“I’m in an unfamiliar time, without a touchstone.”
It’s narrative collision time on Dark Shadows, as a brand-new storyline begins, using brand-new second-hand stories. By now, the Dark Shadows writers have fully acclimated to the idea that this is how you write a soap opera, throwing together bits and pieces of other people’s stories, and when the end comes, as it will, they’ll spend the next several decades patiently explaining that they couldn’t continue writing the show, because they’d run out of source material to plunder. They believe it, too. This is all they know.
So it’s Rebecca this time, a vaguely spooky drawing-room tragedy about a dim young woman of modest means who’s swept off her feet, and into an enormous mansion which she is not prepared to manage. The main character, who has 416 pages to think of a first name and never manages to come up with one, marries a handsome widower with a charming manner, an enormous manse and an inadequate explanation for what happened to the original Mrs. de Winter.
When Mr. de W. brings his replacement wife to her new home, she finds herself nominally in charge of a splendid estate full of rooms and beds and nightgowns and unhappy memories, and a formidable housekeeper who makes it clear from the outset that she liked the original wife and doesn’t really feel like participating in a peaceful transfer of power. Mrs. Danvers is not interested in democratic norms, and she does not believe in reboots.
But maybe she has a point. Practically the first thing the new wife does is knock over a perfectly innocent statuette and smash it to bits, and then she stuffs the shattered remains into a drawer and pretends it never happened. Naturally, Mrs. Danvers considers this the beginning of a crime wave which, left unchecked, would reduce her home to fragments within weeks. You can’t be too careful with things like this. Once you allow the master of the house to bring home stray spouses, it’s only a matter of time before the place is overrun with clumsy exotic pets, and life becomes insupportable.
So Mrs. Danvers sets up a series of clever scenarios where the new wife is contrasted with the old one, and then she glides up behind the interloper and urges her to fling herself out a second-story window. This plan comes very close to succeeding, but then people find a sunken boat with the old wife’s body in it, and everybody talks about that until Danvers gets fed up and burns the house down. This is also pretty rough on the statuettes, but sometimes you have to express yourself.
Meanwhile, on Dark Shadows, we’ve got Hoffman, a handful of sharp objects who’s serving up crabmeat, champagne and attitude. This is Parallel Time, we’re told, a different existence taking place at a vibration setting that’s not the one we’re used to. In our world, Julia Hoffman is a fully-accredited mad scientist with a specialty in monster medicine and sedatives, but in this reality, she’s Mrs. Danvers. This is apparently a choice that Julia made at some point in her life, either medicine or this. They must have given her one hell of a scholarship to housekeeping school.
Parallel Quentin has recently married Parallel Maggie, and it’s not sitting well with Hoffman, who was dangerously attached to Angelique, the first Parallel Mrs. Collins, who died under mysterious circumstances, as first wives tend to do. So Hoffman’s set her first trap for the new bride, arranging a cozy dinner by the fireplace, which was Angelique’s favorite spot. Quentin’s flown off the handle and out into the night somewhere, and now Maggie’s left alone and unguarded, with this sinister domestic.
Hoffman takes Maggie upstairs to her new bedchamber, which is something of a disappointment. Maggie asks about Angelique’s old suite, and Hoffman rhapsodizes. “It’s the most beautiful room in the house, I think,” she says. “It’s in the east wing, of course. The sun seems so much brighter there.” As the new mistress of the house, Maggie is apparently responsible for how bright the sun is. She had no idea Collinwood had such a difficult entrance exam.
Meanwhile, on a nearby set, they’re doing a mash-up of Dracula and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which is a nice double-feature, if you can manage it. Barnabas Collins has fallen out of the world, tumbling down a parallel rabbit-hole into this new world. Here, Carolyn has an unhappy marriage of her own, hitched to washed-up author Will Loomis, and they’re living in the Old House, where Barnabas was planning on setting up base camp.
He’s got Carolyn in his thrall, and convinced her that they should hide his coffin in the basement, and pretend that he’s a houseguest. For some reason, these two brainboxes seem to think that Will won’t notice if Barnabas bunks out in the basement. Carolyn’s rationale is that Will is always drunk, which he is, and that this renders him incapable of telling the difference between a guest and a ghoul, which it doesn’t. Carolyn’s new at this, of course, but Barnabas has been around the block a few times, and this is a new level of self-sabotage, even for him.
Will is one of those picturesque alcoholics that you see on stage, jovial and rueful and bitter, and they get some great George-and-Martha type dialogue. Carolyn snaps at Will about losing a book, and he sighs, “Oh, honey, I’m a loser. You know, some people everything sticks to, like fame and fortune. Me? Well, I’m just the opposite. Yes, sir. I can’t even keep the bottle full.”
So that’s what we’re doing today, bouncing back and forth between library books. This is always the best part of a Dark Shadows storyline, the happy beginning, when everybody has new stuff to talk about and the world is full of promise.
Looking back on the Leviathan storyline, the H.P. Lovecraft inspiration didn’t really give them very much to work with. “The Dunwich Horror” is a great story, but it’s mostly a dispassionate recital of facts. There isn’t a main character — the person who you think is the main character actually dies two-thirds of the way into the story, and it just continues on without him. And most of the story is spent wondering what’s going on over at the Whateley’s place, as viewed from the outside. There aren’t enough character parts to distribute among the cast, and there are only two sequences with visual appeal, both of them unfilmable.
Nobody has ever made a successful film adaptation of a Lovecraft story, unless you count Alien, or The Seeds of Doom, or any of the many, many stories in all mediums that are influenced-by but not based-on. It turns out there’s a reason why, namely: there’s not enough to point a camera at. They’re quiet stories, on the whole. Atmosphere pieces, where you get little glimpses of another world, and then you back out of the room as fast as you can.
There have been a number of literary borrowings on Dark Shadows that haven’t produced as much story as you’d expect — Edgar Allen Poe, for instance, which you think would be perfect, but never managed to power more than a single episode before petering out. Quentin heard the thump-thump of The Telltale Heart, Quentin was trapped under the swinging pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum, and Judith trapped Trask, Cask of Amontillado-style, in Quentin’s room — these all involve Quentin, for some reason — but those were single moments, not ongoing storylines. The one exception is Barnabas trapping the original Trask behind the brick wall, which was originally just one episode, and then later on the wall fell down.
So, yes: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man all turned out to be strong enough to power months of interesting story points, but just being in the “horror” category isn’t enough. You need a story that involves lots of cast members, lots of incidents and lots of things to talk about.
So now they’re taking a route that has been successful before: pick up a non-horror story, and give it a monster twist. In Rebecca, everybody’s metaphorically haunted by memories and regret; in the Dark Shadows version, Rebecca actually comes back to life and swaggers into Manderley to reclaim her title. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf involves a secret family member that nobody can talk about; in the DS version, it’s an undead cousin in the basement.
Dark Shadows is big and crazy and packed with action, so there’s a temptation to say that you could do pretty much anything on this canvas, but the soap opera format creates noticeable boundaries. Atmosphere and rising tension is all very well, but we’ve got twenty-two minutes a day to fill up with characters and dialogue and Chromakey. Art is theft, especially in this town, but you need to know which literary grave you’re plundering, before you dive in and help yourself to other people’s property.
Tomorrow: The Terror of Tarrytown.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In act 1, when Quentin tells Maggie, “It was me, I was wrong,” a boom mic swings by overhead.
We see the open coffin at the end of act 1, and it’s already got the cross in place inside the lid.
Barnabas tells Carolyn, “Guard him carefully — guard me carefully!”
Hoffman tells Maggie, “Oh, I think — I wish you would look at them.”
The painting over the fireplace in the drawing room is buckling at the top corners of the frame. You can see this when Hoffman asks Maggie if Quentin is comfortable in their room.
When Maggie pours tea for Will, there’s a loud ding! from the studio.
As Barnabas walks into the basement at the end of the act, you can hear John Karlen running over from the Old House set, and whispering that he needs the cross.
In the basement, Barnabas is off mic when he says to Will, “Let me die.”
Tomorrow: The Terror of Tarrytown.
— Danny Horn