“I’d like to meet the man that invented supermarkets, and wring his neck.”
We’ve talked a lot lately about the failure of the 1968 storylines, and I think it’s high time we move on, and talk about the failure of the 1969 storylines. You can’t live in the past forever, except for Angelique, apparently, and I don’t think I’ll ever figure out how she manages it.
So let’s leave sentiment behind, and take a cold, hard look at this cold, hard dud of a story. I hate to agree with anything that we read in that douchey TV Guide review the other day, but there was one point that was right on the money — the David/Amy possession story is unbelievably irritating.
There, I’ve said it. This wretched Turn of the Screw spooky kid motif is just not working on any level.
The spirit of angry ancestor Quentin Collins is determined to take revenge on the family that’s forgotten him, and he’s been silently issuing sinister instructions to the innocent youngsters. But it’s been a month, and so far, they haven’t really achieved anything in the way of results.
They started out well, I’ll give them that. A month ago, David stretched a wire across the staircase and sent his father careening to the linoleum. That had action and energy; you can’t beat a cold-blooded patricide. But then, like Roger, the story went downhill fast.
By now, the kids have settled into an unsettling routine, alternately scowling and grinning as they make feverish plans to do hardly anything. They talk about “playing the game” with various people, and they say it in a creepy manner, but after Roger’s non-fatal spill down the steps, the scares they’ve been working on are just not scary.
Basically, the only thing that they’ve done of any consequence is that they unpacked Vicki’s clothes, although that might have been Vicki doing that anyway. And that’s pretty much the reign of terror so far.
You know, it’s possible that “spooky kid” only works in an environment where everything else is normal. A couple of kids can skate pretty far on vague suggestion, if they’re not competing for chills. But Dark Shadows now takes place in a world where a werewolf can jump through the window at any time, ghosts are writing notes and knocking over grandfather clocks, the matriarch is in a witch-induced death coma, and the most responsible person in the family is an ex-vampire. Spooky kid hardly registers.
But today, I’m happy to say, “playing the game” ups its game, and here’s Mrs. Johnson to get things started.
Yesterday, I wrote about how dull and lifeless Ron Sproat’s dialogue can be. I really can’t stand listening to generic filler talk where everybody sounds the same. But today, the world sounds different, right from the start.
The housekeeper brings a shopping bag into the house, and Maggie says, “Oh, Mrs. Johnson. You’re back!”
“Yes, and surprised to be in one piece,” says Mrs. J. “I’d like to meet the man that invented supermarkets, and wring his neck.”
Maggie tells her that Chris is moving into the old caretaker’s cottage, and Mrs. Johnson starts grumbling.
Mrs. Johnson: At least the Collinsport Hotel is friendly and comfortable.
Maggie: The cottage isn’t?
Mrs. Johnson: They should have burned it down when Matthew Morgan died!
Mrs. Johnson: Because nothing good ever happened there when Matthew Morgan was alive, and nothing good happened there after he died!
Maggie: I’ve never been inside the place, but it looks charming from the outside.
Mrs. Johnson: Charming, indeed! You should know the things that happened down there, you wouldn’t think it was so charming. I think the place is cursed!
Now, this isn’t Tony Award-winning stagecraft or anything, and Maggie is just there to deliver the straight lines, but I think the improvement is obvious. Mrs. Johnson is expressing strong emotions in her own voice, about things that are rooted in her experience. Yesterday’s conversation between these two went like this:
Maggie: Where did they get the clothes? Did they explain?
Mrs. Johnson: They said they found them, and they were playing dress-up.
Maggie: There’s nothing wrong with that. I used to play dress-up when I was a child.
Mrs. Johnson: I don’t know, Maggie. I don’t know.
And now, all of a sudden, she’s threatening supermarkets. I like this better.
And so, housewives and teenagers of America, I’m happy to introduce Violet Welles, a new member of the Dark Shadows writing team who’s currently operating in stealth mode.
After Ron Sproat leaves next month, there’ll be a fill-in for a couple days, and then Violet will officially join the staff in March. But in a late ’80s interview in the fanzine The World of Dark Shadows, she revealed that she’d been ghost-writing for Gordon Russell, who joined the show in July 1967.
At the time, she was a press agent for several Broadway shows, not a professional scriptwriter — but she was friends with Gordon, and she liked helping him out with characters and dialogue. In the interview, she says, “I’d been ghosting for years on everything he’d done,” but that’s all the details I have on the pre-Dark Shadows days.
I’m going to save Violet’s story for March, when she officially gets her name in the credits. But this is definitely an episode where it’s clear that the credit for Gordon Russell is at least partly fictional. He’s a good writer, but he doesn’t write character-based dialogue like this.
Here, have some more. The children have been instructed to rattle the grown-ups, and Mrs. Johnson’s anti-cottage rant gives them an entry point.
David: Is Mrs. Johnson going to be all right? We couldn’t help but overhear the conversation about the cottage.
Maggie: Yes, Mrs. Johnson does seem to be nervous about that. I don’t know why.
David: She’s been sort of jumpy, lately. Have you noticed?
Maggie: No, I haven’t.
David: I don’t know what it is, but she just seems to be bothered by the littlest things. She never used to be that way. She never used to see things.
Which is a nice little turn. David is coming across as sly, which is refreshing. For a while now, the kids’ sneaky behavior has been limited to saying “yes” when they actually mean “no”. This is the first time we’ve seen them really be manipulative.
And Mrs. Johnson is just awesome today, growling and snapping at her loser son Harry.
“Uptight? What in Heaven’s name does that mean?”
“Well, let’s get started! I don’t want to spend any more time here than I have to!”
“Oh! He must have locked it. What a ninny you are, Harry!”
She’s just great. Mrs. Johnson is finding her inner Abigail.
Now, the plot of today’s episode is pretty standard stuff, just moving people around from one set to another. If you toned these scenes down to Sproat level, I would be complaining about how boring the episode is. But a little extra sparkle in the dialogue makes everything come to life.
Speaking of things coming to life, while I’ve been going on about the script, they’ve managed to get Mrs. Johnson alone in the cottage, and here comes trouble.
Yes! There he is, the man we’ve been waiting for, the one and only Mr. Quentin Collins (deceased). We’ve only seen him once before, and it was only for 42 seconds, so his return appearance feels like a special occasion.
Now, a lot of my personal excitement about Quentin’s return to the show is based on being a time traveller. I’ve watched the show before, and I know the character that Quentin’s going to turn out to be. To the audience in January 1969, this is just the frowning man with the eyebrows and muttonchops.
But even looking at this moment from that perspective, it’s still good news. David and Amy have been acting as his advance team for weeks, talking endlessly about what Quentin wants, and where Quentin wants us to go, and so on. They’ve been giving him a huge buildup, to make sure everybody understands how important he is.
So this means the story can start moving again, and we can finally find out what Quentin wants.
What he wants, apparently, is to screw with the housekeeper for a while. It’s not an ambitious first quarter goal, but I suppose it establishes a baseline we can work from. If the world can be divided into the people who have terrified Mrs. Johnson and the people who haven’t, then, you know. He’s got that going for him.
It’s not much, I admit — a little uptick in the dialogue, and a walk-on part for the muttonchops. But this, Lord help us, is the future of Dark Shadows.
Tomorrow: Small World.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Maggie tells Mrs. Johnson that Tom Jennings is moving into the cottage, instead of Chris Jennings. She says “Tom Jennings” twice.
When he gets to the cottage, Harry puts his hand on the doorknob, and then looks out at the studio for his cue. After five seconds, he gets the cue, and starts rattling the knob.
When Mrs. Johnson tries to open the locked door, the camera’s pulled back too far, and you can see the top of the set.
Amy and David are standing outside as Maggie approaches from off screen. She yells a muffled, “Amy! David!” and you can tell that she’s just off set and holding a hand over her mouth.
Behind the Scenes:
This is the last time we see Harry Johnson on Dark Shadows, which is fine with me because he’s terrible. He was usually played by Craig Slocum, but today Edward Marshall fills in as a recast. Marshall will appear again in June as Ezra Braithewaite.
From 1967-68, Marshall was an understudy for the Broadway production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Dark Shadows is his first screen credit. After this, he made one-episode appearances in a number of well-known TV shows, including Happy Days, M*A*S*H, Mannix, Archie Bunker’s Place, Lou Grant and WKRP in Cincinnati. In the early 80s, he had small roles in the comedy films 9 to 5 and Carbon Copy, and that’s about all I know.
Kathryn Leigh Scott mentions Marshall in her 1986 book My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, but she gets the memory mixed up a bit:
At the four pm rehearsal for the next day’s show, which introduced Harry, I discovered that an actor still hadn’t been cast. I thought of Ed instantly, a fine young actor I’d met in Uta Hagen’s class. I quickly mentioned his name and promised that I could find and deliver him, lines learned, by eight the following morning. Panic.
By ten that night, I’d called his home number and answering service nonstop. Like any actor “between jobs,” Ed was waiting tables. Finally he called, long after I’d rehearsed apologies to Dan, Bob, Lela and anyone else who might be irritated at not finding a Harry at the studio in the morning. Ed raced to my apartment, grabbed the script, said “Thank you” a million times and fled home to learn his lines. Harry became a running role in the story and Ed was with us for some time.
Another little props item: In the cottage, Mrs. Johnson dusts a black sculpture of a bobcat fighting an eagle, which was previously seen at Nicholas’ house.
Tomorrow: Small World.
— Danny Horn