, and Patterson fires his gun several times into Woodard’s chest. Woodard still advances, hissing away, because that’s what vampires do, and it’s basically any vampire attack from any B-movie you’ve ever seen.
I may have mentioned in some of the previous entries that the revival series really can’t figure out what tone it’s going for, or how we’re supposed to feel about what’s happening on screen.
For example: This scene should be sad, because we’re seeing a moral, upstanding good guy turned into a horrifying beast, defiling his life’s work and sentencing him to eternal damnation. It should also be scary, because there are main characters in physical jeopardy.
But it’s not either of those things. It’s not sad, because they never gave us a reason to like Woodard. We’ve only seen him in vampire-hunting mode, and there aren’t any personal details that would make him stand out as a rounded character. And it’s definitely not scary, because it’s the first minute of the episode, and they’ve dressed up a 60-something TV character actor in vampire drag, and told him to act monstery. It’s embarrassing is what it is.
Anyway, Woodard’s about to chow down on the Sheriff, and Julia looks around desperately, trying to find something to — wait, what’s that?
And then they just go right ahead and do it.
As everyone should know by now, Dr. Woodard’s living room is bristling with harpoons, so Julia just reaches out a hand and grabs the nearest one.
Here’s the windup…
And thar she blows!
It doesn’t kill him right away, of course. First, the vampire has to lunge towards Julia, so that Patterson can come up behind him and thrust the harpoon straight through the guy’s heart.
And that’s how you make the worst thing broadcast on television on January 18th, 1991.
So that went awesome; another victory for Collinsport law enforcement.
Julia and the Sheriff go back to the police station, weltering in gore. Patterson tells Deputy Harker to develop the film, and then takes off his blood-soaked slicker.
“Jonathan,” he says, handing the coat over, “I want you to get rid of this.”
The deputy says, “Right,” and takes the coat away, without asking any questions like what happened or isn’t this evidence or can I at least put on some latex gloves before you start handing me outerwear that is currently dripping with the body fluids of the latest suspect that you harpooned in a spontaneous act of maritime justice.
Obviously this is a super common scenario for the Collinsport police department. It’s starting to feel a little Ferguson-y around here.
By the way, the deputy is named Jonathan Harker, which is a character name from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As you know, this is hilarious.
Meanwhile, Julia doesn’t say anything, because 1991 Julia is terrible.
These two just went through a soul-shattering experience which was supposed to be one or more of the following — frightening, traumatic, bleak, emotionally raw, and/or goofy comic relief — but Dr. Julia Hoffman simply cannot think of a single damn thing to say.
She just stands there, like she always stands there, and she makes another in her endless repertoire of awkward, pinched faces, and she is terrible.
Now, when I wrote about the 1991 show six months ago, I got some comments asking why I didn’t mention Barbara Steele, who plays Julia.
As everyone apparently knows but me, Barbara Steele is a well-known horror icon, famous for her starring roles in Halloween, The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Cabin in the Woods, The Blair Witch Project, Poltergeist and Donnie Darko.
I’m kidding, of course. Those are all good horror movies, and Barbara Steele never got within ten miles of a good horror movie.
Let’s take a look at some items on her CV: In 1961, she appeared in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Then she was in the 1962 film The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, where she played Cynthia Hichcock, and then the 1963 film The She Beast, where she played Margaret Hichcock.
Meanwhile, the actual Alfred Hitchcock was making Psycho and The Birds at the time. It’s weird that he didn’t cast Barbara Steele in either of those; I hear she’s a horror icon. Go figure.
Now, I’m not a big fan of terrible actors, obviously, but in this case it’s even worse than usual, because she’s playing Dr. Julia Hoffman, the greatest character in the history of fiction.
Briefly, Julia is a mythopoetic trickster figure who destabilizes narrative in productive and entertaining ways, using an elaborate system of lies, madcap scheming, and facial expressions. Julia creates a new world in every scene, inviting the audience to join her in a new and more compelling reality, and if the audience doesn’t take the bait, she throws that one away and tries another.
She also happens to be single-handedly responsible for the success of Dark Shadows. The vampire storyline was starting to run out of steam — Barnabas was in the process of seducing a second dark-haired ingenue, setting up a cycle of repetition that threatened to squander the meager momentum they’d managed to scrape together.
And then Julia showed up, the most interesting character in any given room, and she was interested in Barnabas, which gave the audience a reason to care. And that’s why there’s still such a thing as Dark Shadows.
For more information on how awesome Julia is, see practically every article that I’ve ever written. She is magnificent.
And the 1991 DS thinks that the part should go to the terrible, pinched Barbara Steele, because she is a horror icon. This is the same mentality that thinks it’s clever to call the deputy Jonathan Harker.
And it’s especially irritating today, because this is the episode written by Sam Hall — the best writer on the original Dark Shadows, and the husband of Grayson Hall, who played Julia.
Sam was 69 years old, and close to retirement when Dan Curtis asked him to write for the Dark Shadows revival. Unfortunately, working on the show wasn’t a happy experience.
Here’s a quote from a 2009 interview with Sam:
“I finally said to [Dan], while we were working on the second version of Dark Shadows, that I wouldn’t work with him anymore. We were great friends in a weird way. I said, ‘You won’t let your writers have any dignity now.’ It’s true. He would have one writer in one room and another writer in the next room, both unaware of each other and each writing the same scripts.”
As you can see above, this episode’s credits say: “Written by Sam Hall and Steve Feke & Dan Curtis”. Steve Feke was a supervising producer. In fact, 10 of the show’s 12 episodes were written or co-written by a producer or executive story editor.
The Dark Shadows revival is Sam’s last television credit. This is the show that broke Sam Hall.
Here’s a good example of why this particular show could crush the will of an intelligent writer. Deputy Harker develops Woodard’s roll of film, and the pictures just show fuzzy white shapes where the notebook pages should be.
And get a load of this:
Patterson: The negative was exposed. There was an image. When we put it into the printer, this is what we got.
Julia: I don’t understand.
Patterson: Neither do I. And what’s more, there’s no longer an image on the negative, either.
Julia looks at him, and then she stops looking at him, and then the plot point just kind of rolls over and quietly dies.
So I am required to ask the obvious question, namely: What the hell? If the pictures were going to magically untake themselves, why did Woodard go nuts and start attacking heavily-armed protagonists with his canines? Also, how did the pictures magically untake themselves? To sum up: what the hell?
Now, I know I’m being super harsh and demanding with the revival, and I’m a lot more generous when I’m talking about the original show’s lunatic plot contrivances. If the 1968 show postulates that a vampire has the power to degrade film stock even after a harpoon-assisted slaying, I would at least try to get into the spirit of it.
But even in November 1968, which is a particularly messy and badly-planned period of the show, they try to meet the audience halfway. Yeah, the plot twists are insane and the characters don’t make any sense, but at least they’re having a good time with it. They’re growling and rolling their eyes, and traveling through time, and using Chromakey mirrors, and talking to Satan. There’s an energy to it that covers over a multitude of sins. But this episode is just grim, and it seems like they’re trying to be annoying on purpose.
For example: Julia is giving Barnabas an update on the Woodard situation, as she injects him with anti-vampire juice.
She says, “Of course, you are aware that unless there are any more killings, you should be quite safe now.”
Barnabas’ response is to make this face, and nod slowly at her. This isn’t one of those mean gotcha screenshots, where you catch an actor halfway between two expressions. Barnabas makes this specific face, and holds it for two seconds. This is the actual reaction.
It’s honestly starting to feel like the people who are making this show just aren’t having any fun, and they’re taking it out on us.
Okay, next up is a scene with Sarah the friendly ghost, who’s visiting David while he’s playing with some Revolutionary War toy soldiers. As they’re chatting, David’s governess Vicki passes by in the hallway, and she hears part of the conversation.
Naturally, when Vicki enters the room, Sarah silently evaporates. David confirms that he was talking to a ghost, and then Vicki gets interested in the toy soldiers.
Vicki: Where did you get these? They’re very old.
David: Two hundred years old. Sarah gave them to me.
Vicki: That’s a very nice gift.
David: Well, she’s my friend.
Vicki: A generous friend. Do you give her things?
It’s honestly super difficult to tell what she actually thinks about this. Does Vicki currently believe that ghosts exist, or not? This is a show about the supernatural that doesn’t seem to have a model of what the main characters think about the supernatural.
But she gets another whack at it. As soon as she leaves David’s room, she sees Sarah down the hall, beckoning her to follow.
Now, if Sarah wanted to chat with Vicki, then you’d think she’d just stick around in David’s room, but what do I know, I’m not even a ghost.
Vicki follows the ghost girl down a bright and well-appointed hallway, until she gets to a door that’s inexplicably covered with cobwebs. Apparently the dusting only goes so far in this house.
Sarah hands over a book, which turns out to be her own diary, and then she disappears. I can’t explain why she can’t just say what she wants to say. Sometimes I can’t explain anything.
Now, I’ve said some rough things about Joanna Going in the past, and she’s deserved it, but I have to say, she’s the only person on the show right now who bothers to express any feelings about the existence of the supernatural. You have to give her that.
She’s also very pretty, or at least she would be if she could keep her mouth closed once in a while.
Affected by her experience, Vicki goes for a stroll with Barnabas on the beach, and they have another one of their baffling conversations.
Vicki: Over two centuries of Collins children must have splashed in these waves.
Barnabas: I’m sure they did.
Vicki: Perhaps some of their ghosts still come here to play. I hope children’s spirits have time to play.
Barnabas: I hope so too.
You do? What a terribly odd thing to hope.
Now, I have to say that this doesn’t sound like Sam Hall dialogue to me. With the original show, I can usually spot a Sam Hall script with my eyes shut, because he’s the writer who can do witty, intelligent dialogue. But this episode sounds like all the others in 1991.
Sam’s style may have changed somewhat in the two decades since the original show ended, but there’s seriously not a single line that sounds like it’s his. I think the writer in the next room won most of the coin tosses.
In an odd move, Vicki gives the diary to Barnabas, so I don’t know what Sarah’s plan was but it doesn’t seem to have panned out.
For a moment, Barnabas gets angry, and barks, “Where did you get this?” Vicki kind of pulls back and says that she found it in a deserted room. He apologizes for being rough with her, and that’s your one Barnabas/Vicki scene for the episode. They do one a week, and this one is better than most, actually.
So, as I mentioned earlier, Dan is still directing these episodes, which is obvious because he loves gimmick shots. He typically starts a new scene with a shot from above, and then switches to a camera position roughly three inches below Barnabas’ nostrils.
The next scene opens with a shot of Barnabas reading Sarah’s diary, as reflected in a mirror in the Old House drawing room. Then we pan over to the right until we see the same thing, but facing in the other direction.
It’s a nice shot, actually, except that two episodes ago, they made a big deal about Barnabas not appearing in mirrors. So if you miss having bloopers in the 1991 series, then there you go.
Barnabas is reading Sarah’s diary and getting kind of emotional about it, when he finds a piece of paper folded up and hidden inside the binding.
The paper shows a portrait of a disheveled looking blonde. This upsets Barnabas, who stands up, crumples the paper into a ball, and throws it into the fire.
And then this happens.
Barnabas handles this the way he handles any stimulus. He makes a stupid looking face, and then he just keeps on making it.
As you know, acting is all about choices. I guess this is his choice, and he’s going to stick with it.
So they have kind of a noisy standoff, where Barnabas makes the face, and the hovering, screaming fire creature just keeps hovering and screaming.
Finally, she gets bored and disappears, and Barnabas takes that as his cue to look moody and talk about himself some more. They never explain why Sarah gave Vicki a book that contained a secret piece of paper that summons lady fire demons. We’re on our own with that one.
Naturally, Willie wants to know what the hell was that, so Barnabas paces across the room and strikes a dramatic pose, proving that backacting is still alive and well in the far-off year of 1991.
“Her name is Angelique,” he says, “the true curse of my existence.” There’s a rumble of thunder because that makes for atmosphere.
“She is a force so evil — so powerful — that even now she reaches across the centuries to destroy me.” Except when he says it, there’s a crash of thunder to punctuate “evil,” and then “me” a moment later. Ka-CHOW, it says, and then Ka-ka-ka-CHOW. But with lightning.
Okay, commercial break, and we’re moving on. Vicki’s teaching David, and she’s still having trouble keeping her mouth closed when she isn’t using it.
Vicki notices that the boy has a mysterious oil painting hidden in his desk, as kids so often do.
She says, “David, where did you get this?” because today’s episode is about sixty percent people asking each other where they got things. Seriously, scroll back and check it out. This is the third time in this episode so far.
And I don’t know why they even bother to ask, because the answer is always: somewhere in the house where we live. Collinwood is a big house; it has a lot of places.
Vicki wants David to put the painting back where he found it, so he leads her to yet another abandoned room. The set designers have strung a little bit of cobweb in one corner, but their heart’s not really in it. This is the second secret room that we’ve seen in today’s episode, and we’re only about halfway through.
David warns Vicki that they’re not supposed to be here, but Vicki is determined to poke her nose into anything she feels like. Scouting the area for spook potential, she finds a painting of a woman and her baby.
So I guess the long-term strategy for this show is to become a kind of unfocused Murder, She Wrote. Every episode, David leads Vicki to another lonely place to find a mysterious clue, and then Vicki stands there with her mouth open, trying desperately to figure out what the hell is going on in her life.
The art appreciation is interrupted by David’s father, Roger, who walks in and gets upset. He asks, “What are you doing in this room, and how did you get in here?” which is essentially the “where did you get this” of locations.
Vicki tries to ask a question, but Roger barks at her and tells her to beat it. He closes with a moody line: “Miss Winters… this room, and everything in it, doesn’t exist anymore.”
Vicki gives him a look, which basically says: gotcha, a room that doesn’t exist. Roger that.
And then we move on to something that does exist, namely another sweaty Roger and Maggie post-coital symposium on how spooky something is. I hate to be ageist or looksist or whatever I happen to be, but I am not a fan of these scenes, and I would prefer to have fewer of them.
People made fun of the unaired 2004 WB Dark Shadows pilot, because they cast all of the main characters as late-twentysomething hotties like Alec Newman, Kelly Hu and Matt Czuchry. It turns out that approach has some distinct advantages.
Anyway, the point of this scene is for Maggie and Roger to say some words about his estranged wife.
Maggie: I know you never want to listen to me, when I have something to say about Laura.
Roger: Maggie, please. I don’t want to start this again.
Maggie: She’s not like other people. She never was.
Roger sighs and looks away, and that’s a wrap on that conversation.
And speaking of people who aren’t like other people, we see young David rummaging through his father’s room.
He picks up a handkerchief, some pipe cleaners, a pair of cuff links and a sample from Roger’s hairbrush. Then he crafts a homemade voodoo doll, and sets it ablaze.
This kicks off an upsetting sequence where Roger thrashes around and acts like he’s on fire, which I don’t even want to get into.
So are we totally sure that we didn’t want Matt Czuchry on a Dark Shadows revival? Why did we let him drift away? Must’ve been out of our goddamn minds. I don’t get it.
So let’s review the last nine and a half minutes of prime-time network telvision.
Angelique — Barnabas’ dead wife, who is a force so evil, so powerful, that even now etcetera — just manifested herself as a reproduction of an oil painting. Barnabas threw the picture into the fireplace, which erupted and spat out a shrieking lady fire demon.
And then the very next thing that happens is that Vicki is led by a trail of oil paintings to the cobwebby art studio of Laura — Roger’s institutionalized wife, who according to Maggie is an evil and powerful witch — and then a remote-controlled David uses fire to injure his father.
Now, as far as I recall, this Laura subplot isn’t mentioned again for the entire rest of this series. They just forget all about her and move on. So it’s a real mystery why they even bothered to bring it up.
Now, I’ve often talked about Sam Hall’s talent for creating narrative collisions — throwing elements of an older story into the current Dark Shadows storyline, just to see what happens — and they usually work out well.
Under Sam’s watch, we’ve seen the show take inspiration from The Crucible, The Cask of Amontillado, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon and Jack the Ripper, with side bets on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Waiting for Godot.
But the 1991 series is attempting to collide Dark Shadows with other parts of Dark Shadows, which is not the point. It feels like they’re name-checking things just for the sake of it, whether it makes sense for the show or not.
If you’re a Dark Shadows fan, then you can already see the discrepancies between the Laura storylines in the original show, and the way that she’s being depicted here. The 1967 Laura wasn’t a witch — she was a different kind of creature called a Phoenix, who could burn to death and then return a century later, to lure a child into the flames.
Changing Laura into another witch is not a problem. I’m not the kind of fan who demands that a reboot must be faithful to the original text in every detail. If they can make a better story by turning Laura into Angelique, then they should go ahead and do it.
The problem is that they’ve turned Laura into Angelique in the same episode where they’re also introducing Angelique, which is unacceptable. I don’t even know how to respond to that kind of situation.
And then the episode’s final sequence mixes things up even more. Barnabas and Willie are in the drawing room, chatting about Sarah’s diary — and suddenly the windows blow open, and the fireplace suddenly flares up in a burst of flame.
Now, we’ve already seen that both Angelique and Laura use fire as a communication tool, so one of them has got to be responsible for this. Probably Angelique, because she’s the one with a connection to Barnabas, and besides, she did this exact same thing earlier in the episode.
Except then Sarah’s diary blows open, and Barnabas and Willie are astonished to find writing that appears on a blank page. It’s a note from Sarah, telling Barnabas to stay away from Vicki.
So… that means that we’ve now got three supernatural females, all trying to get people’s attention by using fire. Because obviously that’s how you do television.
And that’s not even the bad thing. The bad thing happens after Barnabas and Willie leave the room.
Left on a desk, the diary opens itself, and the pages flip by…
… until we reach a portrait of Angelique, which for some reason occupies the last page of Sarah’s diary.
So, in conclusion: Does anyone happen to have a harpoon handy? Check your wall; there’s usually one hanging nearby. I promise I’ll give it back when I’m done with it.
Tomorrow: One Damned Thing After Another.
Next pre-emption special:
Time Travel, part 5: Consider Rhoda.
— Danny Horn