Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dark Shadows Diary, Episode 52

Episode 52: "Josette's Book Club"
Sept. 6, 1966

I've been thinking about the rules of storytelling this week. Not the bullshit cultural aesthetics you need to obey to be commercially successful, but the rules of art: creating a structure for your message that allows you room for creativity, but not one so loose as to promote chaos and dilute whatever feeling you're trying to invoke (or provoke.)

I was thinking about these rules after a recent viewing of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, a film that abandons many of the trappings the audience had come to associate with Barnabas Collins. Most of the supernatural elements are dropped in favor of using pseudo-science as the root of the vampire's curse. It's not that pseudo-science is any more plausible than a witch's spell, but it certainly sounded more plausible to audiences in 1970, especially the teens raised on a steady diet of red suns, radioactive blood and gamma radiation. The same thing happened to GREEN LANTERN in the comics. Originally a superhero with a magic ring in the 1940s, the character was entirely revised in the 1960s to make him a space cop using science instead of sorcery ... even though the end results were exactly the same.

 Lo and behold, Patrick McCray was thinking a bit about rules, himself. On a recent post at The Collins Foundation he had this to say about DARK SHADOWS:

"The lessons I see here have a great deal to do with social class mobility.  That is a tension that exists from the moment Vicky walks into Collinwood.  How can one be a Collins?  Who would want to?"
I'm not sure I have the answers to those questions, but I've barely scratched the surface of the series. Still, it was interesting that this episode begins with the following introduction by our gothic heroine, Victoria Winters:
"I originally came to Collinwood to solve the mystery of my past. But the mystery of my present has overshadowed that, for the moment."
Carolyn questions the rules of DARK SHADOWS in the very first scene of this episode as she threatens to lock a bedroom door to keep out angry spirits that might wander in the night. Having none of this foolishness, Victoria tells her "I thought ghosts could come through anything." Just wait until Barnabas Collins shows up ... that kind of thinking will go right out the window.

But, I'm starting to think there's a more sinister set of rules at play in DARK SHADOWS. Victoria observes that she's lost track of time, noting that she's only been at Collinwood "a very short time" despite the many months we've spent with her. Carolyn begins to say that Collinwood didn't start to get weird until Victoria arrived, but backpedals to lay symbolic blame on Burke Devlin ... who arrived in town the same moment as Victoria. Whether it's intended or not, the writers are suggesting the entire series might be a dream, one than will begin and end with Victoria Winters. "You can leave any time you want to," Carolyn tells her. To make her origins more opaque, Victoria later tells Carolyn that she doesn't even know when her real birthday is.

The character of Victoria becomes increasingly obsolete when Barnabas Collins is born into this "world" from his stone womb later in the series. Before long, the new life generated in this nightmare becomes so self-sufficient that it no longer needs its host, Victoria. Once that happens, Victoria literally fades away ... and then things get really crazy in Collinsport. The only rules we're left are those of a nightmare, where logic and reason become something to be feared. A television show originally about a young woman trying to find her parents turns into a show about a 200-year-old vampire using the I Ching to astral project into his body a century earlier to stop a man from being killed, preventing a future haunting ... and when that moment happens it ACTUALLY MAKES SENSE. Later on, this world begins to asexually reproduce, splitting off into divergent timelines that, by the end of the series, make the original dream of Collinwood as obsolete as Victoria, herself.

For the time being, the show is more concerned with simpler problems, specifically the grim slight of hand being played with Bill Malloy's dead body. In a sudden display of independent thinking (as opposed to the reflexive rebelliousness she usually passes off as independence) Carolyn decides they really did see a dead body at the foot of Widows Hill ... no matter what anyone else says.

The show is suddenly concerned with time. From Victoria's offhand remark about time having passed very slowly, to the costuming in the episode, we're reminded constantly that this episode takes place late at night. There has been so much coming and going at all hours that it's been difficult to keep track of the time of day. DARK SHADOWS just seems to be set in a land of perpetual night.

But it's nightgowns for everybody in this episode. Victoria and Carolyn go ghostbusting in Collinwood wearing gowns that would be more appropriate on children, while Maggie wakes her father while wearing a gown made for a much older woman. Sam, as usual, is sleeping in his clothes.

As if Victoria and Carolyn didn't have enough metaphysical ennui to deal with, Sam makes a telephone call to Collinwood and promptly hangs up after Victoria answers. When the door to the drawing room slams, the Dramatic Duo investigate and find a book laying open in the floor. Concluding that no human being would stack books like this, Carolyn declares it a supernatural crime scene and herds them back to their bedroom (which they seem to be sharing on this episode.)

But, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, more often if you take it across time zones. Once the women leave the drawing room we see the book open to reveal a drawing of Josette Collins. And yes, the dates of her birth and death are totally wrong, but that's not really a problem when you consider Victoria can't keep track of what day of the week it is.

Maggie continues to try to grill Sam about whatever bug has crawled up his ass since Burke Devlin came to town. Meanwhile, Victoria hilariously guesses that the prank call they received was "the kind of thing a drunk would do." Maggie trumps THAT bit of reasoning by telling Sam pointedly that she's going to read the note he gave her to lock up ... which causes him to freak out in a manner I'd describe as "Shakespearean."

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I remember the last time I watched the early episodes, it was around this point that I noticed both Roger and Liz referring to Carolyn and Vicki collectively as "the girls." They did seem to be in a perpetual state of slumber party.

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