Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: May 23


Taped on this day in 1969: Episode 765

As Barnabas pumps Beth for information, will Magda pump Quentin full of silver bullets? She’s locked, loaded, and ready to say “I’m sorry” six times in a row. Alex Stevens: Quentin Collins. (Repeat; 30 min.)

With a wolf on the prowl, Barnabas knows that Beth holds the key to its secret. Barnabas bites her, and she informs him that the wolf is Quentin and that Quentin has a legacy he doesn’t even know about: two children. Magda, rife with remorse, hunts the wolf, as the wolf stalks the estate. Finally, Magda shoots the wolf, but fatally?

It would be inaccurate and hyperbolic of me to say this episode is “pure action,” so I will. For Dark Shadows, this is pure action. And if Dark Shadows action has a name (other than Thayer David), it’s Alex Stevens. We owe him a lot. He performs several spectacular falls in this one, on par with his astoundingly Marvel Comics explosion through the Evans Cottage window earlier in the series. His greatest stunt may have involved padding on the floor, but I didn’t see it, and the sudden reality of it is stunning. On the attack, the werewolf leaps over the railing on the second story landing in the foyer, lands, and keeps going. If you own an ankle, you realize what an impressive stunt this is, simply in its blunt relatability. It’s a straightforward moment, and it may be the most magical sight on the show.

Because special effects are clearly unreal, even at their most realistic, they are inherently devoid of wonder. The great Ray Harryhausen may be a magnificent artist and technician, but magician, he ain’t. Even when his work defined ‘state of the art,’ the herky-jerky movement and weirdness of scale immediately told you to start using euphemisms like “heightened” later on lest you be harassed by his devotees.

Magic is different. Magic shows the impossible as possible and leaves as the only conclusion: this happened. At that point, apologies to the makeup crew, Stevens could have gotten away with no appliances at all. Just a t-shirt that said, “werewolf,” and we’d be sold. It’s a moment of sudden wonder, and suddenly, from the floor up, Collinwood stops being symbolic of anything and becomes a real place.

It taped today, but it played on Friday, May 30, and I think that’s a symbolic day. It’s a good day to bring in a werewolf at his most exciting. And I hope the choice was strategic. This was, for many, the last day of school for three glorious months. In the past few days, Jonathan Frid and David Selby had recorded their contributions to the album, Original Music From Dark Shadows, which would become a massive hit in that year of massive hits. Viewmaster reels were steady sellers. It was the year of the Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows Board Game. And this one, action-packed, exposition packed installment slammed the locker door on school for the best part of the best year of the best show that millions of kids had ever seen. It was the last day they had to run home from anywhere to see it, and the writers ensured that the marathon mattered. It certainly feels as if there is more screentime for Stevens than on any other episode of the program.

Dark Shadows may have very well been at its zenith. Ratings and demographics were measured differently then, and so I can’t state anything definitively about who was watching. My instinct tells me that, given the items for sale and the significance of the day, this may be one of the most-enjoyed episodes of the entire series. It was certainly the most meaningful for a nation of kids. I don’t need anthropological data to back me up on that.

A great episode? Certainly. Mature? Thank goodness, no. You have bats. Beth, with a vampire’s dream of an endless neck, bitten and controlled. Barnabas learns of Quentin’s curse, the children, and finally, what he’s doing in 1897 at all. The last part is the vegetables of the episode, but at least there’s cheese sauce. The enlightenment of Barnabas Collins has been coming for months and months, and you know the writers are planning something big when they finally plug in the light bulb over his head. Now, equipped with as much of the truth as anyone knows, the adventure of 1897 should be concluding. Barnabas should be climbing into his coffin for the voyage home.

Of course, a certain Count is about to hear that a certain body part is waiting for him in Collinsport. And if stuntman Alex Stevens is magic, the Count is sorcery. 

This episode hit the airwaves on May 30, 1969.

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