Sunday, August 19, 2012

Catch glimpses of the real Jonathan Frid in Seizure

“Here, you take it,” Jonathan Frid said, handing me a VHS tape. “I’m never going to watch it.”

It was the mid-1980s. I was a high school student, working for the former Dark Shadows star nights and weekends on a series of one-man shows that had originated at fan conventions and went on to tour nationally. No money was exchanged for my labors, but on occasion the 60-year-old actor would give me memorabilia. Considering he was the closest thing I had to an idol, I found this far more rewarding than getting paid.

This particular piece of video remuneration was SEIZURE, the independently produced thriller Frid made in his native Canada in 1974. He had done very little high-profile acting work in the three years since the cancellation of the show that made him famous, but Frid still managed to earn top billing. The cast was eclectic: Bond girl Martine Beswick; former teen idol Troy Donahue; soon-to-be St. Elsewhere nurse Christina Pickles; one-time Warhol superstar Mary Woronov; and future Fantasy Island plane spotter Hervé Villechaize

But I didn’t care about the rest of the actors; my interest was in the lead – because, at that moment in history, no Jonathan Frid performance was available on home video. The idea that 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows would someday be sold on VHS (and again, on DVD) was the stuff of pipe dreams. You couldn’t even get HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, the 1970 feature film based on the show, on tape back then. I was forced to watch an off-air recording I made when the film aired – in heavily edited form – on local TV.  And watch I did, so often that the oxide had begun to flake off.

There was a Jonathan Frid drought in those days, and the man himself had just led me to an oasis. Not only was a Frid film on video for the first time, it was a movie I had never seen. SEIZURE was legendary among Dark Shadows fans. Although only a decade old, it was considered a “lost” film, often mentioned in fanzines, but rarely seen, due to some rumored shadiness by its producers. 

“Manage your expectations,” Jonathan warned me, perhaps sensing my enthusiasm. “It’s not very good.”

“You never think anything you’re in is good,” was my typically smart-assed retort. 

This was true. Like most demanding artists, Frid was harder on no one more than himself. And Dark Shadows, with its frequent flubs and technical limitations, was an exercise in humility for its perfectionistic star. 

Jonathan laughed. “We’ll see how you feel after you watch it.”

I completed my tasks, left the apartment in Gramercy Park and sprinted up to Penn Station for the Long Island Railroad commuter train. Even though Frid’s building was only a few blocks from the subway, I almost always walked there and back from 34th Street. My parents had only just begun to allow me to travel into the city unaccompanied, and public transportation was still “an uncertain and frightening journey.” I didn’t mind. Walking made me feel like a real New Yorker.

When I got home, I popped open the clamshell case and slid the tape in my VCR. An ominous underscore rumbled out of the speakers of my new 19” stereo TV, followed by what sounded like the crash of a gong. “SEIZURE” the white-on-black title read, in all caps, “Starring JONATHAN FRID.” This was so exciting, like unearthing a lost Shakespeare play, or a previously undiscovered chapter of the Bible – The Book of Jonathan.

As the gong rang out, a folksy guitar kicked in, augmented by a clarinet and electric piano. The score (by Canadian jazz recording artist Lee Gagnon) was not what I expected from a “thriller,” but I’d watched enough ‘70s horror movies on late night TV to expect weirdness. The black screen slowly dissolved to a pastoral lakeside tableau as the opening titles continued, leading to a final credit that means more now than it did then.

Yes, SEIZURE was Oliver Stone’s directorial debut, though he has since creatively disowned it. He also wrote the film, with Edward Mann (a syndicated cartoonist) and co-edited it. And his wife was the art director.  (They divorced not long after and, according to Frid, bickered frequently during production.)

The film opens in a small, Colonial-style bedroom in a house by a lake. Frid is asleep, in very un-vampiric striped pajamas. A towheaded little boy rouses him, and he awakens with a scream, sweaty and startled.

“Mommy told me to come wake you up,” the boy apologizes. “The guests are coming today.”
Cut to the bathroom. Frid’s character is shaving, in PJs and tousled hair (no “Barnabas Bangs” in sight). His wife (Christina Pickles) walks in and looks at him with concern.

“I had the dream again,” he says mournfully. “Same one. Same way.”

Three minutes in and so far, so good! As a Dark Shadows fan, the reference to dreams excited me, because they play a huge part in the show’s mythology. Series creator Dan Curtis supposedly conceived the original storyline in a dream (complete with camera angles for the opening scenes), and a lengthy storyline from 1968 involved characters (including Barnabas) plagued by recurring nightmares that lead to real-life terrors. 

“Is it possible?” I wondered. “Could this be a sort-of unofficial Dark Shadows sequel?”

Frid plays horror novelist Edmund Blackstone, husband of Nicole and father to Jason, (Timothy Ousey), an adorable 10-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to Dark Shadows’ mischievous moppet David Henesy. The Blackstones have invited five friends for the weekend: Charlie Hughes (Joseph Sirola) a boorish entrepreneur; Mikki Hughes (Woronov), his much-younger wife; Serge Kahn (Roger De Koven), an elderly Russian businessman; his death-obsessed wife Eunice (Anne Meacham); troublemaker Mark Frost (Donahue, still shirtless at age 38); and Nicole’s brother Gerald (Richard Cox), who is inexplicably British. 

Stone efficiently introduces the characters, and establishes that there has been an escape from a local psychiatric facility. When unexplainable things begin to happen at the house, we are encouraged to wonder if they are real, or a fantasy concocted in the creatively curdled, misanthropic mind of the author.
Frid always deftly negotiated the fence between good and evil on Dark Shadows, and here again he makes the most of Blackstone’s duality. He is ostensibly the hero, but his behavior belies that when an odd trio of human monsters descends upon the quiet compound. 

And odd they are. Beswick plays the sexy and sadistic “Queen of Evil” (the film’s original title), said to be a manifestation of Kali, the “dark mother” deity of the Hindu faith. Dracula-like, she twirls a black cape and spouts stoner-Goth nonsense like, “Don’t ask us who we are, or where we come from. We are without beginning or end.” Kali apparently enjoyed child sacrifices back in the day, and the Queen spends much of the film seeking out Edmund’s son in hopes of roasting him in the fireplace in her own honor. 

Villechaize is Spider, a bearded, knife-wielding dwarf (the script’s description, not mine) preening about in red motley and a stylish bone necklace. According to Serge (who’s primary narrative responsibility is reciting long, expository speeches), Spider is the embodiment of Louis the Cruel, a malevolent French prince from nearly a century ago. 

“I am old and I am ugly. But remember, my race was born inside your belly,” Herve enigmatically proclaims, in an accent that is much harder to discern without Mr. Rourke around to translate.

Villechaize was also the on-set photographer, which may explain why all the stills are shot from a low angle.

See what I mean?
The last of the baddies is The Jackal (Henry Judd Baker), a torturer “imported” from West Africa to be a Russian executioner (again, according to Serge, who must have read an earlier draft of the script). He’s also gigantic and mute, which means there are no hilarious lines of his to quote. Coincidentally(?), Baker also played the mute bodyguard Istvan on four episodes of Dark Shadows in 1969.

The Queen and her henchman pit the vacationing friends against each other in a series of Survivor-esque physical challenges and the cast members begin to slowly eliminate each other, one by one. Along the way, we get to see Jonathan Frid making out with (and getting felt up by) Martine Beswick, knife fighting a half-naked Mary Woronov and engaging in a brief love scene with Christina Pickles.

While SEIZURE shares some storyline similarities with Dark Shadows – the dream motif, overlapping realities with uncertain boundaries, a female villain calling the shots – it’s completely different in tone and content, and far less charming. But the modern-day setting, and the mortal nature of the lead character allow glimpses of a Jonathan Frid I never saw on the soap. In real life, Frid was a complex man, sometimes short-tempered and mercurial of mood. There are moments in this film when the character of Edmund Blackstone reminds me of the guy I knew in a way that Barnabas Collins never did. That may be in part what appealed to Frid about this project – the opportunity to play a flawed protagonist whose evil grew from human cowardice, not from the supernatural.   

 Looking objectively at SEIZURE today, I agree with Jonathan’s assessment. It’s not very good. But back then, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I loved seeing him in horn-rimmed glasses, wearing clothing he still owned a decade later. I caught traces of his Canadian accent creeping into his dialogue and noticed that his character used an expletive Jonathan himself was particularly fond of. This was the closest to “the real Jonathan Frid” I had ever seen on screen, and was ever likely to see, considering that he had essentially retired from film acting after making two movies that he hated. As a kid who looked at Frid as a unique combination of father figure, mentor and friend, this was just about the best gift I could get.  

I played that tape at least once a week for months, to the point where I had memorized every one of his lines. I never admitted that to him, of course. I liked the fact that, though I was young, Jonathan respected me and treated me like more than just a fan – even though that’s what I was, and remain.

“So what’s your review?” he asked, the next time I came to work.

“It was okay,” I said, still playing it cool.

Jonathan and I talked a bit more about the movie that day, and how, due to budget limitations, the cast and crew lived in the house in which they filmed. He made it sound like a glorified student film, particularly when he mentioned that the “young director” was a recent graduate of New York University.

“(Dark Shadows producer) Bob Costello is a professor there,” he said to me. “Maybe you should look into that school.”

And that’s what I did. In the fall of 1986, I entered the Undergraduate Film and TV program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Frid was the subject of my sophomore documentary, and my senior thesis film was based on a short story he performed in his one-man shows. It was a piece I had found for him, during one of the many Saturdays I had spent trolling my local library for material. Jonathan came to the premiere of my film in 1991 and offered a review even more concise than the one I had given him, years before.

“Perfect,” he said.

I bought a bootleg of SEIZURE recently (it’s never been legitimately released), put it in my DVD player, and was immediately transported back to that first viewing more than a quarter of a century ago. It’s amazing how much of the film I remembered, how many of the lines I could still recite along with him. One of them had particular resonance, considering recent events:

“An artist is without end,” Frid says, in his final scene. “He can never die.”

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies, Sirius Satellite Radio and the TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager. He watched his first episode of "Dark Shadows" on April 12, 1982 and hasn't been the same since.


Tonya said...

Will, I love how you led us to the opening credit to Oliver Stone. Didn't see it coming. So many interesting film history tidbits with this movie alone. I'd like to see it. You are so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity and pleasure to start your cinema journey with Mr. Frid. His mentoring remains with you even now, I know. Fun and touching post. Glad you shared it!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. It is nice to hear from someone who didn't watch the show in the 60s but became a fan in the 80s, then got to know the actor in person, work for him, and, as if that were not enough, become a success himself. Because I had seen Seizure recently, I especially appreciate Will McKinley weighing in with his story interwoven with the movie's story. I can totally relate to the part about the Frid drought post DS. Re-watching DS "some day" became one of life's anticipated pleasures for me, that came to pass in 2011. Discovering you are a Jonathan Frid fan this late then meant scrambling to get as much information as possible and to quench that thirst by seeing everything he had done and reading or listening to everything you can that he said. This is a treasured piece of Frid history. Not a day goes by that he isn't missed or thought of. Kristine

Anonymous said...

Tonya - Thanks for the comment. So much of what is good in my life today can be traced back to Jonathan Frid and the opportunities he gave me. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Kristine, I started watching in reruns in 1982 on WNBC in New York. When the show was cancelled 6 months later, I was so desperate to see episodes that I paid a guy in Texas to record them and mail them to me on VHS. Now we have them on DVD, and streaming from so many different services. It's so much easier to become a fan now.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this article and photos very much-- your tone is very honest, sincere, and even keeled. So often when people speak of favorite stars (particularly after their passing) there is some innate need in some to make them sound perfect. It's a way to honor and protect them. But I challenge everyone to consider, its far more endearing to embrace honesty. When under the thrall of Barnabas and the mystery of the "shadows", its great to create our own myths around that tale. But the ultimate meaning lies in the reality. JF was all too human. I think that means there is hope for all of us. :)

Unknown said...

I enjoyed this article and photos very much-- your tone is very honest, sincere, and even keeled. So often when people speak of favorite stars (particularly after their passing) there is some innate need in some to make them sound perfect. It's a way to honor and protect them. But I challenge everyone to consider, its far more endearing to embrace honesty. When under the thrall of Barnabas and the mystery of the "shadows", its great to create our own myths around that tale. But the ultimate meaning lies in the reality. JF was all too human. I think that means there is hope for all of us. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Megan. I agree, and I think Jonathan Frid would have as well. In my experience he had very little tolerance for the pedestal that people often wanted to put him on. He was always respectful to fans, but also had no problem reminding them that he was just a regular guy. And he valued honesty and frank communication. The importance of that is one of the many things he taught me.

Anonymous said...

Will, Thank you for your response(s)! It must have amazed you to discover DS in re-runs and really made you mad when it was cancelled. I've heard from another fans that they did eventually get put on VHS tapes, but I've never seen one. I would be very interested to know which story you found that he used in his one-man show (I have all those DVDs) and to read any commentary about his performing it if you care to share. Best to you, Kristine

darkshadowspod said...

I wonder about your comment that this movie has never been "legitimately released." I see it available on Amazon, and have also just added it to my Netflix queue. Looking forward to this rare glimpse into film history.

majkinja said...

I did really like the film but I'm a fan of the 70s in a way I have no sane explanation for. I watched Seizure for the first time this June and it was a WTF experience for me which is something I often expect from that time-periode.
There's a scene that is posted as a blooper on YouTube where Frid suddenly bursted out a swear-word. I've read that he did that if he wanted the camera to stop but in seizure I though it was a part of Edmund, it just fitted very well as a hint to Edmund's dubious character that was revealed later on.

I love horror so I can't complain but I'm surprised that he only did that genre on films, I can easily imagine him doing historical dramas splendidly.

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