Episode 931: MPOV

“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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dark Shadows episode guide

— Danny Horn

24 thoughts on “Episode 931: MPOV

  1. I mostly agree. But I think not showing the monster could have worked if only the characterizations and interpersobal relationships around it were real and consistent and compelling, with real emotional stakes, as they were in 1897 and 1967 — and not just chess pieces to be moved from square to square, like Megan and Philip — and indeed Elizabeth, David, Amy, Maggie, Quentin, and Barnabas.

  2. While I am in agreement with “wanting to see the thing”, the fact remains that any attempt would have come up short for someone, and probably (given the budget for DS) almost everyone.
    And look at the ‘scariness’ track record to this point – not just in the Leviathan story, but overall. Skeletons with glass eyeballs, skulls with wigs, bats on wires, vampire fangs, coffins, a werewolf that uses doorknobs, a headless monster corpse, mad scientist labs, zombie Quentin, a pigweasel, smushfaced Josette, dangle-eye Jeremiah, Eric Lang (I don’t think he was MEANT to be but I still include him), Tim Shaw reading a book (okay that was more icky than scary), Petofi’s Hand…the ‘Julia’ episode was scarier than most of that stuff! The only real shocker for me was Old Guy Barnabas.

    So what would they have given us? A Whateley? A Dunwich Horror? Of course not, they couldn’t possibly afford it, or animate it if they could stretch the budget that far. They could have borrowed one of the Irwin Allen monster suits from Lost In Space (I vote for the bubble-eyed seaweed creature); or have one of the alien blancmanges from Dr. Who flown over from England; put a coat of paint and some googly eyes on the Horta? Maybe that thing from the wing of the airplane in The Twilight Zone was looking for a gig. Sure, that MIGHT have made some eight year olds hide behind the couch, but most of the audience would be, ‘…really? Best they could do after all the buildup?’

    It couldn’t be seen, not because it was worse than anything we could imagine, but because we could imagine something way worse than anything they could possibly show.

    But yeah, a tentacle now and again would have been nice.

    1. Now that the Doctor Who Monster comparison has reared it’s monstrous hydra head(s) – like some Thing from Beyond – i’m thinking that something along the lines of the Krynoid from ‘The Seeds of Doom’ sort of IS how i picture The Thing in the Shuttered Room.

      Most definitely NOT Erato from ‘Creature from the Pit’, though. If it is, i’m glad that Paul cowers from it’s ‘tentacle’ rather than giving it the sort of loving care and attention that Tom Baker bestows upon it…;)

    2. Then don’t do it, is my point. They didn’t do a story about twelve-foot-tall chickens, because they couldn’t show it. I love that Dark Shadows is always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, but if you have to do a cop-out like “we just won’t show the monster” then it’s not a productive story idea.

      1. TOTALLY on board for the ‘Demon Cluck’ story line!

        I’m picturing Julia, opening the front doors to Collinwood – letting out a throat-tearing Grayson Hall shriek, as we see (DUN DUN DAAAAAAAAAAAH!) a huge talon there in the doorway! Liz, Carolyn and Maggie trapped in the mausoleum’s secret room as the mammoth birds try to peck their way in! BAWK! BAWK! Collinsport destroyed, made into nesting material! Gargantuan eggs everywhere! David and Amy making pals with an outsized baby chick (“You CAN’T kill him! He’s our FRIEND!”), while Sheriff Davenport rounds up all the menfolk for a last-ditch attempt at forging a giant omelette pan and building a broasting oven, and Barnabas finally hitting on a (SUCCESSFUL) plan for selling the beastly things to Colonel Sanders…

        I digress.

        No, it was not productive. That’s why the Leviathans are agreed by most to be such a misstep. But they’d committed to the plot, they’d even walked elements of it back in order to shore up the ratings. Yeah, it should have just farted to a quick finish, get on with something else, but now the movie was starting production, and the writers were already stretched too thin. They stuck with the story they probably already had a couple dozen scripts written for, went with ‘cost-effective’, and that ALWAYS comes across as ‘CHEAP’.

        Cheep cheep.

      2. And Danny, I agree that they should have either not done this story or not have had the Leviathan child/leader turning into a monstrous form. They could have kept it more along the lines of people (like Liz and David) becoming brainwashed by them.

        I think the need to have “monsters” was really a problem.

        One of the thing I liked about the Count Petofi story was that he was constantly putting spells on people and it was fun to watch how those under his spell interacted with others. There wasn’t the need for “monsters” so much by this time. Barnabas was cured of his vampirism, and Quentin was no longer a werewolf. Yet it was during this period that the show’s ratings were the highest. I think they definitely proves that the good drama between the characters really worked and the supernatural was only a catalyst for the drama.

        1. Yeah, I totally agree about the general exhaustion for Dan, the writers and everyone else — I think this is where you really start to see the problems pile up.

          One thing that I wish I knew more about is the impact of Robert Costello leaving. It’s harder to tease out his contribution to the show’s direction, compared to the writers, who are individually credited for specific episodes. It’s possible that, as the producer, he was a stabilizing force that kept the ambition within the bounds of what they could pull off in the studio. Costello’s been gone for three months at this point, and things have gone noticeably off track since then.

          1. Robert Costello worked very closely with Sy Tomashoff on set design and special effects, so that collaboration was lost when Costello left, which apparently precedes the Leviathan story if it was 3 months by now. So who knows how these episodes might have come across had Costello stayed on?

            In the interview clip below, Costello talks about working on Dark Shadows and about how the later shows he was working on “seemed to take forever” and “didn’t have the old zing” of the earlier “live” days. This comes from a 1998 Archive of American Television Emmy TV Legends.org interview, and the link below takes you to the page of clips, and the Dark Shadows related interview clip is Part 6 of 8: Under the Highlights tab, click on “Bob Costello on producing Dark Shadows“.

            http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/bob-costello#

          2. I agree with you about Costello, it has to be more than a coincidence that the quality of the show started to change just after he left.

            I don’t know if you’re a Classic Star Trek TOS fan, but one of the producers, Robert Justman, was a huge influence on the show and its scripts. He never wrote an episode, but he wrote tons of memo’s and notes on the scripts. He left at the beginning of Trek’s third season, and as you may know, there was a noticeable decline in the scripts for that third year.

            Dan Costello may have been in similar position, he may have been the one to say to Dan, “No, that’s not going work, and here’s why.”

      3. Okay, took me three years (or so) – but I came up with a better name for your gargantuan poultry.

        The Levia – Hens. (Dunno, was it worth the wait?)

    3. i follow you, John E Comelately, but i just wanna’ say Quentin’s zombie was one hell of a performance. maybe not scary, now, but when i was eleven (when it originally aired) it game me nightmares, and even now i don’t think i’ve ever seen another zombie quite so real.

    1. Hey, one of my fellow collegiates had the first name of ‘Senator’; he said it was because his parents wanted a politician in the family.

      1. Hey, one of my fellow collegiates had the first name of ‘Senator’; he said it was because his parents wanted a politician in the family.

        This all leads me to wonder what sort of future Dorcas Trilling’s parents envisioned for her.

  3. Just 5 days before the television broadcast of episode 931, the movie version of The Dunwich Horror was released (original trailer below):

    It’s been many moons since I watched The Dunwich Horror on TV, and I remember only bits and pieces of various scenes — what I don’t recall is having the monster shown in full view, or even seeing a hint of what it was supposed to look like. It’s only since reading this blog and finding out about the artistic renderings that I even realized it was some multi-headed worm-like creature. It seems the technology for such a level of special effects was not up to par even by this point.

    A glimpse at the 1968 Hammer Films motion picture The Lost Continent will give some idea of what such a tentacled creature might look like if they sought to show the Leviathan monster in all its snake-like glory (original theatrical trailer below):

    But, of course, the above example comprises a movie studio budget. What a television show with a 45 ft by 125 ft studio space could come up with for scary creatures when it goes off the Universal Monsters grid will become evident in an upcoming episode when Amanda and Quentin are forced to play a survival game at the behest of Mr. Best, where at one point Amanda becomes ensnared by an unusually large spider web when along comes a giant spider… which looks exactly like the one in the cave from that episode of Gilligan’s Island.

    So there are other reasons besides “less is more” for not showing the Leviathan monster’s true form, because the day Dark Shadows meets Gilligan’s Island would have been the day Dark Shadows officially began its downward spiral.

    Why Lovecraft, we are left to ask? Perhaps they would have done better from mining the work of Richard Matheson, as Rod Serling had done so successfully with the Twilight Zone… oh, wait — then they would have had to have paid Matheson for the rights to his work. I’m at last beginning to see how Dark Shadows really works — live television based on the works of dead writers.

  4. I remember watching this as a kid, fully expecting that at some point we would get to see the Leviathan monster. After all, it was only a year or so before that they did something similar with the first quasi-appearances of Chris in werewolf form. We didn’t get to see it at first — only his “sounds” and his victims’ reactions to him — and I recall how thrilled I was when we did get to see the werewolf for ourselves. So, unsophisticated young thing that I was back then, I figured we would get to see the Leviathan monster soon, too. Of course, it was utterly impractical considering that Lovecraftian creatures are far, far more unearthly than mere werewolves. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was so disappointed we never got to see it. (Imagine what they could do with CGI in this day and age.)

  5. Lovecraftian monsters are supposed to be horrible beyond human imagination. There is simply no way that a Bill Baird puppet was going to meet that challenge and I think it wise that they didn’t try.

  6. Maybe Big Finish should make use of the Leviathans in a their next set of Dark Shadows audios?
    I mean, if seeing them is the problem…

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