“Lots of things happen in this house that no one can understand.”
It always starts with a box.
You take your fears and your crimes and your regrets, and you bury them deep in the earth, and you tell yourself that no one will ever know. Nobody has a key, and nobody knows where you buried it, and nobody knows that it even exists. The mystery box is hidden forever.
But you know that it’s only a matter of time. Boxes open. That’s pretty much the whole point of boxes.
We’re currently three weeks away from Barnabas’ next time travel adventure, and the Dark Shadows writers are finally taking a moment to figure out what the hell they think they’re trying to accomplish.
For the last four months, Sam Hall and Ron Sproat have been engaged in a tug-of-war over the story direction. There are two ongoing stories right now — one fast and loud, the other slow and quiet — and so far, they haven’t quite managed to make it all fit together.
The Hall-style werewolf story has been barreling along, with lots of big fight scenes and plot twists. Barnabas had his first run-in with the creature on a Tuesday, and by Friday, he’d figured out who was responsible, and what he could do to help.
Meanwhile, the Sproat-style Turn of the Screw haunted house story has been meandering for two months, and so far, the only thing that anybody knows for sure is that David and Amy have been in kind of a weird mood lately.
Ron summed up the end of his Dark Shadows run in a 1990 interview with Edward Gross:
Ed: There was a period after a while where nobody knew what the hell was going on.
Ron: That’s right. We had arguments about that. I told Dan that I felt we owed a certain obligation to the person who isn’t able to get to the television every day, to explain what’s going on. That we should keep a fairly clear storyline. Fans didn’t want to have to have some sort of guide that would untangle all of this. They were in the process of straightening it out a bit, and I think it was going pretty well about the time of Quentin.
Ed: But didn’t it start getting crazy again with Count Petofi and all of that?
Ron: That was after I’d gone. I’d left when Quentin was lurking around.
And that says pretty much everything. As far as Ron is concerned, Quentin’s ghost is “lurking around”. They’ve said some words about who Quentin is and what he wants, but the clues have all been disconnected fragments that don’t add up to the character we’re going to meet next month. It’s mostly been lurking.
But yesterday, praise be, was Ron’s last episode, and now Sam is free to construct an actual storyline.
The most important item on the agenda is to connect the ghost story to the things that are actually working on the show — reluctant werewolf Chris, and the Junior Detectives team of Barnabas and Julia. The only game worth playing on Dark Shadows is Stand Next to Barnabas, and the ghosts have been lurking in the west wing for too long. If they want to stay on the show, they need to get on Barnabas’ radar.
So here comes Beth the ghost governess, appearing to Chris and leading him into the woods. She points to a spot on the ground, and then disappears. There are more direct ways to introduce yourself to people, but you know ghosts. They like to take the long way around.
Chris brings Barnabas to the woods, and they dig in that spot, and they find the mystery box.
This is excellent news, because mystery boxes are always worth opening on Dark Shadows. Boxes, as everyone knows, are full of monsters and secrets.
Chris identifies this box as a child’s coffin, and naturally that means the best thing to do is break it open with a shovel and see what’s inside.
They find the decaying corpse of an infant, and they pause for exactly four seconds before Chris says, “What’s that thing right there?” and Barnabas just reaches in and helps himself.
There really is a lot more grave-robbing on this show than your average afternoon soap opera. Chris has only been on the show for a few months, and already he’s taking to it like a duck to water.
There’s a necklace around the kid’s neck, and Barnabas just scoops it right up. Then they deliver some sensational dialogue:
Barnabas: A pentagram!
Chris: And with the two points downward.
Barnabas: Someone here, long, long ago, needed protection, too. Protection from a… a werewolf!
Coming back from the opening titles, Chris asks, “Could it really mean that a werewolf existed around here before?” and Barnabas says, “That’s all it can mean,” and that’s that, mission accomplished. With that kind of logic, we’ll get these two stories connected in no time.
Barnabas and Chris put the coffin back where they found it, minus one medallion, and they haven’t even had a chance to get back to the house when we see Quentin giving David some new instructions.
Now, I don’t want to keep bringing up Ron Sproat every five seconds, but this is a really good example of how much faster the show can be now. We just skipped over about three episodes of Sproat-style plot development in one quick cut.
If Ron wrote this sequence, we’d have one episode where Barnabas finds the pentagram and brings it home, a second episode where Amy notices the pentagram and asks Barnabas about it, and a third where Amy mentions the pentagram to Quentin. We could drag this plot point out for a whole week, if we really put our minds to it.
But today, Barnabas and Chris head back to the house, and then we cut straight to David saying, “No, I don’t want to do it, Quentin.” They didn’t even show him walking into the room; we just skip straight into the scene. Quentin wants David to bring him the pentagram, and he wants it by the end of act two.
This is what freedom from Sproat really means. At long last, Dark Shadows is acting like television.
So I’m going to follow their example, and get to the point. Barnabas examines the pentagram with a magnifying glass, and David steals it while he’s not looking.
David brings the pentagram to Quentin’s room in the west wing, and then something remarkable happens:
Quentin has a feeling.
He clutches the pentagram in his fist, and for a moment, he just stands there and doesn’t look at anything.
David says, “You aren’t going to do anything terrible with it, are you, Quentin? You promised me that you wouldn’t.” But just for a moment, Quentin isn’t there.
Quentin doesn’t talk yet, and he hasn’t had much reason to. The kids do whatever he wants them to do, and most of the time, he’s just been — well, lurking, I guess.
But this is not lurking. This is something else.
So far, we’ve seen a bunch of little clues about Quentin’s backstory, but most of them don’t matter, because they were written by Ron Sproat, and it was just talk anyway.
Speaking as Beth, Amy said, “You don’t believe in her powers. You don’t believe in her curse. But you should!” And David-as-Quentin replied, “Don’t worry. I’m tired of their interfering. I’m going to put it to an end.” In another episode, Roger found a note that said, “Dear Jamison, You must return to Collinwood. I need your help. You must intercede with Oscar. Only you can save me.”
But when it comes time to write the actual story, they don’t bother to sync up with those fragments, because this is a daily soap opera, and nobody’s going to remember it.
People have bad memories when it comes to exact words, but we’re pretty good at remembering props. So far, the important visuals have been the gramophone, the cradle, the skeleton in Quentin’s room, and now a child’s coffin with a pentagram inside. Those are the pieces that have to tie in with the time travel story, one way or another.
Quentin reacts to this pentagram because for the first time, he’s holding a clue that’s actually going to matter. The grim grinning ghost is finally allowed to feel something, and all of a sudden, Quentin Collins is real.
It’s nice to meet you, Quentin. Welcome to the show.
Tomorrow: A Fish Called Ezra.
The Ron Sproat interview quoted here is from Edward Gross’ Dark Shadows Tribute Book, published in 1990 by Pioneer Books. There’s a longer excerpt in a previous post, “The Last Days of Ron Sproat“.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, after opening the child’s coffin, Barnabas holds up the necklace with a pentagram on it — but he holds it so that it’s not facing the camera, and the audience can’t see the shape. When they come back from the opening titles, he’s turned the chain around so that the audience sees the pentagram.
There’s also a clatter from the studio in the middle of Barnabas’ “long, long ago” line.
In act 1, we see Quentin at the window much earlier than the intended reveal. I think this is the third time they’ve done that this week; they really need to get their heads around how to keep David Selby out of the shot.
Ezra tells Barnabas, “When I was young, there wasn’t anything I wanted to remember. But now that I do, there just doesn’t seem to be anything to remember.” I don’t know if that’s a line flub or not, but I can’t make heads or tails of it.
In the final scene, all of the clocks at Braithwaite’s are chiming, but the clock that the camera focuses on says it’s 7:26.
Abe Vigoda is credited as “Abe Vigodo.”
Behind the Scenes:
Judging from the mesh on the door and the window, Braithwaite’s shop is a redress of the police station set.
Ezra points out the “Smith Brothers” portrait of a man with a bushy mustache, and says it’s his father, Ezra Julius Braithwaite. That portait has been all over Collinsport; I think the last time we saw it was in Nicholas’ house.
Tomorrow: A Fish Called Ezra.
— Danny Horn