“When you are human, you will never do this again. Never!”
Well, according to Curtis Whateley, this is what it looks like:
“Bigger’n a barn… all made o’ squirmin’ ropes… hull thing sort o’ shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything with dozens o’ legs like hogsheads that haff shut up when they step… nothin’ solid abaout it — all like jelly, an’ made o’ sep’rit wrigglin’ ropes pushed clost together… great bulgin’ eyes all over it… ten or twenty maouths or trunks a-stickin’ aout all along the sides, big as stove-pipes an all a-tossin’ an’ openin’ an’ shuttin’… all grey, with kinder blue or purple rings… an’ Gawd in Heaven — that haff face on top…”
And then he falls down on the ground, and loses consciousness.
Still, Curtis Whateley. Right? Who elected him king of knowing what invisible monsters look like?
This is an open question, I think: is it okay to structure four months of television soap opera around an enormous terrifying monster that you never actually get to see? And as soon as I say that, the answer is obvious: No, of course it isn’t. It’s an utterly ridiculous thing to even try. And yet, here we are.
We’re currently in the middle of a five-alarm all-skate dumpster fire, and as always, it’s Barnabas Collins’ fault. Our hero is currently in league with a pack of sparkle-faced drama students who are threatening to kill his already-dead ex-girlfriend unless he helps to raise a giant cosmic demon starbaby shaped like a hen’s egg bigger’n anything, that will grow stronger and more powerful until it’s ready to wipe out the human race, and drag the earth off to some nameless place for some nameless purpose.
The really sad part is that this isn’t the dumbest thing that Barnabas has ever agreed to do. It’s not even top three.
At this point, the thing from the box is really big, so big that it can break out of its room and go on a murder spree. This is a welcome development. So far, the Leviathan monster’s reign of terror has mostly involved giving presents to girls and cheating at board games, which doesn’t really move the needle, cosmic threat-wise. It’s long past time for the creature to exert itself in the direction of entertainment.
And here’s the disposable Paul Stoddard, stepping in as the first victim — a role usually played on this show by women named Wanda or Dorcas. This is a shame, because on any other soap opera, Paul would have played a pivotal role. He’s the ex-husband of a key player and the father of another, he’s played by a charming actor, and he’s a semi-reformed con man, which is a perfect soap character archetype. On One Life to Live, the soap opera that two of the three current Dark Shadows writers will work on next, they introduced a dozen people like this, and most of them stuck around and became major characters.
But on Dark Shadows, by 1970, if you don’t have actual occult powers, you’re basically dead weight. Paul might as well be a bag of monster chow.
Now, unlike most of the other Dark Shadows monsters, the Leviathan critter isn’t just a dude with makeup on; it’s supposed to be one of them hideous blasphemies from beyond the dawn of time. This storyline is loosely inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, and Lovecraft likes to keep his distance from the monsters. For him, the true horror is in inventing entitites who have nothing in common with human beings.
In The Dunwich Horror, there are two monsters — one that masquerades as human, and another that’s so incomprehensible that it can’t really be seen. Wilbur, the vaguely humanoid one, is “dark and goatish”, about nine feet tall, and wears a cloak that obscures his more exotic features. We only get a glimpse of what Wilbur looks like under there, after he’s been killed:
“It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions.
“It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateleys upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated.
“Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes.
“Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply. The arrangement was odd, and seemed to follow the symmetries of some cosmic geometry unknown to earth or the solar system.
“On each of the hips…”
It keeps going like that for another couple paragraphs, but you get the idea. Carolyn is going to have a pretty memorable honeymoon, if things work out.
Now, one thing to point out here is that Lovecraft says that the creature is indescribable, and then he goes on to describe it in some detail. He knows that you can’t just say, oh, it was totally gross, gag me with a spoon, and still expect people to renew their subscription to Stirring Science Stories.
Still, he wants to keep some distance between us and the creature, which he achieves in a few ways. First, he always has some opening palaver about how humans can’t really totally see the thing, what with our limited three-dimensional vision. Second, he mixes up attributes that don’t belong together — a goatish face, reptilian skin, coarse black fur, greenish-gray tentacles. That’s four different animals. Third, he won’t even commit to the description he’s writing: the torso is “semi-anthropomorphic,” whatever that means, and the pattern on its back “dimly suggested” snakes. And finally, he uses deliberately archaic language when he talks about the monster: it’s teratologically fabulous, with a leathery, reticulated hide that suggests the squamous covering of certain snakes, and it bleeds a foetid greenish-yellow ichor.
You get a general picture out of these descriptions, and a Google Images search for “wilbur whateley” or “dunwich horror” yields some fantastic artistic interpretations, but you always get the sense that what humans can imagine and put down on paper isn’t quite enough to capture the creatures’ true form.
So the Dark Shadows team has made an interesting choice to build a television story around a Lovecraft monster, where “interesting choice” is a euphemism for what the hell are you thinking.
It is possible to tell a visual story that’s based on the Lovecraftian notion of unknowable ancient gods from the dawn of things being called back to Earth by foolish mortals who know not what they do. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did that approximately once per season; the Big Bad was usually a dude with makeup on, threatening to bring about the end of all things by performing a ritual that’s heavy on atmosphere and involves a glowy CGI vortex, which is all that stands in the way between the cameras and the Expensive Ones.
But Dark Shadows has put a teratologically fabulous creature live on the scene, skulking around Collinwood and the antiques shop.
They accomplish this using a simple trick: you can hear the monster breathing and growling, but monster scenes are shot from the monster’s point of view. In Friday’s episode, Paul entered the Chosen Room, and instead of getting a glimpse of the creature, we had to content ourselves with the unsatisfying spectacle of how scared Paul looks.
Barnabas manages to contain the monster long enough to get Paul out of the room, and there’s actually a nice camera move in this scene. Barnabas enters at maximum force, putting his face straight into our field of view and yelling about how he’s the master now, and the creature must obey. The camera inches in for a close-up, and even gets a little blurry, but Barnabas screams, “Stay where you are!” After that, the camera backs up a step, and the growling dies down a little. It’s a clever way to indicate the blocking, in a scene where we’re unable to see the other actor.
By the start of today’s episode, the monster finds Paul in the basement, and goes after him again, so there’s another MPOV scene where Paul threatens to hit us with a chair. The chair is ripped from his hands by — I don’t know, the wriggling ropes, or whatever Curtis was telling us about in the beginning of the post. Maybe something squamous, it’s hard to say.
And then Barnabas comes in and yells at us again, and later on this week, there’s going to be another MPOV scene featuring an ill-fated sheriff who I don’t know the first name of, but it’s probably Wanda or Dorcas.
Now, people will say — are currently saying, in the comments — that it’s better not to show the creature, because the thing that we imagine is scarier than anything they could show us. I’m suspicious of that line of reasoning, because it feels like a violation of the ancient truce between Dark Shadows and the audience.
As Dark Shadows viewers, we are unbelievably generous in our willingness to fill in all of the show’s plot holes, paradoxes and corkscrew shifts in characterization. We’re generally okay with adjusting our expectations to fit whatever the show feels like throwing our way. But on their side of the bargain, they need to keep showing us things that are interesting enough to make this activity worth our while.
They usually accomplish this with a regular payout of visual spectacle — dreams, visions, transformations, pretty girls, shirtless boys, flappy bats, Chromakey ghosts, and the occasional psychedelic music video. That part is supposed to be the show’s responsibility, and if they’re trying to weasel out of it, then I’m not sure we need to put in the effort on our end.
It’s kind of like saying, we shouldn’t actually cast a charming, sexy actor to play Quentin. We should just have a voice actor perform the character from off-screen, and then shoot all of the scenes from Quentin’s point of view. After all, there’s no way that seeing an actor could ever top the Quentin that you can see in your imagination. Obviously, that’s nonsense. Do your job.
And another thing: if we’re seeing the scene from the monster’s point of view, then we’re not imagining the monster; we are the monster. It doesn’t actually look like Paul is terrified at the sight of an unearthly creature. It looks like he’s scared of the audience, and maybe he should be, because not showing us the monster makes us restless and fidgety.
But the good news is that in today’s episode, they figure out a way to make this work. The monster rips the chair out of Paul’s hands, and then it does something dreadful, as represented by Paul’s anguished screams.
Barnabas rushes to the rescue, and he pulls Paul into the frame — and Paul’s clothes are a wreck, tore up by whatever cosmic manhandling just went down. Dude has been folded, spindled and mutilated.
And that works for me. That feels like the show is meeting us halfway. If Paul’s been slashed up like that, then that means there’s claws, or pincers — big ones, too, and sharp. Now at least I have something to imagine. Everything before this was just breathing, and om nom nom sounds.
Later on this week, they’re going to go even further in that direction, and we’ll get to see some slime that the creature leaves behind. It’s green and goopy, and terribly exciting. I don’t ask for much, but if you want me to watch your television show, then it needs to involve things that I can see on my television. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to insist on that.
Tomorrow: The Gates of Heck.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Paul is cringing against the wall near the beginning of act 1, he looks at the director for his cue to start screaming and struggling.
When Quentin is getting a drink in Olivia’s hotel suite, you can see the top of the set.
There’s a studio light in the first shot of Professor Osmund’s office.
Behind the Scenes:
There’s another one of those corrugated glass lamps in Olivia’s hotel suite, this time in a new color — raspberry. There’s a regular green one in Osmund’s office.
There are a lot of paintings in Professor Osmund’s office, including the Smith Brothers mustache portrait that was hanging on Stokes’ wall a few episodes ago.
Tomorrow: The Gates of Heck.
— Danny Horn