Update: 'Dark Shadows' from a 21st Century Perspective Aug 3, 2020 15:46:37 GMT -5 julia likes this
Post by JoannaB on Aug 3, 2020 15:46:37 GMT -5
Dark Shadows from a 21st Century Perspective
What if I told you there was a perfect television show, and that it’s a low-budget late-1960s soap opera about a vampire slinking around a town in Maine that appears to consist of nothing more than a 40-room mansion, a cannery, a graveyard, an inn, an old house and a little bar called the Blue Whale (above)?
I started Dark Shadows as a joke, sort of. Having burned out on vampires sometime in the early 2000s, after spending entirely too much of high school reading every paranormal romance series available – this was before the Twilight boom, thanks very much – I’m finally interested again. Surely, these fields have lain fallow long enough that it’s time for a revival. I realized that I’d never actually seen this particular minor classic of the genre, which is less discussed than the Hammer films, but equally important in fostering a taste for bloodsuckers among Americans in the latter half of the 20th century.
Dark Shadows ran on ABC from June 1966 to April 1971. Thanks to decades of syndication and cult fandom, it’s been subsumed into the canon of mid-century spookiness, a motley crew that ranges from The Twilight Zone to The Munsters. But its original home was alongside General Hospital and As The World Turns. Dark Shadows was launched as a straight-up classic soap opera, riffing on a highly popular genre of the time: the Gothic romance. The show began with an orphan named Victoria Winters journeying to Collinsport, Maine, to take a job as governess – a plot that will be immediately recognizable to anyone who ever had a Victoria Holt phase.
But while Gothic romances were among the most popular pulp fiction genres of the era, Dark Shadows couldn’t get any traction, that is, until the Dan Curtis, the producer, introduced the character Barnabas Collins, a somewhat repentant, self-loathing vampire, who slunk about Collinsport in idiosyncratic tailoring. Originally, actor Jonathan Frid was booked for a brief run, but the character quickly proved popular and catapulted the show from vaguely eerie to outright horror, or at least as much as was possible on network television in 1967. The show found its ideal constituency in teenagers and children returning from school around the time it was airing, and housewives looking for something a little offbeat – making it, yes, essentially the Riverdale of its day. Thus, Dark Shadows is an important, visible link between two pop cultural traditions, Gothic romance and vampire romance, which are clearly thematically linked.
The show ran for 1,225 episodes total and it is the only mid-20th century soap opera available in its entirety (on Amazon Prime), with the exception of one missing episode, thanks to an early syndication deal. So, the best way to watch it is by picking the story arcs that interest you; hence, I skipped to the arrival of Barnabas, all the way in Episode 210. The entire series is also available on DVD.
Objectively, Dark Shadows is a disaster. The production schedule was brutal and the budget low, so when actors flubbed their lines, filming continued without interruption. The shows are therefore frequently punctuated by funny little hiccups such as flies on the set. It’s also not unusual to see sound or camera equipment drifting into the shot, and the special effects are hilarious, e.g., toy bats on poles. In the beginning, each episode started with a voiceover by Victoria Winters: “My name is Victoria Winters ....” Then comes an atmospheric weather report on the ongoing story, such as “Sunset at Collinwood, and the coldness of night settles in. This is a coldness that comes not from the air, but from a place that is still, and deep.” It makes you wonder why Victoria doesn’t speak the hell up if she knows so much about what’s happening around this extremely weird town. The show also relies heavily on the eerie sounds of the theremin, so much so that on occasion it ceases being eerie and tips over into comedy.
At one point, the defiant daughter of the Collins family matriarch takes up with a biker to spite her mother. His name is Buzz and he wears a chain like a Miss America pageant sash. And I haven’t even gotten into the Blue Whale, the town’s waterside watering hole, which always seems to be playing light Bossa nova despite the fact it’s supposed to be a regular sketchy fisherman’s bar.
At the most basic level, the introduction of Barnabas Collins makes no sense. Newly freed from his crypt by Willie Loomis, a petty criminal henchman who went looking for the Collins family jewels and got more than he bargained for, Collins just turns up at Collinwood – the big house – and introduces himself as a Collins cousin from the English branch of the family. His evidence that he’s related? The portrait of himself hanging in the hall which he claims is that of his ancestor. Matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard – she married and took her husband’s name, but many, many episodes later, one learns she’s being blackmailed into a second marriage by an unscrupulous Irishman who knows she killed Paul Stoddard – simply welcomes Barnabas into the family. When he comes back and asks to move into the crumbling old Collins family home, the “Old House” (above), from the 18th century, which is of course the home that Barnabas inhabited, she says sure. After all, he’s a Collins.
There is, nevertheless, something absolutely mesmerizing about Dark Shadows. It is a cult classic for very, very good reasons. Why would I watch the feuding monsters on Succession when I could instead watch a zonked-out, beguiled young woman wandering about a graveyard in her nightgown, looking like I feel after reading any news about the media industry? When I could watch Jonathan Frid try to smile menacingly around his fake fangs? Also, the plot’s sheer incoherence makes it incredibly rewarding when a character says something that actually suggests some common sense, like, “Vicky, you were hired as a governess, not a psychoanalyst.”
But it’s not just the silliness that appeals. The weirdly time-distorting pacing of the soap opera is particularly effective in a show about the paranormal. The episodes are only 20 minutes long, so they whizz by, but the plot advances at a glacial pace, and there are generally two going at any given time. So it’s simultaneously undemanding and riveting. I would find myself sitting down to fold laundry and then suddenly realized I’d raced through five or six episodes. An ailing character might still be stuck languishing dramatically in bed despite the rapid resolution of an entirely separate plot. The effect is psychically soupy, lulling you into forgetting about the low-budget goofiness. I found myself sinking into the experience.
At one point, a young woman named Maggie Evans – whom Barnabas wants to make his vampire bride by brainwashing her into believing she’s Josette Collins, his 19th century fiancée who jumped off a cliff when she realized what becoming a vampire would actually mean – goes out wandering through the misty woods around Collinsport, making her way to a graveyard and the waiting Barnabas. She was clearly wandering through a soundstage, to the point that it looked like she was filming an Instagram story at Sleep No More. But somehow, the sheer fakery of it all ultimately contributes to the atmosphere, even as you watch Frid bat a fake branch off his shoulder while he advances upon Maggie. And all those introductory voiceovers take place while one sees fuzzy, shimmering images of the Collins family mansion, which means each episode commences in with what looks like spectral footage.
This program must have been so creepy to watch on a staticky, boxy old television set. Imagine coming across this show in the middle of the night in syndication, without the ability to immediately pull up a Wikipedia page explaining everything. Divorced from its original context as part of a soap opera lineup, there’s something faintly eerie, almost otherworldly, about the show’s very existence. From where does this show even beam into your home? On what mysterious Amazon server does it live? What’s that moving in those dark shadows? Where’s that theremin music coming from? Are the hairs on the back of your neck stirring? Who’s behind you? My name is Victoria Winters ....
Sources: Kelly Faircloth, Jezebel, October 31, 2019, and The Dark Shadows Almanac: 30th Anniversary Tribute by Kathryn Leigh Scott.