“The screaming was unbelievable.”
There is another world.
There is a better world.
“The screaming was unbelievable.”
There is another world.
There is a better world.
“People I love haven’t always loved me back.”
Six months ago, in July 1970, the Firesign Theatre released a record called Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, an avant-garde slice of psychedelic, time-traveling radio comedy that was mostly about a ’50s teen movie spoof called High School Madness. In the spoof, young Peorgie and his pal Mudhead investigate the theft of their school, Morse Science High, by their rivals, Communist Martyrs High School. Infiltrating Commie Martyrs, the two buddies find the mural from their school in a storage room, labeled “Mural: Auditorium, right rear. Heroic Struggle of the Little Guys to Finish the Mural.”
Meanwhile, six months later, as we cross the chasm between 1970 and 1971, that is exactly what lies ahead for Dark Shadows: a 13-week heroic struggle to wrap up this wild, untamed soap opera that has broken free of all ties to civilization as we know it. Dark Shadows has never really been about a girl on a train, a mad family and a lovestruck vampire. It’s about some writers, a mad producer, a cast of eccentric New York stage actors, and a lonely boom mic trying to break into show business, working feverishly on a shoestring budget to produce the strangest possible television show, for as long as they can get away with it. In the three months left between January 1st and April 2nd, they are going to finish this mural or die trying, or both.
“Slow agonizing death is the worst kind, you know!”
It’s three days till Christmas 1970, and here we are in the dying days of Dark Shadows, a show that has specialized almost exclusively in dying days since its ratings peak in October 1969. Don’t tell the 1970 audience, but between you and me, the show only has 15 weeks left to run, which means, if my recent posting schedule is any guide, that this blog will shudder to a stop somewhere around the middle of 2075.
So we should get back to The War for Dark Shadows, the ongoing struggle to define what kind of story Dark Shadows becomes when it’s not a half-hour daytime soap opera anymore. This battle has been raging for decades in books, movies, comic books and the hearts of children, and there’s a lot of it, so we’d better buckle down and start taking this seriously. I mean, those deck chairs aren’t going to rearrange themselves.
“So the next step is that we must go to the basement!”
So with pop sensation Quentin Collins on trial for introducing plot points, and the show’s ratings sinking slowly in the west, I might as well introduce The War for Dark Shadows, a latter-days theme that’s going to run through the last few months of the blog. We’re approaching the dreaded April Third, 1971 — history’s first day without Dark Shadows — and naturally the show’s not just going to lie down and take it. Going gentle into that good night is not what you might call one of Dark Shadows’ core competencies.
After April Third, the show does in fact go on, hopping from one medium to another in a long line of spinoffs and remakes. The Paperback Library novels keep running until 1972, and the Gold Key comics stretch all the way to 1976. We’ve already discussed the Dark Shadows comic strip, the Night of Dark Shadows movie and the 1991 NBC remake, each of them disastrous in their own individual way, and there are more disasters to come, including a book series, a failed pilot, another comic book series, and yes, a certain medium-budget Hollywood spectacular.
But the thing is, the show is so complicated that none of the remakes and spinoffs can agree on what Dark Shadows actually is. For the comic strip, Dark Shadows is an adventure serial, the story of hardly-hungry vampire Barnabas Collins, who secretly battles a series of supernatural villains in order to protect his cousins, Elizabeth and Carolyn. Meanwhile, the 1991 show thinks that Dark Shadows is a super-sexy time-travel love epic, spending a lot of time setting up a quite vicious Barnabas with Victoria Winters, who’s the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.
Those two ideas have very little in common, aside from a few character names and the fact that they only lasted for a year. They’re not the same kind of story at all. But when you look at either one, you can recognize that they’re based on Dark Shadows as you understand it. So the concept of “Dark Shadows” must be big enough to encompass both of these kinds of stories, and probably more to come, and each interpretation is casting a vote for a particular way to read the show. The War for Dark Shadows is a decades-long struggle to figure out what kind of show Dark Shadows was, and what it means for us today.
Happy Turkey Day! It’s time for another pre-emption, as we reach Thanksgiving 1970 and ABC decides to spend the day looking at basketball. It’s traditional on pre-emption days to do a little time travel, and watch a future version of Dark Shadows. This time, we’re only jumping about eight months ahead; we’re going to watch the 1971 feature film Night of Dark Shadows, executive producer Dan Curtis’ next attempt to catch lightning in a bottle.
Last year, Dan signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to make a Dark Shadows movie, and he came up with House of Dark Shadows, a fearlessly unrestrained retelling of the original Barnabas storyline. The movie did well at the box office, considering how cheap it was to make, and MGM asked for a sequel. Unfortunately, almost every character in House of Dark Shadows met a grisly end in one way or another, so bang goes the Dark Shadows Cinematic Universe before it’s even started.
For the sequel, Dan had the good manners to wait until the TV show was over before hauling half the cast to Tarrytown, New York and dousing them with a hose. The final taping day on Dark Shadows was March 24th, 1971, and shooting began for Night of Dark Shadows on March 29th. Dan had nine hundred thousand dollars, six weeks, and a cast and crew that was mostly from the TV show. He’d planned to resurrect Barnabas for the second movie, but Jonathan Frid was sick of playing vampires, and asked for a million dollars. So Dan took the show’s second male lead, David Selby, and set him up with two leading ladies — Lara Parker, Dark Shadows’ veteran vixen, and Kate Jackson, an ingenue who’d joined the show about ten months earlier and was obviously destined for stardom.
Night of Dark Shadows was vaguely based on the show’s Parallel Time storyline, which was vaguely based on Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, plus some inspiration from The Haunted Palace, a 1963 Roger Corman film that was supposed to be based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem, but was actually based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”, which when you get right down to it isn’t really very much like Night of Dark Shadows at all.
“Read the book, and you will know why the head must be destroyed.”
And meanwhile, from out of nowhere: a good television show.
It’s one of the great mysteries of 1970 Dark Shadows, that it can careen from low point to high point as often as it does. The Parallel Time story rattled to an incoherent close in July, killing the villain a week early and throwing in an unnecessary new love interest at the last minute. Then Barnabas and Julia traveled to 1995 for two fascinating, moody weeks that showed a sharp uptick in writing and production — and then it all fell to pieces over the next few months, as they returned to 1970 and forgot what they were aiming for.
And now here we are in October, in 1840 of all places, and the show is worth watching again, because Dan and Sam and Gordon have simply scrapped all of the previous stories and continuity and started over again, with a brand new soap opera. Barnabas and Julia aren’t on the show today, and nobody talks about them; the only character who we know from longer than two weeks ago is young Daniel, who’s now a dying old man and hardly even counts.
The star of this new show is Gerard Stiles — gun runner, smuggler, best friend and fortune-hunter — who has the same name and hairstyle as a ghost that used to be on the show, but otherwise there’s no resemblance. Gerard doesn’t threaten children or governesses, and he doesn’t do magic tricks with dollhouses. Why would he?
But this is how it works on this show, which has reinvented itself and risen from the ashes for another cycle. Once again, they’ve discovered that the best way to make Dark Shadows is to start from scratch and do something else.
“Go back to Collinsport and bury someone!”
First there was the unconscious Roxanne from Parallel Time, who talked like a jungle girl and got mesmerized by random objects. Barnabas fell in love with her, and then the house burned down, while she was trapped inside.
Then there was the vampire Roxanne from 1970, who talked about astral twins and punctured Maggie on the neck. Barnabas fell in love with that one too, and then the house burned down again, while she was trapped in a box.
In fact, every time we run into Roxanne, there’s an omega-level apocalypse just around the corner; clearly, the universe wants nothing more than to destroy this girl, and murder everyone who comes into contact with her.
But every time we leave Roxanne behind, we get to the next place, and guess what we find? Roxanne! This girl is the unshakeable Droopy of Dark Shadows.
“I was concerned, because people that are highly sensitive are usually very receptive to supernatural phenomena.”
And on top of that, she’s psychic, too, so now we have another reason for Hallie Stokes to stand around looking breathless and unwell, and we don’t even get a weird theremin sound or the scent of lilacs or anything.
“You know those strange feelings I get sometimes?” she says, so here we go; it’s one of those. Hallie’s telling Quentin about unexpectedly running into Barnabas and Julia in the hall earlier this evening, an experience which has shaken her to the core.
“I guess the reason I was frightened was the way that they looked at me, and talked to me,” she grouses. “They said things that made me think that they’d seen me someplace before, and I know I’ve never seen them before!” She tries to catch her breath, which appears to be a constant pursuit. “But then when I brought them downstairs, I had the awful feeling that something terrible was going to happen!”
But something terrible is already happening, thinks Quentin. It’s you.
“Do you know how the world is? It’s so very light when I’m with you.”
Roxanne is terrible. Dear god, she is terrible.
I’m hard on Barnabas love interests in general; I don’t actually like Josette all that much, either, which I know is a controversial stance. I appreciate her role in the story — obviously, she’s crucial — but when Josette and Barnabas are together, they don’t talk about anything but love. His relationship with Vicki was neutered and unimportant — in that case, he was really just a third-wheel spoiler between Vicki and Jeff. The parade of Josette lookalikes were kind of fun, but only when they were Rachel and Kitty and Maggie; as soon as Josette took over, they got boring again. Really, the only story-productive relationships that Barnabas has are with Angelique and Julia, and everyone else is an also-ran.
But Roxanne is so far beyond anything we’ve seen before. Roxanne is toxic.
“There’s such a fearful unreality about this place.”
It’s alive! as Dr. Frankenstein would say. It’s alive! Well, partially.
Cross-dimensional eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins has been pulling the old wall switches and setting the apparatus humming in the basement again, trying to restore life force to a young woman who’s low on get-up-and-go.
For the last few months, the lady in Stokes’ back parlor has been flat on her back, donating her élan vital to prop up the dangerous regime of soap-vixen sorceress Angelique. Barnabas, always open to new experiences, has decided to inexplicably fall in love with this comatose couchsurfer, who so far has opened her eyes once and is otherwise resting in peace. So he’s kidnapped the girl, strapped her to some mad science junk in the Old House basement, put several minutes of lightning through her veins and then stroked her face, all of which managed to get her to open her eyes again.
Now, in a perfect world, Roxanne would leap up onto the table and do a high-kicking musical number, like the frog in the Looney Tunes cartoon. “Hello ma baby, hello ma honey, hello ma ragtime gal! Send me a kiss by wire — baby, my heart’s on fire!”
This doesn’t happen. She just opens her eyes, stands up and looks around with a bland expression. The world is still just as imperfect as we always feared it would be.