“Death runs faster than any man.”
A memo from young Icarus to his father, re: altitude. What are you talking about, Dad? These wings that you made from feathers and wax are working great. Why do you say that I’m flying too high? You’re supposed to fly as high as you can, that’s the whole point of flying!
And so, as Icarus sinks slowly in the west and learns some valuable lessons about swimming, let’s turn to Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis. In defiance of good taste and common sense, Dan has turned his poky little soap opera into a five-alarm spookshow spectacular, delighting the teenagers and housewives of America with larger-than-life characters, hair-raising plot twists and inventive special effects. The ratings are still climbing, which makes Dan wonder: What can I do for an encore?
Today, we see Dan’s first answer to that question — Dead of Night, a primetime pilot for ABC that tried to adapt the Dark Shadows formula to an hour-long nighttime drama. Dan produced this pilot in late 1968, with several members of his Dark Shadows family — director Lela Swift, writer Sam Hall, composer Bob Cobert, and actors Thayer David and Louis Edmonds.
ABC finally broadcast the hour-long pilot in late August 1969, because they’d already paid for it and you might as well. While he’s been waiting for it to air, Dan’s scaled his ambitions up even further — he’s currently pursuing a deal with MGM, to make a Dark Shadows film. So before that kicks off, it’s useful for us to take a look at this pilot episode, “A Darkness at Blaisedon”, and see Dan’s first attempt to bring Dark Shadows to a wider audience.
Constructed haphazardly out of feathers and wax, Dead of Night introduces a trio of new characters — psychic investigator Jonathan Fletcher, his live-in chum Sajeed Rau, and the beautiful young heiress Angela Martin — and throws them onto a haunted house set, to see how far they can fly. Icarus, you are cleared for takeoff.
So it’s another dark and stormy night, and we’re in another rickety haunted mansion, go figure. Creatively, Dan’s basic concerns are death, time and architecture, particularly the moldering manses of the Eastern seaboard. We’re just lucky there isn’t a girl on a train this time.
With a noisy Bonnng! on the vibraphone, we approach the house, as the sound effects let us know that we’re in for another one of those dry thunderstorms.
Entering the crummy old house, we find the crummy old caretaker telling Miss Martin that she shouldn’t be wanderin’ around up there all alone. The caretaker is Thayer David, in a part that he could play in his sleep. He’s probably right about not staying in the house after dark — it’s a big set, and it doesn’t look like they’ve finished lighting it yet.
They’ve constructed a huge vault of a room, with a grand staircase leading up to nowhere in particular. There are candelabras scattered around, some lit and some not. There are dusty chairs arranged at odd angles, a grandfather clock, bronze knickknacks, some unsteady end tables, possibly a pipe organ back there somewhere, and draperies hanging in places where no draper ever hung them. Apparently some timberwolves held an estate sale a few decades ago, and the place never really pulled itself back together.
In other words, it’s the kind of house where you absolutely should not trust the sullen old caretaker, who’s got to be in league with the sinister forces because otherwise you would just go and get a job at the post office. “This house has been empty for so long,” he says. “It’s not fit for the livin’, anymore.” Which, okay, I figure that would be why we paid for a caretaker all these years. What do you bring to the organization, exactly?
By the way, we’re on videotape today, so we might as well dig into that for a minute. It doesn’t seem like that should be a big deal — Dark Shadows is on videotape, and it looks fine, just like all of the other soap operas and cooking shows and sitcoms and game shows and Bozo’s Big Top. Videotape is a totally appropriate recording medium for every type of television program except for one, and unfortunately that’s the one that Dead of Night is trying to be.
Hour-long primetime dramas are shot on film, for one very good reason: they’re made in Hollywood, by movie studios. This goes back to the early 1950s, when the television industry was still figuring out how the whole medium was going to work.
In the early years of television, the programming was modeled after what worked on radio, which was modeled after what worked on stage — basically, vaudeville and dramatic plays. The first really successful TV show was NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre in 1948, with slapstick comedian Milton Berle presenting vaudeville routines interspersed with music. That success unleashed a ton of variety shows on the TV schedule — Toast of the Town, The Red Skelton Show, Your Show of Shows, The Colgate Comedy Hour. Performing a vaudeville-style show in front of cameras was a big part of what television was for, in the late 40s and early 50s.
There were also popular sitcoms like I Love Lucy and kids’ programs like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but they were all performed as live on a stage. Dramatic offerings were presented in anthology programs like The Goodyear Television Playhouse and The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, also performed as if they were recorded versions of a stage show.
That changed in 1954, when third-place network ABC made a deal with Walt Disney to produce Disneyland, a filmed series that would finance Walt’s theme park and bring some much-needed Hollywood cachet to television. Disneyland was a big hit, especially the Davy Crockett episodes, which inspired an enormously profitable pop culture craze in 1955. ABC’s successful deal with Disney opened the door to a whole new industry of “telefilms”, produced by Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox.
By 1969, it’s a cast-iron rule that primetime dramas are shot on film, and either produced or distributed by movie studios. ABC’s primetime lineup includes Land of the Giants (20th Century Fox Television), The Mod Squad (Paramount Domestic Television), and It Takes a Thief (Universal Television). Videotape is for sitcoms, game shows and variety shows; “quality” programs are shot on film.
But Dan and Lela don’t really know how to use film yet — their expertise is sets, lights and videotape — so we’re automatically starting at a serious disadvantage.
Also, when Angela turns off the candelabra, it takes two tries to blow out the first candle, which means that they’re not doing retakes. God help them, these people are trying to compete with The Mod Squad, using the same production values as Dark Shadows.
Naturally, when Angela goes “outside”, the fog machine is going like sixty, and the doors creak open, no matter how firmly you shut them. “I warned ya, Miss Martin,” growls the grumpy caretaker. “Don’t STAY here!”
This is dangerous advice for a character to be shouting at the top of his voice, ninety seconds into a new program. The place looks like a dump anyway. If the characters don’t want us here, then maybe we should go watch something else, or catch up on our knitting.
The Dead of Night titles are basically a still-picture dream sequence, with two-color silhouettes of old houses and spiral staircases, while names like “KERWIN MATHEWS” and “MARJ DUSAY” briefly surface through the gloom.
The theme tune is an angry mix of Bob Cobert woodwinds and vibraphone riffs, decorated with jangly bone-rattling percussion and kamikaze horn splatters. At least somebody’s doing their job properly.
And then they do the most peculiar thing: they go outside. It’s the one bit of location filming in the show, shot in Union Square first thing in the morning on an overcast day. Angela walks through the park, and then heads for a Greenwich Village brownstone.
It’s a lovely location, and nice to have an establishing shot on film. The peculiar part is that Cobert is muttering in the background with his kettle drums, violins and eerie woodwinds, playing the track called “A Darkness at Collinwood” from the Dark Shadows soundtrack album. It’s a great moody piece, but it’s meant for sneaking around in the woods on your way to the cemetery, not for strolling through Greenwich Village. Still, it’s nice to have a bit of film to class things up.
As Angela walks up the stairs to knock on the brownstone’s door, there’s an error in the visual continuity editing that makes it look like she teleports up the last couple steps. Lela and Dan really don’t know how to edit film yet.
This is Marj Dusay, by the way, who I know from All My Children and Guiding Light in the 2000s, where she played mischievous, wealthy matrons in the “rich bitch” Dynasty tradition. She’s got one of those IMDb pages that make you say “god damn, she was in everything” — lots of guest spots on nighttime TV shows from the late 60s into the mid 80s, and then she got into soap operas and more or less stayed put. Notable roles include the leader of the Eymorgs in the “Spock’s Brain” episode of Star Trek, and Blair’s mother in several episodes of The Facts of Life. Then she did Capitol and Santa Barbara and so on.
I’m telling you all of this because in a minute and a half they’re going to do something degrading to her, and I want her to have a moment of dignity first.
So now it’s time to meet the boys. Here’s Jonathan and Sajeed, hanging out in Jonathan’s groovy split-level apartment/office, establishing their characters. They do this in an incredibly awkward and silly way, which I will now describe in too much detail, because I think it’s funny.
The guys are upstairs in the loft, looking at an Egyptian sarcophagus that was apparently delivered with the morning mail. “The sixth century BC!” says Jonathan, showing the relic off to Sajeed. Jonathan is obviously the boss in this relationship, because he’s older and taller and white. “We found it when we opened the tomb.”
Sajeed is younger, and wearing a groovy tie instead of a sweater, so he has to ask all the questions. “But how did you get it out of Egypt? Now, that is most difficult.”
“Fortunately, a minister in the government was involved in the case,” says Jonathan, as they squat down to get a closer look.
“Ah!” says Sajeed. “So you took this, instead of a fee.”
So there you go, that’s our main character — a guy who gets paid in dead people. This explains everything, except who he is and what he does and who “we” are and why this isn’t in a museum and how he got this enormous thing all the way up the stairs in his tiny brownstone without telling his partner anything about it.
Oh, and Sajeed stepped on Jonathan’s first line. The actual transcript goes like this:
Jonathan: The sixth century BC! We —
Sajeed: But —
Jonathan: — found it when we opened the tomb!
Sajeed: But how did you get it out of Egypt?
Once again, Dead of Night does not stop for retakes, even if the mistake is in the first four seconds of the scene. There’s also a lot of noise on the soundtrack — you can hear people shuffling around in the studio, and then somebody talking.
They’re shooting videotape on a set because that’s what they’re used to, but the studio noise is a lot worse here than it usually is on Dark Shadows. It was shot at NBC Studios in Brooklyn, so it wasn’t their usual turf, but still. It’s very clear that they’ve never produced a primetime show before.
Sajeed crouches down to pop open the lid on the sarcophagus, but Jonathan stops him, saying, “Wait! The light might disintegrate the shroud.” This is probably something they should have discussed earlier than this very second.
“Actually, I’m not sure you should open it,” Jonathan says, on reflection. “Whoever looks upon the face of the mummy is supposed to die.”
Sajeed smiles. “And how is one supposed to die?”
“Well, I’ll take that chance,” he says, so they crack open the lid, and Sajeed instantly bursts into flames and dies.
That’s what Jonathan meant by “we found it when we opened the tomb.” He’s had a long series of assistants, who all die in gruesome supernatural conflagrations. This must be Sajeed’s first day.
There’s a mummy inside the sarcophagus, naturally, and they just stand there and look at it for a few seconds, until a secretary walks in and tells Jonathan that someone’s here to see him. So they box up the mummy, and then they forget all about it for the rest of the show.
Jonathan is played by Kerwin Mathews, who used to be a big deal in the area of jumping around and fighting with imaginary monsters. He played Sinbad in the 1958 film The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, where he had a swordfight with a stop-motion animated skeleton by Ray Harryhausen. It’s not the skeleton fight you’re thinking of, with the six skeletons attacking the guys — that was Jason and the Argonauts, five years later and with somebody else. Still, Kerwin did it first.
He was also Gulliver in The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack in Jack the Giant Killer, so he’s got some monster-fighting cred. I’m telling you this because the degrading Angela scene is next, and I’m trying to avoid it.
But there’s no way around it, so here we go. The secretary sends Angela in, and we see that under her sensible wool coat, Angela is wearing a tight turtleneck sweater that — well, saying that it accentuates her breasts isn’t strong enough. The outfit starts with her nipples, and then builds from there.
Jonathan takes this pretty big. He turns — sees her face — and then looks at her breasts. He smiles, taking in the face and breasts again, and now we’re just watching his eyes flicker back and forth, as she stands there and says dialogue.
“Mr. Fletcher,” she says, with her mouth, “I’m so glad you could see me.”
“Well, so am I!” says Jonathan, still leering, still flickering. “Why, I had no idea, of course, it was going to be such a pleasure!” His gaze finally settles on breasts for the foreseeable future.
This is in my opinion pretty much the end of Jonathan Fletcher as an appealing character. This is a grown man who literally forty seconds ago was looking at a mummy from the 6th century BC, and he’s acting like he’s never seen a woman in a tight sweater before.
The one nice thing about this scene is that it highlights how well Dark Shadows treats the female characters. Yes, sometimes they’re used as pretty girl in peril, and if Roger Davis is in a scene with a woman, then somebody needs to stand just off-camera with a bucket of water and a restraining order, but they have never done what Dead of Night is doing right now. They don’t allow the lead male character to do a comedy routine about the lead female character’s breasts.
Anyway, they finally sit down and let us in on the premise. It’s difficult to explain in human language, so bear with me.
Angela is a secretary from San Francisco, who has suddenly inherited a big mansion that she doesn’t want or deserve. The house was owned by a great-aunt who died before she was born. She’d never even heard of this great-aunt until two weeks ago, when she got a letter from a lawyer.
“I mean, it’s incredible!” she says. “Last week I was a secretary in San Francisco, and not even a very good one at that” — obviously, because there is no limit to the shame and humiliation that Angela experiences in the course of this conversation — “and this week, I’m an heiress, with a castle on the Hudson!”
But she can’t keep the place, because it only comes with enough money to pay the caretaker and the taxes for a year. She’s got to sell it, but everybody thinks it’s haunted, so she’s stuck with it.
Obviously, this is not a believable story. How do you suddenly inherit something from somebody who died before you were born? I don’t know who this dame is, or who let her out of the house with that sweater on, but this sounds fishy to me. I bet this is one of those Maltese Falcon deals, where she’s just trying to set up some fall guys for a heist she’s pulling. Her real name isn’t Angela Martin at all, it’s probably Brigid O’Shaughnessy. It usually is, in cases like this.
By the way, while they’re sitting here chattering away, the shadow of a camera passes through the shot, moving past Jonathan and across the carpet. Seriously, it’s astonishing that they even thought this was up to broadcast standard for primetime. I haven’t seen a boom mic yet, but I bet it’s hovering up there somewhere, just waiting for an opportunity.
Anyway, get a load of Sam Spade over here, giving Angela a wide selection of patronizing grimaces. He keeps saying things like, “Well, then it sounds as if you need a real estate agent, not us,” but it’s not working. She’s still sitting on his couch, acting like this is the pilot episode of something.
By the way, they haven’t established what Jonathan and Sajeed actually do for a living, unless they’re professional mummy-disturbers. But it’s got something to do with ghosts, which Angela does not believe in. I guess he’s some kind of Mulder, that’s the best I can figure. This is what Mulders used to look like, back in the day.
But if I have this right — and there’s no reason to believe that I do — then Angela is asking Jonathan to come to her castle and prove that it isn’t haunted, so then she can tell all the prospective castle-buyers that it’s ghost-free. I know, that doesn’t really make any sense, but there’s not a lot I can do about it from here.
The most important thing that you need to know about Angela is that this was the idea she thought of first. If it was you or me in this preposterous situation, we’d probably start by cleaning up the mansion a little bit. Open some windows, brush off the dust and spiderwebs, get the electricity turned back on. Maybe look around that big hall, and make some hard decisions about how much bric-a-brac you really need in your life. Oh, and fire that spooky caretaker, who keeps telling people that the house ain’t fit for the living.
But no, in Angela’s world, step one is to go out and get yourself a Mulder. Well, it’s her life, I suppose.
Jonathan says he’ll take the case, and sends Sajeed to pack sandwiches and coffee. That means the scene is over, and we can move on.
Except then he offers Angela some sherry, and she says yes, that would be lovely. He goes and pours her a glass, and then he says, “So you don’t believe in ghosts?” which I guess means that they just started a new scene on the same topic, except they’re standing in a different part of the set and everybody is two and a half minutes older, including me.
“You know, I used to feel exactly as you do,” Jonathan says, as Angela sips her sherry and thinks about something else. “I was in law school, and interested only in concrete evidence.” And then he invents some kind of heart-tugging backstory about his father’s death. Unfortunately, the story does not end with the phrase, “And now I have a mummy upstairs,” which is one of the world’s great missed opportunities.
Oh, and then there’s a boom mic shadow on Angela’s head. I swear to god, these people.
Okay, cut to the gates outside Angela’s place, as the trio arrives in Jonathan’s red convertible. Sajeed is wearing a leather jacket and shades, and hanging out the side of the car so that everybody in the audience will notice.
Sajeed is played by Cal Bellini, who’s the only watchable person in the show. He’s a Malay, an ethnic group that Americans have basically never heard of, so he spent his career playing every possible variation of brown dude. He was Tommie Demopoulos on Flipper, Lt. Fernando Mercado on Ironside, Tom Little Lion on Scott Free, John Palahana on Hawaii Five-O, Run Run Li on Bring ‘Em Back Alive, and Dr. Motilal Mookerji on Diagnosis: Unknown. This is what actors did back then, before Twitter hashtags fixed all of the racial sensitivity issues in Hollywood.
Jonathan says, “Sajeed, open the gate,” so Sajeed jumps out of the car, opens the gate, and then jumps back in. It’s super cute. Sajeed is the only thing that I like about this show.
Then there’s a scene where everybody meets Mr. Blakely, the caretaker, and he just kind of looks at them all with the tired resignation of an actor who’s six times better than everyone else on the show and hardly gets any lines.
Ugh, and look what Jonathan’s wearing. He fires some vague questions at Blakely, which gets him nowhere, and then he says, “Why don’t we find a room where we can set up headquarters?” Apparently that’s what you do when you enter a haunted house, you pick a room and set up headquarters. Ghosts can’t stand it when people set up headquarters, it drives them absolutely out of their minds. Jonathan is amazing at this.
They retire to the library, and guess what: there’s a portrait in it! So you can cross that off your Dan Curtis bingo card. Now all we need are candles blowing out, a basement, a seance, and people opening and closing doors.
Angela says that the guy in the portrait is Commodore Nicholas Blaise, who was married to her great-aunt Melinda. He looks like Louis Edmonds, which is nice for Dark Shadows fans and irrelevant for everyone else. It’s actually kind of irrelevant for Dark Shadows fans too, because what we want out of this program is a three-dimensional Louis Edmonds snapping at people and making remarks. Two-dimensional Louis is of very little use to us.
Then the candles blow out, of course, because that is what candles are for. If they weren’t going to blow out, then we might as well just turn on the lights, and stop pretending that there’s no electricity in a house occupied by rich people in the 20th century.
The great thing about this scene is that Angela says, “I have a feeling somebody’s watching us, in this room,” at the same moment that there’s a burst of studio noise — people shuffling around, something falling over, a whispered conversation. Yeah, I agree that somebody’s watching; it’s probably the people behind the cameras. Stop worrying about it.
The pipe organ in the lobby bursts into a spontaneous riff from Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, otherwise known as the spooky pipe organ number that’s such a haunted-house cliche that they use it in Flintstones cartoons. The chance of Mr. Blakeley saying “I’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids” by the end of the program has risen sharply.
Then Angela thinks that she hears the sound of sobbing from upstairs, and for once the characters are pretending to hear things that the audience can’t, rather than the other way around. Jonathan and Sajeed head up the stairs, pausing every few moments to ask for updates. Here’s the rundown.
Jonathan: Do you still hear it?
Jonathan: And still?
Jonathan: You still hear the sound?
And Angela is gone.
At this point, you have to start wondering what value these professional noise-hearers and what’s-thatters bring to the experience. They walk around with flashlights for a while, checking a few more things off the Dan Curtis must-have list. Jonathan walks by a mirror and opens a door or two, and Sajeed heads for the basement, where there’s a big knife lying conspicuously on a random table.
Upstairs somewhere, Jonathan stumbles over a tiny ring box, which he makes a big deal about, despite the fact that the set is littered with random objects. This place is like a Where’s Waldo for loose props.
Then Sajeed walks back through the basement, and the camera pulls in tight on the table to demonstrate that oh my god the knife is gone!!
Some more walking around, and then suddenly a figure entirely cocooned in a red curtain comes at Jonathan and starts hitting him. There’s a brief scuffle which is hard to see in the dark, and he subdues his mysterious attacker.
He recovers his flashlight, and what’s that on the floor? The knife!! which the attacker apparently did not use.
And Jonathan pulls the red curtain off his assailant and oh my god it’s Angela!!
Angela wakes up and starts murdering Jonathan again, but he somehow magically senses that the problem is the ring that she’s wearing, even though he’s a dude and there’s no way he’s been paying attention to her accessories. They scramble to take the ring off her finger and then she’s fine, so now we get to speculate about what the hell just happened.
She came to this room because she knew she’d find something. How did she know? She just knew. Then she found the ring and put it on. Why? Because she knew it was meant for her.
The ring is inscribed “from Nicholas to Melinda,” which probably means that there’s a portrait around here somewhere that looks just like Angela.
Jonathan cautions Angela that her life is in danger, but asks if she wants to stay and see this through. There’s a tense moment of triple backacting, while she makes the obvious decision to stay.
“I’m part of what’s happening here now,” she says, because we’re only halfway through the show. “I have to see that it ends.”
They decamp to the library, where they sit around reading privately printed autobiographies and looking through the photo albums.
Jonathan: Look — “Our wedding, June 22nd, 1910” — the picture is gone!
Sajeed: So is this one! “Melinda at Blaisedon, 1915”.
Jonathan: There’s not one picture of Melinda left! Why?
Sajeed: And this one’s gone too — “Melinda and Edward, Christmas 1916.”
Jonathan: All the pictures of Edward are gone! Whoever Edward was.
Sajeed: According to this book, Edward was the younger brother of the Commodore. He went away to England, and died there.
Jonathan: You know, there’s not one picture of Melinda in the whole book! Why?
And then Angela sees a mysterious figure on the terrace, which distracts everyone and saves us from hearing Jonathan say “There’s not one picture of Melinda! Why?” for the third time in a row. I wonder if that knife is still around here somewhere; maybe we should go and check.
Then there’s a moment that I wish I could just play for you, because my description will not be enough to communicate what happens here.
It’s a four-second shot of the terrace, as seen through the window. Nothing happens visually, but for this shot, you can hear absolutely nothing but studio noise. They clearly shot this later, after the actors were gone, and they forgot to tell everybody in the studio to pipe down because we’re doing a take. So we hear muffled conversations, some footsteps, somebody coughing a couple times.
It is the single most amateurish thing I’ve ever seen filmed for broadcast television; it leaves every Dark Shadows blooper in the dust. And it’s not even a mission-critical shot; I can’t believe they left it in.
Next, Jonathan and Angela go over to the caretaker’s cottage for some Nicholas-Melinda backstory that I won’t burden you with. On the way back to the house, there’s a thunderclap and a flash of lightning, and Angela instantly jumps into Jonathan’s arms, because that is how women behave during weather. It’s not raining, by the way.
Then they hold a seance, obviously, featuring a nice overhead shot of everybody touching fingers. They call to the Commodore, and Melinda speaks through Angela. She gives a bunch of opaque warnings that end with “find my grave”. Then the doors blow open and they see a silhouette framed in the doorway, and that’s your Dan Curtis bingo card all filled out.
It just goes on and on. There’s a grave-robbing scene, and then Sajeed plays the pipe organ. Angela hears sobbing again, and they go upstairs and find a cold spot, which is a thing, and then they use crowbars to smash through the paneling, which I’m pretty sure is not going to help Angela with the resale value.
And you know what? I just figured out the main problem with this show, and it’s not the videotape or the studio noise or the obnoxious lead character. The problem is that it’s an hour long, and there are only four characters. Even Dark Shadows episodes have more actors than this.
There’s no opportunity to cut away to anybody else doing anything, so we have to watch a Scully and a pair of Mulders, as they trudge through a fairly straightforward haunted house mystery.
On daytime, Dark Shadows is competing with The Secret Storm and Match Game, and it completely dominates. But in 1969, the primetime schedule includes Mission: Impossible and Hawaii Five-O. They just wrapped on three years of Star Trek recently — imagine seeing this show, as a replacement for Star Trek.
It’s not just that it’s cheaper looking, although that’s a serious problem. But the deficiencies in narrative complexity are even worse. Star Trek had three times more characters, and there would be at least two parallel story threads per episode. This show is presenting a mystery that can be solved by three people slowly shuffling around a house, listening for sound effects that aren’t there.
Over the next year and a half, I’m going to spend some time looking at the various spin-offs and ripoffs and adaptations of Dark Shadows, under the general heading of Nobody Understands Dark Shadows But Me.
We’ve been watching the 1991 revival series on pre-emption days, and in the next week or so, we’re going to talk about Strange Paradise, a Canadian lookalike supernatural soap opera made for syndication in fall 1969.
What I’m doing in these posts is identifying the set of characteristics that people think defines Dark Shadows, because that’ll help us understand the show’s legacy, if there is one. With very few exceptions, everybody who tries to emulate Dark Shadows gets it wrong.
Dark Shadows is not about thunderstorms and portraits and candles. I mean, technically it is, but that’s not why people like the show. If it was that easy, then anybody could make a successful version of Dark Shadows by playing vibraphone music and filming people pretending to dig up graves. History has proven that it’s not that easy.
The key quality of Dark Shadows is that it’s serialized narrative — a living thing that grows and changes over time, put together by ambitious lunatics who have an excellent grasp of what the audience is responding to, and the ability to pivot quickly when they’re going down the wrong path. They cast eccentric New York stage actors, give them odd and surprising things to say, and then go in whatever direction the audience gets excited about.
Dark Shadows didn’t start out as a show about seances and magic jewelry. It just ended up there, because that was story-productive at the time. They’ve explored lots of other directions, and then pruned the ones that didn’t work. For several months in 1968, it was a show about mad scientists, filled with bubbling beakers and electric zaps. But that got boring after a while, so they dumped it, and now it’s a show about werewolves and time travel. So when people try to adapt or copy Dark Shadows by plucking out tropes that happened to be effective at a particular period in the show’s run, they miss the point entirely.
Dark Shadows is not a destination; it’s a process. And it’s disheartening here, to see that even Dan, Sam and Lela didn’t understand the appeal of their own show, while they were still making it.
Jonathan and Sajeed break into the sealed-up room, if that helps, and they find a skeleton, of course, and there’s another portrait, and it turns out Melinda looked exactly like Angela, quelle surprise. Then Mr. Blakely tries to kill them, because that’s what crazy old caretakers do.
But Melinda’s Chromakey ghost appears, and Mr. Blakely lunges at her, and then stunt man Alex Stevens does a fall from the railing straight into the chandelier, which is hilarious and clearly the high point of the show.
On his way down, Blakely knocks over some candelabras, so now the house is on fire.
Angela puts on the ring again, because she’s not very bright, and then she locks herself in the library and looks at the Commodore’s portrait.
Louis Edmonds finally shows up, sort of, appearing as a wispy floating head in front of the portrait, and he whispers “Angela” a bunch of times, and then he whispers “Lies” a bunch of times, and then he moans “Come to me” a bunch of times, and that about does it for the Louis Edmonds related portion of tonight’s entertainment.
Jonathan gets Angela to snap out of it, through the medium of yelling some more backstory which he found out from a letter. She opens the locked door, and then our three heroes run away, and the house burns to the ground, and that’s the end of that.
We finish up back at Jonathan’s place, where Angela comes by to say thanks for burning my house down. She’s on her way to the airport to go home to San Francisco, but then Jonathan invites her to stay in New York and work for him. She says yes, because they apparently still think this pilot is going to be picked up for a series, which is adorable.
Tomorrow: Meanwhile, in the Future.
If you want to watch this show, and it is actually worth it just for the schadenfreude, then it’s available as a bonus feature on a DVD for a later Dan Curtis show, also called Dead of Night. There are actually four different projects called Dead of Night — a 1945 British horror anthology film, this 1969 pilot, a 1972 British horror anthology series, and Dan Curtis’ 1977 horror anthology TV-movie. It’s also the name of a Torchwood episode. There’s probably somebody in the world working on a show called Dead of Night right this minute.
By the way, I just realized that that track on the Original Music from Dark Shadows album is called “A Darkness at Collinwood” because Cobert wrote that track for this episode, “A Darkness at Blaisedon”. So now I have an answer to a question that it never occurred to me to ask.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the first shot of the fruit in Tate’s still life, you can see a fly walking on the grapes.
In act 1, when Magda says, “She has found truth in her madness,” they cut to a camera that’s still zooming in for a close-up.
Petofi tells Edward, “I’m afraid it was I who sent you that note, Charles.”
When Barnabas finds the werewolf portrait, he observes, “Tate, 1897!” The camera tries to pull in on the artist’s signature, but Barnabas is casting a shadow on that part of the painting, and the signature is unreadable.
Barnabas tells Magda, “The ghost can tell us whether Count Petofi ever existed here — or ever came here — or whether he came because history — had not been changed.”
Barnabas stumbles a little when he takes the portrait off of the chair and puts it away. Immediately after that, Magda coughs.
When Magda and Barnabas leave Quentin’s room, it takes two tries to blow one of the candles out. It’s not clear why Magda’s blowing the candles out anyway, since there are lit candles on the wall.
Barnabas throws the I Ching wands on the table, clearly showing five white wands and one black. He messes around with the wands for a minute, and then cries, “Ah! The 49th again — good! The Hexagram of Change!” This hexagram has two white wands and four black wands.
Behind the Scenes:
On September 4th, 1969, Jonathan Frid appeared on a primetime special promoting ABC’s fall lineup of Saturday morning cartoons, called The Ghost & Mrs. Muir Present the ABC Super Saturday Club Special. Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange from The Ghost & Mrs. Muir were the hosts, and the five new cartoons being promoted were Smokey the Bear, The Cattanooga Cats, Hot Wheels, The Hardy Boys and Sky Hawks. I don’t know what Frid’s involvement entailed, but I would very much like to know.
Tomorrow: Meanwhile, in the Future.
— Danny Horn