Episode 816: Midsummer

“You said we could be together forever, now that I’m dead like you.”

“Barnabas Collins and I have been at war for quite a long while,” says Count Petofi, tapping on the chained coffin that he’s keeping in his basement lair. “This is one more battle in that war.” And then he turns, and stares directly into the camera. “But it is the last one, and it will go on until he gives me what I want.”

We cut to a different camera, with Petofi and his henchman Aristede in a two-shot. Aristede says that it won’t be easy to convince Barnabas to forget the mission that brought him back in time to 1897, but Petofi says he can do it. Aristede asks how, and Petofi turns, and stares directly into the camera.

“Military strategy, my boy!” he announces. “I shall do what one does to win any crucial battle… Increase the pressure!” The camera moves from his clenched fist to another close-up.

Aristede asks how Petofi’s going to increase the pressure, and the mad Count takes a few steps downstage. “So far, only those whom Barnabas Collins cares for in this time have suffered,” he says, and stares directly into the camera. “Now, I shall attack from another side!”

This is all taking place in a tiny basement, by the way. Petofi has turned away from the person that he’s talking to for the fourth time in the last sixty seconds, and he’s not looking out a window or anything. According to the logic of this set, he’s announcing his fiendish plans to a brick wall, which is approximately two inches in front of him. We’ve seen backacting before on Dark Shadows, but this really is the frozen limit.

816 dark shadows petofi aristede pressure

So, thing I realized: In Friday’s post, I said that Barnabas’ lighting effect was “one of the most explicitly theatrical things they’ve ever done on the show, and I love it,” as if it’s obvious that “theatrical” is a good thing for a television show to be. I mean, you’d imagine that a TV show would be better off trying to be televisual, and yet here we are.

And Count Petofi really is the most theatrical villain you can imagine. This scene is not an isolated incident; he does this all the time. It’s actually a power move. If Petofi is aware that he’s living his make-believe life on a set, being recorded by cameras and microphones, then that gives him the edge over all the other characters, who have to go to the trouble of pretending that they’re real.

This is clearly an explicit choice on the part of the actor and the director; the blocking is entirely based on Petofi facing the camera at all times. He just stands there and rants, right through the fourth wall.

“Barnabas Collins mentioned one name,” he declares. “With that one name — with the knowledge of that one person — I can begin my attack.”

Like a good henchman, Aristede asks, “Who is that person, Excellency?”

That’s such a helpful question that Petofi actually turns around to look at the person he’s talking to. “Why,” he says, and then turns back to face the audience. “David Collins, of course!”

816 dark shadows petofi aristede darkness

Then there’s the opening titles, and a commercial break, and when we come back, Count Petofi is still looking directly at the audience. He can keep this up all day, if he has to.

Now, the thing that Petofi is trying to do is to contact the unborn spirit of David Collins — a boy who will live seventy years in the future — and then instill that spirit into the body of Jamison Collins, who will be David’s grandfather. This is meant to threaten Jamison’s life, which opens up the possibility that Jamison is being possessed by his own descendant, who will never exist.

There’s only one way that you could introduce that plot point on a popular television show, and this is it.

816 dark shadows petofi aristede lights

“Put out the lights, Aristede,” Petofi instructs, still facing the audience. Aristede asks why, and the Count declares, “Because darkness must call to darkness!”

Grinning, Aristede extinguishes the lantern that’s supposedly illuminating the room…

816 dark shadows petofi aristede green

And this triggers a spooky green light, illuminating Petofi through the power of fourth-wall-breaking supernatural phosphorescence.

816 dark shadows petofi theater

So this is what I mean by theatrical — a sequence of images that doesn’t make any sense except as a stage play, being acted out before an audience. Even if it was possible for real people to do this utterly bonkers thing that they’re currently doing, then it still wouldn’t look like this currently looks.

Dark Shadows has now reached the point where the suspension of disbelief is completely irrelevant. Disbelief is entirely intact. It turns out this vampire soap opera isn’t a found-footage documentary after all, go figure.

816 dark shadows 91 carolyn

As you may know, I am currently at war with the idea that remaking Dark Shadows could ever be a good idea. My assertion is that Dark Shadows is a story that can only be told once, that the show only makes sense when it’s these actors performing these scripts, and an attempt to translate these plot points into any other context makes them crumble into dust.

Nobody would start out in 1966 and say, I will tell the story of the Collins family and their governess, and after the first year, I’ll introduce a vampire, and then a lady doctor will try to cure him, and then we’ll go into the past! And the governess will disappear, and the Collins family will have nothing to do with the show anymore! And then we’ll go to a parallel dimension, and set the house on fire!

This is not a well-constructed plan. For more information on why trying to retell this story will never work, see: every single time they’ve tried.

So here’s another reason why the reboots have failed, and will always fail: People keep trying to turn Dark Shadows into a television show, when it’s actually a stage play that lasts for six hundred and twelve hours. That is the correct medium for Dark Shadows.

816 manson death to pigs

The other thing I wanted to talk about today is the Manson Family murders. Today’s Dark Shadows episode aired on Monday, August 11th, just after the weekend when Charles Manson and his gang of criminal psychopaths killed seven people in Los Angeles, in two incidents known as the “Tate murders” and the “LaBianca murders”.

The Tate murders are the ones that people really paid attention to at the time, especially because one of the victims was a rising young actress, Sharon Tate. The gang killed five people that night — Tate, three friends, and a young man who just happened to be on the property. The victims were tortured and executed in a particularly gruesome way — shot, strangled, tied up and stabbed dozens of times. The killers wrote messages in the victims’ blood — “PIG” on the door of the Tate house, and “DEATH TO PIGS” on the LaBiancas’ wall.

When the public learned about these brutal killings, it was a baffling mystery, with no apparent motive. A gang of lunatics just showed up at the door, and tortured people for no reason. Nobody knew if it would happen again, or what anyone could do to protect themselves from it. The only thing you could say is that the world just got worse all of a sudden, and it stayed that way.

801 dark shadows quentin magda petofi try

The reason why I’m bringing this up is to note that at this point, Dark Shadows is almost entirely about murder. Of all the big events of midsummer 1969 — the moon landing, the Nixon Doctrine, the Woodstock Festival — the Tate murders is the one with the most obvious overlap with the content of Dark Shadows.

In today’s episode, Tim holds Aristede at gunpoint, and later this week, Magda finds a death threat pinned to her front door with a dagger. Barnabas kills people for food, and our new hero, Quentin, is the guy who killed Abe Vigoda. Pretty much everyone in the cast has either committed or covered up a murder. Edward, Beth, Petofi, Aristede, Angelique, Trask, Evan… I think the only character who you can’t classify as at least a part-time villain is ten-year-old Nora, and that’s just because people keep sending her to her room, and she doesn’t get much of a chance to express herself.

So this is a culture that is, correctly, disgusted and terrified by the Manson killings, but the four pm daily murder show is marketed to children with a Milton Bradley board game.

816 dark shadows quentin jamison theater

I would suggest that the deliberately theatrical tone of the show is the thing that made this acceptable viewing, two days after the Tate murders. I’ve never heard of anybody making this connection before, and I don’t think it occurred to anyone at the time. People read about the grisly murders in the newspaper, and then they turned on the afternoon murder show to relax.

By the way, in this episode there’s also a scene where Quentin decides that Barnabas can help him deal with the baffling Jamison/David ante-mortem possession story, so he walks downstage, faces the fourth wall, closes his eyes, arranges for a murky yellow spotlight somehow, and announces to nobody in particular, “Barnabas — in this dark hour, I know you can hear me! Wherever you are, please come to me, and to Jamison!” And when this isn’t followed by an instant Chromakey vampire visitation, Quentin gets all cross about it, like he knows that Barnabas is reading his text messages, and isn’t answering.

This is the answer to the eternal question of How did they get away with making this ridiculous show? This is how they can poison Minerva’s tea, and spend four weeks playing keepaway with Petofi’s severed hand. There are elements of this production that deliberately signal to the audience that this is just a play, a midsummer afternoon’s dream that you’re not supposed to take seriously.

So at the end of the episode, Count Petofi takes center stage once again. He looks directly at the audience, and says,

If Dark Shadows has offended,
Think but this, and all is mended —
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And now, a word from All Temperature Cheer.

Tomorrow: A Night in Casablanca.

Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:

One of the cameras has a fault today, which adds thin diagonal stripes over the picture.

In the teaser, Petofi vows, “I shall what one does to win any crucial battle: increase the pleas- the pressure.”

Nora tells Tim that Jamison unwrapped the box. Tim says, “Nora… you –” and then loses his line. He takes an awkward look at the teleprompter during a close-up, and then continues, “Did you see what was in the box?”

When Tim scolds Nora, she sobs, “I didn’t mean to make any cause for trouble for you!”

Quentin asks Tim why Amanda has come to Collinwood; he means Collinsport.

In the mill, when Tim’s pointing his gun at Aristede, he says, “I’m getting it back, Aristede, or you die!” Then there’s a long pause, and as the camera pulls in for a close-up, he turns to the teleprompter.

At the end of the show, Petofi tells Quentin, “You told me he was possessed by a David Collins, who lives in the year 1969.” But Quentin didn’t say 1969; he just mentioned that Jamison had a dream about David once, and Barnabas said that David doesn’t exist.

Tomorrow: A Night in Casablanca.

816 dark shadows petofi green

Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

20 thoughts on “Episode 816: Midsummer

  1. Well my comment did not error out, but it didn’t show up either.
    Why can’t one thing ever be simple?

    Might as well ask my question anyway – even though I may never see the answer.
    I did my due diligence and crawled back through the labels to the first post in which you mentioned backacting. You didn’t seem to explain it explicitly there either so either everybody already knows what it means – although Google doesn’t think it’s a word – or it’s just… self evident?

    Having typed all that, I will bet that this will not post.

    1. Yeah, I should probably explain my weird homemade slang more often. Backacting is my name for blocking that involves one character standing with his or her back to the other person in the scene. They do this a lot on Dark Shadows. It looks fantastic, because you get to see both characters’ faces in the same shot, but it means that one character is carrying on a discussion with the back of the other character’s head, a conversation style which does not occur in nature.

      1. Thank you!
        I never would have figured that out- except perhaps by watching the episode, and that isn’t going to be happening for a while because I’m still somewhere around episode 141.
        I have only seen the entire series once. That was that between 1998 and 2002 I think. I was lagging a little bit behind SyFy channel.

        I did see episodes in 1969 when everyone was watching it – but sometime after the middle of July, my father caught me and made me stop. It was only then I started having nightmares about the hand.

        somewhere in the late nineties I ended up in a group on AOL that did stories based on dark shadows acted out live online – on AOL, and you can guess how well that worked.
        if it were not for the fact that some of the group was so funny and that Judy Phillips episode summaries were so funny – not always, but often – I never would have seen the entire series at all.

        I think your blog is hysterical – I told my brother I imagined you had been mainlining TVTropes – and I’m sad because you waited until episode 200 and something to get started.
        aside from when I was 10, I always start at the beginning of things, so right now I’m on episode 140 something of DS and in the middle of season six of The Good Wife.
        (and really hoping my brother get my DVR fixed soon.)

  2. Classic Star Trek gets away with a lot of back acting for long periods on the bridge, because everyone is supposed to be looking at the view screen.

    But today’s episode may have been the longest sustained back acting on DS.

    It’s funny, when I took acting classes a long time ago, I consciously used the DS back acting technique in my scene study classes, and I usually got the note, that I seem ‘very invested in the scene”, even though I wasn’t usually looking at my scene partner.

    1. So true! Backacting is an absolutely essential tool in live theatre, especially if the stage is unmiked. Whenever I direct an opera or a musical, the duets are backacted from here to Hoboken and back. And I always think of Dark Shadows when I block them that way!

  3. DARK SHADOWS is truly a stage production on TV with excellent stage actors. On the big screen or on a TV series with a TV budget, there is an immediate loss of intimacy and style. The Old House parlor shouldn’t be any larger than it is on the show.

    Remakes of DS also fail, I think, because people fall into what I call the Lucas Myth — that’s the one where fans believe George Lucas had a grand outline for the STAR WARS saga rather than sort of making things up as he went along. The Lucas Myth of DARK SHADOWS is that Dan Curtis created a unique TV series. The only thing unique about DS is its style of storytelling (and of course the performances and actors, which obviously can’t be replicated). When someone inevitably tries to remake BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, they’ll find a wealth of mythology and concepts unique to the series. That’s not DARK SHADOWS. DS is the great stage TV show that does Dracula for a while, then Frankenstein, then some ghost stuff and later Maltese Falcon, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while ending with the Lottery. Oh, and there’s some Jane Eyre and Rebecca in there, as well. It’s deep and rich, but you don’t really need DARK SHADOWS to do that. You can invent your own crazy post-modern (and arguably DS very much was that) series that adapts and covers the hits from your past. Quentin Tarantino made a career out of it.

    Who is Julia Hoffman if not Grayson Hall? None of the remakes (and even the first film, which actually had Hall) were able to get it right, but there are many TV series with mythic trickster characters who can move a plot along with the greatest of ease (River Song over on DOCTOR WHO might also count). Everything we liked about Barnabas and Quentin is evident in Angel and Spike. And, yes, grudgingly, even in Edward and Jacob.

  4. When I think of the Manson family, I think of “Helter Skelter”.

    When I think helter skelter, I think of Dark Shadows scripts.

    1. Speaking of Helter Skelter, remember George Dicenzo, the DS assoc. producer, played Vincent Bugliosi in the made for TV Helter Skelter movie. He was the prosecutor at the Manson trial.

  5. Thanks for your thought-provoking post, Danny. I agree with you regarding the ubiquity of murder among all the characters on the show. And for all we know maybe Nora was decapitating her dolls and leaving burying the heads on Widows’ Hill.

    I also agree with you about the inevitable doom of any remakes. For that matter I don’t think the stories are well-suited for book treatment either. The stage drama form served the show well. I ate it up. I wanted more. For many years after the show ended I would read and re-read the TV Guide article ‘What Really Happened To Barnabas & Company.’

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. But the world is full of zanies and fools who don’t believe in sensible rules and won’t believe what sensible people say…

      1. …Adaptation can often be possible where it was thought not to be. Aim to capture the spirit, the soul of the source; the original bricks and mortar may have to go, There’s still a chance of capturing the essence and mining inspiration from an original…

  6. This is interesting because during a similar period of time of national reeling (after the 9/11 attacks) soaps backed away from violence is quickly as they could – for a bit – before everybody forgot about it and went back to violence and mayhem as entertainment. In the most ludicrous example I’ve heard, on Guiding Light, Reva had been travelling to random places in time and space through a painting of a doppelganger of a woman she hated, ends up doing the finale in German occupied Paris and an already ridiculous scene of Josh besting some Nazi officers becomes even more ridiculous when, in an effort to tone down violence, instead of gun Josh uses a….loaf of french bread. I don’t mean he threw it or anything, he literally used a loaf of french bread as if it were a gun. Frankly I think this is the stupidest storyline GL ever did anyway, but the french bread just is the crowning touch. LOL

    1. 9/11 also ruined “General Hospital”. They were working up to a glorious climax where the evil Cassadines, led by a resurrected Stavros, would take over Port Charles and force a terrified Laura back into captivity. After 9/11 they lost heart, or thought we wouldn’t be able to stand this, and very quickly had the plan fall apart and Stavros die permanently by falling down a sewer. Weeks or months of strong stories lost, except that the GH writers are terrible at doing justice to stories anyway.

  7. Even though it’s a much smaller role, to me (when it comes to acting) George DiCenzo is Fairbanks in the mental hospital comedy-drama “The Ninth Configuration.” Fairbanks believed he could walk through walls if he took the right steps, and so could anyone – “Cops. People. People in Nashville.”
    It’s one of those comical random lists of people, but he says it in a great deadly serious way.

  8. I was glad you brought up the Manson murders on this week’s airings — I actually looked for a comment about it on the blog and there it was….and I was wondering if one could see any nuances in the acting on set as I’m sure it was terrifying and disturbing for anyone in the entertainment industry in L.A. or New York which I’m sure many traveled to and from, especially Joan Bennett. (just found this blog and love it and thank you for your hard work on it — shared with my other DS friends who are rediscovering the series on Hulu, etc — we were among the kids who ran home from school to catch it on TV in 68-72)

  9. The make-up people can’t seem to decide how Petofi’s restored hand is supposed to look. In some scenes it appears almost normal, in others it’s heavily encrusted as if to suggest it’s still mummified.

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