Friday, August 28, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: August 28


Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 835

When Julia receives a desperate plea for help from Barnabas, written seventy-two years before, can she still save him in the nick of time? Edward Collins: Louis Edmonds. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Edward, unable to kill Barnabas because he is a fellow Collins, locks him in a cell to await sunrise. Barnabas writes a letter to Julia and places it in a secret compartment, which is conveniently triggered and revealed by Amy in 1969. Julia and Stokes determine that she should go back in time to save Barnabas, but they need Amy to communicate with the spirits of Quentin and Beth for guidance.

On every level, this is one of the most conceptually revolutionary, nay, badass episodes of DARK SHADOWS ever conceived. Gordon Russell again delivers, and not just for the DARK SHADOWS franchise. 835 contains what may be his cleverest plot twist, and it’s one that was borrowed by Nicholas Meyer in TIME AFTER TIME (with the same furniture, no less) and STAR TREK IV: THE ONE WITH THE WHALES, as well as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale in BACK TO THE FUTURE II. Barnabas leaves a letter for Julia in 1897 that’s (of course) received at the most crucial moment possible in 1969. If it weren’t for the earnestness of the actors, the whole thing would fall apart into a coincidence that would make even Dickens wince, but Grayson Hall and Thayer David do what they invariably do -- pull it off. It continues the one, wacky consistency of time travel in DARK SHADOWS, too; it’s all somehow concurrent. The possibility of Julia going back before Barnabas encountered Edward is never mentioned. And they don’t mention it to such a conspicuous extent that it’s easy to buy that it’s not possible. We, as viewers, also aid the storytelling. We want to see Barnabas saved. We want to see what happens when Julia mixes it up in the 1890’s. It’s a storytelling move too generous to limit by causality and common sense. If I wanted that, I’d watch the news. Come to think of it, there’s more of it on DARK SHADOWS.

Aside from killing her own evil twin in Parallel Time and faking her way through the 1840’s, where she knew no one, this is Julia Hoffman at her most stone cold. Even Stokes is a little weirded out by the concept of time travel with no receptacle. But Julia sees no other way. Is it love? Is it a sense of mission? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘who cares?’ It’s Julia Hoffman’s time stream, and we just swim in it, baby. And in a manner that would make Qui Gon Jinn proud, all it takes is jeopardizing a psychically sensitive child’s life to gather the intelligence she needs. It’s about time Amy earned her keep. Go into Collinwood and talk to an evil specter with a penchant for casting death spells on children, already, and stop with the noise. Roger’s new Muscle & Fitness arrived in the mail, and he hates being disturbed on that day of the month. And make it snappy. I have two shows in Vegas, or should I say, in 1897 tonight.

Julia once again almost spills the truth to Stokes about Barnabas, but he’s too good a man to be entrusted with that news. She twists in the wind once again, and given the perceptiveness of the professor, her hornswaggling is all the more impressive. What would have happened if Stokes had found out? Would his sense of morality have been meta enough to appreciate the big picture that Barnabas was a victim of ‘coicumstance’? It’s hard to say, but Julia is the one character man enough to beat him again with a successful bluff… and she’s still all woman.

Not that Louis Edmonds and Jonathan Frid don’t share about their most butch moment on the series together in this one, because they do. In a Victorian way. Barnabas talking Edward out of plugging him with a silver bullet is masterful reasoning. So few relatives, even in his own time, take being a Collins seriously. Barnabas finds the one other within earshot, and it works… enough. It works. With the exception of maybe Liz and Joshua, he was lucky enough to be held at gunpoint by the one member of the family for whom ‘not harming a Collins’ has merit. Because, dammit, Barnabas is the same way. A moment like that would have been tough to pull off in the 1960’s. Leave it to DARK SHADOWS to create its own spinoff within itself, where a move like that is the only one possible. Sometimes, as Julia shows and Edward discovers, we have no other choice. But the age of EDWARD COLLINS: VAMPIRE HUNTER is only beginning.

This episode was broadcast Sept. 5, 1969.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ben Cross: In Memoriam

He was the last of his kind, truly. A regal actor for fantasy roles that required a star to speak clearly, command the room, and, you know, shave and bathe. They were parts that called for a man of both truth and imagination. A master of theatrical size and total sincerity. He was Captain Nemo. He was Ambassador Sarek. He was Barnabas Collins.

While he was never the first to essay those roles, he had the insightful integrity of a man who made each totally original.

For some, he was their Captain Nemo and their Ambassador Sarek. And although the productions in which he essayed the roles are not definitive versions, Ben Cross delivered performances that were as indelible as those who originated the parts.

For many of us, he was our Barnabas Collins. Not that we weren’t deeply familiar with Jonathan Frid, but the 1991 series spared no expense to give us all of the corners cut in the 1960’s. It was a reward for loyalty. Although it was not the original, it was the creator of the show standing atop the towering successes of the Wouk miniseries, determined to make every element the finest he could. Star Trek returned with Patrick Stewart as the lead. Well, Dan Curtis saw Gene Roddenberry’s Patrick Stewart and raised him a Ben Cross, matured beyond Chariots of Fire. Capable of bringing equal Classical artistry to television fantasy’s other great saga.

And he was every bit Stewart’s equal. He was ours because for many of us, Dark Shadows left the air before we were born. But, as with Next Generation, we had the excitement of following the production through its initial announcement to the first photo of the next Barnabas Collins.

Cross’ performance matched that first, soulful photo. Intelligent and ferocious, he lacked Jonathan Frid’s endearing neurosis, but that allowed him the chance to explore the role of Barnabas Collins with his own judgment. Both men are martyrs to loss and betrayal, but while Frid was determined to rebuild, Cross was bent on revenge. It’s a less subtle performance in that sense, but wholly appropriate for the beginning of an arc that would only last for a tad over three months. His game was all too brief. His performance matched it, burning hot and fast. But it was never without delightful humor and humanity.

This is what he brought to Dark Shadows. His Barnabas had a texture, energy, and life all its own, and as such was Richard Burton to Frid’s Laurence Olivier. They gave two vastly different interpretations of the great man, and thus, neither encroached on the other. Instead, they are colleagues, and they both gave us the finest performances in the role that we could want.

The same for his Nemo. The same for his Sarek.

At 72, the loss is stunningly premature. It is exceeded only by our fortune that, if batons were to be passed, his was the hand to grasp them.

- Patrick McCray

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: August 11


Taped on this day in 1967: Episode 305

When Sarah takes David on a tour of her home, will there be room for one more in the mausoleum? Sarah: Sharon Smyth. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas kvetches about the weakening side-effect of Julia’s injections, although she seems delighted. Meanwhile, Sarah shows David a hidden coffin.

Curses are blessings on Dark Shadows, and that’s not always limited within the series itself; it’s also true for how the show was made. Truth time: the soap format slides easily into something that, without love and context, is unwatchably slow and dull. But it is not without its advantages, also. Usually, the command to stretch it out is a mandate for repetition. But in certain cases, the writers found fascinating eddies of implication to explore, and 305 is an example of why people kept watching -- it asks the questions we all all have. In this case, about the afterlife and the practicalities of the paranormal.

The episode is vaguely split between Barnabas & Julia and David & Sarah. Both involve a human dealing with the vagaries of supernatural lifeforms, unwittingly or not. Barnabas is developing impatience with Julia’s conversion process. He’s tired of the perpetual hangover intrinsic to being human, and I think he’s beginning to suspect that Julia either has no idea what she’s doing or is purposefully dragging it out. Barnabas has had remarkably good health for nearly two centuries, so we can understand his disappointment. He’s reacting as if she’s spiking his sherry with saltpeter, and for all we know, she might. Julia’s savoring his lack of vitality, crossing weird lines between doctor, mother, and lover, promising that “she’ll take care of Burke Devlin” her own way, and conjuring images of Rosa Klebb’s clumsy attempt at lesbian seduction in From Russia with Love. It takes a very special lesbian to win Burke Devlin.

Meanwhile, outside, David and Sarah discuss her knack for letting David in on secrets, and she tantilizes him with the promise of a whopper. This leads to a marvelously acted dialogue where Smythe mixes a very simple honesty with a beautifully textured ambiguity, struggling to explain the where she lives in the afterlife. Sarah never claimed to be alive; she just uses the metaphors of living. Here, it’s clear that Sarah knows what she is, and as straight as she can be, how she lives. She’s not being coy. David is simply not hearing her. I have no idea if the young actress considered the strange weight of the netherworld of her implication, but I would love to know. Quite simply, Sharon Smyth kicks ass. For a child actress understandably entranced by the teleprompter, Smythe shows remarkable sophistication in this episode, and the result may be one of Sarah’s best, most empowered performances in the series. Dark Shadows, in this era, excels at hinting. Everything is offstage. Huge casts of characters we’ve yet to meet. To hear it about the afterlife only heightens our curiosity.

Dark Shadows excels not just at horror, but showing us the inner workings and practicalities of the horrific from new perspectives. The David/Sarah relationship is one of the most poignant on the program. Each is as lonely and lost as the adults on the show. (In that regard, Carolyn, Joe, and Maggie are the sore thumbs on the hand because they seem the least lonely, until they aren’t.) Sarah’s overall game may be to curb Barnabas’ opportunities for evil. Or, drawn from death’s domain by her brother’s resurrection, it may simply be to have a friend the way that Barnabas wants a lover. Vicki will recognize physical resemblances when she goes to the past. Does Sarah see the same thing? By making Sarah the most realistic ghost in horror, the show raises all of the right questions, and ones we never knew we had.

This episode hit the airwaves on Aug. 25, 1967.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: August 10


Taped on this day in 1970: Episode 1079

When the power of a gorgeous ghost compels him, will Quentin complete an exorcism before the spirits change David’s wardrobe? Quentin: David Selby. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Daphne leads Quentin to a graveyard to see familiar tombstones. He vows to help, but it’s clear she has mixed intentions. He later tries to exorcise the house, but Daphne’s influence strops him. Meanwhile, Hallie goes from slave to the ghosts to the realization that she’s their prisoner as she and David attempt a seance.

I’m not sure what’s going on in this episode or storyline, but I can’t stop watching it. If anything is my takeaway on Dark Shadows, it’s that. Beginning with Vicki’s parentage, it’s a program about withholding information. 1079 elevates the unspoken to its rarest expression. That kind of ambiguity draws the audience into the storytelling process, and the rigor of it in this is equally demanding and rewarding. Some of the power of Gerard’s plan, if we can even call it a plan, is its allusiveness. The ultimate goal is the destruction of Collinwood, but fewer knives have been as serrated, and the horror of Gerard (since we know where it’s going) lies in the unnecessary damage he causes to those he’s marked for death or madness, anyway.

When the episode isn’t reveling in repressed sexuality, it’s venturing a little too boldly into deeper taboo on a rubber raft of counterfeit ambiguity. It begins with a visual metaphor so bold there might be no meta left at all. We find Quentin in the graveyard as Daphne points out her own tombstone. Quentin must have some sort of partial memory of being a ghost or being dead, or a sense of it, because even though the timeline has changed, he was once a zombie, after all. And he certainly understands being from another time. Given that, a dead woman from the 1800’s is someone Quentin can't resist. Is she silently imploring his help, or is he simply assuming that? Considering that, as they begin their embrace, she's holding a knife at his back without his knowledge, it sums up far, far too many relationships.

As the episode goes on, Selby gets to show an amazing range of sincerity and furtiveness as he attempts to exorcise the home, and probably its temptations, eventually sabotaging those same efforts and lying about it. Not only is he lying about it, he's enjoying the process. As he lies to Julia about the extent of Daphne's control at the end of the episode, he has a naughty, hostile smile that is worthy of Jack Torrance. And it's an example of a very human, very subtle moment that exists completely in the face. It really has no formal name, but David Selby has a disturbing degree of control of it nonetheless.

David and Hallie dominate the rest of the episode, forced into playrooms and roleplay with dialogue that you have to strain to hear as single entendre. This is difficult subtext to confront because of the singularly awkward age of the performers. Both were around fifteen, neither adults nor children. In an effort not to sexualize them (ewww), the show goes too far in the other direction as it vaguely infantilizes them. The net result feels even more perverse than if they’d let them be fifteen. The exact reason for insisting that David dress up and submit to the whim of a beautiful ghost (who is nearly his age peer) is unclear and disturbing because of that murkiness. The substitute costumes only further this. The selected outfits are of both the early 70’s and the 1840’s. They are the costumes of a very formal child or a very fanciful adult. Which is it? Which does Gerard want them to be? All of it, as long as it’s in paralyzing quantities. Gerard wants the adult David to know exactly what’s being done to him while the child David knows he’s powerless to stop it.

This episode hit the airwaves on Aug. 13, 1970.
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