“Someone must be destroyed, but it won’t be me.”
Alexis finds it hard to take a breath, which is a shame, because it’s one of her last and she should probably be enjoying it more.
“This can’t be happening!” she gasps. “It’s impossible!”
But this impossible thing that can’t be happening rises from the casket. It’s her twin sister, Angelique, who’s been dead for six months in a row, and doesn’t feel like doing it anymore. She opens her eyes, she breathes, she speaks, and — most disconcertingly of all — she smiles.
“But you’re dead!” Alexis chokes. “You’re dead!”
Then she frowns, frustrated. “The prompter is going three times faster than I would go,” she says. She gestures toward the studio. “He just zipped to my next line!” This is something that Dark Shadows characters have been wanting to say for years, but never had the guts.
This isn’t the actual episode, of course — Dark Shadows episodes are famously ragged, but they never go this far. This is a clip from the dress rehearsal of episode 1001, which can be found in a mystery box called MPI’s Dark Shadows Collection 26. There’s no scientific explanation for the survival of these clips, but we opened the box, and there they were, perfectly preserved.
On the DVD, the track is called “1970 Dark Shadows Rehearsal & Pretape Segments with Lara Parker,” and I believe it’s the only extra unaired footage that we have from the entire series. In the late 60s, videotape editing was difficult and expensive, and Dark Shadows didn’t have the time or money to do retakes. The show wasn’t broadcast live — they were usually taping a week or two ahead — but it was shot “live-to-tape”, starting at the first scene and continuing nonstop through the half-hour, leaving space for the commercials. It didn’t matter if an actor forgot his lines, or the boom mic dropped into the shot, or the set fell to pieces — they kept on taping, and whatever they filmed was broadcast a week later on ABC.
But the technology’s been getting better over time, and by now — four years into the show’s run — they’re able to pull things off a lot better than they used to. They’ve done a couple of clip shows, merging old and new footage together, and there have been several recent episodes that included a planned cut to some pretaped footage.
The ability to make the occasional edit was especially helpful a month ago, when they introduced the Parallel Time storyline. They could show the “Parallel Time room” fully furnished, and then a moment later, show the same set empty and deserted. They could include both the regular and mirror-universe character in the same episode, wearing different clothes and parallel hairstyles, and they even experimented with keying in the pretaped footage as a Chromakey effect, showing both the real Roger and the Parallel Roger in the same shot.
For today’s episode, they do a sequence that’s more ambitious than they’ve ever done before — a five-minute sequence between two characters played by the same actress.
For the first scene, Lara Parker is pretaping the Alexis side of the conversation, so that she can perform the Angelique part live. The finished product will involve Angelique and the coffin keyed into this shot of Alexis, as well as cuts to a close-up of Angelique, filmed by a second camera. After a pretaped cut to Trask waiting outside in the cemetery, there’s a second scene of the twins, having changed places, with pretaped Angelique in Alexis’ clothes, gloating over Alexis in the Chromakey coffin, which is filmed live.
I think this is the most complicated special effects sequence that they’ve ever done on the show. It’s certainly the most complicated one that I’ve tried to describe.
In this rehearsal clip, Parker has to run through her lines as Alexis, leaving space for Chromakey Angelique, so that’s why she needs the prompter to get his act together. “The whole reason that I read it through was so he would know,” she complains, and then somebody goes and talks things over with the guy.
They run through the scene again, successfully this time. “You’re dead, you’re dead,” Alexis says, and “No, the dead cannot live again,” and then there’s a lengthy pause while she waits for her twin sister to explain what the hell’s going on. Angelique is the real chatterbox in this scene — she’s been quiet for six months, and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.
Alexis starts to shiver. “I feel so cold!” she chatters. “No, Angelique! No, please! I don’t want to die!” It’s terribly dramatic, if a bit one-sided in this version.
So they’re pulling all the stops out for this sequence, and for good reason — it’s a showstopper plot twist that deserves some special attention.
Alexis has been staying at Collinwood for the last three weeks, and all anybody’s talked about is how much she looks like her dead sister. Everybody that she talked to had at least a momentary twinge when they saw her, and some of the real diehards are still having a tough time adjusting. They quizzed her, choked her, accused her and finally smashed open a crypt, trying to wrap their heads around the simple concept that Angelique had a twin sister, and this is she.
And now — just at the moment that Quentin and Cyrus are finally completely convinced that Alexis is Alexis — Angelique wakes up and switches places with her sister, and the dead witch walks back into Collinwood, fooling everyone.
It’s silly, and cruel, and theatrical, and impossible to ignore. In other words, it’s Dark Shadows, and respect is due for one of the all-time great lunatic plot contrivances.
The thing that really sells this supremely nutty moment is the pure joy that Angelique takes in explaining exactly how lame her dumb sister is. Siblings, as a class, are irritating and impossible to deal with, and they’ve been waiting for a takedown like this for a long time.
“There were always so many things that never did interest you, Alexis,” she points out. “You were always the innocent one, so content with life as it was! But I have always known that life is much, much more than it seemed to be. I was able to master secrets you never dreamed existed!”
So if’s that’s not proof that we need increased funding for after-school activities, then I don’t know what is. Angelique spent her afternoons mastering the secrets of life and death. Alexis just went home, did her chemistry homework, and watched Gilligan’s Island reruns until their mom said it was time for dinner.
“How my body remained preserved, that will remain my secret.” Angelique is still showing off. “But I always knew my spirit would never die! That someday, someone would have to come and open my casket, and then — all that was needed was the touch of a human hand.”
Of course, that’s the craziest thing about this plot point, that Angelique was sure that somebody would come along and defile her tomb in precisely the way that she needed it. Still, it did happen, so maybe I’m bad at making predictions about what happens to people after they’re buried.
Angelique sucks all the warmth out of Alexis’ body, which is a process that apparently has a solid “no tagbacks” agreement. While Alexis is gradually cooling, Angelique makes her switch clothes and provide an update on life at Collinwood, which I kind of wish we’d gotten to see, because it must have been a super awkward conversation.
Now Angelique is ready to head back home, in the guise and garb of Alexis, and do who even knows what. She doesn’t have much in the way of a policy agenda, and her last administration ended in murder. I’m sure she’ll think of something.
And that’s not all, obviously — this is Dark Shadows, which hardly recognizes the concept of “all”. They also have Cyrus and Quentin drag the coffin outside and set it on fire, which happens instantly, as soon as Quentin gets near it with a torch. This must be one of those quick-light caskets. And look at Cyrus, with his little “gosh, it’s ablaze” acting posture, how cute is that?
And that’s also not all; it almost never is. We’ve also got Cyrus suddenly having an unexpected hyde-attack in the drawing room. With horror, he looks at his hand…
… and it’s John Yaeger’s hand! The editing takes another leap into the unknown, and cuts to a whole other pretape sequence, where Cyrus has turned into his alter ego, complete with hairstyle and mustache.
That makes two major pretape sequences in this episode, and there are more examples of pretape and editing later in the week. This used to be a thing that they literally never did, and all of a sudden they’re doing it all the time. It’s a clear sign of game-raising, and it’s even more remarkable that they’re doing it while the executive producer and a chunk of the regular production staff are upstate, filming the Dark Shadows movie.
That being said, there are some artifacts left in the show that indicate how rough the technology still is. The pretaped material looks bleached out — the Alexis pretape looks like a second-generation copy, and the Yaeger scene is decidedly third-generation.
There are also a couple awkward jumps during the episode, the worst being a cut between Cyrus’ lab and the cemetery, and some of the scenes seem like they have extra padding at the beginning and the end, as if they’re trying to leave space for a possible edit. My guess is that they knew using the pretaped sequences might make the episode run a little long, and they added in some extra time so that they’d have something to cut if they needed it. The most noticeable example is Angelique pruning the flowers — she looks up for her cue several times, both at the beginning and the end of the scene.
But this is an episode where you can see the Dark Shadows team becoming more technically sophisticated, in real time. A year ago, they could have done the coffin fire, and maybe the Cyrus/Yaeger switch if they really had to, but the Alexis/Angelique sequence is a whole new skill. And having the nerve to do all three of those in a single episode… well, that’s what makes it Dark Shadows.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day, Lara Parker lies down in her casket, ready to rehearse the camera blocking for the trading-places scene. She’s just getting settled, when they announce it’s time for a lunch break. Oh, for fuck’s sake, she thinks, as they help her out of the coffin. So much for resting in peace.
Tomorrow: Ordinary Circumstances.
Behind the Scenes:
Also, this is Don Briscoe’s last episode on the show; he’s in one brief scene with Cyrus, giving him a hard time about opening up a bank account for John Yaeger. It’s a sad, quiet end for an actor who was introduced as a major monster sex symbol, just a year and a half ago.
Don Briscoe’s story is weird, and sad, and at least some of the things I know about it aren’t actually true. He’s got a drug problem — definitely pot and LSD, possibly other things — and he’s got some kind of mental health issues. At some point, later on in his life, he’ll be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The drug use and the mental illness are connected, who knows how. After some wasted time in California, he’s going to end up on disability, living with his parents in Memphis for the last thirty years of his life.
I don’t know exactly when the Dark Shadows team started to see Briscoe as a problem. He wasn’t front-burner during the Leviathan story, but he had some big moments, as recently as six weeks ago. They cast him as Carolyn’s boyfriend Todd in House of Dark Shadows, which wasn’t a huge part, but he did have a couple high-profile scenes as vampire Carolyn’s boy toy blood slave, which put him on some of the less classy movie posters.
But his role in the Parallel Time storyline has been dialed down to almost zero. This is a period of the show when they need as many recognizable cast members on screen as they can get; they’re even using one of the day-player Leviathan girls as the heroine of a major story arc. Even Sabrina is front-burner right now, but Chris has nothing to do.
Here’s a slice of the backstage story from the excellent cast-biography book, Barnabas & Company:
One day Don showed up for work at the DS studio in the midst of an LSD trip. Distraught, he ended up sitting in a trash can in the main office. After that, Briscoe’s health suffered, and he became increasingly unreliable. He was off the show for about a month, then he returned for one final episode in 1970. He left Dark Shadows and moved away from New York. His departure from the show was so abrupt that another character had to be hastily created to finish his storyline duties.
The timeline on that story isn’t quite true, although there is a month when Briscoe wasn’t on the show. I’m going to run the numbers for a second.
Chris was basically Julia’s assistant back in December 1969, during the Grant Douglas/Olivia Corey investigation. The climax of his participation was when he turned into a werewolf and killed Charles Delaware Tate in episode 919, taped on December 10th. Then Chris disappeared, and he didn’t come back to the show until ep 943, taped on January 16th. That’s the “moon poppy” sequence, when it’s revealed that Leviathans are vulnerable to werewolves. So if that month was Briscoe’s LSD time-out — the period when Quentin’s amnesia wore off — then that might explain why they dropped the ball on the Quentin/Chris relationship.
After that, Chris comes back a couple weeks later to get trapped in the crypt with Bruno and Zombie Davenport, and then a couple weeks after that is Chris and Sabrina trapped by Bruno and Nicholas.
Moving into Parallel Time, Chris makes a couple more appearances, with his last one on episode 985, taped March 17th. A week later, he was in Tarrytown, to film the funeral scene on the first day of HODS shooting on March 23rd.
I don’t know how long it took Briscoe to shoot all his House scenes — I only know about the funeral scene because it’s the first day. But on April 24th, he’s back on set to shoot today’s episode, and he’s a mess.
Watching this episode, you can definitely tell there’s something wrong. He seems really drowsy and not into it. He only has one scene, and it’s basically: walk into the room, ask Cyrus some questions, get lame answers, walk out. He can hardly even do that. At the end of the scene, he sighs and turns away, and mumbles his last line. And then he’s gone.
The Lara Parker rehearsal footage is also included in the Complete Original box set, on disc 128.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Alexis is lying in the coffin and Angelique is gloating, the dead body’s chest is visibly moving as she breathes.
Trask tells Quentin, “I called the laboratory about an hour ago, Miss Sabrina say he’d be back about three.” Also, the characters aren’t centered in the shot, and the camera makes a couple awkward adjustments.
The scene shifts from the Collinwood drawing room to Cyrus’ lab as Quentin is dialing the phone; you can still hear him dial one number after we’ve moved to the lab.
While the coffin burns, somebody runs in front of the shot.
The flowers that Angelique is pruning look awful; they’re clearly beyond all hope of recovery.
When Cyrus checks the clock and walks back into the drawing room, there’s a camera visible on the left.
Tomorrow: Ordinary Circumstances.
— Danny Horn