“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.
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!”
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.
“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…
And this triggers a spooky green light, illuminating Petofi through the power of fourth-wall-breaking supernatural phosphorescence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Danny Horn