Monday, March 4, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: March 4


Taped on this date in 1971: Episode 1231

The 1680 flashback arc begins with the dire betrayal of an unscrupulous occultist until an unforeseen twist brings the 1680 flashback to a stunning conclusion. Brutus Collins: Louis Edmonds. (Repeat; 30 min.)

In a flashback narrated by Morgan’s possessing ghost of James Forsythe, we venture back to 1680 where we see how the room was cursed. Dastardly Collins patriarch, Brutus, uses occult powers to punish and kill James Forsythe, one of his victims in business -- and the man who’s making him a cuckold with his wife, Amanda. The curse shall impact the future of the family, until a Collins has the strength to spend the night there. Having revealed this, Forsythe’s ghost is released.

It’s 1841PT and the show has 14 installments left. Moreover, everyone will be out of a job… at least in Collinsport… in twenty days. Given that Dark Shadows has a happy ending (unless you’re named Melanie), this Damoclean vacuum is more of an impending threat than anything Gordon and Sam could have devised. And once you know the production schedule’s destiny, it’s hard to watch these without that fate in mind. Although Dan Curtis admitted that he wasn’t much of a presence in the last months of the show, 1231 has a lavishness that reminds me of the spare-no-expenses showmanship behind his two, epic War miniseries. An on-set presence or not, Curtis was not a man to go out on a whimper. Even if (or because) it’s just one episode, the show is blowing as much scratch as possible, and it’s a tiny metaphor for the take-no-prisoners, gutsy, audience-first attitude that always guided the show. Imagine the hand-wringing that must have transpired about the 1795 storyline. I’m sure someone, somewhere needed convincing. Now, we do an entirely new flashback for just one episode. Nearly a century prior to that first one. In a parallel universe. Cancellation be damned, Curtis was not going to change to suit common sense nor artistic timidity. It was everyone else’s job to catch up with him.

1231 is one of the show’s boldest episodes. Because of its rarity and obscure, 1841PT address, it’s also one of the most easily overlooked. Watching the show at this point is to watch it obsessed with big pictures and goodbyes and last times. (Like this is the last time Louis Edmonds will narrate an episode.) In that chaos of nostalgia and fate, it’s vital to remember these gems as little highlights of the series, and ones that make the Mr. Best storyline seem longer than solving the murder of Bill Malloy. Packed into this episode, we get a flashback narrated by a man possessed by a ghost, and that’s enough right there. But add to it infidelity, a cruel and conniving Collins patriarch, a sycophantic spinster who turns on him, betrayal by a beautiful wife, and an occult serum that will create a vengeful ghost? You got a stew going. It is a core sample of the show’s essence, narrow to the point of laser-like. It’s not just part of Dark Shadows. It is Dark Shadows. It’s also kind of silly. To the point of simultaneously allowing us to see the show through the eyes of its critics. This may be what all of the show looks like to them -- wacky costumes, antiquated sets, hairpieces, and discussions about things other than contemporary humdrummery.

Why does it let us see it that way, too? It feels like 1795 is kind of the cosmic limit on Dark Shadows flashbacks because it is so rich with the essence of the mythos. It’s Ur-Shadows. There’s a quintessential Americanness to those post-Colonial times, and Dark Shadows works partially because it Americanizes story aesthetics we largely associate with England. By placing these events in America and putting the Founding Family in vaguely Georgian drag, the show in 1795 lives and breathes in the same visual atmos we associate with Washington and Adams. Going back earlier is to go back to an era prior to the United States. Prior, really, to Dark Shadows in the most cosmic sense. The costumes and spartan set appointments feel borrowed from another show.

In these flashbacks, my instinct is to go, “There, there, that’s how it all started. That’s how the family became cursed.”  Well, yeah, kind of. I guess. But like everything in 1841PT, it has to be seen metaphorically. Which is arguably impractical. Especially in this weather, and with these shoes. But why start thinking practically at this point? Art is a metaphor, so it’s too late to draw the line within story. The mirror is now layers and layers deep, but it still reflects something important. It’s a flashback within a flashback in a parallel universe first seen in yet another flashback, visited by characters from a present that’s 48 years old. If relatability ever existed in this chain, why draw the line now?

Brutus is both villain and hero in a small-c-crucible sense. Even though he says he’s unleashing the curse because of James Forsythe, his wife’s betrayal, and his sister’s streak of goodness, I think Brutus realizes that he’s the real cause. Why else would you curse future Collinses over the crimes of people who, by and large, were not, you know, Collinses? And why else would you make the ticket out of the curse be the mental wherewithal to survive a night haunted by the ghost of the man you killed? This is the act of a man who questions his own mental wherewithal. It’s, pardon the expression, a cry for help from someone who will be haunted by James Forsythe (and his guilt over Forsythe) far longer than just one night. Not only is he sharing the wealth, Brutus is also posting a want ad/warning so that a better Collins might emerge. It’s the heat and pressure needed to finally create a Collins worthy of the name.

I am always hectored by the question of, “What does it mean to be a Collins?” I used to want to come up with a noble list worthy of a Starfleet officer. It’s the other way around. We’re not born into greatness. We’re not noble savages. Money just perfumes the rot. The more apt question is, “What does it take to be better than a Collins?” Maybe that’s what Brutus is after, too.

If you’re going out on a note, grand-yet-specific, that’s a good one to play.

This episode was broadcast March 15, 1971.

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