Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dark Shadows: Ship of Ghouls, 1968

We all know why DARK SHADOWS became a cultural phenomenon. Jonathan Frid famously saved the series from itself when he joined the cast in the spring of 1967, creating one of America's strangest pop icons with vampire Barnabas Collins. The character was designed as a hail mary of sorts, the kind of creative decision rarely allowed by a healthy, thriving TV program (neither of which DARK SHADOWS was at the time.) And show runner Dan Curtis was acutely aware of the response the character provoked in his audience. By the end of the year, the ongoing storyline had been carefully tailored to fit not only its new leading man, but his foil Julia Hoffman, as well.

But when did the mass media begin to pick up on the popularity of DARK SHADOWS? Just about everybody, from the Saturday Evening Post to Famous Monsters of Filmland, didn't start to talk about the show until the fall of 1968 ... more than a year after Frid joined the cast. There are clues about this discovery littered throughout these early features. The episodes discussed in the original Saturday Evening Post story were taped in May, 1968, while Time Magazine's "Ship of Ghouls" hit stands at the end of August that same year.

The timeline here suggests that it took a solid year for DARK SHADOWS to catch the eye of press. Which essentially means that, when Victoria Winters returned from her trip to 1795, she found a small army of journalists camped out at Collinwood.

Below is the 1968 Time feature, which is among the first — and smartest — to address the newfound popularity of DARK SHADOWS.

Ship of Ghouls 
Time Magazine, Aug. 30, 1968

The old radio soap operas liked to pretend that Portia really faced Life.

But only since television has the soaper got right down to the nubby-grubby of everyday existence  —  suicide attempts (The Doctors), incestuous desires (Days of Our Lives) and various physical complaints, such as "uterine inertia" (Another World). The trouble with such contemporary traumas is that no one does much about them onscreen; the folks just sit around talking about their problems and drinking black coffee in the kitchen. The only time there is any live action in the typical soaper, it seems, is Friday. That's when the writers always slip in the "tease" that will lure the listeners back on Monday.

Only ABC's Dark Shadows tapes as if every day were Friday. The 30-minute show is TV's first gothic soaper (Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. E.D.T.) and the first to star a vampire. Explains one of the directors: "If the characters sat around and talked to each other about vampires, you would turn people off. It's the actual vampirizing that makes the show." No doubt about it. Dark Shadows has put the bite on a rapidly-rising audience that now aver ages 15 million viewers a week. When Barnabas the Vampire (actor Jonathan Frid) goes on personal appearance tours, he is apt to pull 25,000 people at a time. At a Fort Wayne shopping center, played by both Richard Nixon and Eugene McCarthy during the Indiana primary, Frid outdrew each of them  — or so claims his press agent.

That Certain Age.
The rest of the cast is a ship of ghouls: a warlock, a 175-year-old witch (played by a nubile blonde), lab-made monsters whose every part is a transplant, a ghost and an agent of the devil. One of the few near normal human beings is the matriarch of "Collinwood," the haunted manor that is the scene of the action. That role is filled by the show's top-billed star, former Film Actress Joan Bennett, 58, who says frankly: "You reach a certain age in Hollywood when there's a shortage of glamour roles."

Collinwood is located high above the Maine coast. The time is the present, though most of last winter was spent in a flashback to the 18th century when Barnabas first won his fangs. As for the plot, even Frid himself concedes, "There are times when I have absolutely no idea what's going on. I'm sure people get together to speculate on what the show is all about."

One of the more coherent of the multiple story lines concerns Barnabas' quest for a bride. Since he comes out of his coffin home only after dark, he prefers supper dates, and six times has mixed his fatal business with pleasure. "The whole essence of my character," says Frid earnestly, "is guilt over my hang-up — vampirism — and my bites suffer. I envy the bites of the two other vampires. They are positively erotic."

From left, Louis Edmonds, Joan Bennett and Jonathan Frid.
Plastic Bats.
The show is far more dramatic in production than any of its competitors. Producer Robert Costello splices in occasional exteriors filmed on location, employs more than 100 sets in the show's Manhattan studio, com pared with the 30 or so on most soap-ers. Instead of the customary organ stings to punctuate the drama, he uses bridges recorded by an orchestra of 23 pieces.

Dark Shadows also has a recorded repertory of 3,000 sound effects and a few tricks that go back to radio days. The werewolf calls are authentic lobo cries, but for the squeak of bats in the night, a technician rubs a cork on the side of a bottle. The bats themselves are plastic and wired for flight. Coffins, cakes of dry ice (for eerie ground fog) and quarts of stage blood litter the studio. To spook up the manor with cobwebs, the crew flings chunks of latex into an electric fan, which scatters them authentically over the walls.

The latex first hits the fan at 6 a.m. most days, earlier if there is to be an extra-special effect, say a burning at the stake. About two hours later, the actors arrive for rehearsals, and then go through a technical run-through to test the special effects. At that point, the vampires with lines prerecord the dialogue: actors can't speak clearly with false fangs in their mouths. Later the lines are put onto the video tape. In the afternoon come makeup sessions, the dress rehearsal, and then the actual taping of the show that will be aired the following week. Since editing the tape is expensive, most fluffs are left in. One exception: Joan Bennett referred to her ghoul-ridden home not as Collinwood but as Hollywood.

That slip was edited out — although it is not clear why. After all, Hollywood's not exactly ghoul-free either.

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