“I don’t want to know who you are!”
Did you ever have one of those days when nothing goes right? Well, this isn’t even one of those. Those are funny.
Girl governess Maggie Evans is trapped somewhere in the undercarriage of Collinwood, down among the dead men. Her exact location is difficult to pinpoint, because this is one of those conceptual Dark Shadows sets where they give the set designer exactly no information about what kind of place this is supposed to be. So they just throw together odds and ends — some brick, some paneling, maybe a third of a staircase, a bunch of cobwebs. If you look closely at the screenshot above, on the left side you can see a chunk of brick wall that’s just plopped down in front of a chunk of stone wall. That happens a lot with these random-ass patchwork sets.
So it’s no wonder Maggie can’t figure out where she is, or how to get out. They usually treat the secret passages like warp pipes in Super Mario Bros — you jump into the pipe in Maggie’s room, and it spits you out into the drawing room, with nothing in particular along the way.
But today, they’re actually showing us what it looks like in the secret passages, and now I understand why we’ve never seen it before. It sucks.
Meanwhile, there’s interesting things happening in the foyer, so let’s go look at that instead. This is Michael, the eight-week-old cosmic starbaby monster who arrived in Collinsport in a box, with some assembly required. He’s going to be some kind of demonic hotshot when he grows up, which should be any day now.
So this is the point where I have to talk about how much I like Michael. People have been talking in the comments about what an annoying brat he is, and how they can’t wait for him to get replaced by the next iteration, but I am seriously in love with this kid, and I wish he would stay forever.
Let’s start with David for a moment. He’s a productive character, with ties to pretty much every other person on the show. But the writers can’t ever say exactly who he is, or how he reacts to things. His personality tends to shift from day to day, depending on the story point he needs to pursue.
As a hypnotized member of the current conspiracy, David is supposed to have absolute faith in the Leviathan cause. He’s been bossing other characters around, reminding them of their duties and crushing their dissent. But now he’s the one who’s upset, and challenging Michael.
So let’s look at this scene, and see who comes off better in this interaction.
David: Michael! What are you doing here?
Michael: I forgot something.
Michael: My book. I left it somewhere upstairs.
David: Maybe you left it where Maggie is.
Do you see what I mean? Michael is being playful and mischievous, and David is being a dick. And even worse than that — he’s being a goldfish. He can’t remember what his character is supposed to be feeling from one episode to the next, and this is not an isolated incident. David was all over the place during Quentin’s haunting, too. He was cold and murderous in one episode, torn and confused the next.
In fact, at this point, I’m going to go ahead and say that David Collins is just not a very good character. I don’t believe in him, and I find him annoying.
And then there’s Michael.
David says they should go into the drawing room so his father won’t find them and ask difficult questions. Michael shrugs, and struts into the drawing room, pouting like a pre-teen rebel.
I mean, look at how awesome he is. This is a character with a specific point of view about the world, and his place in it. He’s got a consistent emotional throughline that could spin out story for months. And he’s a rebellious rock ‘n roll badass who’s planning to take over the world.
If all you knew about these two characters was this scene, and I told you that one of these characters is a core family member for the entire run of the show, and the other one will be off the show a week from now, it would be obvious that Michael is the core character, and David is an annoying day player.
Plus, Michael is so cute. If I was thirteen and in 1970 and imaginary, I would have such a crush on this guy. I would totally help him to psychologically torture governesses. Or go to a movie, or whatever.
Am I actually the only one who thinks that Michael is amazing? Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
Anyway, back to the strange desert otherworld hidden inside the walls of Collinwood. Maggie wanders around some more and can’t find her way out, which is hard to figure. She eventually ends up locked in a room that’s filled with stacks of old chairs and a dusty coatrack, so apparently they’ve created another random storage room prison space inside Collinwood, which already had plenty.
And maybe it’s because I’m not currently looking at Michael and it’s making me crabby, but this twisted little knot of plot logic is getting on my nerves.
Collinwood is a house that has secret passages, apparently. Those secret passages are not a secret from — at a minimum — David. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen Roger explicitly acknowledge that there’s an extra mini-house inside their house, but he grew up in Collinwood, too. Plus, somebody came and stacked up all these chairs. This is a known part of the house.
So if Roger is searching all over the house — as David says that he is — and he’s so upset about Maggie’s disappearance that he’s thinking of calling the police — as David says that he is — then why aren’t they walking through these hard-to-reach areas, calling her name?
So Maggie sits there in this closet of the damned, a pretty girl in peril once again. They have taken the key, and they have locked her up, locked her up, locked her up.
And she sits there, saying, “Where am I? What is this room?” while the rest of the world looks at her and asks, Why are you sitting? What is your plan?
I mean, she has some natural resources there, which she stubbornly refuses to utilise. The problem at the moment is a locked door. It’s not easy to physically break through a locked door, but it’s possible, and the time to start is now. You have some kind of wrought iron object, right in front of you. Start with that. I don’t expect miracles; this isn’t MacGyver. But you could try.
I know, I’m being nitpicky, but they’re giving me too much time to think about it. Maggie isn’t doing anything — she’s just standing up, listening at the door, and then sitting down — so I have all the time in the world to look at the furnishings, and wonder if maybe she could start a fire. Yes, I know it’s not a good idea to set fire to a room that you’re currently locked in, but it wasn’t a good idea to get locked in a room in the first place, so there. She started it.
And then there’s the breathing. The thing that’s really upsetting Maggie is that sometimes she hears somebody outside the door, breathing heavily into a microphone. That, according to Dark Shadows, is what a monster sounds like.
Michael thinks that this is scary, because he’s a teenage boy, and he’s having a hard time acting appropriately around girls. He tends to stare at them, which unnerves them. So this is basically the equivalent of calling Maggie up on the phone and then doing heavy breathing into the phone. I get why a teenager would think this is scary.
But this shouldn’t be that scary for Maggie. Things that breathe are not inherently terrifying. Almost everybody breathes; you can’t let yourself get upset over it.
The inspiration for this storyline is H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which is about an unearthly child who grows up too fast and plans to destroy the earth, along with his twin brother, an enormous invisible monster who lives in a barn and eats cows. Midway through the story, the monster breaks out and rampages through the countryside, killing people and flattening houses, and it’s quite scary — a creature that the townspeople can’t see and don’t understand, an existential threat that they have no idea how to fight or even contain.
But the unseen monster in Dunwich didn’t just stand there and breathe. It knocked stuff over. It left terrible tracks. There’s a moment when people notice that the creature flattened the grass on both sides of the road, which means it’s even bigger than they thought it was. It was not a monster who snuck around quietly through somebody else’s house, before making its presence known outside a specific door.
So I hate to be the guy who advocates for fidelity to the source material, because that in itself is not a problem. Dark Shadows should always deviate from the original text if they figure out something that’s more interesting. But here, it’s less interesting, and therefore a waste of time.
And then — the voice. Michael doesn’t just breathe outside the door, he also talks to Maggie, using a whispery voice that sounds like Peter Brady as Humphrey Bogart saying “porkchopsh and appleshausche”. And then he doeshn’t even shay anything shcary.
Michael: Maggie, can you hear me?
Maggie: Who are you?
Michael: You don’t have to be afraid, Maggie.
Seriously, that’s what he says. “You don’t have to be afraid.” The monster.
Maggie: Michael, is that you?
Michael: Soon — very soon — I’m coming in, Maggie.
Maggie: Somebody let me out of here! Let me out!
Well, yeah, that’s what he’s saying. You don’t have to be afraid; he’s coming in. Everything’s going to be fine. What are you getting so upset about? This is day three of a four-day-long sequence about terrorizing a young woman by locking her up, and then reassuring her that you’re going to let her out.
Then Philip comes over, and seriously I cannot even with this.
Philip: I’m looking for Michael. Is he here?
David: I thought he went back to the antiques shop.
Philip: He did. Has he come back since then?
David: Not that I know of.
Except that he did. You just talked to him. You brought him into the drawing room and scolded him, and then he went upstairs to get the book that he said he left up there. That happened literally eight minutes ago. What are you even talking about?
And they just keep on going like this, for scene after scene, piling one dull irrelevancy on top of another. They have a sexy badass teenage monster who doesn’t live by anybody’s rules, and they’re wasting him on pointless goldfish runarounds.
So I’m going to call it; this is the moment where the Leviathan story jumps the shark. I’ve actually enjoyed a lot of this story so far, more than I expected to. I’ve had lots of good things to say about it. But this is where they need to show that the story has some teeth, and they fail, in every possible way.
The threat is mild to the point of nonexistent, and to facilitate it, every human in the story has to act like an idiot. Maggie stands there like an obedient peril monkey, Roger charges around the house doing nothing, and David apparently does a full Men in Black neuralyzer memory wipe every eight minutes.
And this is all happening because the Leviathan story does not actually have a monster.
They’ve built this story around a monster that you can’t see and never does anything. For the story to work, we have to believe that the thing on the other side of this door is terrifying, but it’s been weeks, and so far, the monster has not done a single scary thing.
The thing that’s really frustrating is that in The Dunwich Horror, the monster drinks cows. It rampages around the countryside, and afterward, people find cows that have been drained of blood. They’ve already used that trick on Dark Shadows before — in the early Barnabas episodes, the first sign that something was wrong was that people found empty cows on the side of the road. Later on, that technique evolved into “the strange attacks on women in town,” which went on in the background.
But the Leviathan monster isn’t even doing that. It doesn’t do anything. It just breathes.
So at this point, they really have to show us the monster. I know that that’s supposed to be the point, that we never see it, and therefore it’s even scarier in our imaginations than it would be if we ever saw it. That is a ridiculous cop-out. It’s the justification that people make when they’ve promised the audience more than they have any intention to deliver.
Dark Shadows actually has a great track record at creating scary things out of not that much money. The legendary hand of Count Petofi was incredibly cool and memorable — a Halloween decoration that they invested with real power. The scariest thing about the legendary hand was that it wasn’t under anybody’s control, even Petofi’s; it would fly around on its own, doing unexpected things. Not an expensive or difficult effect, just good writing, using what they have to tell an interesting story.
Television is a visual medium; we need to see the thing that the story is about. “It’s better in your imagination” is just a way to weasel out of coming up with a compelling visual. If you can’t actually show us the monster, then maybe you should consider a non-visual medium like print, or radio. Or not doing it at all.
Tomorrow: A Limited Number of Tomorrows.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Barnabas tells Megan, “You will I — you and I will talk later.”
A little retcon: In his thinks monologue, Barnabas says, “It began when I opened the box — the Leviathan box! When I opened the box, I surrendered my will!” Barnabas actually came under the influence of Oberon and Haza at the Leviathan altar; he never opened the box. He brought the box with him to 1969, and then Megan and Philip opened it.
Philip closes the drawing room doors so that he can talk to David, but they immediately swing open again.
Philip tells David, “You must tell me whatever you know, it might be all late — too late already!”
Tomorrow: A Limited Number of Tomorrows.
— Danny Horn