Friday, October 31, 2014

What the hell is SNOWFLAKE?

That's the question a lot of people will be asking when visiting the Big Finish Productions website today. The file appeared in the company's podcast queue as a free Halloween gift to its customers. If you're one of those types who thinks anything qualifies as a potential spoiler, you might want to stop reading here.

SNOWFLAKE is a short horror tale published today without any kind of identifying markers. Fans of this site will pick up on the clues rather quickly, though. The (free!) audiodrama is set in Collinsport and should give DARK SHADOWS fans an idea of what to expect in the coming year. And that's all I'm really comfortable saying about it.

So what are you waiting for? Go get it! LINK

Daniel Collard as Victor Frost.

What's next from BIG FINISH in 2015?

It's a weird time for fans of the DARK SHADOW line of audiodramas from Big Finish. While there's been a lot of chatter about the upcoming "Bloodlust" serial, that ambitious project has created one of the longest periods between new releases in quite a while. The 13-part serial scheduled to begin in January is monopolizing the time of writers, producers and cast, leaving a six-month gap between releases.

And, after "Bloodlust," there's been no word on what to expect from the DARK SHADOWS line for the rest of 2015.

Today, though, producers have announced the titles and writers for the three stories slated to follow "Bloodlust" next year. May sees the release of "Panic" by Roy Gill. New to DARK SHADOWS, Gill has previously written for Big Finish's THE CONFESSIONS OF DORIAN GRAY, as well as his own original Young Adult novel series.

"Panic" is followed by "The Curse of Shurafa," written by Rob Morris.

And finally, in July, there's "And Red All Over..." by Cody Schell, writer of the award-nominated "Dark Shadows: The Flip Side."

“We weren't going to announce these stories until February next year,” said series co-producer Joseph Lidster. “But Big Finish said they're received a number of emails asking if the Dramatic Reading was continuing after 'Bloodlust.' We're pleased to say that it is! Full details for each of the stories will be released in February next year.”

You'll note a lack of information in this statement about which cast members are appearing in these stories. I've been privy to a tiny bit of information about next year's cast and promise you'll be excited.

"Bloodlust", the 13-part murder mystery, is available to pre-order HERE, with further casting announcements to come shortly.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

There's a Vampire in the White House!

Jonathan Frid puts the bite on Tricia Nixon at a Halloween party for underprivileged children at the White House in 1969.

 On Oct. 29, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate integration of public schools while, a few days later, President Richard Nixon went on television to explain his policy of  "Vietnamization," which seemed designed to provide the illusion of support to South Vietnam even as we began to withdraw our soldiers. If you notice a hint of bias in that prior sentence, it's not your imagination. I despise Nixon and shudder to think that he's going to appear on U.S. currency in a few short years.

Nixon wasn't the only vampire on television that week, though only one of them appeared to be present in the White House on Halloween. On Oct. 31, 1969, Jonathan Frid was a guest of Tricia Nixon at a party for underprivileged children at the White House. A Canadian citizen, it's unlikely that Frid had any serious opinions about the standing U.S. president. In a 1971 interview, he remarked, "I’ve been the heavy in so many Shakespeare supper festivals that even today I owe my allegiance to the House of York."

An estimated 1,200 cookies and 25 gallons of punch served for the 250 "underprivileged" children. The north portico of the White House was decorated by a giant Jack O'Lantern that was guarded by a pair of witches. Connie Stewart, Tricia Nixon's press secretary, wore a costume inspired by I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW), made up of a yellow leotard and yellow pages from the phone book. I'm guessing it was her first Halloween party.

The event garnered national coverage, with photos of Tricia Nixon and Frid appearing in magazines and newspapers across the country. The coverage was universally elitist, though. The "underprivileged" were only passingly mentioned; I wasn't able to find any notices that mentioned who these children were. Even Jet Magazine failed to tell us much about them, devoting much of its text to describing the party's decorations. Frid was absent from much of the coverage, as well, with newspaper notices often abbreviating wire stories down to a description of Nixon's dress.

"(Frid) said that the Nixon girl was just standing around and seemed hard pressed to engage the kids," said Nancy Kersey, a writer for Jonathan Frid's production company, Clunes Associates. "So he decided to step in and try and bite her, and that was captured on film. It made her smile"

Frid's costume was pretty much a given: Barnabas Collins. As was the standard practice for television in those days, most of Frid's public appearances were in character. While he was usually allowed to appear as himself on talk shows, even that wasn't something he could always take for granted.

Frid was absent from both the ABC studio and the airwaves on Halloween that year. It was a strange week of transition for DARK SHADOWS, as the episode broadcast that day, #875, was near the end of the popular "1897" storyline and did not include Barnabas Collins. Meanwhile, the episode shot that day, #888 was one of the first in the ill-fated "Leviathan" arc. It was an important episode for a few reasons: It featured the first appearances of Marie Wallace and Christopher Bernau as Phillip and Megan Todd, as well as the return of actor Dennis Patrick to DARK SHADOWS after a 605-episode absence.

As usual, Dan Curtis allowed Frid only a short break from the production. He wasn't allowed much time for travel, leaving New York City after filming on Oct. 30 and returning to work the following Tuesday. If you're one of the people that thinks it's odd the cast members of DARK SHADOWS don't always remember specific storylines with great clarity, the week after Halloween should explain why they frequently had no idea what was happening on the series. Not only were episodes shot about two weeks prior to broadcast, they were sometimes filmed out of order.

The week after Halloween was especially crazy. Monday, Nov. 3, 1969, saw episode #893 being recorded; the next day the production shot episode #881, followed by episode #891, episode  #890 and ending the week with the production of episode  #889.

And here's where we've reached the limits of this website's design. When I built this sucker more than two years ago, I hadn't planned on having a lot of photo-intensive posts. This is one of those rare occasions where there is quite a bit of documentary evidence involved. There's not as much as I'd like (I'm curious as to what Frid's itinerary was for his day at the White House, as well as the president's whereabouts on Halloween) and it's all a bit overwhelming for this website's relatively simple design.

Below are more photos from the Halloween event ... my apologies if it all looks a bit scattershot.

UPDATE: Avid CHS reader Roy Isbell sent me a handful of newspaper clippings, many of which include photos I've never seen before. You can see them below.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dan Curtis' DRACULA streaming on Hulu Plus

Dan Curtis' 1973-ish adaption of DRACULA is now streaming on Hulu Plus.

Originally scheduled to air on CBS for the Halloween season in 1973, the film was preempted by President Richard Nixon, who felt one of his inexplicable compulsions to remind the public that he was an asshole. And also that his accomplice in crime, Vice President Spiro Agnew, was resigning. The film was pushed back to the following year, and even received a theatrical release in Europe.

Originally titled BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, the story goes that Columbia struck a deal with Curtis for the exclusive rights to the title. Frankly, DAN CURTIS' DRACULA is a more apt title for the film, anyway. It's actually less faithful to the source material than Francis Ford Coppola's film.

MPI Home Video recently released a remastered version of Curtis' adaption on DVD and Blu-ray. The new release features the theatrical cut of the film, which include a few additional seconds of gore. While I haven't had time to inspect the version streaming on Hulu Plus, it's most likely the bloodier version that was screened in Europe.

I've got mixed feelings about the film. Despite a screenplay by Richard Matheson, DRACULA is a bit of a slog. It's gorgeously shot and showcases some great location work in England and Yugoslavia, but much of the cast goes to waste. The story just meanders around, occasionally stopping to shoehorn a flashback into the narrative to include scenes and plot points brazenly lifted from DARK SHADOWS. It's not a terrible film, but it's not especially good, either. You're better off watching HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, which is a nastier take on the same tale.

If you want to give it a look, you can find it on Hulu Plus HERE.

DARK SHADOWS News Bulletins

* More than a month after the death of DARK SHADOWS writer Sam Hall, his son Matthew has written a second eulogy for the man.

It was through Matthew's blog that the world learned of Sam's death, with a simple post that read: Sam Hall, March 11, 1921-September 26, 2014. A few days later he elaborated by sharing a eulogy he delivered to friends and family at a church service. This morning he posted a second eulogy for the late writer, one delivered during a recent memorial service. Here's an excerpt: 

"In that sense, my father was an entirely self-invented man. Writing was his form of self-creation; it allowed him to escape whoever that person was in Carrollton, Ohio whom he had refused to be. It allowed him to build a successful life with my mother and me in New York based entirely on writing. It allowed him, after my mother died, to become the figure of both charm and gravitas—and power, in his way he was immensely powerful—you all knew him to be in Rhinebeck. In a sense, he wrote himself into existence; his enormous writing talent—and it was prodigious, the largest talent I have ever known or ever will know—allowed him to become precisely who he wanted to be."

Read the entire piece HERE. You won't regret it.

* Speaking of Sam Hall, he makes this list of "Northeast Ohio All-Star trick-or-treat team," along with folks like Harlan Ellison, Wes Craven and David J. Skal.  LINK

* Kathryn Leigh Scott is participating in "A Murder of Authors," an online Facebook chat scheduled for Oct. 30. Kathryn will be chatting live from 3-3:30 p.m. EST, and will be giving away signed copies of her books "Dark Passages" and "Return to Collinwood." LINK

Meanwhile, Scott is also having a Halloween sale at her official website. Purchase a print copy of "Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood" for $24.95 from her during the month of October 2014 and receive a free print copy of "Dark Passages" and a signed photograph of Josette.

You can find her new Facebook author page HERE.


* Tim Burton's 2012 DARK SHADOWS is being featured as part of ABC Family’s “13 Nights of Halloween.” It airs Friday, Oct. 31 at 4:30 pm EST. I'm rather curious to see how ABC Family will work around the scene depicted above.

* Bloody Disgusting things you should binge watch DARK SHADOWS this Halloween. While I hate the term "binge watch," I fully endorse this proposal. LINK

* Episode #291 of DARK SHADOWS makes The A.V. Club's highlights list of "Vampire TV."  LINK

Monday, October 27, 2014

Monster Serial: SPIDER BABY, 1968


Lon Chaney Jr. and sex. 

Read your mind, didn’t I?

In fact, I could probably probe your mind while reading any essay and you’d be thinking the same thing?
Yes?  No?

Well, the two are on my mind.  At least when talking about SPIDER BABY.  I promise.  That’s it.  That’s really the only time I think of those things together.  And I don’t mean sex with Lon Chaney, Jr. or Lon Chaney, Jr. having sex.  I mean those as two different ideas.  But they both leap to mind when I think about SPIDER BABY.  Separately.

(Hey, look, I could have started the piece with a definition of California Gothic, but we’ve all been spared and I suspect you’re still reading.  And if you are, the combination lock on my Knoxville storage unit opens when you dial in “carl.”  If those reels of STAR WARS get stolen, I’ll know the book’s a success.)

Notice how this goes in all directions, but you’re still paying attention?  SPIDER BABY accomplishes the same thing.  Only much, much better.  And that’s only one of its many amazing attributes.

Thanks to a botched release and legal mumbo-jumbo, SPIDER BABY has been unseen for much of its history since it first came to the screen in 1968.  Had it found better distribution, I think its fame would be on par with PSYCHO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and DR. STRANGELOVE.  In some ways, it combines the best of all three with a healthy dose of THE LOVED ONE thrown in for good measure. 

But, like THE LOVED ONE, it remains a strange jewel, often hidden until one fan hands it down to another. 

That certainly was the case with me.  My dear friend Tobin Fields, a man infinitely smarter than I’ll ever be, with the unerring taste to prove it, worked diligently to get me to watch the movie for years.  But I found the title unappealing and was enough of a chump to think, “Lon Chaney.  So what?”

Yeah, I admit it.  Not proud, but it’s part of the narrative.  I assumed it was some grainy bore and passed.

But then I discovered Jack Hill.  COFFY.  FOXY BROWN.  THE BIG DOLL HOUSE.  THE BIG BIRD CAGE.  He amazed me as a director.  Hill is able to satisfy the most base and basic of an audience’s desires and be literate, urbane, witty, wry, and often very honestly touching.  Watch FOXY BROWN or COFFY to see what I mean.  The motivations and range of Pam Grier’s characters are as deep and as honestly written as anything Horton Foote might have conjured.  And then there’s a severed penis in a jar, too.

Having been forged in the same grindhouse furnace as his one-time (and I’ll argue inferior) contemporary, Francis Ford Coppola, Hill was fully ready to seize his first opportunity at a feature.  You would never know that it was his first.  Or that it was made with only $65,000 in twelve days.  Like all of Hill’s movies, it looks and feels much more expensive than it is.  Part of that was his training under Roger Corman.  Part of that is that Hill’s movies are always carefully constructed from the ground up to never feature anything that isn’t reasonable on a budget.  You don’t miss anything because it’s not required by the story, and because Hill’s dialog is so sharp. 

I have always said that good writing is the cheapest ignored resource in Hollywood.  You can make a smart movie that satisfies the most base and basic needs of the audience at the same time.  I know, since my tastes are largely base and basic.  Despite this, I like all of SPIDER BABY.

The story?  A ramshackle mansion in the middle of Nowhere, California has been inherited by a distant relative of the Merrye family, square-jawed, bright Peter Howe.  (God, I love the passive voice.)  This should be no problem, except that the Merrye clan has an odd problem in one strain… due to inbreeding, we’re told.  The current residents will be difficult to relocate, as Peter soon learns.  They should be ordinary college kids, but they are far from average.  Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralphie (the latter of whom is played in a brilliant, method performance by a young Sid Haig) occupy the house under the watchful eye of their weary, nervous, and loving caretaker, Bruno, played by Lon Chaney, Jr.  All but Bruno (a hired hand) suffer from various stages of the Merrye Syndrome, which strikes in adolescence and causes mental maturity to reverse as the sufferer ages.  Oh, and it makes them psychotic cannibals, too.  Bad combination.

In short, chaos erupts!  Not only is there the looming threat of death, but of even more twisted fates, since the Merrye kids’ post-pubescent libidos are too hardwired in to evaporate.  And they sort of know it.  Dressed in weird pinafores but flirting with a sugary directness, both ladies set their eyes on Peter ... more to kill than to mate, but that seems on the agenda, as well.  Worse is Ralphie, clad in a perverse Buster Brown outfit, zooming around the house in a dumbwaiter, and moving like the lovechild of a chimpanzee and a crab, and leering at Carol Ohmart.  Ohmart sashays about in an amazing corset-and-stockings ensemble that’s shocking in a 1964 film and has the same impact today.  It’s as if Elmer Batters had taken over the costuming and provided the sort of outfit that men point out to girlfriends as sexy before they pick out flannel jammies, instead.

Back to SPIDER BABY.  Bruno, knowing that his situation with the children has been exposed and that authorities will be contacted, demolishes the kids, himself, and the house in a — you guessed it — BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN moment of, “We belong dead.”  Unlike Karloff’s heartbroken plea, Chaney’s moment at the plunger has an almost impish shrug.  One more game for the kids?

I had never been a big fan of Lon Chaney.  He was miscast in almost everything Universal did.  Even as Frankenstein’s monster, he seemed suspiciously plump.  This got even worse when he played the Mummy.  Those are some incredibly robust reanimated corpses.  As the son of Claude Rains?  Even stranger.  Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN?  That’s more like it.  And just as Hill wrote to make his budget look great, he also wrote in the same way for his actors.  In SPIDER BABY, Chaney’s sweaty, gruff, gentle American everyman is the perfect core of humanity for the rest of the characters to spin around.  Half are insane.  The other half are bewildered.  And Chaney’s in the middle, trying to keep everyone on his best behavior. 
This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
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The greatest and most unexpected element to the character of Bruno is his enormously loving heart.  Despite their madness, Bruno not only loves them, but please for them to love each other.  It’s his ardent belief, I sense, that their capacity for love might ultimately outweigh their capacity for murder.  When he learns that this will never be the case, he does the only loving thing that he can; he saves them from themselves, atones for his naiveté, and protects others from them as well.  His smile and shrug at the end?  It says all of those things.  And more. 

It is impossible not to see the classic monsters — even well-cast — as anything other than friends.  They speak to the outcast in all of us.  Despite the wonky casting early on, that awkwardness saves Chaney’s Universal outings from disaster and makes them strangely endearing.  In SPIDER BABY, he goes out as the ultimate outcast, and the wise uncle to us all.  There is a lot of wry humor in SPIDER BABY.

Hilarious moments.  Those are swell.  But it’s the sense of empathy and affection that I remember best.  It grows every time I watch it.  This is Jack Hill’s love letter to Lon Chaney as much as it is anything else.  When a movie has enough wild elements, we can forget that it’s the sense of heart that makes them truly memorable.  Beyond anything else, SPIDER BABY has heart.  Even if the main characters eat it from time to time.

PATRICK McCRAY is a comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.


A few weeks back, artist Nick Acosta built composite images to illustrate how the original STAR TREK series might have looked in Cinerama. The results were gorgeous and immediately had me thinking about DARK SHADOWS.

So, using a selection screencaps from various DARK SHADOWS DVDs, I set about trying to recreate the experiment in Collinsport. Instead of aiming for Cinerama dimensions, I opted for the more modest 16:9 of modern television screens. The idea wasn’t to take an existing image and crop it to fit; the images you see above are composites of panning shots. As the camera moved, I took screenshots of the scene, piecing them together in Photoshop to make one image.

Some of these images turned out a bit kooky. The photography of DARK SHADOWS had a tendency to follow a specific actor throughout a shot, giving me a lot to work with. The images at the bottom show how long  sweeping these shots could sometimes be, with the same actor sometimes appearing more than once in a single composite.

STAR TREK was shot on film and has been lovingly (if controversially) restored in HD. DARK SHADOWS is not so lucky. Shot on video tape, it’s unlikely there will ever be a technology that will allow DARK SHADOWS to make a genuine leap to high definition. As it stands, the show's picture is inherently soft and blurry and will never look as good as STAR TREK.

So, here they are for your enjoyment. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the results.

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