“You don’t know how much I’d like to have been in that crypt.”
“I didn’t know what else I was going to do,” says Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows’ executive producer and driving force. “I couldn’t think of another idea.” This is from an early-2000s interview for the DVD box sets.
“I was becoming very disenchanted, right along with the audience. Probably, over the last six months of that film — people didn’t see a lot of me, during that last six months of the show.”
So there’s a Freudian slip for you — when Dan looks back at this period, he can’t help thinking about the thing he really cared about, which was the Dark Shadows films.
“I was just hoping it was going to end,” he continues. “I just wanted to move on. I couldn’t squeeze my brain any harder to come up with one more story, and I wanted to move on and out.”
You can tell that we’re approaching that last-six-months mark, because they’re currently doing scenes from House of Dark Shadows as if they’re part of the show. For today’s episode, they drag poor Willie Loomis back out of retirement, so he can shine his flashlight through the door of a darkened crypt, and find the coffin of the vampire who’s killing Maggie Evans. They might as well put up a chyron saying “House of Dark Shadows, currently in theaters”.
So it’s worth asking the question: How do you run out of ideas for a soap opera, a genre that’s specifically designed to run forever?
That theme has come up in the comments lately, and long-time commenter William wrote about this question a couple of days ago, under episode 1103. William, I hope you don’t mind me quoting your post, because I think these are good examples of how Dark Shadows fans think about where the show should have gone.
I simply don’t buy this “we ran out of ideas” thing. For Pete’s sake, they had many more avenues than the average soap for story-telling. Here are three that I think would have worked in 1971:
A) A jealous colleague from medical school slips Julia drugs to make her insane and he commits her to Windcliff, which he’s turned into his own little private house of experimental horrors. (Could possibly recast Maggie and Joe.)
B) Roger and Elizabeth’s surprise half-brother comes to town to lay his claim on a third of the Collins estate. In tow is a wife whose greed exceeds his and a son, about 18, who is slowly developing a hidden talent for reading emotions and thoughts (but the more he does it, the more he loses his own sense of identity). Son falls in love with nice teen girl from the village that David likes, too. David’s early penchant for messing with car parts returns.
C) Barnabas, Carolyn and Professor Stokes get a mysterious summons to an estate outside Boston. Turns out it’s Adam, now a wealthy lord of the manor. His physical scars are gone, but not the emotional ones. What are his intentions? And that of his business assistant, Mr. Yamata?
These are all excellent ideas, and you can add all of the audio stories that Big Finish has produced since 2006 — more than 60 stories and more on the way, many of them taking place after the show ended. And there’s also the comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment — 23 issues, plus a “Year One” miniseries and a cheesecake Vampirella crossover. Even Lara Parker has continued the story in novel form.
Clearly, it’s possible to keep telling new stories about Barnabas, Julia, Quentin and the Collins family. Apparently the only people who couldn’t do it are the people who invented them in the first place.
One reason why this was difficult for the original show was that those are soap opera plots, especially idea B with the long-lost relative and the teen romance. Anybody who knows soaps can instantly recognize a story like that as the kind of thing a new writer would spring on General Hospital or Days of Our Lives viewers, who would all hate the new family, except for the con-artist bad-boy son, especially after he’s aged up to his early 20s and married to someone from a core family.
But the de facto “head writer” on Dark Shadows was Dan, and to get through to him, you had to connect it to something he liked. Dan didn’t care about soap operas — he never produced any others, and as far as I know, he never even watched one. Dan knew Universal Monsters, Hammer Horror, and the classics of English lit.
Here’s another quote from that DVD interview:
“The reason we went to the classics as much as we did, ripping off portions of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, or Turn of the Screw, is that all stories are basically the same. These are great story elements, to put our own spin on them. It’s so difficult to think of a story that hasn’t in some way been done, and why not go right to the gold mine, where it all really lies?”
He’s incorrect about all stories being basically the same, obviously, that’s a silly thing people say that falls to pieces after three examples. There are plenty of stories. It’s just that Dan had a set that he really liked, that’s all.
And once Dark Shadows was over, Dan didn’t suddenly discover a whole new world of stories to tell. His first project was Night of Dark Shadows, released in August 1971, and then he spent the next three years working on TV-movies that chewed over the same themes and lit hits that he’d explored on Dark Shadows.
He started with The Night Stalker, an ABC TV-movie that aired in January 1972, about an investigative reporter who realizes that the serial killer he’s writing about is actually a vampire. This was a big success, getting the best ratings ABC had ever seen for an original TV-movie. People liked it so much that they sold it overseas as a feature film, and it took Dan a few years to get over it.
So Dan made a sequel, The Night Strangler, which aired on ABC in January 1973. This was basically the same thing as The Night Stalker, except that the killer is an immortal Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type elixir-maker, another favorite of Dan’s.
Then he started making TV-movies for ABC’s Wide World of Mystery late-night programming block, starting with Frankenstein (January 1973), and then The Picture of Dorian Gray (April 1973) and The Turn of the Screw (April 1974).
Meanwhile, he made a February 1973 TV-movie for NBC called The Norliss Tapes, which was a lot like The Night Stalker, except it’s about a doomed investigator who discovers an immortal undead blood-drinking dude who gets his power from an Egyptian god and has a big scarab ring.
Dan also did a TV-movie adaptation of Dracula for CBS in late 1973, and another ABC TV-movie in January 1974 called Scream of the Wolf, which was basically The Night Stalker with werewolves. When Dan Curtis runs out of ideas, he really runs out of ideas.
But even if Dan has reached the end of his library shelf, why didn’t the other writers come up with more ideas, the way that Big Finish has, or William’s three pitches?
Part of the answer is that they were under a tremendous amount of pressure. From here on, it’s just Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, writing five soap opera episodes a week — a job that’s now typically done by a couple dozen people.
They’ve just released House of Dark Shadows, which was written by Sam and Gordon, and that explains why the Leviathan story was such a mess. Now Dan wants Sam to write the script for Night of Dark Shadows, and that explains why the 1841 story will be such a mess.
They manage to get through 1840 by basically doing a pastiche of previous Dark Shadows stories, including the witch trial from The Crucible, and in the last two months of the show, Dan goes back to the classics for Wuthering Heights. Then Sam writes Night of Dark Shadows and Dan’s Frankenstein adaptation for Wide World of Mystery, and after that, presumably, he gets a decent night’s sleep.
We also have a big advantage, in our own “what I would have done with Dark Shadows” dreams, which is that it’s fifty years later, and we’ve had a lot more experience watching good TV.
In 1970, there weren’t a lot of examples of good-quality long-running narratives on television. Everybody expected TV audiences would forget everything from one week to the next, so there wasn’t a lot of continuity between episodes, even on the drama shows. Things would just reset. The only genre that was doing long-running serialized narrative was soap operas, and prime-time shows only became worthwhile in 1981, once Hill Street Blues started using soap opera techniques on a cop show, and expected people to pay attention.
I wrote about Hill Street Blues and advances in television narrative back in the post about Episode 514, so if you’re interested in that particular thread of this story, you can check it out there, while I do a quick survey of advances in fantasy-horror-science-fiction-soap-operas in American television.
Because we’ve got way more pastiche opportunities than Dan, Sam and Gordon had in 1970. There’s Twin Peaks in 1990, which was basically an avant-garde lysergic police procedural science-fantasy soap opera, which opened up people’s expectations about what prime-time television could do.
Then there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, which established all the rules that fantasy/sci-fi shows have followed for the next two decades. Buffy openly used fantasy elements as metaphors for what’s happening in the characters’ personal lives, so it’s kind of a soap opera with weekly monster kills. Buffy also pioneered the “Big Bad” season structure, building an overarching storyline throughout the season that comes to a big conclusion in the season finale. And then everything post-Buffy is basically playing according to those rules, including the Big Finish Dark Shadows audios.
And as the home video technology has advanced from VCRs to DVRs to streaming, our expectations about season-to-season continuity have increased tremendously. By now, it’s expected that people will go back and watch old episodes if there’s a reference to a previous event that they don’t remember, and obviously, everybody reading this blog has access to Dark Shadows episodes from any period you like. So William’s idea of Dark Shadows returning to the Adam storyline after three years of not mentioning him makes sense to us, a lot more than it would have made sense in 1970.
By now, we’ve had Lost and True Blood and American Horror Story and Game of Thrones, and the interconnected comic-book shows on the CW and Netflix, and our narrative expectations for television shows that blend soap opera structure with fantasy/sci-fi/horror themes have gone through the roof.
The Dark Shadows writers didn’t have access to any of those examples and inspirations, of course, because they were the ones who came up with the idea in the first place.
But there’s one traditional soap opera approach that was available for Dark Shadows to use: new family members, and new families. When soaps get tired, they introduce new people with an important tie to an existing character, like All My Children’s Kendall, Erica’s long-lost daughter who was played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s always a need for scheming daughters and bad-boy nephews who come to town; that’s how you get love interests and co-workers and serial killers.
By 1970, Dark Shadows has lost the knack for that, which is frustrating, because they did it perfectly in 1968 with the introduction of the Jennings family.
Chris and Amy were basically the best-case scenario for a new soap opera family. They were an opportunistic hire, new relatives of an unexpectedly popular short-term antagonist. When they brought in Chris as Tom’s twin brother, they revealed that Chris and Amy were Joe’s cousins, so there was already a familial tie to a core character.
Then they quickly established a friendship between David and Amy, and a romance between Chris and Carolyn. The Jennings family immediately brought interesting new story elements — Amy basically conjured up Quentin’s ghost, and Chris was a werewolf. By 1969, the Jennings family was strong enough to start bringing in their own supporting characters. Chris’ ex-girlfriend Sabrina joined the canvas, along with her brother Ned, who would have become a love interest for Maggie if Kathryn Leigh Scott hadn’t put her foot down and refused to deal with Roger Davis.
And in pure soap fashion, it turned out that the Jennings had a familial tie to the Collins family after all, thanks to the ultimate long-lost bad-boy nephew of all time, Quentin Collins. Quentin was such a great “long-lost relative” that they had to invent an immortal oil painting, to keep him around.
But starting in late 1969, they lost the knack of introducing new families. Megan and Philip Todd should have been a great new family — a couple that moves to town, and immediately develops close relationships with two core cast members. Plus, the Todds’ main set was a public community space, where other characters could bump into each other and have story-productive conversations. They even had a child with Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome, who developed relationships with more characters.
At the same time, the show introduced more new characters with close ties to existing cast members — Paul Stoddard as Liz’s ex-husband, and Sky Rumson as Angelique’s new husband. Then the Todds’ child grew up into Jeb Hawkes, who married Carolyn and earned his own place as a permanent resident of Collinwood.
But it all fell apart, somehow. They had five new characters who could have become regular cast members, but instead the show decided they were all antagonists who needed to be “cleaned up” before the next time travel adventure. Paul was killed mid-story, and the other four were slaughtered one by one, over a couple of weeks.
Now that we’re back in the present day of 1970, they’ve introduced one new long-lost relative: Professor Stokes’ niece, Hallie. Unfortunately, being connected to Stokes doesn’t really do much for Hallie — he’s a secondary character, who sometimes disappears from the show for a long stretch and nobody notices. I think she only has one scene with him; the rest of the time, she’s a second-hand Amy.
There are four more characters that they’ve introduced in 1970 — Gerard, Daphne, Roxanne and Sebastian — but they’re all antagonists to one degree or another. I suspect that if the show had ever returned to the present day in 1971, they would have found a way to keep Daphne around, but they never got the chance.
Overall, I don’t think Dan was interested in creating new, long-term families for Dark Shadows. All of the storylines in the last year have involved at least one set that’s off the Collins estate — the Leviathan story’s antiques shop, Cyrus’ laboratory in Parallel Time and Sebastian’s horoscope factory in 1970 — but they’re not built to last. They’re just temporary outposts for a specific story thread, which get dismantled once that story is over.
Unfortunately, a daytime soap opera that refuses to establish new core characters is going to run out of story-productive material sooner or later. But Dan was never really interested in soap opera; he wanted to make a series based on Jane Eyre, and it was a soap opera because that was the only format available to him. He doesn’t really care about the minutia of daily life, which is what most soap operas are about. He likes big, ambitious things — a huge mansion falling down, an evil housekeeper telling her mistress to jump out the window, a severed head that you carry around in a glass box.
Dan’s idea of a new family is the Collins family of Parallel 1841, who have a lottery in every generation to sacrifice people to the insane ghost that lives in a locked room in the west wing. New families on Dark Shadows don’t have babies, they have portraits and curses and witch trials. Those are the kinds of ideas that you can run out of, eventually.
Dark Shadows absolutely could have survived past April 1971, if they stopped looking for inspiration from 19th century novels and Universal Monsters, and started pulling in plot devices from other soap operas instead. But that would have turned the show into something smaller, less melodramatic, and more ordinary. It probably wouldn’t have been a lot better. It just would have been longer, and at a certain point, a show like this is long enough.
Monday: Lady Is a Vamp.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the beginning of act 3, when Willie’s reading the riddle off a piece of paper, his spoken line practically overlaps with his “thinks” monologue. The first two lines of thinks also have a weird echo.
At the cemetery, one of the gravestones wobbles back and forth in the strong wind.
Monday: Lady Is a Vamp.
— Danny Horn