“Mr. Desmond, please! Has the Devil taken your SOUL?”
Dreamed in darkness and filmed in Canada, the Shadow of Shadows was dragged from the earth. The creatures scratched at the well-worked soil, pulling what little they could from the oft-defiled graves. Look! A rag, and a bone, and a hank of hair. Isn’t it beautiful, they said. We have given it a name.
In the fall of 1969, a show called Strange Paradise shambled onto the air — a Canadian soap opera with supernatural themes, conceived at the height of Dark Shadows’ popularity. The daily show premiered in America in September, with the Canadian debut six weeks later.
In the US, Strange Paradise aired around 7pm on local stations owned by Metromedia and Kaiser Broadcasting, but not for long. A month after its debut, Metromedia pulled the low-rated show from New York and Los Angeles, and Kaiser stations moved it to the early afternoon.
In an attempt to save the show, the production company replaced the producer and writer after the ninth week of production. When they finished the first 13 week cycle, the show was extensively retooled, ditching most of the cast and moving the setting from the Caribbean island of Maljardin to the Desmond family’s ancestral home in North America. It didn’t work. They managed to scrape through another 26 weeks, and then gave up.
Strange Paradise enthusiasts talk about the show’s “three 13-week arcs,” but that’s just a fancy way of saying that it was cancelled after ten months. In Dark Shadows years, that’s just at the moment that they would have hired Jonathan Frid, and saved the show.
As a Dark Shadows fan, I’ve seen Strange Paradise mentioned in books occasionally, and I always thought it was a DS clone created by ex-Shadows staffers. That’s not actually how it happened. The creators were Jerry Layton, a producer who’d mostly done crime dramas before moving into romance, and Ian Martin, a soap writer who’d worked on Search for Tomorrow, Young Doctor Malone and The Nurses. The pair had worked together on the successful NBC soap The Doctors, before being hired for Strange Paradise.
The Dark Shadows people were brought in later, following the Metromedia and Kaiser disaster. Producer Robert Costello was brought in to replace Layton at week 9, and Ron Sproat joined the writing team for the second 13-week cycle, with occasional scripts by Joe Caldwell.
So this is a weird footnote in the history of Dark Shadows, and since the show started during this period, I’m going to watch the first week with you, to see what people do when they think they’re making Dark Shadows. All of the episodes have been posted on YouTube, so you can watch along, if you like.
I figure it’ll be fun — we’ll take a week’s vacation from Dark Shadows, and see what it’s like on the other side. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, the first thing you hear is a thunderclap out of a blue sky, and the first thing you see is a mute, bald Tor Johnson-type henchman in a brown leather vest, stomping toward an old ruin of a castle, lugging two barrels of dry ice. Which I love.
Strange Paradise, you heartless little minx, I wanted to hate you! And then first crack out of the box, you serve up a pixel-perfect artist’s rendering of what people who have never seen Dark Shadows think that Dark Shadows is like. The only way you could improve on this is to have a raven-haired girl run past, clad in a filmy nightgown, and chased by a stagehand with a bat on a string.
The thing that breaks my heart about this image is that it feels like they wrote down a list of all the elements that make up Dark Shadows — “vampire” is at the top of the list, obviously, and then haunted house, cemetery, witches, werewolves, time travel, and so on. Then they figured, we can’t do a vampire, because it’s too obvious that we’re just copying Dark Shadows, so they crossed that out, and then the same for ghosts, and cemetery, and finally they got to dry ice, and said, That’s it! We’ll start with that.
So here’s Quito, the poor sap, climbing a hill with two big pails of the stuff, and nobody even thought to tell him that the fog machine is supposed to be off-camera.
He drags the dry ice up to the big house, where a black-clad housekeeper is fretting over something with a doctor wearing a lab coat. Quito brings in the barrels, and slams the big double doors shut.
“Careful, Quito!” the doctor calls. “Dry ice burns!”
And, oh well. If dry ice burns, then I guess Quito isn’t covered by the Health and Safety regulations, cause he just picks up a big chunk of it, for no particular reason except to demonstrate that Strange Paradise is not concerned about the well-being of its actors.
Then we cut to a laboratory somewhere, with a red-headed lady doctor looking at stuff under a microscope. She’s got a whole apparatus going, just like on Dark Shadows, with bubbling beakers filled with colorful liquids, plus she’s got a cage with live mice inside, and a bunch of test tubes.
It’s not clear what she’s up to, this mysterious medico, and we never really find out; she’s only on this set for about fifty seconds total. Dark Shadows did this kind of thing too, in the pilot episode — splash out on sets and outdoor filming and day players, just to pretend that they had a budget.
By the end of the week, Strange Paradise will settle down into the production values that they can actually afford — four characters per episode, cutting back and forth between the front parlor and the crypt for half an hour — but today they’ve got money to burn, and they’re going to spend it on mice.
I bet Dark Shadows never even thought of having mice. Touché, Strange Paradise.
Troubled by something, the doctor picks up the phone and has a little convo with a day-player secretary. This is Dr. Alison Carr, and she wants to talk to Dan Forrest about her sister, Mrs. Jean-Paul Desmond. There, now you have three character names to think about.
Back at the ranch, the housekeeper and the lab coat are still fluttering around in the foyer, as Mr. Jean-Paul Desmond makes a grand entrance down the grand staircase, carrying his dead wife, Mrs. Jean-Paul Desmond.
“Monsieur Desmond,” the housekeeper cries, in a voice entirely devoid of a French accent, “let the little bird rest in peace! She is dead!”
Monsieur Desmond pays this no mind. “Are all the preparations made?” he sneers, and the lab coat springs into action.
“Listen to me, please!” Dr. Menkin yelps. “I could no more save her life than that of the child she carried. How could I possibly save her in death?” Desmond doesn’t listen; he just keeps on walking the wife around the house.
And the whole time, there’s this noise in the background — I want to say music, but it’s not really a song. It’s a tuneless, eight-second sound effect, repeated over and over again, in lieu of music. It’s hard for me to say what this little scrap of musique concrète is made of, but my guess is somewhere in the area of a Hammond organ on acid, pretending to be a harp in a wind tunnel.
Okay, back to the mainland or wherever, where the day-player secretary tells Dan Forrest that Dr. Alison Carr is waiting for him in the conference room. He asks the secretary to book him on the next flight to the islands: “I’ve got to find out what’s going on with Jean-Paul Desmond.” So that’s your review of the character names; please try to remember them, or we’ll have to go over this again.
This is how the show goes, by the way; I’m representing it pretty much as is. Strange Paradise has access to editing equipment, and they plan to use it. So the scenes are cut up into these little forty-five second shards, long enough for a few lines, and then we jump over to the other set. It slows down eventually, and by mid-week, you start getting a whole conversation every once in a while, but you can tell that their heart is in the cross-cut.
So it’s back to the big house, for another baffling exchange. Jean-Paul’s dumped the corpse somewhere off-set, and now he’s sulking in the parlor again.
The housekeeper tries to comfort him. “Oh, my poor Monsieur,” she says. “I know how much you loved her.”
“Loved her, Raxl?” he snaps. “I love her!” He calls her Raxl, because that is the name of a human person on this television show.
We’re getting introduced to a whole bunch of people at once — somewhere between five and nine, depending on whether you count the secretary, the dead wife, the mice and Quito — so it’s probably a good idea to review the guidelines on how to get the audience to like a new character.
There are three steps, as follows: Make a joke, make a friend, and make a plot point happen. These are all crucial, and so far, the characters have been batting close to zero across the board, except for Dan.
The people in the big house are a bunch of stiffs, for sure — they’re just grieving and snappish and insecure, and they seem to basically despise each other; they couldn’t even stop Quito from sticking his hands in the dry ice. We’re not going to get a lot out of them.
But Dan made some jokes with his secretary, and then he comes into this scene, all charm. He gives Alison a kiss on the cheek, and says, “I thought doctors were supposed to smell medicinal, not sexy.” Alison grins, “Well, lawyers are supposed to be pragmatic, not romantic.”
Technically, these lines aren’t funny, and they don’t sound much like human speech, but they’ve got the shape of a joke, and I’m just happy to see somebody smile, so I’ll give them a pass.
What’s strange about Strange Paradise is that it has no young people, and very little in the way of sex appeal. This is the summer of 1969, when you’d think everybody would be turned-on to the idea that you could get some much-needed energy by casting young people, and dressing them in fashionable clothes.
Even gloomy old Dark Shadows figured this out in 1966 — the original cast included Alexandra Moltke, Nancy Barrett, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Joel Crothers, all of them in their early to mid-20s, and gorgeous. You didn’t have to be a kid to grab the spotlight — Jonathan Frid was 43, when he became the lead — but there was a clear mandate to have some young, pretty people around.
On Strange Paradise, the young set starts at 30, and builds from there. The guy playing Monsieur Desmond is 31, but he’s balding and he acts like he’s in his forties. Alison is 35. Raxl’s a fossil. There are a couple more guys we meet later this week, all in their mid-30s. The only “young person” is a girl introduced on Wednesday who’s supposed to be 21, but I have my doubts.
In fact, the only character with any real spirit is young Dan Forrest, here. He’s not actually young, and he has a gray suit on, but he makes jokes, he calls Alison sexy, and he perches on the back of a chair. He’s easily the most likeable actor on the show, and the only one that I could really imagine watching, long-term.
And you want to know the really tragic thing? This is his only episode. The next time we see this character is on Thursday, and he’s been recast. You want to see what the new Dan looks like?
This is the new Dan!
So, I mean, come on. I understand that this is Ottowa. But there has to be at least a couple of good-looking actors within driving distance.
Back at the castle, there’s a thunderstorm going on, go figure, and Jean-Paul’s mood is still trending south. The storm means that nobody can get to the island, and Erica’s just getting more and more dead.
They’re on an island, by the way; this is a remote Caribbean island called Maljardin. But I don’t have to tell you that, not with all these palm trees and sun-kissed beaches and resort hotels.
Dr. Menkin keeps trying to help. “Until the people from the Cryonics Society arrive to replace the dry ice, there’s nothing else we can do to preserve your wife!” I don’t even know why we have a Dr. Menkin. He’s useless, utterly useless.
Jean-Paul demands to know if the corpse will be all right until tomorrow, which it won’t be, on account of biology, but he gets all worked up into another moment of pointless hysteria. “If you have any doubt,” he cries, grabbing the doctor by the sweater vest, “Quito and I will run the channel tonight, despite the weather. But say so NOW, Doctor! NOW!”
Disturbed, Raxl the housekeeper rushes to his side, screeching, “Mr. Desmond, PLEASE! Has the DEVIL taken your SOUL?”
This is a fairly minor voice-raising incident, so that can serve as your baseline for how intense Raxl is going to turn out to be. Look at that face. It doesn’t matter how crazy you’re planning to get. Raxl will top you.
But Dr. Menkin is still being a total drag about everything, so Jean-Paul declares that he will use all of the vast resources at his command to bring Erica back — he’s super rich, by the way, that’s why there’s all this fabulous luxury, all over the place.
Dr. Menkin bleats, “But Mr. Desmond, the process of cryonics is not certain!”
“Neither is death, doctor!” Jean-Paul yells, and then he flounces upstairs. I’m pretty sure that’s not true about death.
And then there’s the portrait. This is the element of Strange Paradise that has the strongest family resemblance to Dark Shadows, a special portrait hanging in the foyer that everyone is obsessed with.
This is Jacques Eloi des Mondes, a 17th century ancestor of Jean-Paul, who is generally recognized as being super evil for reasons that currently escape me. It took me a little while to realize that Jacques and Jean-Paul are played by the same actor, because I thought it was just another balding middle-aged white guy. I mean, when you get right down to it, are there really that many different white guys in the world?
Staring boggle-eyed at the portrait, as she does basically nonstop through the whole series, Raxl asks, “Doctor, can your modern science ever raise the dead?”
Dr. Menkin, looking more checked-out every minute, sighs, “Not any more than your voodoo beliefs.”
So Raxl is a voodoo devotee on a Caribbean island, working in the rich boss man’s house, and she’s white for some reason, despite the fact that she is obviously one hundred percent Black. Strange Paradise is a show about voodoo in the Caribbean, and there are zero Black people in the cast. Sometimes, I wonder if Canada should even be making television in the first place.
So now we get the big twist. It’s a commercial break later, and Jean-Paul’s downstairs again, getting nagged incessantly by Raxl, who’s trying to convince him to leave the island and forget about show business.
She says the spirit of voodoo rules the island, and he can’t break the laws of life and death for the sake of his dumb stupid wife. He tells her the spirit of voodoo can pound sand.
“You dare to fly in the face of God?” she gasps.
“On this island,” he booms, turning for a close-up and trying his best to look mythical, “from this moment forward… I am God.”
That line doesn’t really deserve a cymbal-roll suspense trill, but it gets one anyway, and then we zoom in as the portrait sneers, “Bra-vo.”
So there you have it, folks, the villain of this story: a gay oil painting. Seriously.
Jean-Paul takes this big. He paces toward the portrait, doing a little riff on the theme of Three hundred years apart, and yet we are not so different, you and I.
Raxl starts clucking again, and Jean-Paul sends her upstairs. He should have thought of that a while ago.
Left alone together, Jean-Paul and the portrait talk things over. It turns out Jacques wants Jean-Paul to bring him back, and in return, Jacques will restore Erica to life. Also, Jacques is basically the Devil.
And that is what Strange Paradise is about.
Then there’s a flashback sequence to Jacques in the 17th century, hosting a party to celebrate his marriage to literally the worst actress that you will ever see.
For this, I’m just going to have to refer you to the video — it’s episode 1 part 2, starting at 4:30. There is nothing that I could say about this performance that would do it justice; it’s in a class all by itself.
All I can do is point out that the people who made this program were doing it on purpose, of their own free will. They spent their own time and other people’s money putting this show together, and there must have been actresses willing to audition for this role. This is what they chose.
And so we head down into the crypts below the mansion house, also known as the other standing set. We spend a lot of time down here over the following days and weeks.
For this first visit, they play a special sound effect for us, which is precisely calculated to make you turn off the television. It’s a shrieking theremin-style warble, which hits several different discordant tones over an unbroken ninety seconds. It is terrible. I had to turn the sound off during this sequence, because it actually woke up both of my cats from a sound sleep, and chased one of them out of the room. It is an aggressive anti-audience area denial weapon.
And then, hey, do you remember Alison and Dan? Now they’re in a tiki bar on the mainland, just across the channel from Jean-Paul’s dungeon kingdom. There’s a storm that’s keeping away the people from the Cryonics Institute and their emergency magical dry ice shipment, and I guess regular people too.
So there’s a cute little scene with Dan and Alison about whether they’re staying in the same room or not, and then the following happens.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” says some mysterious off-screen emcee who’s probably a portrait, “Miss Beryl Forbes!”
Then there’s a smattering of applause as Miss Beryl takes the stage. “Thank you,” she nods, and then spreads her hands wide. “I just had a request for an oldie. Why don’t you all dance to it?”
Nobody can come up with a good answer to that question, so they all obediently get up and dance to it. It goes a little something like this.
That ol’ black magic has me in its spell,
That ol’ black magic that you weave so well
The same ol’ witchcraft when your eyes meet mine
And then that elevator starts its ride
Down and down I go
Under that ol’ black magic
MORE TERRIBLE NOISE
STILL DOING TERRIBLE NOISE
And at a certain point, your cats just give up completely, and then you have to go out and get new cats.
Tomorrow: Crypt Kicker.
My favorite fact that I learned on those sites is that Miss Beryl Forbes was played by Nonnie Griffin, a well-liked Canadian actress and singer who did voice acting for some kids’ shows, including Nelvana’s Star Wars: Ewoks and the second Care Bears movie, and appeared on a bunch of primetime shows like Forever Knight and RoboCop: The Series.
In 2014 and 2015, she put on a one-woman show called Marilyn-After, which is about Marilyn Monroe coming back to life fifty years after her death. The play won the award for Best International Show at the 2015 United Solo Theatre Festival. She is currently 83 years old.
Nonnie Griffin was originally supposed to continue on the show as a voodoo priestess who comes to the island to rid it of evil — yes, you heard me, Miss Beryl Forbes the voodoo priestess — but she didn’t want to work with the terrible producer. I am now entirely in love with Nonnie Griffin.
Tomorrow: Crypt Kicker.
— Danny Horn