Monday, October 14, 2019

The Dark Shadows Daybook: October 14


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 873

When Petofi enters Quentin’s body to journey into the future, will the sight of Beth Chavez force him to withdraw? Petofi: David Selby. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Petofi successfully visits the Collinwood of 1969 before the ubiquitous wet blanket, Beth Chavez, drags him back to tell him his painting’s missing. Great. Thanks. He’s convinced that either Charity Trask or Barnabas stole it, and his confrontation with Barnabas ends in Quentin finding he has the power of the Hand. Meanwhile, Kitty realizes she is Josette, Barnabas and Quentin come clean about who they really are, and Charity has a dream sequence that either degenerates or elevates (your call) into a music video twelve or so years before the birth of MTV.

Fifty years has passed since this episode hit the airwaves, but when 873 was shot, the medium of TV had only existed for less than half that time. 3-4 choices (we miss you, Dumont). Only sixteen hours a day or so. Pretty, pretty vanilla. Other than a few science fiction and horror digests at newsstands and the occasional Ace Double, we were hardly living in the genretopia of today. The Dark Shadows stories become a lot bolder when you realize the whole cloth with which they’re tailored. Some of these story elements are not just Dark Shadows’ spin on them. They are some of the very first spins on them. To appreciate television of the era, remember that they lived in modern, rather than postmodern, times. We are used to everything being a “newer” version of something else that’s been done. In episodes like these, we get what feel like firsts.

In 873, Dark Shadows continues to explore time travel in the form of astral projection. In this case, it’s with a body that exists in two places at once. By using creative focusing and tight, controlled camera work, the producers ignore spectacle for storytelling. They end up depicting time travel in a palpably subjective sense that I buy far more than other types of presentations. Other attempts may capture the flash, but fail to capture the feeling. Here, that’s precisely what we get.

And that’s just in the first five minutes. After that, the episode gets really insane. I watched it over a hookah this morning with my father, who is not a seasoned Dark Shadows viewer. Perfect. Explaining it to him as it went really underlined the gutsy weirdness of the show and how marvelously they pulled it off.

The characters in this episode are Barnabas’ human “twin,” Kitty, Petofi, Quentin, Charity, and Beth. Or is that Original Barnabas, Josette, Quentin, Petofi, Pansy Faye, and Beth? Of that ensemble, Beth is the only one who actually “is” who they were initially cast to play. Someone call a Ph.D. candidate, because there’s a dissertation waiting to happen. Recasting the ensemble for 1795 was a risk that required Dan Curtis to defy conservative wisdom. But this sequence takes it to insane lengths. We have “contemporary” characters recast as new characters in 1897, and each is possessed by yet another character. It’s a tribute to long-form storytelling that they’ve made it somehow feel like the most natural thing in the world. More than that. It’s a tribute to the giddy joy of storytelling and the Russian doll nature of creating characters for others to play. How many layers do we really have? Is there a “real” side or is the real side all of them? The entire sequence begins when a vampire pretending to be a human becomes another generation’s vampire-pretending-to-be-human to reintroduce himself to a man he initially met as a ghost, but who will die for reasons that may relate to him secretly being a werewolf. In 1897, Barnabas goes from holding a near-monopoly on secret identities to being just one of the gang.

In an episode devoted to escape from a projected “self” and into the actual self, the strangest moment is, of course, the reason I watched it: the music video.

There is only one character on Dark Shadows more determined than a love struck Barnabas -- that’s Dan Curtis, determined to mine a second hit out of 1897 with “I Wanna Dance with You.” At this point, we’ve been assaulted by the song with a constancy that makes me think it’s some sort of supernatural aid designed to ward off evil spirits. Dan finally lays the I Ching wands on the table and almost-inexplicably introduces a psychedelic dream sequence where Nancy Barrett and David Selby are forced, good naturedly, to appear in what may be the first not-made-by-fans fan video. They not only sing the song, but lay some spoken word action on us as well. The soundtrack for the show had been a hit, and Dan was not running a charity. If the soundtrack were smoke, welcome to the fire.

And, all cattiness aside, it’s actually marvelous. It’s a strange and unapologetic confection that ends, reliably, on a note of terror, making the whole thing a shaggy dog that allows horror fans to not feel terribly exploited by a moment that goes gloriously too far.

873 is supported by unusually strong writing and acting as well. We’ve grown so used to David Selby-as-Petofi that we’ve forgotten the easy informality of Quentin. In this episode, he gets to play both characters, and the difference is clear. Kathryn Leigh Scott likewise plays both Maggie and Kitty, clear and truthful as always in both. And maybe there’s a bit of Josette who shows up. Jonathan Frid, however, steals his own show in his confrontation with Petofi, disguising his fear and playing his confrontation with a chessmaster’s confidence. Watch the scene and try to figure out when Barnabas decides to reveal and conceal what information. It’s a constantly shifting process, and Frid nails it in a word duel that stands as one of Barnabas’ finest and most self-assured scenes.

If someone thinks they know Dark Shadows, this should shake them up. It’s the show at its best and most ludicrous and liberated. Mid-to-late 1960’s television has yet to be topped for sheer imagination. Even though it was toiling away in daytime, isolated from evening audiences, Dark Shadows wasn’t just part of the fantasy revolution of the era… it was among its boldest innovators.

This episode was broadcast Oct. 29, 1969.

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