“Knowing about your strange preoccupation with the occult, nothing would surprise me. I can imagine you using some strange powders and potions, and doing strange chants to do anything you want.”
It must be a curse, obviously, from way back in the past, some asshole in a previous generation who screwed this up for you. I wonder what they did. It must have been pretty damn bad, because you are a mess, and there is no other way to explain it.
So here we are in the late seventeenth for a lightning-fast flashback, detailing the tragedy of Brutus and James. Somebody cursed somebody back in the day, and now the Collins family of 1841 Parallel Time has to go through this weird rigamarole every once in a while involving a lottery, a spooky door, a sleepover, and the inevitable madness and death that ensues.
Eldest son and professional noisemaker Morgan Collins endured a night in the bad place a couple weeks ago, and emerged with a ghost rider pulling his strings, digging up basements and making a nuisance of himself. Unsatisfied with the arrangement, the family performed an exorcism, which seemed like it didn’t work, but now the ghost is being haunted by another ghost.
“Hear me, Brutus!” Morgan hollers into the ether, and Brutus probably does; when Morgan starts projecting, you can hear him all the way down West 53rd Street. “It is too late for you to stop me! I’m going to tell the truth at last! The truth about what really happened in 1680! Your family will finally know about the CURRRRRRRSE!”
Now, usually on Dark Shadows, when they’ve got a backstory to delve into, they give it a lot of space to stretch out; the typical length of a Dark Shadows flashback is about four months. But they don’t have four months to linger on this story point; they don’t even have four weeks. So this is going to be the fast and furious version of the Brutus Collins story, getting everything done in one.
The flashback has to accomplish two things: #1) explain what happened to Brutus, James, Sarah, Amanda and Constance, and #2) help us to understand why the curse involves a haunted room, a lottery and a plague. It fails on both counts.
“I first met Brutus Collins in the year 1677,” James Forsythe recalls. “His sister Constance introduced us.” He doesn’t say who introduced him to Constance.
“He seemed an amiable man, and an honest one,” James continues. “We liked each other at once, and we soon became business partners. But in three short years, I was to learn there were many sides to this man Brutus Collins. He was a man of many dark and terrifying secrets. He spent almost all of his time alone, going over his books. He trusted no one, not even his own wife and children.” He sounds great.
The flashback has a couple advantages that make things interesting. For one thing, it’s neat to see the Collinwood drawing room in 1680, which is the earliest we’ve ever been. As usual, the set decorators step up to the task, removing all of the paintings and cozy furnishings, and giving the place a more spare look. I have no idea how this set holds up when compared to the actual history of American home decor, but it looks different, and visual surprise is always welcome.
We also get Louis Edmonds playing Brutus, which is pleasing, because he’s been effectively off the show for a while; the last time we saw him as a living character was three months ago. Edmonds is always good for both charm and bluster, and today he gets to do both, so that’s a win.
James comes to pay a visit to his business partner, and at first Brutus is all charm, but his demeanor darkens when James starts crossing his arms and being annoying.
“I’m here to discuss our partnership,” James grouses.
“Oh, come, come,” Brutus smiles, “you know I never discuss business at night.”
James scowls. “Oh, Brutus, I think you even discuss your business in your sleep, assuming that you do sleep.” I don’t know why the sleep schedule is up for discussion.
“What a curious thing to say,” Brutus chuckles. So far, Brutus is winning the scene on points; he’s more relaxed, and James keeps looking at the teleprompter every other line. In fact, for James’ next speech, they have to pull in on Brutus’ face for an inappropriately lengthy closeup, so that James can catch up on his reading.
“Knowing about your strange preoccupation with the occult, nothing would surprise me,” James says. “I can imagine you using some strange powders and potions, and doing strange chants to do anything you want.” I don’t know which I’d like to see more, the strange powders and potions, or the strange chants. Brutus is getting more interesting all the time; I don’t know why they’ve been keeping him bottled up in the backstory. We could have used this all along.
“I’m really not so dedicated to the occult as you would imagine, I’m merely a dabbler,” Brutus answers, and then it’s time for James to consult the teleprompter again.
The bone of contention is that James thinks Brutus is swindling him, and he wants to see the books. Brutus replies that the books are at the office, but James yells, “I am not talking about those books! I’m talking about the books that tell the real story, the ones only you see!”
Sick of getting berated by this human bullhorn, Brutus says fine, we’ll dissolve our partnership, and we can talk to the lawyers tomorrow.
“I want what is coming to me!” James bellows, and I guess they don’t have a lot of movies in 1680, because everybody knows that “I want what’s coming to me” is the setup for a villainous sneer, which is exactly what he gets. Man, that introduction from Constance must have really been something special, to get these two together. That was one of the all-time convincing introductions.
Then it’s time to introduce Brutus’ wife Amanda, played by Nancy Barrett, which is always the correct answer. Brutus and Amanda set up the scenario very efficiently — Amanda likes James and hates Brutus, and Brutus hates the universe in general and these two in particular.
Amanda puts on a warm cloak and heads outside; she says she wants some air, but Brutus is savvy enough to know that they already have plenty of air inside the house.
Constance instantly reports for duty; apparently, she just waits around in the other room so that she can stand next to Brutus when he wants something. He barks, “Follow her! See where she goes, and what she does!” and Constance obeys, without a word.
By the way, I don’t know if wealthy women were actually allowed to wander around loose like that in 1680; I was under the impression that they were expected to stay indoors with a couple of attendants, specifically so that they don’t go and do what Amanda is going and doing. But a soap opera is a powerful machine, and it requires free travel between sets, in order to have something to talk about for a week.
Things are going pretty well by the time we get over to the cottage, where the lovers are locked in a passionate clinch. Amanda asks James about his meeting with Brutus, and he replies, “We had a confrontation at last. I accused him of cheating.” This is a little tough to swallow, considering the proximity, and demonstrates that Brutus was right after all. He really shouldn’t trust these two, and they really are plotting against him. It’s possible that we’ve got this whole thing backwards.
James’ sister Sarah is buried in the basement, by the way, a fact that is not explained in this flashback in any way. Last week, they made a big deal about James going downstairs and finding a) Brutus’ journal and b) Sarah’s skeleton, neither of which seem appropriate for a location where James lives, and Brutus doesn’t. How did Brutus manage to dig up the cellar and deposit female Forsythes in it, without James noticing?
Last week, James told Brutus’ accusatory ghost, “All she did was tell me what you had planned — to betray me — and you killed her for it, just as you killed me, and you killed your wife Amanda, because she tried to help me too.” We don’t see any sign of a sister, here in the flashback; they don’t even mention her. Maybe things didn’t work out with the skeleton’s agent.
James wants to prove that Brutus is embezzling funds from their partnership, and he’s come to the right place for intel. “There’s only one way,” Amanda says. “That’s to go to the secret records room, and find the books he keeps himself.” This is an odd idea, which will become even odder as we go along.
For example: how does he keep it a secret? Amanda says that she recently discovered how to access it: “It’s just off his bedroom. At the head of the bed, there’s a large drape. Behind the drape is a door. The door leads to that secret room.”
So this is not a very good way to hide something, keeping a secret door within arm’s length of your bed, in a chamber that presumably your wife has access to, not to mention the servants. Even Morgan was smart enough to find the secret door, after being locked in the room for a couple of hours.
Also: the spooky curse room was Brutus’ bedroom? That’s a crappy little room for the master of the house; it doesn’t even have a window in it. No wonder Brutus is so cranky all the time.
Anyway, at this point the cunning plan just writes itself. All James has to do is wait until the middle of the night to sneak into the house unobserved, go to Brutus’ bedroom and smash the padlock open with a hammer. James doesn’t need to worry about waking Brutus up with all this racket, because obviously Brutus is already up, lurking in the shadows and waiting to murder James.
I honestly don’t know how Brutus put up with this blockhead for three years; the guy is just begging to be swindled.
James makes his way down the stairs to the secret records room, and holy cow, it’s enormous. How many secret records does a guy need? All these chairs and desks, and a whole shelving unit against the left wall; there’s probably a secret bookkeeping staff down here somewhere.
And those books must be chock full of secrets, because James sits down and opens one at random, and after literally three seconds of staring at a single page, he cries, “Good lord, it’s worse than I thought! He’s stolen me blind!” I wonder what’s in all the other books; they must be pure dynamite.
But James’ adventure in financial forensics is interrupted by the appearance of Brutus himself. “Yes, my boy!” he swaggers. “The little meeting we’re about to have has been a long time coming!”
James shoots back, “How did you know I was here?”
“I have my ways!” Brutus crows, which is another way of saying that James gained entrance to this chamber by breaking something in Brutus’ bedroom.
“I have all of the proof right here,” says James, “that you’ve embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars!”
“And what do you propose to do about it?”
“I’m going to the authorities, of course!” James cries. “I have all the proof right here, on the paper!” He still thinks this is a story about exposing Brutus.
“There are many people who would like to see you hanged,” James informs the madman.
“Yes, and do you know why they hate me?” the dastard declares. “Because I am more intelligent, I am more aggressive, more ambitious, and more determined to succeed than they will ever be! I gave my sons countless opportunities that they were too weak to take advantage of. The only thing they excel in is ingratitude! No, they will never testify against me. Nor will you, my boy!”
“I have all of the proof right here,” James says, for the third time in under a minute.
Well, naturally, there’s only one thing to do, when somebody invades your secret embezzlement dungeon, and starts shooting off his mouth like that. You turn around…
pick up the bludgeon lying in easy reach…
and you club him over the head, before he has time to say “I have all the proof right here” again.
Brutus closes the act by saying, “You’ve left open to me only one course of action,” but it’s not the course that you’d figure.
When we come back from commercial break, Brutus has cleared off all the surfaces and laid out James’ body on one of the tables. James is out cold, but Brutus, like all supervillains, has the urge to monologue.
“You spoke of my interest in the occult, James,” Brutus says. James isn’t listening. “Little did you know that you would be a victim of it.” He’s got a little bowl and a pestle, and he’s mixing up a concoction. “Yes, I know many secrets unknown to ordinary men. You see, an ordinary death would not be good enough for you. Oh, I want you dead! But I don’t want you to rest, James. I want your spirit to be troubled, through all eternity.”
So it breaks my heart, really, to see a hotshot like Brutus Collins wasted in a one-episode flashback. How much fun is Brutus? “Oh, I want you dead!” he says. He’s fantastic; Louis Edmonds characters are always fantastic. He’s smart, he’s funny, he says interesting things and hits uninteresting things over the head. A steady supply of Brutus Collins as main character would make the next three weeks an absolute joy.
I don’t know what he’s doing with that mixture, by the way. We see him filling up a syringe and injecting James with it; I guess it’s one of those spirit-troubling drugs. It doesn’t matter; he can do what he pleases.
But you can’t just kill one dude and call it a day; this is late-stage Dark Shadows, and they don’t like leaving a time period with superfluous ancestors. So Amanda follows the trail of bread crumbs down to the secret records room, and finds James, who has become something of a secret record himself.
Brutus talks about poetic justice and the romance of murder, and then he strangles Amanda, and says that her spirit won’t rest either.
And then he just stalks away, and doesn’t explain a thing. We don’t know what that stuff was that he injected James with, or how it would leave their spirits without rest. He just stacks them up on tables, and leaves them there.
There’s only one more minute left and there’s still a survivor, so they cook up a death for Constance, too. She finds the secret door as well, and goes downstairs to check out the scene of the crime, and she suddenly realizes that her brother is a monster and she tries to stab him with a knife left on an occasional table for just this occasion.
He strikes her down, of course, and as soon as she falls, he gets a sudden brainstorm.
“I set a curse upon the family,” he decides, raising his hands in the air. “A curse which will haunt even future generations! It shall bring death and insanity to all who ever inhabit this room! And it shall not end, until that time that someone spends a night in this spot, and survives with his sanity! That person, and only that person, shall be worthy of the name of Collins!”
Which is fine, except that it doesn’t actually explain anything. Brutus has just killed his dupe of a business partner and his unfaithful wife, and he seems quite pleased about it, as he should be; he’s gotten away with embezzling and murder, and he’s accomplished whatever occult ritual he finds so amusing. This has all the hallmarks of an anecdote from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Then Constance acts up, and all of a sudden Brutus decides that he needs to curse his own descendants. He’s just won three fights in a row, vanquishing all comers without breaking a sweat. What could possibly be pissing him off now?
Dark Shadows knows perfectly well how to construct a curse: it’s the thing that a person does when they’ve lost. Angelique was shot in the shoulder by her faithless husband; Magda’s sister died at Quentin’s hand. That’s the point of a curse, it’s the last resort when everything else fails. It’s the final cry of the powerless and defeated, stabbing wildly at the self-destruct button as they go down.
Brutus has done it backwards, essentially cursing himself at his own moment of triumph. That doesn’t make any narrative or emotional sense, and it certainly doesn’t have enough power to support the final weeks of this pointless storyline. So what are we supposed to do now?
Tomorrow: My Coffin World.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The camera with the fault from Friday’s episode is still a problem; the opening and closing scenes are tinted green.
James tells Brutus, “You can dispense with the parental greeting and the jolly welcome.” He means paternal.
Brutus trips on the sentence, “Now, what do you want to speak about the partnership?”
James says, “Amanda, we’ve gone through this already. If I could do — if I could only exactly do that, if I knew where the records room was!”
I cleaned this quote up above; what James actually says is, “I have all of the proof right here that you’ve embenzled hundreds and thousands of dollars!”
There’s another fault in one of the cameras that warps the top of the screen slightly when the camera pans down. You can see it when Act 3 opens with a shot of the clock, and at the start of Act 4, when Brutus gives James the injection.
Constance tells Brutus, “I’ve always taken your part! I’ve always believed in you, and taken your part against your enemies!”
Brutus sets a curse: “It shall bring death and insanity to all whoever inhabit this room!”
The chromakey Brutus in the final scene is in the wrong spot; it looks like he’s standing in a hole.
Behind the Scenes:
That’s the Petofi box on the desk in front of Brutus, making its final appearance on the show.
Tomorrow: My Coffin World.
— Danny Horn