“And once you’ve seen that action, you will look back on that dialogue as manna from heaven combined with the balm of Gilead.”
One year ago on Dark Shadows, a man shot his wife in the drawing room, in the shoulder, and in the middle of ABC-TV’s afternoon programming lineup.
As she lay there, weltering in gore, she set a terrible curse upon his house, which summoned a marionette bat from the gates of Hell. The bat swooped at the man’s throat as he screamed and screamed and screamed, and I think you could make a good case that this was the moment when sensible grown-ups should have intervened.
And yet it runs on, this perpetual bad-influence machine disguised as a harmless daytime soap opera, because normal working adults in 1969 have exactly zero interest in what the housewives and teenagers of America are doing at four o’clock in the afternoon. As long as everyone’s mopped up the blood and erased the chalk pentagram on the floor by the time Dad comes home, there are no further questions.
Remarkably, the mainstream press has been unbelievably kind to the show so far. But this is life before the VCR, when a reporter who wants to write about Dark Shadows has access to the following: a) the episode that airs today, provided that you’re looking at a television set at precisely four pm, and b) nothing else.
There’s no highlights reel, no way to sample the best episodes, or the worst episodes, or the one that you heard about where a demon performed a Black Mass while a werewolf killed a hotel clerk. You have today’s episode, and if that’s not enough material for an article, then you have to wait 24 hours for the next one.
So the Dark Shadows coverage tends to focus on the tangible elements, namely the gum cards, the Halloween masks and Jonathan Frid’s fan mail.
In November, The Saturday Evening Post ran a four-page feature on Dark Shadows, which acknowledged the undeniably perverse appeal of the show, and then dismissed it with an indulgent smile.
The December article in The New York Times was positively giddy about the show, counting Frid’s mail and generally giving the impression that a television show this successful must be contributing to the public welfare.
So it’s about time somebody took a stand, telling the world the awful truth about this awful television show. Enter TV Guide and its crusading critic, Cleveland Amory. Yeah, the cat guy.
Amory’s one-page review of Dark Shadows was published in the February 1st, 1969 issue, and it’s based on the week of episodes that we talked about two weeks ago — episodes 656 to 660.
Monday and Tuesday of that week were mostly about David and Amy doing inexplicable things on Quentin’s behalf — making a prank call to a funeral home, packing and then unpacking their suitcases, talking to gramophone records, and grinning inanely for very little reason. Wednesday was Joe’s mental breakdown, and was approximately 50% dream sequence. On Thursday and Friday, Barnabas fretted about Vicki’s fate, and decided to talk his way back in time.
Sadly, this was not the most inspiring week of Dark Shadows. If Mr. Amory had tuned in the week before, he would have seen multiple werewolf attacks, which were a lot more lively. But that’s show business for you.
So the TV Guide review is not a positive one. It begins with the assessment that Dark Shadows is “the worst [TV series] in the history of entertainment,” and moves on from there. Given the week that he saw, I can’t really argue with his conclusions.
Where I take issue with Mr. C. Amory is that he is under the impression that he is hilarious. I believe that I am uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of funny critiques of terrible Dark Shadows episodes, given that I’ve spent almost two years doing nothing else with my evenings, and Amory is not funny. In fact, if I was comfortable using the word “douchey” in print, then I would use it here, because that is what this review is. It is unquestionably douchey.
But here, take a look for yourself.
A few weeks ago, when we were down with the flu, we watched this show for a whole week. And you know what? Sick as we were — and we were a very sick boy — we were, compared with Dark Shadows, in the pink.
But then a remarkable thing happened. At the end of the week, by which time we had decided that this series was, in our considered judgement, the worst in the history of entertainment, we found that when Saturday came and there was no show, we missed it. And thus we arrived at a true understanding of the secret of Dark Shadows’ success — the worse it is, the more you’ll love it.
And take our word for it, this is the show for that. The people who run it obviously have their standards — and above them they will not go. When it comes to quality, they will never compromise with the lack of it.
No matter how terrible you think an idea is — wait, hold your judgment. The execution of it will be so bad that, in retrospect, the idea seems terrific. In the same way you may, on occasion — say, 10 times per episode — think some dialogue is utterly ridiculous. Again, don’t be hasty. Look at the action that once a week or so accompanies the dialogue. And once you’ve seen that action, you will look back on that dialogue as manna from heaven combined with the balm of Gilead.
Take the actors — please. Start with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, mistress of the horror house of Collinwood. Miss Joan Bennett, an old favorite of ours, plays this part as if she’d just forgotten where she’d put it. All right, we know that a few weeks ago they had her killed off. But to count on a thing like that in a show like this is madness. They think nothing of digging up people who’ve been dead 200 years.
Next take Barnabas Collins, your friendly neighborhood vampire. Mr. Jonathan Frid, who plays this part, is at his best — i.e., worst — when he’s discovering something for the fourth time that somebody else already discovered for the third. “You mean,” he will say, “the second time you went back to the grave, it was freshly filled in?”
Go through the rest of the cast — every last one of them speaks his or her lines as if on the witness stand and paid by the word — by the prosecution. They can’t all be that bad, you say. Of course not. Some are worse than others.
The very worst, though, are the children — Amy (Denise Nickerson) and David (David Henesy). We swear to you that if we see those two talking to that ghost Quentin through that disconnected telephone one more time, we will call them on a connected telephone and read them this review collect.
Finally, take the executive producer. His name is Dan Curtis. Remember that name. And if you meet him on the street, speak kindly to him, and do not make any quick motions. For Mr. Curtis is a man who has, for publication, declared that he actually dreamed the whole story of Dark Shadows during, he says, “a big sleep in upstate New York.” In that case all you can think, or hope, or even pray is that Mr. Curtis never, ever gets that tired again.
After writing this douchey and not funny review, Cleveland Amory fell into total obscurity and was never heard from again, except for the three bestselling books that he wrote, the influential animal rights organizations that he founded, and the many whales, chimpanzees and baby seals that he rescued. So everything turned out okay.
Tomorrow: The Aristocrats.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Barnabas tells Amy and David that he missed them, a camera moves into the shot behind him.
Barnabas sits on the couch with Amy, and says, “Now, Carolyn, what happened?” When she asks Barnabas to tell Carolyn not to punish David, he says, “Oh, I can’t do that, Carol — uh, Amy.”
Tomorrow: The Aristocrats.
— Danny Horn