Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Jan. 19

Taped on this date in 1971: Episode 1198


As Barnabas embarks on a determined mission of cross-dimensional bloodlust, is he the victim of a larger trap? Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Shot by Lamar Trask,  Angelique dies in the arms of Barnabas, not hearing him proclaim his love. Savage in his response, Barnabas chases and stabs Trask, who finds himself trapped and dying in parallel time. Emotionally decimated, Barnabas returns to the present with Julia and Stokes to find that they have successfully altered the timeline for the better. Meanwhile, Letitia Faye and Desmond catch a brief glimpse of parallel time where Julia Collins discovers Trask’s body.

1198 is a dangerous episode. As the resolution of the primary series, it trolls fans as much as it fulfills their desires. There is no eleventh hour return of Kathryn Leigh Scott. There is no tearful reunion with Josette. Instead, Barnabas discovers happiness in the arms of a one-time enemy. As the program does what it can with what it has, it shocks more than satisfies. Seen now, it also divides viewers like few other decisions made over its run. 

Do we see Barnabas discovering his authentic love for Angelique or merely convincing himself that the only game in town is what he always wanted? Is the series putting viewers in the same position? Are fans of the Barnabas/Angelique romance responding to something illuminating in the text or are they just making the best with what they have, convincing themselves it’s what they wanted all along? Are you on Team Angelique or Team Josette? It might depend on when you saw it. 

For millions of viewers over several decades, the climactic twist of Barnabas’ true, romantic direction is something they saw only once… or never saw at all. Without VHS, DVD or frequently cycled reruns, his “real” love is more of a rumor or fever dream than a fondly remembered highlight of the series. Until the mid-00’s, there was no way to review the moment, nor scour any of the series for clues. Good thing, because there were no clues. The writers were making it up as they went along, and if they had known that Barnabas’ true love was Angelique, they would have telegraphed it years before. Of course, the show might have benefited from this. But the fact that they can’t even hint at his unrealized love makes it more of a surprise. 

And it makes the whole argument irrelevant. In 2021, Dark Shadows exists as a complete entity. The details of its authorship are just those: details. This is the reality of Barnabas Collins because it’s now part of a finished work. 

The answer to the Josette vs Angelique question may not be so clear-cut as just choosing one over the other. I used to think of Angelique as the hero because of her 11th hour transformation and the tremendous sacrifices she makes along the way. But upon this viewing, I was struck by a possibility I had never considered before. As a director, something I always tell actors is that any character, at any point, may not be telling the truth. Even if the author makes it appear as if they are, they might not be. So, in terms of her grand transformation, what if Angelique is making it all up?  Or some of it up. After all, she has always been perfectly happy to use her powers to influence Barnabas’ decisions. How he came about loving her was always less relevant than the fact that he simply did. No love spells (on him). She simply mastered the fine art of influence. First off… threats to family. That’s in 1795. Then, threats to him. That’s in 1968. In 1897, maybe jealousy over Quentin? 

But at the end, none of those things worked, did they? Not like making yourself the hero against your past villainy, wiping out a larger threat, and then creating loyalty by curing your own curse. Has Barnabas been manipulated by a vast disinformation campaign? I say this because his decision is ultimately swayed by, yes, the involvement of witchcraft, years after her initial efforts. If it’s ineffective to use your occult powers, simply impress everyone by removing them. One way or the other, you’re still exploiting the occult. One way or the other, you would never be in the position you are if it were not for witchcraft. Clever. And strangely Zen. 

Take the implications to episodes that never happened. We have no evidence that she’s really given up her powers. It’s not like there’s a meter we can check. If she can suddenly cure a near-incurable curse, she can make her abilities appear and vanish at will. Faking her own death is the longest-but-strongest game possible. Had the 1971 Primary Time storyline happened, it might very well have seen Barnabas exploring the timeline in pursuit of Angelique. At last, she would be desired and sought on a level to rival Josette. 

At last he would have her right where she wants him. 

It’s just an interpretation. Just a what-if, True Believers. Yes, a bleakly cynical one of multilevel manipulation, but you have met Angelique, right? 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 27, 1971.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dark Shadows: The Revival Begins


When a boozing handyman decodes the secret location of a wealthy family’s long-lost treasures, he uncovers the deadliest legacy of all. Can the new tutor for the family’s troubled heir unravel the mystery before becoming a bride of the living dead? Loomis: Jim Fyfe. (Repeat. 1 hr.) 

All-around scamp Willie Loomis unleashes Barnabas Collins, a vampire trapped in his own coffin for two centuries. Masquerading as his own descendant, Collins reclaims his dilapidated ancestral home and is compelled to woo his family’s newest employee, a soulful governess who resembles the bride he lost centuries before, 

When Ben Cross died, I remember writing that the 1991 Dark Shadows "revival" was the first expression of the franchise that felt like mine. It was the first Dark Shadows production of any kind  to roll out in my lifetime. More or less. I was born just a few days after the program went off the air, and, let's put the cards on the table, I'm not really sure Night of Dark Shadows counts except as a metaphor for the Fine Art of Settling for What We Got that was the albatross of being a fan back then. Few gigantic pop culture phenomena required as much of its fans as Dark Shadows at that time. This was a program you were lucky to even catch on TV. In 1990, many of the fans had never seen the entire series and had no real hope of doing so. I worked for public television at the time, and the rumor around the station was that Worldvision was asking so much for the final package that absolutely no station would carry it. True? False? I don't know. But I don't see Gerard Stiles around here, do you? 

Following the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea of a prime time, big-budget, hour-long television series on the most powerful network on television was like a reward for loyalty. And it immediately created a strange sense of conflict with the original series. To this day, I feel inexplicably disloyal saying nice things about a TV series that could have hired almost all of the original stars, the oldest of which, among a certain age bracket, wasn't even 50.  Still, putting that aside, this was an incredible proof-of-concept. This was an affirmation that Dark Shadows was not just a TV series.  A recognition like this is like finding yourself on the pop culture equivalent of the periodic table. Attention was at last being paid. And honestly? The fact that the original actors were not featured was, strangely, a compliment to them. It was an acknowledgement that they created something so indelible that it became larger than their individual personalities. If anything, it was a tribute to their immortality…  just a few inconvenient decades early.  

In my lifetime, there was no better time to be a Dark Shadows fan. Twin Peaks had cleared a path for a nighttime supernatural mystery soap opera.  Anne Rice was going great guns and had yet to go through that weird, post-9/11 Jesus phase. The Lost Boys wasn't that long ago, and if the Bernard Hughes character isn't the prototype for what they did with Dave Woodard, then… well... I don't need to bother coming up with something to finish the sentence. He clearly was the model. 

And you've got to love that. However, therein lies the ultimate reason for the show's failure. Bernard Hughes. Mastermind of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait? You tell me. The future staff of Dark Shadows goes to see The Lost Boys and the hot property they come back with is a character kind of like Bernard Hughes. Yeah, that's the takeaway, apparently. Keep in mind, I exist in a world where Bernard Hughes defines male sex appeal. But there are times when I wonder if I am actually the entertainment industry's key demographic. Not that a 1991 Dark Shadows has to be the Lost Boys, but it was state-of-the-art. And the 1991 Dark Shadows… was not.

I don't lay the failure of the show on the Gulf War. I had a reason to watch the show because I was a Dark Shadows fan. So, I did what a person did at the time; I read the newspaper and I read TV Guide and I followed the show around like Waldo wherever it might pop up on the schedule in between Iraq’s regularly scheduled missile attacks on Israel.  I never missed an episode. So, if motivated, it was scientifically possible for a viewer to keep up with the crazy schedule of the show. But the rest of the nation was not properly motivated. Logic dictates that the program, despite its quality, did not significantly motivate viewers en masse. And that's what happened.

Dan Curtis was 39 when the original Dark Shadows went on the air. To put this into perspective, not only was he a relatively young man, but his greatest inspiration, Tod Browning's Dracula, was only 35 years old when the original TV show premiered. Yeah, it was only five years older than the Dark Shadows remake is now. It was all pretty fresh, cosmically speaking. In fact, the original novel was less than 70 years old at that point. But by 1990, Dan Curtis was 63. Horror had reinvented itself at least twice since he was a prime mover in the field. And while no one would call him tired, he produced a Dark Shadows remake that had the kind of dated swagger that comes from someone who helps invent a genre. Because of that, maybe he doesn't see a lot of need to check in with what has become of that before jumping in again. I kind of get the feeling that everyone around the office considered Dark Shadows 1991 relevant because Dan Curtis said it was relevant .  Unfortunately, the Zeitgeist didn't get the memo.

In the long run, I think this serves the 1991 Dark Shadows series better now than it did at the time. It has a stately confidence that grows as the series moves on. But I don't know many people who hang out at the water cooler gushing about how excited they are to see more stately confidence that night on TV. Perhaps, in 1990, God help me, it needed a blond Barnabas with spiky hair and a leather jacket. That was the fashion back then, and at least it would be a tribute to paying attention. And that's great. They didn’t do that. After all, conservative clothes never go out of style. It has an admirable stodginess that a 63 year old guy who had  just spent a decade waging World War II would look at and say, "Yeah, that's about right." 

Yes, let's admit it, we answered the question, "What if somebody gave a Dark Shadows and nobody came?”  Because it was not Twin Peaks. It was a response to the Zeitgeist of 1967 that got made 23 years too late. Me? My idea of a great band back then was and still is the Ink Spots. So, I like the fact that the show is not some winkingly postmodern flavor of the month, diagnosing the audience's sperm motility the old-fashioned way with a high style that can't make up its mind if it's parody or sincere. Like Twin Peaks. Instead, that show just bullies you by condescendingly Lynchsplaining that whatever tonal interpretation you have of it is wrong. But my real beef with that show is that it was successful and reportedly good and a lot of people liked it and instead of priming the audience for Dark Shadows, it created a situation where Dark Shadows was criticized by many for not being it. 

And because the man works his ass off to run this particular Bartertown, I have to acknowledge the head of the Historical Society here. It would be ooky not to.  You get the daybook, I believe, because Wallace has big executive stuff to do. The guy is a fantastic writer. Go back and read Monster Serial if you want proof. Look at the first line of his Alien review. It is rhetorically sublime. The man knows what he's talking about. One day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to hook a reader with a simple first sentence like the one he uses there. Wallace loves Twin Peaks, and he's smarter than I am to an extent that makes me a gym coach who's gotten stuck trying to muddle through an organic chemistry textbook because the actual teacher has jury duty. He loves Twin Peaks, so go watch it. I'm just cranky because what kind of a world is it where a guy dressed up like Barnabas Collins (Dale Cooper in his natty black suits) gets all of the cultural cachet while the new Barnabas Collins struts around in vaguely dated turtlenecks that make him look like Ron Burgundy's mortician?  Barnabas Collins was not a man with much need for business casual circa 1979.  I swear to God,  I think Willie just raided Roger’s latest donation to AMVETS and convinced Barnabas that it would impress Victoria. I'm sure he talked Barnabas  into slathering himself with Paco Rabanne, wearing a gold chain under the offensive turtleneck,  and probably sansabelt slacks just to complete the ensemble.  Ben Cross brings a uniquely regal sensibility to Barnabas, and it works best in the context of the 1791 flashback. That's really where the character comes into his own, and since everyone knows what the mystery of Barnabas Collins actually is, I wish they had simply started the series there. It would have given a fresh sense of sympathy and relevance to his quest for Josette, allowing them to enter the modern era with Barnabas as an understandably reluctant vampire. That was a magical choice that the original series had to discover through trial and error. There's no need to repeat the learning process. Let the story itself do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Cross is forced to play an almost cartoonishly suave and confident vampire who is largely interesting because he's named Barnabas Collins. I wish they had allowed him to explore the nervous, fearful, and  paranoid, dethroned aristocrat that I always think of when considering the essence of Barnabas Collins in those early episodes.  Cross was reportedly a man with a tremendous and ebullient sense of mischief, and I think he would have risen to that challenge with a lot of gratitude.

Having had fun at the expense of a show I actually like, let me list what really works in this pilot. The cast is incredibly strong.  Joanna Going is positively luminous as Victoria Winters.  Alexandra Moltke strikes me as playing a loving caregiver for a disturbed boy who also does what she can as an educator. Joanna Going gets to play a highly credible educator who also happens to have a skill at reaching this disturbed young man. It's an important distinction, and it makes it easy to root for her as a character capable of solving Collinwood's mysteries rather than someone I'm just kind of concerned about. The rest of the performers spend most of their time doing what casts do in a pilot; they recite exposition. But they execute it with a sense of investment and stakes. Roy Thinnes’ natural presence and dark integrity help to create a different type of Roger Collins, but one I am just as interested in seeing revealed. This is a man who has been married to a fire demon and has lived to tell the tale. And it's wonderful to see Jean Simmons out of makeup, despite having rock and rolled all day and partied every night.

In a cast of standout performances, there are several unexpected ones that work exceptionally well and are worthy of special praise. Dan Curtis and the team make lightning strike twice with the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as David Collins. Like David Henesy before him, he has a blend of maturity, menace, confidence, and vulnerability that does the impossible by making a child character just as interesting and unpredictable as any of the adults. Equally terrific is Barbara Blackburn. She combines Caroline’s necessary youth with a mature intelligence, sense of wit, and honest, smokey-voiced eroticism grounded more in those inner qualities than simply relying on her bone deep physical beauty. As with the women of the original Dark Shadows cast, Hollywood really missed the boat by not casting her in everything possible for the next 30 years. 

My favorite of all of them is Saint Jim Fyfe. His audition was reportedly an explosive exercise in risk-taking that commanded his casting… despite being nothing like John Karlen.  Because the character is so distinctive, he gets to have far more fun than anyone else in the cast. Fyfe and the writers know that this character is destined to be a sympathetic everyman, loyal to Barnabas more and more out of an instinctive sense of his master’s nascent humanity than fear.  It’s only now that I can see a series where Willie is the audience surrogate more than Victoria.  Making Willie the troubled inheritor of the Ben (Stokes) Loomis mantle grounds his sense of loyalty in something larger than himself, and it is the thread that so beautifully ties together the two eras occupied by the show. No, he’s not John Karlen. But he does what I think Karlen would champion; he makes the character his own rather than an imitation. It’s a trait shared by his castmates, but he gets to explore the furthest dimensions of it. There are few episodes of the series where he doesn’t make me laugh and tear up just a tad. Fyfe embodies the single most important adage in selecting performers: choose the most interesting actor, not just the most naturalistic. 

If Dark Shadows 1991 failed to be a show with numbers demanding a second season, and if it falls short of being the late-Eighties music video nightmare that might have gotten all the gang talking at the sock hop, it doesn’t matter. It sustains its half-season with a unique, compelling, and headstrong voice that doesn’t need to ask for anyone’s approval. Dan Curtis’ braggadocio may have created a strangely anachronistic show, but given the nature of its lead character, that may have been the most loyal choice possible. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Jan. 5

Taped on this date in 1968: Episode 404


Does Vicki have the power of witchcraft after all? All bets are off when a smitten jail guard quits his day job to become Collinsport’s newest lawyer for her defense. Peter Bradford: Roger Davis. (Repeat. 30 min.)

Judge Matigan goes from defending Vicki against Trask to distancing himself when she reveals her anachronistic origins. From the wings, a handsome young gaoler named Peter Bradford volunteers to defend her innocence. Meanwhile, Barnabas is interrupted by a spying bat when he attempts to tell Josette the true identity of the witch. 

If the Monolith from 2001 were to have taken a break from filming his upcoming Valentine’s Day special across the hall, he would have dropped in on this episode of Dark Shadows. Apes at his feet. Golf club over his shoulder. “Thanks for the Memories” wafting around him thanks to Bob Cobert. Why? Change must be heralded. And to be certain, change is arriving. Dark Shadows, cauldron of moral ambiguity, is about to get its first, pure hero. Ladies and gentlemen, join me, Richard Strauss, and the Also Sprach Zarathustra Dancers as we welcome Mr. Roger Davis

Specifically, Peter Bradford. A character unlike any that the show has introduced in 400 episodes. He’s a capital-R Romantic hero in the midst of a Greek tragedy. Both the actor and character bring everything right to Dark Shadows, filling needs we never knew the show had until now.  It's appropriate that this segment of the show should feel even more like a Greek tragedy than Dark Shadows normally does. And that’s saying a lot. If this program were any more Greek, it would smashing plates and awaiting the Pierce Brosnan musical number. The show may have have been low in budget, but the stakes in the drama are inventive and gripping.

The forces opposing Victoria Winters are like those tormenting Gods themselves. They are relentless. Vast to the point of institutional. And inevitable. Vicki’s journey is a maddening cycle of hopes dashed, raised, and dashed again. The arrival of Peter Bradford is part of that cycle, but it also feels like the storyline is finally bucking with an unexpected defiance toward fate. Vicky deserves it. It's awfully cheeky of the universe to pick on Victoria in the first place. Did it not have a worthier target? This is the person famous for saying that she doesn't understand.  I love her to death, but I think few could argue that Vicky could get stuck on a broken escalator. As always, I ask why is she back there? Why was she chosen?  

Especially with her growing fascination with Josette and her era, Vicky makes an ideal witness.  She departs for the past as something of a Collins fangirl, herself. Her reverence for the Collins fam puts her in a perfect position to be let down by the clay footed reality. The mighty have to fall. It’s what makes high drama so satisfying. Besides, we can’t get the deposit back on the periaktoi, so we might as well use them. Pure as they come, Victoria is untouched by the tragic flaws creating the forced implosion of the Collins family. She’s an outsider. (Then again, so is Angelique… and Josette.) It makes sense that an outsider would be her undoing. 

Everyone admits that Trask is full of monkey feathers, but they seem incapable of honoring the wisdom of Susan Powter and stopping the insanity. She is surrounded by ineffectual voices of wealthy, Enlightenment reason consistently subordinated by a superstitious redneck.  In this episode, it looks like she’ll be getting the best lawyer in town. Complete with judiciary super powers, Addison Powell might as well enter nude and greased up on a wrecking ball to save her, just like Miley Cyrus did, and Kate Smith, before her. The day is saved until she makes the mistake of telling the truth, and then the needle scratches off the record with cosmic inevitability. 

Enter Peter Bradford. This guy’s different. He doesn’t even look like he belongs in a Dan Curtis production. Tenor, not baritone. Sandy haired, not dark. Physically proportionate rather than elongated and looming. The Dan Curtis taste in casting men who look like he did has trained us to expect a pattern, and Roger Davis breaks it. In doing so, he feels like an ambassador from the real world, and we instantly trust him. As he offers a tearful Vicki his help, seasoned viewers wait for the music or lingering shot that would normally signal a hidden agenda. Wait all you want; we finally have a genuine mensch. If Dark Shadows is a universe where the average person harbors secret hazards, then the very presence of an average person implies statistical outliers. One would be a Trask, who is nothing but a public menace. And now, we meet his opposite. Just as rare. Seemingly, just as inevitable. 

In his debut, Davis does what few actors can: he makes doing the right thing actually interesting. We see a compassionate strategist in Davis, with a purity of purpose that suggests a man who will not back down. That very sense of dedication hints at a man of both love and principle, who will, by turns, be equally feral and contemplative. His benevolence has a necessary edge, and Davis’ native senses of intelligence, passion, and mischief are precisely the elements that define the program’s unpredictable bravado.

Vicki may finally have a fighting chance. As Dark Shadows explores its power to push beyond limits, it also finds new limits to push. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 11, 1968.

Long Live The Phoenix: The First Monster of Dark Shadows

There are a lot of serious Dark Shadows fans who have never seen the 200 or so episodes of the series prior to Jonathan Frid's introduction. That represents about a year's worth of episodes and at least three overlapping storylines, all of which are essential viewing if you ever want to really understand Dark Shadows.

The first week of the show might be the most important block of episodes in the entire series. I'd put it on the shelf next to the first issue of Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman or the pilot of The Shield, in terms of who thoroughly it establishes themes that would go on to inform the rest of the series. As much as I love the soapy stories that follow that first week of Dark Shadows, the only storyline you must see involves Diana Millay's turn as the show's first monster: Laura Collins, "The Phoenix." And hooboy, she's a doozy.

Serialized storytelling has the habit of blooming during its darkest times. Spider-Man was introduced in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy, because why not? What did they have to lose? The X-Men saw a similar revival during the 1970s during a run of the series when almost nobody cared about the characters. Barnabas Collins has long been seen as a similar Hail Mary pass by Dan Curtis to grab the audience by the short and curlies and demand their attention ... but Laura Collins did it first. And nastier. 

Laura was introduced as a seminal soap opera character: The Ex. She had only been whispered about prior to her return to Collinsport, but everybody knew she was bad news. She had been married to Roger Collins (which doesn't speak well of her character), was the mother of a young sociopath and was involved -- somehow -- in vehicular manslaughter that sent an innocent man to prison. But she was something else, too: a full-fledged demigod with a horrifying goal. She doesn't return to Collinsport to bury any hatchets with Roger or his old friend/nemesis Burke Devlin ... she'd come home to murder her child. It's a compulsion she's barely aware of and is helpless to resist. It's as tragic as it is grotesque.

The storyline also leans heavily into film noir, not only in the superficial elements (cops, shadows, lots of tobacco and lies) but also in the sense that there was no possible way for the plot to resolve itself in a happy ending. Along the way it expands the demon haunted world of Dark Shadows in a way that made the inclusion of a vampire not only make sense, but feel almost like a relief.

If you want to give this storyline a spin, it takes place across episode 123 (found on the Dark Shadows: The Beginning, Vol. 4 Disc 2) to episode 192 (The Beginning, Vol. 6 Disc 2). Go watch it!

Friday, January 8, 2021

Diana Millay (1935-2021)



The passing of Diana Millay has a poignance to it on many levels. For many fans, Dark Shadows was a part of their lives since its first episodes went on the air. It was a contemporary show rather than a piece of another generation’s nostalgia. As one of the first cast members, only 31 when she took the part, it is a wistful reminder that the show is on a steady course to becoming an animal that lives completely in memory. 

As Laura Collins, she followed Burke Devlin as a feared and much-talked-about piece of the recent past that refuses to be done with the Collins family. Is she a reminder of past sins? Given Roger’s cold and distant nature, it’s easy to assume that she is the victim of some sort, there to rescue David from a parental love so vacant that Liz is compelled to order carry-out in the form of Victoria Winters. Instead, she adds to Roger’s complexity when we find that she is the show’s first real female villain, causing us to think twice about who he was. Not only that, but she sets the stage as the first, real “outsider” female, creating a motif that balances Vicki. Vicki is also an outsider, but one who seeks only meaning and identity. Like Angelique after her, she represents the danger of women from the larger world. Laura allows us to appreciate the positive nature of the women on the show we’ve so far met. A primarily female audience was given a band of surrogate sisters, and now they and we have to close ranks against the interloper.

As that, her greatest legacy was as the first supernatural villain on the show. Ghosts are fine, but can they truly stack up against a living creature with an agenda? Not in the drama department. The introduction of Laura is the program’s first, longrunning risk into the personified paranormal. Yes, there was the ghost of Josette, but she’s expected in a spooky house, and exists at this point as a special-effect more than a truly interactive character. For all of the credit given to Jonathan Frid as the show’s first great supernatural foe, Laura has him beat. Not only that, but as a type of monster with no heritage nor blueprint. I’m still not sure what a Phoenix is, but Millay certainly was. The cool confidence of her performance successfully charted that new frontier for the show and made safe every choice they tried afterwards. 

Interview after interview gave Millay the platform to describe the joy of helping to create that character. She identified strongly with the mystical, alluring creature, both lustfully of this earth and empowered by primal forces beyond time. In her hands, the novel nature of the threat was an invitation for ownership and creativity. That self-assuredness cemented a character that is as credible as it as fantastic, and Millay gives Laura a set of missions that should contradict each other, but don’t. She is ancient-but-contemporary, tied to the past of Roger, his ancestors, and countless fathers before. But she is decidedly contemporary, also, existing on her own with no need for the Collins material resources or status. Yes, she needs something, but it’s the most unjustly ignored element of the Collins wealth: David. 

Millay relishes her performance like few on the show, and like the concept of the Phoenix itself, is a study in contradiction and balance. She convinces us that she is a loving mother and a ruthless force of hellish consumption. Few performers can maintain both of those impressions, but Millay had to and did. She was impossible to pigeonhole as someone with only one dimension. Thanks to the delicate nature of her acting, we experienced David’s twin senses of total fear and total need. She had to bring both of those elements out in David Henesy so that we could experience genuine sympathy toward his plight from her first moments until the end. I’m still undecided about the fate he faced beyond the flame. It’s a totally irrational curiosity, but Millay’s dedicated sincerity is impossible to ignore.  

The adage in performance is that every character is the hero in their own eyes. With Diana Millay, we never doubt it. When she returns as the character, it’s a harder sale to pitch, but she manages to do so again… with a twist. Now, undeniably a villain, Millay repeats her mission, but with a more colorful bent for unapologetic evil. She’s no longer an unopposed god among mortals. The presence of Angelique, Barnabas, and even seasoned occultist Quentin gives her a reason to revel in her plans rather than coyly allude to them. It’s yet another dimension to a character of teasingly allusive possibilities.  

Millay delighted in her identification with the role, often insisting that she had worlds in common with her. As a cast member dedicated to mysticism, going so far as to write several books on the subject, she was both an ensemble member and a committed fan of the show’s subject matter. She was an actor, reveler, and even thematic ambassador. Of course, she wrote about the supernatural.  Of course, she wrote and performed motivational lectures. Put the two together and you have Laura, and the Phoenix, and Millay and the ebullient sense of mischief that made us believe that Collinsport was a world of possibility for everything that followed. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Dec. 9


Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 1169


When Angelique declares her love for Barnabas and lifts his curse, Judah realizes that the former vampire’s human side is a dangerous place to be. Judah Zachery: James Storm. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas interrupts Gerard’s daytime quest for his coffin by appearing quite human, having been made so by a contrite Angelique. Meanwhile, as Angelique reveals her history as Miranda Duval, Gabriel is haunted by the ghost of his murdered father, and attempts to kill Gerard.

Everything has to grow up. 

It would have been just as school was letting out for the holidays. Kids were three years older than they were when they spent their first (significant) DS Christmas break in 1795. I know that the show wasn’t expressly aimed at them, but, well, it was, anyway. Sam Hall was the father of a twelve year-old boy, and thus, was not only aware of their evolving sensibilities, but of their schedules, as well. School was letting out. Although kids were hme all the time, they also had more things bidding for that time. The show would kick it up accordingly. 1795 existed to show the knotty nature of pursuing passion’s industry. It’s appropriately two-dimensional for kids first learning about the basics of new love, infidelity, and the occult. Three years later, the lessons of ep. 1169 are far more nuanced, dealing with last loves, true loves, and a love so enduring that it grows past romance and into actual respect, affection, and admiration. 

It’s my understanding that the ratings were not as problematic at this time as history later implied. Still, Dan was increasingly restless, they had a star who was desperate to play anything other than the show’s sensation, and, not being a genre writer, Sam Hall himself was growing exhausted and bereft of fresh ideas. It’s a natural time to start asking where this is all going. Dark Shadows was not a sustainable organism because of its very strength… the wild ideas that sparked the story and the vast number of episodes they had to enliven. While that may seem kind of sad, it makes it the Roy Batty of daytime TV, finding a life with shape and meaning because of its limited lifespan. Other soaps may have memorable storylines and characters, but are they a memorable story? It’s impossible. But as unwieldy as Dark Shadows seems to be, there is a story within it. Like the Garden of Earthly Delights, it may be a massively complicated and surreal mess, but there’s a frame, and if we step back far enough, it’s all there to be seen at once.

1168 makes us acutely aware of that. As a piece of dramatic structure, it suffers from the endemic curse of its medium: the most vital moments are in the first act. Why? Today’s first act is actually the resolution of yesterday’s climax. So often with Dark Shadows, the episode begins with yesterday’s crescendo, but unlike the countless other entries in the saga, it does more than pad the running time until setting up the next episode’s big beginning. Hall is cleaning house, taking chances, unwrapping surprises, and, seemingly, hanging out with dear friends he knows are going away.

So, if they are going away, what can he do for them? How can he thank them? You know, “them” being not only the characters, but the actors who were his inevitable collaborators. Let’s start with James Storm, who has the opportunity to delve ever deeper into the character of Judah Zachery. Zachery, at this point, is so close to victory that he doesn’t seem to care. Storm has enjoyed one of the show’s rarest delights as he subverts one deceitful character for another entirely different deceitful character, but never really taking the spotlight as he should. He’s competing for airtime with the program's most saturated and robustly charismatic male ensembles. Given that, he’s practically Elvis, and the field of near-metadrama is his ‘68 Comeback Special. How many layers? We have Sam Hall writing for James Storm playing Judah Zachery possessing Ivan Miller pretending to be Gerard Stiles. That’s not confusing. It unrolls at a stately pace. Rather, it’s generous. Storm is so nimble and meticulous in his performance, you’d think it would turn clockwork. No. His singular magic is to fuse that almost pointilist precision of thought and language with the Halloween-night joy of simply performing. And he’s in marvelous company, because Christopher Pennock is allowed dazzling range here as a Gabriel pushed to the edge. Planning, calculating, and swearing vengeance, he’s a murderer trying to shift the blame onto Gerard. And from a certain point of view, he’s correct. But like a twisted riff on Hamlet, he’s tortured by the ghost of the father he murdered, and this spectral patriarch may not be omniscient. He’s still there to take it out only on Gabriel, and you would think that, in death, he would see the puppet strings of both Gerard and Judah, at the very least spreading the blame. But Daniel seems myopic to this, and the frenzy of ghostly guilt and greed seems to galvanize Gabriel (hang on, let me catch my breath) into taking his first actions to preserve the Collins legacy. In Dark Shadows, you don’t even bother to hope that your ancestors will go to a better place. You just double it on the pass line and pray they didn’t see what you did. 

On the blueprints, the dullest and most thankless part on the show had to go to Grayson Hall, who’s not crazy, supernatural, newly human, possessed, nor haunted. Her edge comes from the fact that Sam had to sleep some time, and if he thought he was going to turn her into a wandering sounding board for exposition, he’d better sleep lightly. Having only guts, common sense, and enough experience to know that Blairs and Petofis come and Blairs and Petofis go, she’s one of us looking in. Judah doesn't stand a chance. 

In her attempts to reason with Barnabas, we see each appreciating and suffering the lack of what defines the other. Julia is memory. Fact. Common sense. Barnabas is a creature high on the fumes of pure relief and affection. Is it possible that Angelique is staging all of this for a royal screw worthy of Wile E. Coyote? Yeah. But… you know… it’s also possible that she’s sincere. We have no evidence. So, yeah, she did this out some newfound goodness in her heart. It’s possible. What? Stop lookin’ at me like that. It is. And as it turns out, I’m right. 

Lara Parker
plays the dishwater dull role of Proving She’s Earnest and then Giving History Lessons. That kind of goody-goody nonsense and trip-down-memory-lane-ing is deadly for actors. However, these are also profound turning points for the character. Someone who’s lived only lies -- down to her very name -- for centuries is changing the dance. That’s a powerful lesson, and Parker plays it with a fierceness that communicates the absolute necessity of compassion and honesty. She’s tried everything else. If 1840 is anything, it’s a woman’s attempt to protect the man she loves from the machinations of a deranged ex-boyfriend. From the implications she drops about Judah, it’s clear he was a love of her past. How different he was from Barnabas, and perhaps that’s the point.

And this positions our craggy, handwringing hero to have moments in the sun at last… again. We see him through the eyes of Julia and Angelique as everyone tries to reconcile that, yes, we have the capacity for change. Even the worst of us. Jonathan Frid, a man who, three years prior, was damnably uneasy playing youthful innocence, now portrays the same man with ease. It’s an innocence that’s organic. It comes from knowing how complicated humans will make the world, and what a relief it is when they drop the act. Innocence like Barnabas’ doesn’t come from a lack of experience. It comes from seeing how little can actually come from it. And relishing pulling the rug from beneath Gerard? As well as showing off his Mrs. Peel?  It’s been a long time coming. 

This is all in 24 minutes, and that just begins the goodbye. 

This episode was broadcast Dec. 17, 1970.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Re-Imaginos: Songs nobody knew and stories left undone

By Wallace McBride

There will probably never be a definitive version of Imaginos. There was a time when I would have written off that inconsistency as a bug, but Re-Imaginos — the latest installment in the occasionally on-going saga  suggests that inconsistency might be an essential feature.

Imaginos  both the character and the song cycle  has been lurking in the fringes of pop culture for about 50 years now, brushing up against the likes of Metallica, Academy Award nominee Grayson Hall and Stephen King along the way. The vision of long-time Blue Oyster Cult manager Sandy Pearlman, Imaginos tells the story of an "actor in history" commissioned by alien powers to push mankind toward an apocalyptic confrontation with evil. Think of it as Zelig filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and Joseph Campbell.

"The Soft Doctrines of Immaginos" (as it was originally called) began during Pearlman's college years in the 1960s, and found its first toehold when the psychedelic rock band The Stalk Forest Group abruptly swerved into heavy metal territory in 1971 when it became Blue Oyster Cult. In need of darker themes, Pearlman's stock got an overnight bump in value as his lyrics about occult sciences, satanic bikers and end-of-the-world rock concerts found an immediate home in the band's repertoire.

While Blue Oyster Cult balked at the idea of devoting an entire album to a solitary idea, songs from Pearlman's Imaginos epic leaked into the band's catalog over the coming years. Their 1974 album Secret Treaties served as a backdoor pilot of sorts for the rejected concept album, featuring at least three songs devoted to the as-yet unnamed "Imaginos" character. The liner notes include the cryptic (and unexplained) footnote: 

"Rossignol's curious, albeit simply titled book, 'The Origins of a World War', spoke in terms of 'secret treaties', drawn up between the Ambassadors from Plutonia and Desdinova the foreign minister. These treaties founded a secret science from the stars. Astronomy. The career of evil."

"Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed," was the album's tagline ... which doubled as the secret logline for the entire Imaginos saga. You can hear Grayson Hall pitch Secret Treaties to the masses in the video below.

The band began to resist Pearlman's gravity in 1975, leading to fewer of his lyrics finding their way to Blue Oyster Cult albums. It's difficult to say how many of his later lyrics were related to Imaginos, but it's likely that some of his work (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, I'm looking at you) simply hasn't disclosed its familial relations yet. Pearlman busied himself in the latter half of the decade producing albums for The Clash and The Dictators, and it appeared Imaginos had met his end.

When drummer Albert Bouchard exited the band in 1981, he and Pearlman went to work on an album dedicated exclusively to the Imaginos concept. Pearlman and Bouchard were the central nervous system of BOC, and if anyone could make Imaginos finally happen it would be them, right? Turns out the answer was "sorta." Behind-the-scenes drama saw the album wrestled away from Bouchard, becoming a formal Blue Oyster Cult release in the summer of 1988. Much of his performance was erased, his vocals replaced by other band members and singers. The convoluted process even roped in such talent Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Joe Satriani and Marc Biedermann (Blind Illusion). During its lengthy gestation period the album endured so many overdubs and do-overs that it's almost impossible to trace everybody's contribution. Aldo Nova, for example, is one of the musicians credited as part of "The Guitar Orchestra of the State of Imaginos," but reportedly has no memory of playing on the album.

And it gets weirder. Because Pearlman lacked the time and money to include all of the songs intended for the planned double-album release, many tracks were deleted and the album condensed into a single 55-minute disc. The songs were then shuffled out of order to create a conventional track sequence. The bizarre assembly of non-linear songs was masked by the pretense of being a "random access myth." Chaos had always been central to the events surrounding Imaginos, so grafting chaos to the narrative was a good fit. 

It also had the unintended effect of making Imaginos a deeply interactive experience. Pearlman's already cryptic lyrics became a Gordian Knot of words. Fans worked to not only decipher the meanings of individual songs, but also to assemble the scattered tracks into a whole story. Meanwhile, casual fans rejected Imaginos as not being (or sounding) much like a BOC album, while more serious fans continue to nurse a variety of grudges over its piecemeal, contentious production. For some folks its neither fish nor fowl.

It didn't take long for 1988's Imaginos album to go out of print. Which is tragic, because Pearlman's self-proclaimed "solo album" is one of rock's legitimately occult experiences. Not because of the story's many nods to voodoo, Rosicrucianism, cosmicism and indigenous legends; but because the experience of exploring its songs  for those who are open to it   is almost numinous. There's probably even a book to be written on how Pearlman's original vision for Blue Oyster Cult predicted the advent of chaos magic a few years later. I had about 2,000 words written at the start of this piece about astral documents, memetics, the evolution of the Necronomicon from fictional plot device to player in numerorous American conspiracy theories, and how all of THAT related to Imaginos ... but I've probably bored you enough with metaphysics. Besides, we're here to talk about Re-Imaginos.

There have been at least three versions of Imaginos released over the years, all of which have conflicting track listings. The first version was the 1988 album, the second a leaked collection of Bouchard's earlier "demos" (actually low-quality recordings of his final tracks, including the deleted songs) and the release last week of Re-Imaginos, which sees Bouchard revisiting these songs in quieter, spookier arrangements he believes are better suited to the material. With Re-Imaginos, Bouchard gleefully tosses more mud into the waters, settling on a song sequence that thumbs its nose at previous attempts at constructing the Imaginos tale into a coherent narrative and breaking those songs down into four movements: Quandry, Sublime, Ghost and Dance. He goes a step further by including a new version of Workshop of the Telescopes, a song from the first BOC album in 1972 that, until recently, was not known to be part of the Imaginos storyline. 

Confused yet? Here's Stephen King to give you a concise explanation of the story, one that doesn't require any prior experience with the music. 

There's quite a bit more taking place on Re-Imaginos than a re-shuffling of the deck. This isn't just an unplugged version of the original recordings; Bouchard fully disassembled the original songs in order to breathe new life into them. Some of the arrangements seem at cross purposes to their original recordings. The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria was maximum strum and drang in the original interation. Guest vocalist Joey Cerisano delivered a performance that would shame Ronnie James Dio, while Satriani and Biederman clash electric guitars throughout. I can't imagine anyone could have predicted Bouchard would ever reimagine this song as a tango (or is it a rumba? Salsa?), replacing the lead guitars (mostly) with violin. And it works. Not just as an indepedent track, but also as a thematic lead-in to The Girl That Love Made Blind, a song both literally and figuratively about dancing ... and time travel, astrology and immortality, all tarted up as a gothic Christmas long song.

The Girl That Love Made Blind was one of the songs that didn't make the final cut on the 1988 album, which was a sin. It was one of the best songs written for that album, and it's one of the best on Re-Imaginos. But the real showstopper on the new album is Astronomy, which might be the definitive version of the song. If you were to conduct a poll about BOC's best tune ... well, (Don't Fear) the Reaper would absolutely win. But, if you were to sequester the fans who could name more than one song by the band and poll those people? I'd bet Astronomy would come out on top. It's proven to be an endlessly flexible song, adapting itself to metal, classical guitar, jam music and whatever that version on the 1988 Imaginos album was. (I LOVE that take, for the record.) The new version features a really interesting, weighty rhythm that that moves like a behemoth. The new arrangement also shows that Bouchard has been paying attention to how other artists (and his old band members) have interpreted Astronomy over the decades, picking and choosing elements to create a song that kind of sounds like all of them while sounding specifically like none of them. Astronomy is a song with a lot of history behind it and Bouchard wisely doesn't ignore that.

And then there's the album's title track. Bouchard comes so close to redeeming what was nobody's favorite song on the original album. (Putting it last on the 1988 version had the added benefit of never having to skip it.) It's not exactly a bad song ... it just never earns its keep. Being the title track for an album like this might make its rent disproportionately high, but nobody ever said life was fair. A title change might benefit this song to a degree, but the real problem is the lyrics, which don't have much to say until the closing act. I'd be interested in hearing what people think about this version of the song, but the original probably wasn't popular enough to provoke any strong feelings in fans one way or another. We're all probably going to be busy fighting among ourselves about Astronomy

Les Invisbles improves on the original in just about every way and creates a sense of urgency in its rhythm that was missing from the electronic drone of the original. Gil Blanco County, a song whose placement in the overall sceme of things still baffles me, is a wonderful mishmash 60's folk music, the faux classical guitar styles so beloved of '80s thrash, and surf guitar. None of those things ought to play well together, but they do. There's a subtle sadness to this version of Gil Blanco County that's reminiscent of early BOC, whose lyrics often demanded to know If U Are Ready 2 Rock, but whose melodies suggested you stay home and read Carlos Castaneda instead.

Magna of Illusion might be the only real failure here. The song served as the climax to the 1988 album, but the new take is s little ... shapeless? Structurally, Magna is one of Bouchard's most impressive songs, the prior arrangement gaining strength as it moved from verse to verse, ultimately leaving the listener stranded on a real fucker of an ending ("... and then World War I broke out!") It's easily the most operatic tune on the album, one shunning traditional choruses in favor of ratcheting up the tension as the song unfolds through guitars and spoken-word performances. But the spooky analog version of the song on Re-Imaginos is never given much room to breath, though. It rushes to the finish line and winds up feeling small. 

With Les Invisibles moved to the end of the album, Magna of Illusion doesn't carry the full burden of delivering the story's climax. We still get that downer ending, only this time via a doom-laden march threatening the arrival of whatever is pulling our anti-hero's strings.

Re-Imaginos feels almost miraculous. I still have trouble believing Bouchard was willing to return to this demon haunted project, and that it happened during this off-brand trashbag of a year. Even better, Bouchard didn't create some lazy collection of covers. I'f put the talent appearing on Re-Imaginos up against the 1988 release any day. But it is absolutely not the album I expected  or even wanted  and it feels more satisfying because of that. There's an intimacy to the production that feels like it can fit in your living room ... if you're in the mood for entertaining monsters.

Imaginos is dead. Long live Imaginos.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Nov. 10

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 364


When the ghost of Sarah appears to Barnabas at last, will her spectral message haunt him long after she vanishes? Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Sarah’s haunting of Collinwood intensifies. She finally appears to Barnabas, excoriating him for his lethal lack of ethics, and then appearing at the estate proper to warn of the wrath of the dead. Julia confronts the family with her assertion that Sarah is real. Meanwhile, while the bodies in the plane were burned beyond recognition, Elizabeth seems convinced that Burke is among them, in the crashed plane in Brazil. Victoria is completely unwilling to let him go.

Dark Shadows is a program with far more halves than should be mathematically possible. Before and after Barnabas is the most notable that comes to mind. But there’s before and after Vicki. Before and after the introduction of time travel. Before and after color. This is intensely organic in a show about transformation and our relationship with the past. Intrinsically, each of our major characters are on the other end of extraordinary transitions… when we meet them. Future and past are always in an intense dance on the program. Inevitably, the present is threatened by impending justice or exposure for the choices of yesterday. 

This episode is an intense nexus of all of the above. The show begins with only two episodes before 1795. A wild ratings gamble -- there was a chance they might not come back --- so Team Curtis had an enormous challenge ahead. First of all, only on Dark Shadows would you have to set up a flashback. But with one character near-immortal and another robbed of the future they so profoundly desired, it feels organic. When the program returns from the past, it will be with a new purpose and main character. 1795 is the transition, and it will elementally change both future and past protagonists through the lens of death. One has been reborn, but as a moral toddler, literally deserving of a child’s censure. His growth is ahead, but who was he before he began life for the second -- or third -- time? Who is the man he needs to recapture? And if he is, as is hinted, a good man fallen, what change is still necessary so that his return is to more than square one?

The other will “die” in the gallows. Her past is a mystery, and now she finds herself back so far that her own origin is irrelevant. And maybe it always was. Vicki defines herself by giving. Burke was not really a match in that sense… other than his comfort with taking. The fact that Vicki witnesses history is ultimately irrelevant. It has very little impact on modern events. Given her knowledge, it could snip months of plot with just a few lines of dialogue. Vicki’s future-past purpose is to bring out the hero in her analogue, Peter Bradford, the one person willing to give of himself on the level at which Vicki excels. Both meet. Both give. Both die as a result. Both are reborn in the present. Both leave whatever identities they had, have, or will have to pursue happiness presumably away from the gods. Peter, away from the context of what could be. Victoria, away from the context of what was. Each was the prisoner of an intangible part of their lives, and together they find the Zen imperative to live in the present, even if the present is in the past. 

But we know Vicki and Barnabas. They’ve been exhaustively established. How do we prepare them and us to begin a journey that seems well underway? In two successive scenes, each deals with profound loss. The nurturing figure is defined by the loss of her romantic prospect… a dizzyingly virile man who affirmed her womanhood rather than proto-matronliness. Just before, the brooding bachelor is defined by loss of a child and, more importantly, her moral benediction. It’s one thing to disappoint an adult. It’s our daily job to discover the new lies, faults, betrayals, and inadequacies of those who surround us. 

Barnabas’ meeting with Sarah, link to his past and the ultimate in innocence, is humiliating many times over. He’s last in line. He’s shunned in front of Doctor Hoffman. He’s denied love. His moral failings are cited via a nursery rhyme, by the child to whom he taught them. Just when he thinks he can comfort himself with the reality of stuck with someone just as petty as he is, Julia rises above it. Learning, thankfully only by example, about the price of falling from your own moral standards. Not only does she rise above it, for her immediate instinct is to offer compassion without jealousy or agenda. The only hope for Barnabas is Sara‘s stern warning that he must learn to be good again. Which of course, means that he has the potential. Which of course, means that he has the future.  

Now, with an evolved Julia waiting for him on the other end of the flashback, he is ready to start the business of finding that future. And in the most important sense, Dark Shadows is ready to begin.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 16, 1967.

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