Friday, April 13, 2018

The Dark Shadows Daybook: April 13


Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 210

I think it was January 4, 1982 that I saw this. Given how slow the series could be, and given that I was only eleven, I have long wondered how that show captured me so firmly. In watching it again today, I think I understand why.

Malcolm Marmorstein.

He wrote this episode, and if he had been hired to write a pilot for DARK SHADOWS, he could not have done a better job. Of course, for most people, this IS the pilot for DARK SHADOWS since broadcasts and collections usually start on 210. Although subsequent episodes drag, this one cracks along surprisingly quickly. It introduces everything we need to get us hooked and eschews anything minor enough to be left for later. The strategy is apparent in hindsight, and some of it is a happy coincidence, but the intent matters less than the result in this case… somewhat the opposite of real life.

Breaking down the episode, the elegance of its construction becomes clear.

The teaser cruises through Eagle Hill cemetery as Victoria describes the depths to which some men will sink -- desecrating sacred ground, sinking to depths of corruption, and violating that which should remain sealed forever. We know a vampire is coming, but how? A second party is implied, and they’re not going to be very nice. The story and our expectations are immediately raised and we have yet to meet a single character… until we come inside, where Jason is harassing Willie. The big one is abusing the little one, demanding that he account for his whereabouts and doing so violently. David and Goliath. Shrill and meek. Had we started earlier, it would be tougher to be on Willie’s side. Starting here? Jason is the villain. He accuses the bruised kid of having a scheme, and the kid obviously lies to the Irish galoot, gazing at the portrait conspiratorially. It’s as if he and the man in the painting already have a relationship. Cut to opening credits.

A lovable weasel. A bully. A silent and stern third party, hanging on the wall like a watchful ally, holding his action. Only a few lines, but resonantly human to anyone who’s been victimized by a know-it-all lout. Somehow, we know this power dynamic is bound to change, and that, for once, the know-it-all knows zip.

As we return, Jason gets physical, grabbing the kid and roughing him up. As they bicker, we hear the name “Collins family.” Nice people. Long history. Money. The man in the painting… an incestor of them? Willie’s been doing research. He swears innocence, but Jason contends with mordant wit that there’s not a Bible written that Willie could swear to. Then, a payoff is mentioned. Willie is getting money through Jason from someone named Liz Stoddard, and he’s to start packing to go.

As it goes on, we see the other side of Jason as he slimes his way around an iron lady of a matriarch, oozing subtle threats and extracting bitter payoffs, later confiding in an impossibly beautiful girl who must be her daughter. We feel immediate respect and sympathy for both of them. They are as captivating as Jason and Willie were nefarious. These scenes alternate with Willie at the crypt, driven by a phantom heartbeat, Indiana Jonesing his way around the graves of other prominent Collinses from the 1700’s, including someone named Naomi Collins. He works out a rope and pulley system --  implying an ex-sailor… this is Maine, right? -- to pry off a vault lid. It’s a black sequence broken only by smokey grays and tentative strings. When the pulley excruciatingly unlocks the ring from the lion’s mouth, we’ve left any kind of Collinwood that Liz, Jason, and Victoria are a part of. They never ran it. This place belongs to what’s behind the secret slab that suddenly-then-slowly grinds open. To whatever’s under the chains the kid breaks. When the spectral heartbeat stops. In the coffin. A force within as ready as a feral animal, primed to strike strike when the lid is opened, With the hand, the frilly cuff, and the regal, dead eye of a black stoned ring.

Characters with potential. Characters to love despising. A grand house with a past deeper than anyone knows. And an undead x-factor that could go anywhere. All exquisitely structured to compel you to watch the next scene and the next episode. Rarely has this much potential energy been promised to an audience. It would take Dan Curtis four years, five days a week, to do it justice. 

This episode hit the airwaves April 17, 1967.

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