“No human hand has touched these clothes since I took them away.”
Okay, the Ron Sproat script countdown continues; we are currently at nine episodes and holding.
Sproat, if you haven’t read my other posts on the subject, is the third-best out of three on the Dark Shadows writing team, and he and I have been engaged in a tense standoff since April 1967. He’s got one month left until he leaves the show, and it’s going to come down to the wire on which of us is going to crack first.
Now, I’m going to write today’s post as if there’s somebody out there who still likes it when I spend the entire day complaining about Ron Sproat and his terrible scripts. “Oh, boy,” this make-believe person might say, passing by in a hot-air balloon. “These are my very favorites. I shall read today’s entry with particular relish.”
But now that I’ve written that down, it doesn’t sound super likely. I mean, does anyone even talk like that? And why a hot-air balloon?
Sproat’s scripts always have flat dialogue and not much to offer in the way of story progression, but today is the day when he simply stops trying. He knows that he’s four weeks away from retirement, and at this point on Dark Shadows, making sense is optional anyway.
The situation on the ground is that David and Amy, the two young children who live at Collinwood, are being possessed by a 19th century Collins ancestor named Quentin. They’ve been playing in Quentin’s old room in the mansion’s abandoned west wing, where he silently issues orders for them. We’ve actually only seen Quentin once so far; he’s mostly been communicating with the kids through a song that plays on an old gramophone, as is typical.
We don’t know exactly what Quentin wants yet, and that question is not going to get any clearer today. So far, the dialogue that we get at the top of today’s show is par for the course.
David: We’d better go downstairs now. We’d better do what Quentin asked us to.
Amy: Why do you suppose he wants us to do it?
David: We’re not supposed to ask questions.
Naturally, that’s supposed to be mysterious and exciting. Generally, I’m okay with watching what they do and figuring out the motivation on my own, but they ought to at least meet us halfway on this.
Downstairs, the housekeeper is talking to Barnabas about the funeral arrangements for Elizabeth, the late mistress of the house, who died on Friday following a lengthy bout of moroseness. Liz was convinced that she would be buried alive, and she’s specified in her will that she wants to be laid out in a special coffin that’s been tricked out with alarms, and an emergency call button that she can use if she decides that she’s tired of being dead.
Liz’s brother Roger is away in London, and her daughter Carolyn is currently snoozing her way through the grief process with the aid of a strong dose of Julia’s prescription sedatives, so Barnabas is making the arrangements. That’s how bad things have gotten with this family; the vampire is the guy left in charge.
A man named Mr. Jarret shows up at the house to see Barnabas, and the kids eagerly watch from the foyer as Mrs. Johnson shows Jarret into the drawing room. It’s possible that they’re overplaying it slightly, but the script says “David and Amy are agog,” and here they are, agog.
Barnabas proceeds to have a mildly puzzling conversation with Mr. Jarret. He’s from the funeral home, and he received a call telling him that Elizabeth was dead, and asking him to come over at once. But Barnabas didn’t call anybody — apparently, complying with Liz’s crazy-white-lady funeral scheme does not require professional assistance.
Barnabas asks Mr. Jarret who called, and Jarret says that his wife took the message, and who even knows with wives these days. So Barnabas says thanks but no thanks, and ushers Jarret out the door.
Mrs. Johnson and Barnabas wonder what that was all about, and Barnabas gets one of those dramatic clarification moments, where you repeat the thing that you just said but with greater emphasis.
Mrs. Johnson: Mr. Collins, I know no one in this house would have made that phone call, except you. I’m certain of it.
Barnabas: And I didn’t.
Mrs. Johnson: Then — who did make it? And why?
Barnabas: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
And that’s pretty much the end of the incident, just one of those odd happenings that you chalk up to prowlers or computer hackers, and then you go on with your day.
Cut to Quentin’s room, where David and Amy are looking off into space and making excuses.
Amy: Don’t be angry, Quentin! David did what you told him to do!
David: I made the phone call, and the man came. But cousin Barnabas sent him away!
Amy: We tried, Quentin!
Then the chandelier swings back and forth, as the kids cower.
So there’s your challenge: Make sense of that.
What could Quentin’s plan possibly have been? The funeral home guy isn’t going to burst into flames or start reading selections from The Necronomicon. The scene played out exactly the way you’d expect, a mildly puzzling misunderstanding. So what was Quentin hoping for, and how did the children fail to carry it out?
It seems like Quentin just wants to make the family uneasy, but this is already a household that’s accustomed to a fairly high level of daily unease. Plus, a family member just died, and a few weeks ago, the governess vanished before their eyes into the time vortex. A prank call to a funeral home isn’t going to make much of an impression.
But here they come for round two. The kids walk downstairs to the drawing room, and ask Barnabas if they can go outside to play. David looks gloomy and withdrawn, which is appropriate after losing a beloved aunt.
Barnabas asks if David made a phone call to a man in town about Elizabeth. David says no, and Barnabas sends them outside.
Once they’re alone, the kids are just as pleased as could be.
Grinning, Amy says, “We’re getting good at fooling them, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” David nods. “But we’ve got to do what Quentin told us to do, and we’ve got to be very careful. We can’t make any mistakes.”
Amy chirps, “We won’t. They’ll never find out the truth!”
So, again: What?
Did they just have a caper? Was there a caper in there that I missed? Cause what I saw was a kid answering no to a yes-or-no question. It’s not Ocean’s 11-year-old.
For their next amazing feat, David and Amy don’t show up when they’re supposed to. Maggie, their new governess, walks through the foyer and the drawing room calling their names, but she can’t find them.
Mrs. Johnson suggests that maybe the kids are outside, but Maggie says, “Barnabas told them to stay in the house.” That’s news to me, since we just saw Barnabas telling them it’s okay to go outside, but whatever. Time doesn’t work properly at Collinwood anyway; you have to expect the occasional glitch in the matrix once in a while.
Then they hear somebody playing the piano — and it’s David and Amy, hanging out in the drawing room.
Maggie’s slightly puzzled — she just did a perimeter sweep in this room a minute ago — but the kids explain that they were playing hide and go seek, and they were both hiding. That’s not how hide and seek works, but these kids don’t have a lot of friends. It’s not surprising if they’re a little fuzzy on the rules; they probably learned how to play from an online tutorial.
Maggie asks where they were hiding, but they can’t tell her; that would spoil the game. David assures Maggie that they wouldn’t lie to her — “Besides, how could we be here now, if we weren’t in here before?”
For some reason, this simple question inspires Maggie to step forward, look off into space and say, “I don’t know.”
The kids are delighted with this outcome. I have no idea why.
It’s time for them to go upstairs to their rooms, so they head out. In the foyer, they share another triumphant grin, and they put their arms around each other as they walk upstairs.
So what the hell? How is that even an episode of television?
As far as I can tell, the prank phone call was a disappointment, but hiding from the governess and Operation Going Outside were both successful. The score is now Spooky Kids 2, Humans 1, according to whatever arcane rulebook we’re following at the moment.
But you can’t just posit that something like this is spooky, and expect the audience to go along with it. Not understanding what the characters are talking about is not, in and of itself, inherently suspenseful. The only conclusion that I can draw is that Sproat can’t wait until his contract is up, and on that point, at least, Ron Sproat and I are in complete agreement.
Tomorrow: The Unpacking.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when the scene shifts from Quentin’s room to the drawing room, Barnabas is looking up, clearly waiting for his cue.
When Barnabas tells Mrs. Johnson, “Her will specifically states that in the case of death, she is to be placed in a special casket,” a camera pokes into view on the right side of the screen.
When Mr. Jarret enters, he asks Mrs. Johnson, “Is Mr. Jonathan here?”
Barnabas tells Mr. Jarret, “This has been a mistake on someone’s part. But, uh — you must have come here unnecessarily.”
Barnabas bobbles a line with the kids:
Barnabas: Perhaps if you like Boston, you might want to go to school there.
Barnabas: You wouldn’t mind the idea, would you? Either of you?
Behind the Scenes:
Mr. Jarret, the man from the funeral home, is played by Bob Fitzsimmons, in his only appearance on the show. Mr. Fitzsimmons doesn’t have an IMDb listing, and there’s no other information available on the internet about him. The only thing I could find was this Internet Broadway Database listing, which says that Bob Fitzsimmons appeared on Broadway in The Honest Blacksmith. For the date of the production, the listing says “Jan. 21, 1901 – Closing date unknown”.
Obviously, that means that the man we see playing Mr. Jarret was actually a ghost. They already had living people playing ghosts on the show, so I suppose it’s only fair if they also cast a ghost for a living-person role.
Tomorrow: The Unpacking.
— Danny Horn