Monday, March 29, 2021

Robert Rodan's Frankenstein

By PATRICK McCRAY

I wish I could thank Robert Rodan

It was a thankless part. The next big thing after Barnabas. Grand expectations that could never be fulfilled because of the intrinsic differences. But, if you have done Dracula, then you have to do Frankenstein, and someone is going to have to play the creature. I'm not sure if Frankenstein is scary or sexy so much as sad. And sad only goes so far without other, continuing factors to propel it. My hope is that fans look beyond that... and beyond the fact that this lonely and  desperate character was the focus of a storyline that began with great momentum, but, as with most Frankenstein stories, went nowhere. Then again, unless you are a keen student of literature, it can be hard to remember how most Frankenstein stories end. Something about torches and pitchforks. In that sense, the non-ending is as true to the legends as everything else on the show. 

On Dark Shadows, the journey is what matters far more than the destination, and in lauding his contribution to the show, this is essential to remember.  With his death, we have an opportunity to stop and remember that contribution with fresh eyes. It's ultimately inappropriate to compare Barnabas with Dracula. Yes, both are smooth and aristocratic vampires, but that's where the similarity stops. With Robert Rodan and Frankenstein’s monster, we have a much closer analog. 

It's a strange mix of both representing these literary inspirations  and moving beyond them. Few of the show's riffs, though, came as close to the source material as did Adam. So, it's safe to take a moment of license and admit that no other actor was ever given the chance to explore the world of Frankenstein's creation as Rodan.

It was a gift he did not squander. The irony is that a part so broad could be charted with such sensitivity and intricacy. The thing that fascinates me about the creature is that he is, in every sense, us. Few of us feel entirely as in command and knowledgeable of our abilities and circumstances as we like to appear. We are always learning. We're always making mistakes. We are always making dangerous things out of little knowledge. Often before it's even out of the box. Rodan captured the full breadth of that exploration with deftness and commitment. And in one part, he played a variety of them. From pantomime to smug, intellectualized chess mastery, Rodan showed brave command of each phase and of the many gray areas of his evolution between them.  As anything based on Frankenstein would necessitate, it's a philosophical evolution. Humans grow until they die, assembled from the dead and lost parts of life experiences that are constantly forced into new service, just like Adam with his awkward limbs drafted into new battles. Few of us are graceful at it. Less so than any of us will admit.

In his attempt to grow up as quickly as he can, Adam is equally endearing and embarrassing. Rodan embodied that with the right kind of shamelessness. At a certain point, you can't worry about shame. Most compelling characters are beyond it. And most soap villains start out at dizzying heights of power that are then toppled by love. Adam started out as an endearing, oversized infant and was manipulated into abusing that heightened power as it developed. It is a painful reflection gifted to us with joy by this multifaceted actor.  In a show where monsters are used to explore the learning curve of becoming Us, few did so with the forgivable kindness and heart of Robert Rodan. He was our sad friend and most disturbingly accurate reflection. So much of that was in the writing, but so much of it was in him. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Robert Rodan, 1938-2021

 

Robert Rodan died of heart failure March 25. The actor had an outsized presence on Dark Shadows, appearing in just 82 episodes in 1968 on the controversial "Dream Curse" storyline. For me, Rodan, and his interaction with cast members Humbert Allen Astredo and Thayer David are the saving grace of that storyline. "The Dream Curse" was never meant to be binge watched and is a bit of a repetitive slog for 21st century viewers. Rodan's petulant man-monster "Adam" and his struggles with living up to the impossible standards of his sketchy "fathers" make his episodes a joy, though. And I'll fight anyone who says otherwise.

It's always bothered me that Rodan never got the second chance on Dark Shadows that other, less interesting performers received. Perhaps he just didn't click with viewers. Most likely he just didn't click with show runner Dan Curtis. But it would have been nice to see him in fancy dress during one of the show's many historical flashbacks, perhaps playing the ancestor of one of Adam's "donors." And it would have been great to have seen Adam return to Collinsport older, wiser and more calculating. 

Sadly. Rodan's only other big credits were as a Spock-like alien in a 1969 commercial for Cheer laundry detergent, and a lead in 1969 feature film The Minx, which makes drafting any eulogy a challenge. Rodan returned to Collinsport momentarily in 2006 for the Big Finish audiodrama Dark Shadows: The House of Despair as "Man on Train," and again in 2006 for The Rage Beneath as "Oswald Gravenor." 

None of this leaves me with a lot to say about a man I never met. But you know what they say about the perspicacity of pictures ... so enjoy the images below. The first is a drawing I commissioned from Darth Vader & Son and Unlikely creator Jeffrey Brown a few years back. The rest should speak for themselves. 

RIP, big guy.

- Wallace








Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: March 22



Taped on this date in 1968: Episode 459

By PATRICK McCRAY

In the wake of his mothers suicide, Barnabas Collins vows to take revenge… if his father doesn’t shoot him with a silver bullet, first. Joshua: Louis Edmonds. (Repeat; 30 minutes)

Hearing that his mother is dead because of revelations by Nathan Forbes, Barnabas goes about the business of revenge. Meanwhile, Forbes responds with a crossbow. 

In 1795, the cherished friends and beloved relatives around Barnabas Collins have been dead for years. Barnabas was, too. Until, and you see this coming, he died. This would all be “electrocuting a dead horse” except that this arc mentions the concepts of death and life constantly. When Jonathan Frid delivers the line telling Forbes that bullets will have no effect because he’s already dead, he’s savors the words with unusually deliberate relish. In fact, he is at his most Shakespearean in this episode. Not because of an accent. Not because he stands around posing in tights, using archaic language. No, for legitimate reasons. Listen to his treatment of the really grand statements.  Words are stretched into multisyllabic wrappings over decisions and discoveries of cosmic import.  He’s not only getting the most out of their intentional weight.  He has found the dreadful music of death and revenge and the language that describes them.

We take death for granted on Dark Shadows. In 1795, it’s not just a consequence. It is the subject of philosophical heft without weighing the audience down with ascetic and academic self-consciousness about it. Death is both a metaphor and a very real state of being. For once, it has, by explored implication, been given proper attention… and by implication so has a meaningful life. We stand on the battlefield of fallen characters who have no voice. Well, except for one.

By finally standing outside of Life, there are no more appearances to keep up. Really, all of the rules of the living are what cost Barnabas his life. Was he in love with Josette? Perhaps social class taboos and a marriage prospect with a business prospect chaser kept him from confessing his true feelings, even to himself. I don’t call that living. 

The fact that Barnabas walks and speaks and feels is all of the proof we need that, on this program, death simply releases a cursed figure to explore living. Joshua, on the other hand, is a prisoner to expectations. His need to appear in control is so pervasive and toxic that it takes being in the throes of death for his wife to say she still loves him. 

Of course, the real journey of the storyline belongs to Joshua, reluctantly exploring and admitting the moments of humanity forbidden to him otherwise. It’s unclear how Joshua became so incredibly stoic, but I will guess that life at sea, having to coexist among pirates and slavers, changes a man. His charting of an underdeveloped sense of humanity exists less on the page, and so Louis Edmonds must be lavishly praised for his efforts to do so. In theory, it’s a broad part. Shouting. Taking umbrage.  Being at a loss for words on a nearly hourly basis. You know, those things are easy. They are a puckish southerner’s spoof of New England finery.  Underneath that is a keenly focused, gently urged character evolution. Frankly, if the actions of Angelique could not bring that about, the character would lack humanity, completely.

More than anywhere else, we see the effects of the curse. Exactly what she said: those he loved would die. But why make him a vampire at the same time? Of course, so that he could be the cause.  The triple somersault of irony being that, outside of the domain of the living, subsisting by the ethics and standards of the dead, Barnabas would eventually live to a point that he realized he loved Angelique. And that’s the one part of the curse that, in 1840, she forgot to lift. This isn’t a soap opera. It’s Shakespeare writing a Greek tragedy commissioned by Rod Serling

On a technical level, it’s not a soap opera either. An episode like this is the payoff that we somehow knew was possible while making our way through often hundreds of episodes of semi-repeated exposition with a sidecar of looming implication. Every time Dark Shadows has an episode like that, it carries with it an implicit promise for something more. This episode is as tight and propulsive as anything written for prime time. Frid, Edmonds, Joel Crothers, and Thayer David glide through the action with equal parts passion and confidence. There has never been better chemistry on the program than with Jonathan Frid and Louis Edmonds as Barnabas and Joshua. Opening with the immediate fallout from Naomi‘s suicide, and with the ticking clocks of Victoria's fate and the oncoming sunrise, it manages to go about solving its problems (and inventing new ones) with purposeful urgency that never devolves into sloppiness or panic. It’s too busy addressing the problems of the living with the insight of the dead.

This episode was broadcast March 28, 1968.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

What is The Ghastling?

Y'all know me. Know how I earn a livin'. Or maybe you don't? It's possible you don't even know my real name ... the few times I got "recognized" at the 2016 Dark Shadows Festival, people were surprised to discover they were actually talking to Patrick McCray. The most confusing moment was when a reader told me about how Patrick was once mean to them online, but that they didn't hold his bad behavior against me. (Spoiler: 'Twas I who had told him to "eat a bag of dicks.")

That's a long-winded explanation for why you might not know about my other creative alter ego, Unlovely Frankenstein*, who is also the new graphic designer for The Ghastling

The brainchild of editor Rebecca Parfitt, The Ghastling is a biannual short-story magazine modeled on Victorian penny dreadfuls. I'm sharing this on a website dedicated to Dark Shadows, which should tell you what you want to know about its content. If you would like more information, visit https://theghastling.com/ or its Patreon at www.patreon.com/TheGhastling.

My first issue (lucky #13) is being edited this week, so it's premature to reveal much of anything about it. But you can see a small sampling of imagery from the issue below. 


* For the sake of brevity, Unlovely Frankenstein is being credited in the magazine as Wallace McBride. Welcome to my identity crisis, Est. 1982.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Fangoria! The Rondo Awards! Exclamation points!



First things first: The Collinsport Historical Society has been nominated for Best Website of 2020 by The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards. The ballot for this year's honors was released yesterday, which saw the CHS nominated in this category for the ninth year running. It's great to see this website still represented at the Rondos, which always puts our work in great company. Don't expect to see a huge push from us in this year's competition, though ... I've got too much on my plate at the moment to focus on trying to win a contest against the likes of websites as big as Bloody Disgusting. But by all means, vote! Rod Labbe is also nominated for an interview he did for Retrofan with David Selby. You can see the full ballot at https://rondoaward.com/rondoaward.com/blog/

Meanwhile, Fangoria Editor in Chief Phil Nobile Jr shared shared the list of contributors to the magazine's upcoming issue, due out April. Look, there's my name! And Kathryn Leigh Scott! What could this possibly be about? WHAT?!

2021 began with Fangoria making a few changes to its circulation strategy. The current issue is the first to be available on newstands, so make a beeline for your nearest Barnes & Noble if you want to catch up. Or you can pick up a subscription to Fangoria today online at https://shop.fangoria.com/collections/subscription

- Wallace McBride

The Dark Shadows Daybook: March 4


Taped on this date in 1970: Episode 980

By PATRICK McCRAY

Be careful what you wish for, Barnabas. You just might get it when the Parallel Time room takes you on a one-way trip into another dimension. Sky Rumson: Geoffrey Scott. (Repeat; 30 min.)

A desperate Sky Rumson's gambit fails. In the effort, Jeb plunges off Widow's Hill, Carolyn plunges into depression, and Barnabas forces Sky to shoot himself. With the danger passed, Barnabas is no longer distracted from the desperate pangs of bloodlust. In a last ditch hope that the rules will be different for him in Parallel Time, Barnabas explores the mysterious portal once more and finds himself trapped there.

Have you ever had the experience of watching a scene on the show, finding it well-acted and dramatically compelling, about matters that are absolutely crucial to the characters, but when it was all over, you'll be damned if you can remember what happened? It seemed like something was happening. Everyone was behaving as if something were happening.  And yet, turn the corner, and you're still at Worthington Hall. Masters of that particular medium are forced to do what I can only call a form of Zen anti-writing.  Everything has to matter. Everything has to have dramatic dynamism. But it must be limited to as little real growth as possible. 

And it has to happen in a medium designed to be both constantly compelling and yet accessible by audiences who can't afford to be excessively distracted. They’ve got ham salad to grind out by 5:30 and still have to give the kids a shot or two of benadryl before you-know-who gets home. Okay, you can't say that nothing happens. But what was it, exactly?  This strange chemistry is the reason that we can’t stop watching a soap opera once it begins resonating with us. Why is it so familiar? That unlikely fusion of constant tension wrapped up in the frustrating amber of inertia resembles daily life closer than any form of art that comes to mind. Even Dark Shadows. Maybe, especially Dark Shadows. We spend weeks and months waiting for some sort of inevitable change. When it happens, as it does in “reality,” it transpires with a blink-punishing swiftness.  It's always satisfying, and yet, it never quite lives up to our expectations. Sometimes, it’s better.  In fact, it often shames the impulse of having expectations by exceeding them while falling just short enough to keep us watching. 

Characters on soap operas see The Resolution as the end of their problems. We know that they serve to usher in new ones. To writers and producers, they represent opportunities. And for the writers and producers of Dark Shadows, they represent the possibility to electrify the culture, itself. The saturation of Barnabas and Quentin into the zeitgeist proves my point. Creating them created inadvertent cultural power for the producers. And with that came the pressure to sustain it. To top it. To remain on the cultural vanguard. And, through the injection of novelty, often through novel actors, shield themselves from the power of performers to see themselves as indispensable.  Everything after Barnabas, it’s safe to say, was an attempt to re-create that success. It’s easy to evaluate that success or failure based on how storylines resolve themselves, if they ever even do. I think it’s more interesting to look at beginnings and wonder about the aspirations within.

Few transitions are as dramatic as this one. Ultimately, few will be as strangely permanent.  Sky Rumson is gone. Barnabas doesn't even bother to bite him. Even if he enslaved Rumson as his blood-bound servant, he wouldn’t exactly be a familiar worth bragging about. Sky would probably knock on Barnabas' coffin multiple times a day. Asking for a glass of water or warning him that they sent a new milkman.  

Letting go of Sky Rumson‘s small potatoes; we must concede that Jeb is gone as well. It's not like the show didn't give the character a fair shake. His storyline kept going even after the primary threat presented by it was over for weeks.  As much as they tried, Jeb never took off like Quentin or Barnabas. I sincerely wonder what Dark Shadows would have looked like if Jeb had been as popular as the Collins cousins. Would they have needed Parallel Time to cover shooting the movie? Could they have afforded to go at all?

From a certain perspective, PT is the boldest and most awkwardly optimistic piece of storytelling on the show, designed to please fans while taking away all of the characters with enough saturation to carry an unprecedented feature film. But what if it were potentially more?

I have every confidence that the production team looked at Jeb with hope. After two years of dizzying success, was anything outside the realm of possibility?  And if not Jeb, then Parallel Time. Yes, they had every reason to believe that Parallel Time could be a success, also. Why not? They had already done it once. In so many ways, 1897 is a Parallel Time story. It reflects a number of the earlier, more successful plot elements of the classic period but with the confidence and swagger of a show that knows what it's doing. Dark Shadows could have easily continued in 1897, and although everyone would be curious about the events taking place in the present, they were hardly bereft of pure DS entertainment. Among other things, it's Dark Shadows the way it could have been, had Dan Curtis known what he could get away with. After the mixed reception of the Leviathan arc, perhaps the team wondered if they should have stayed with the better mousetrap of 1897. Perhaps this upcoming storyline is a way to correct the mistake, if only metaphorically.

It feels as if the writers are yet again playing their own Monday morning quarterbacks by recreating the show based on even more of what has defined success. This means leaving something behind. The prospect of a successful introduction to Parallel Time explains a number of the more controversial choices of the movie. What kind of film kills off most of its major characters? Maybe one that is preparing audiences for the idea that Dark Shadows can continue without those characters. Obviously, the film universe and the television universe are two separate things, so we are speaking symbolically, not literally. Imagine that Parallel Time had been a roaring success. By the film’s release, the franchise would stand redefined. Could Parallel Time have become the series’ new home? In a post-Vicki universe, anything is possible. 

The potential success of PT was not in its novel concept. No one speaks of it in the same breath as “Mirror, Mirror.” Its strength simply lies in its freedom to rewrite the rules. But with tried and true elements that they had discovered, rather than as points of pre-production speculation.

David Selby is a success, so why not make him the head of the household? I would certainly tune in.  Kathryn Leigh Scott can clearly do more than just pour coffee, so what if she becomes the Mistress of Collinwood…  who is also a stranger? One who can view the mansion’s antics with the objectivity of an outsider.  In other words, Victoria Winters on spiritual steroids. While Grayson Hall plays a tremendous best friend, she's too good as a villain to waste. So, let her do what she does best. At least, what she does best when not in Gypsy drag. And look at how much more capable and intelligent they allowed Willie Loomis to become. Well, Parallel Time allows for that, also. Rounding out the ensemble, you have an Angelique who is deservedly a point of attention for everyone, rather than The Other Woman.  After all, they had seen exactly what Lara Parker could do, so why not make the spotlight even brighter? It may have been intended as more than a placeholder in the Dark Shadows saga. It feels like the a further refinement of marvelous elements they discovered while getting there. And, conveniently, you have your most popular character just waiting to be released. 

Why consider this? None of this happened, of course. Parallel Time was not a Barnabas nor Quentin-level success. Neither were the Leviathans. But look at these storylines based on their potential as well as their delivery. Because at this point, it was all about potential. If you've never seen the show, this might be objectively evaluate valuated as the start of the next big thing. When it's not that, it gives the rest of us a greater reason to sit back and reflect on what really made Dark Shadows, at its best, work.

This episode was broadcast March 27, 1970.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

In Memoriam: Geoffrey Scott (1942-2021)





By PATRICK McCRAY

Stalwart.

Dark Shadows was known for actors with myriad positive qualities. When considering the male leads to appear after Mitch Ryan, ‘stalwart’ isn’t always the first word to shuffle up on the rolodex. Could David Selby, Roger Davis, and Joel Crothers project the quality if called upon? Of course. Blindfolded, in their sleep, on an iced tightrope, in a hurricane, backwards, with a drink in their hand… not spill a drop. They could be ‘stalwart’ with characteristic ease and truth, but Geoffrey Scott simply was. This was, literally, the Marlboro Man come to Collinsport. This was a man so tough that he went from having both legs crushed in a biking accident to resuming a career as a virile, athletic screen presence. He topped this by moving to the Rocky Mountain area because he enjoyed the skiing. If I discovered that he were powered by the rays of Earth’s yellow sun, far from his native Krypton, I wouldn’t be surprised. He held his own against the Hulk and Margaret Hamilton at various points in his career, and that cannot be said for many other actors.  

He came to us on Dark Shadows with an unenviable task. Thanks to the 1897 storyline, Angelique credibly transitioned from unforgivable villain to a clever, brilliantly strategic heroine with a wistfully sad Secret. It is probably the most overlooked gem in the crown of that storyline. Soon after, we reunite with her in late 1969 to find her married. Dark Shadows fans are protective of Angelique.  What kind of man could possibly satisfy this literal Force of Nature? Casting the part of her husband may have been one of the most difficult tasks for the producers in the course of the show. The answer? Again, the Marlboro Man… Hollywood-born stuntman, model, and actor, Geoffrey Scott. 

Not just the Marlboro Man, but also a Camel smoker who, we were told, walked more than a mile for one... he walked to the Taj Mahal! Only a guy like Geoffrey Scott could do that with an easy confidence that made him look right at home.  

As hunky, magnate publisher, Sky Rumson, Scott was as warmly likable as he was blindly ambitious when we discovered his true identity as a Leviathan cultist. After the headaches caused by the intense and introspective Collins men, it’s understandable why Angelique finds this rugged, all-American, hardworking businessman an uncomplicated relief. And It's just as easy to feel her betrayal when his occult affiliation surfaces. Lara Parker and Geoffrey Scott had an easy chemistry, and that’s understandable. Both appeared with Dan Hedaya in the off-Broadway musical, Lulu, and made a darn good looking couple. 

Scott went on to be in constant demand for commercials, television, and film. A frequent guest star on programs like Matt Houston, Harry-O, and Dynasty, he was no stranger to comedy, also appearing on Married… With Children. He was a lead as well, starring in the innovative NBC program, Cliffhangers, with Jerry Reed in Concrete Cowboys (taking over in a role originated by Tom Selleck), and in one of the first made-for-cable series, 1st & Ten. The latter was a role he won out from competing actor, Chris Pennock. No hard feelings. He was simply made for it.

Like John Beck, Geoffrey Scott was the kind of star who refused to be taken down by the bullet of fashionable irony that pursued the unique, American institution known as the square-jawed leading man. There was, and we hope, always will be a demand for actors of the honest and knowing strength epitomized by Mr. Scott. His career began on Dark Shadows, and as one of its alums, he made the show proud by continuing to evolve as a hardworking and welcomed presence across the spectrum of performance. His final film role was as the president in 2003’s Hulk. 

He had my vote. Thank you, sir.



Thursday, February 18, 2021

Get Dark Shadows book signed by David Selby!


Welcome to the Marilyn Rossaissance! Who would have guessed that a 1960s hack writer of gothic pulps would ever see such a revival in the 21st century? All 32 of his/her Dark Shadows novels are now available as audiobooks from Oasis (and read by Kathryn Leigh Scott), which is staggering enough. But the company is also producing audio editions of Ross's other gothic stories, such as Memory of Evil, Dark Legend and Shadows Over Briarcliff.

Not to be outdone, Hermes Press is publishing trade paperback reprints of the Dark Shadows line. Now available for pre-order are books 15 and 16 in the series, Barnabas Collins and the Gypsy Witch and Barnabas, Quentin and the Mummy's Curse. The latter of which is also available in a special edition limited to 200 copies that includes a signed plate by actor David Selby.

Hermes Press previously offered editions of Dark Shadows the Complete Newspaper Strips signed by actress Lara Parker, and Victoria Winters signed by Alexandra Moltke.

You can get started by clicking the links above, or by visiting the Dark Shadows collection at Hermes Press here: https://hermespress.com/collections/dark-shadows-collection

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Feb. 17

 

Taped on this date in 1969: Episode 696

By PATRICK McCRAY

When Quentin claims Collinwood as his posthumous digs, why does Maggie need to be mind controlled for the closing? Quentin: David Selby. (Repeat; 30 minutes.)

David has vanished from the old house, with only the phone he used to contact Quentin as the clue. Amy, at Collinwood, is again under Quentin‘s control, and lures Maggie there. Barnabas is fearless in pursuit where he finds Maggie again possessed by spirits from a past she never lived.

Unless you’re expecting a vampire, which is a pretty logical desire, this is what you’re probably looking for if you’re tuning in to Dark Shadows for the first time. But you didn’t get this episode. Let me guess, you wound up watching an episode about Jason McGuire, lyrically alluding with criminal intent, instead? You liked him well enough, and he made a good villain, but wasn’t there supposed to be a monster or Cousin Itt in this one? Maybe a were-bat? Musical number? Can David at least get a pet snake? No? How about some dascounds? They’re kinda creepy. 

Maybe it was an episode about Liz Stoddard. I bet she spent twenty minutes talking about how she was slowly going to die. And you’re sitting there, thinking, “If this is what the show is like, I may beat you to the grave, even if I die of natural causes at a ripe old age.” God forbid, it was a Worthington Hall episode. Is it the one where Charity is having second thoughts or the one where Tim Shaw is quietly resentful? 

It pays to love such episodes. In the words of Emerson, “If a man’s measure of happiness is one of the many Adam episodes, then he is likely to die a blissful man.” Seriously, finding peace with filler builds patience and character. 696, on the other hand, is pure entertainment. As I’m often fond of saying around these parts, it’s a great episode to begin screening the series for someone.

From the get go it grabs your attention like few episodes, and we know by implication (and by having seen a show, any show, and thus innately understanding the rules of television fiction) who are the heroes and what the problem is. Maggie is screaming for Barnabas that David is missing. And the fact that a weird, antique phone has shown up as a curious calling card in the boy's bedroom is all of the evidence they need. Who is Barnabas? Who cares? He’s the hero. Obviously. Who is Maggie? Again, who cares? She is invested in the well-being of someone else. There’s only one place where the answer might reside. Collinwood. And in a bizarre inversion of the way the series begins, Collinwood is the haunted house and The Old House is the bastion of safety. 

Upon watching this, I have no doubt that Herb and Marilyn Shapiro of Tampa, FL, to whom Collinsport realtors showed the ramshackle Old House in 1965, are in a furious argument right now because dammit, Herb, if she told you once, she told you one million times, it’s better to have the worst house in a good neighborhood. And you passed it up, saying “well, it’s no Collinwood. Let’s look into some manufactured housing.“

And then Barnabas comes along, renovates it, and doesn’t even have the decency to flip it. No, he’s just going to live there and hold cosplay events. And given that he’s intermittently a vampire, it’s probably going to be for a century or two.

Then, the rest of the episode is spent with Barnabas exploring Collinwood with Willie Loomis, and beyond being the title of his future series on the learning channel, that also gives this odd couple the chance to explore exactly what you want to see someone explore on a show called dark shadows: A haunted house. When the lights don’t come on, Willie has misgivings, but Barnabas further establishes that he is the protagonist by claiming that they don’t need lights. At that point, he whips out a flashlight with a beam so incredibly focused that it creates that crisply defined white circle on a dark wall usually reserved for the animated opening credits of an inspector Clouseau movie. There is a divine perfection to that moment, because it is not a response to cliché. It is the real deal from which all the later clichés will spring. Barnabas then reassures Willie that they are safe because he doesn’t sense the presence of spirits.

Maybe Barnabas noticed that Roger cleaned out the bar before they evacuated because Quentin’s spirit is in full control of Collinwood and his power may be spreading towards the Old House. Of course, he hasn’t managed to put the cable bill into his name. That’s fine, but what’s with all the pay-per-view wrestling specials? 

All kidding aside, this is a rare moment when we see a villain in unchallenged control rather than just stirring the cauldron and implying a whole bunch. I suppose Quentin kind of has what he wants, but no matter how many times I see this stretch of the series, his obsession with killing David because he is heartbroken over Jamison is just… Weird. It’s hard to remember because it may not make a lot of sense. And why does it take him so long? I suppose because he has to be released from the room first or something, but why should some wood paneling stop him when he can conjure music out of the air, appear and vanished will, enslave another ghost, cause poison to materialize, and use the phone? No, he doesn’t make an army of zombies rise as will Gerard, but then again, he doesn’t have to. 

I have long theorized that this is not the ghost of Quentin. That Quentin never died. Instead, it’s another mask of Judah Zachary and the so-called skeleton belongs to anyone. But what if the ghost of Quentin were waiting for someone to come along? Someone with some kind of edge with time travel. Someone who could help change the timeline. 

Perhaps the ghost initially tried some sort of spectral working from beyond the grave and accidentally sent Victoria Winters back to 1795. Josette and Sara may not be crazy about the past, but they are at least at some kind of peace over it. They are focused almost entirely on influencing the present. Quentin only seems to want to influence the present. Perhaps he knows that the right person can change the timeline and save him from this particular fate.  Instead of giving advice and guidance to the living, he is hoping that one of the living can give advice and guidance to his 1897 self.

Heightening Quentin‘s power and heightening the mystery surrounding it are essential tent poles for Sam Hall to plant and raise as we are headed into the show’s longest flashback. It’s going to be nearly a year of wild adventure, and although nothing on the show perhaps compared to the indomitable evil and rousing adventure of the past body of episodes, nothing could prepare audiences for how he would deliver on the promise of installments like this.

This episode was broadcast Feb. 24, 1969.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Christopher Pennock 1944-2021

 

Christopher Pennock was, in the most Marvel of manners, an Ultimate Being. He was impossible in every sense ... impossibly talented, neurotic, loving, tempestuous, honest, intelligent, and necessarily profane. We lost him today. He had been suffering for some time. Depending on his mood, Pennock might have joked that he had been suffering for his entire life ... when he wasn’t busy living it to a degree that would have shamed a marching band.

The “next hottie” to find himself on the program after Jonathan Frid and David Selby, Pennock was no himbo. He kept himself honest with constant doubt. He was worried that his rough beginning as Jeb Hawkes made for a poor introduction to the ensemble. In truth, he handled the awkward hipster snake god with a sincerity that encapsulated the idea of a dark messiah who was more delinquent than demon. It was the first of many parts that allowed him to contribute irony as well as integrity. Beyond being a solid, east coast, red meat performer worthy of his Actor’s Studio affiliation, Pennock was an author, artist, and spiritual explorer who clearly saw the ludicrousness of what he was doing and committed to it full force... perhaps somewhat because of it. He found the total joy of John Yaeger’s compass for evil. He loved Gabriel’s sour wit, and loved the character’s tearful pique as he revealed his true motives to the father he murdered. To the detriment of his career, Pennock’s taste for the idiosyncratic made him impossible to injection mold as Leading Man #7. But as the show entered its post-1897 malaise, Pennock brightened every scene he was in with a unique blend of commitment and knowing humor toward himself. He was only newly brought it, detached from the legacy of the show’s early mythos, and he was here to make the most of it.

At its essence, theatre is about the struggle to make necessary changes after learning uncomfortable truths. Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Pennock. Growing up resisting the repression of the east coast’s bluest WASP blood, he was a much needed anarchist against rigid conformity. From interviews, it’s also clear that his anarchy was in the pursuit of something better. He was frank with all of us. When the conch shell of The @ButtockPennock blew the clarion raspberry, we heard of life’s triumphs and tragedies with relentless candor on social media. Often in secret code. I think my first interaction with him was over a stated intention to end it all. He had a forlorn dignity about it, and I couldn’t bring myself to argue with him. What could you do?

Later, I was lucky enough to participate in a dinner/interview with him where he eagerly talked for hours about the end of the world, severe depression, his post-coital encounter with a well-meaning transvestite, and then finished it off with a staring contest (for an audio podcast) that he let me win. It was great night. I was never more nervous nor more at ease.

It’s hard to imagine a festival without his Falstaffian presence.

I’m not sure he’s really gone from the mortal world... in the same sense that I’m not sure he was ever fully mired by it. He had the unmistakable crackle of bodhisattva as much as man, and the uncompromising humor and affection that surrounded him at his best proves my point. In his passionate extremes, he achieved a wild and pained balance. If matters became too dour, an ironic observation would rip forth with a master’s timing. And he was just as capable of deeply human kindness and insight. He genuinely existed with one foot on earth and one foot someplace else entirely. Both places are the better because of it.

Om mani padme hum, you big galoot.

You mattered.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Jan. 19



Taped on this date in 1971: Episode 1198

By PATRICK McCRAY

As Barnabas embarks on a determined mission of cross-dimensional bloodlust, is he the victim of a larger trap? Barnabas Collins: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Shot by Lamar Trask,  Angelique dies in the arms of Barnabas, not hearing him proclaim his love. Savage in his response, Barnabas chases and stabs Trask, who finds himself trapped and dying in parallel time. Emotionally decimated, Barnabas returns to the present with Julia and Stokes to find that they have successfully altered the timeline for the better. Meanwhile, Letitia Faye and Desmond catch a brief glimpse of parallel time where Julia Collins discovers Trask’s body.

1198 is a dangerous episode. As the resolution of the primary series, it trolls fans as much as it fulfills their desires. There is no eleventh hour return of Kathryn Leigh Scott. There is no tearful reunion with Josette. Instead, Barnabas discovers happiness in the arms of a one-time enemy. As the program does what it can with what it has, it shocks more than satisfies. Seen now, it also divides viewers like few other decisions made over its run. 

Do we see Barnabas discovering his authentic love for Angelique or merely convincing himself that the only game in town is what he always wanted? Is the series putting viewers in the same position? Are fans of the Barnabas/Angelique romance responding to something illuminating in the text or are they just making the best with what they have, convincing themselves it’s what they wanted all along? Are you on Team Angelique or Team Josette? It might depend on when you saw it. 

For millions of viewers over several decades, the climactic twist of Barnabas’ true, romantic direction is something they saw only once… or never saw at all. Without VHS, DVD or frequently cycled reruns, his “real” love is more of a rumor or fever dream than a fondly remembered highlight of the series. Until the mid-00’s, there was no way to review the moment, nor scour any of the series for clues. Good thing, because there were no clues. The writers were making it up as they went along, and if they had known that Barnabas’ true love was Angelique, they would have telegraphed it years before. Of course, the show might have benefited from this. But the fact that they can’t even hint at his unrealized love makes it more of a surprise. 

And it makes the whole argument irrelevant. In 2021, Dark Shadows exists as a complete entity. The details of its authorship are just those: details. This is the reality of Barnabas Collins because it’s now part of a finished work. 

The answer to the Josette vs Angelique question may not be so clear-cut as just choosing one over the other. I used to think of Angelique as the hero because of her 11th hour transformation and the tremendous sacrifices she makes along the way. But upon this viewing, I was struck by a possibility I had never considered before. As a director, something I always tell actors is that any character, at any point, may not be telling the truth. Even if the author makes it appear as if they are, they might not be. So, in terms of her grand transformation, what if Angelique is making it all up?  Or some of it up. After all, she has always been perfectly happy to use her powers to influence Barnabas’ decisions. How he came about loving her was always less relevant than the fact that he simply did. No love spells (on him). She simply mastered the fine art of influence. First off… threats to family. That’s in 1795. Then, threats to him. That’s in 1968. In 1897, maybe jealousy over Quentin? 

But at the end, none of those things worked, did they? Not like making yourself the hero against your past villainy, wiping out a larger threat, and then creating loyalty by curing your own curse. Has Barnabas been manipulated by a vast disinformation campaign? I say this because his decision is ultimately swayed by, yes, the involvement of witchcraft, years after her initial efforts. If it’s ineffective to use your occult powers, simply impress everyone by removing them. One way or the other, you’re still exploiting the occult. One way or the other, you would never be in the position you are if it were not for witchcraft. Clever. And strangely Zen. 

Take the implications to episodes that never happened. We have no evidence that she’s really given up her powers. It’s not like there’s a meter we can check. If she can suddenly cure a near-incurable curse, she can make her abilities appear and vanish at will. Faking her own death is the longest-but-strongest game possible. Had the 1971 Primary Time storyline happened, it might very well have seen Barnabas exploring the timeline in pursuit of Angelique. At last, she would be desired and sought on a level to rival Josette. 

At last he would have her right where she wants him. 

It’s just an interpretation. Just a what-if, True Believers. Yes, a bleakly cynical one of multilevel manipulation, but you have met Angelique, right? 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 27, 1971.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dark Shadows: The Revival Begins


By PATRICK McCRAY

When a boozing handyman decodes the secret location of a wealthy family’s long-lost treasures, he uncovers the deadliest legacy of all. Can the new tutor for the family’s troubled heir unravel the mystery before becoming a bride of the living dead? Loomis: Jim Fyfe. (Repeat. 1 hr.) 


All-around scamp Willie Loomis unleashes Barnabas Collins, a vampire trapped in his own coffin for two centuries. Masquerading as his own descendant, Collins reclaims his dilapidated ancestral home and is compelled to woo his family’s newest employee, a soulful governess who resembles the bride he lost centuries before, 

When Ben Cross died, I remember writing that the 1991 Dark Shadows "revival" was the first expression of the franchise that felt like mine. It was the first Dark Shadows production of any kind  to roll out in my lifetime. More or less. I was born just a few days after the program went off the air, and, let's put the cards on the table, I'm not really sure Night of Dark Shadows counts except as a metaphor for the Fine Art of Settling for What We Got that was the albatross of being a fan back then. Few gigantic pop culture phenomena required as much of its fans as Dark Shadows at that time. This was a program you were lucky to even catch on TV. In 1990, many of the fans had never seen the entire series and had no real hope of doing so. I worked for public television at the time, and the rumor around the station was that Worldvision was asking so much for the final package that absolutely no station would carry it. True? False? I don't know. But I don't see Gerard Stiles around here, do you? 

Following the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea of a prime time, big-budget, hour-long television series on the most powerful network on television was like a reward for loyalty. And it immediately created a strange sense of conflict with the original series. To this day, I feel inexplicably disloyal saying nice things about a TV series that could have hired almost all of the original stars, the oldest of which, among a certain age bracket, wasn't even 50.  Still, putting that aside, this was an incredible proof-of-concept. This was an affirmation that Dark Shadows was not just a TV series.  A recognition like this is like finding yourself on the pop culture equivalent of the periodic table. Attention was at last being paid. And honestly? The fact that the original actors were not featured was, strangely, a compliment to them. It was an acknowledgement that they created something so indelible that it became larger than their individual personalities. If anything, it was a tribute to their immortality…  just a few inconvenient decades early.  

In my lifetime, there was no better time to be a Dark Shadows fan. Twin Peaks had cleared a path for a nighttime supernatural mystery soap opera.  Anne Rice was going great guns and had yet to go through that weird, post-9/11 Jesus phase. The Lost Boys wasn't that long ago, and if the Bernard Hughes character isn't the prototype for what they did with Dave Woodard, then… well... I don't need to bother coming up with something to finish the sentence. He clearly was the model. 

And you've got to love that. However, therein lies the ultimate reason for the show's failure. Bernard Hughes. Mastermind of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait? You tell me. The future staff of Dark Shadows goes to see The Lost Boys and the hot property they come back with is a character kind of like Bernard Hughes. Yeah, that's the takeaway, apparently. Keep in mind, I exist in a world where Bernard Hughes defines male sex appeal. But there are times when I wonder if I am actually the entertainment industry's key demographic. Not that a 1991 Dark Shadows has to be the Lost Boys, but it was state-of-the-art. And the 1991 Dark Shadows… was not.


I don't lay the failure of the show on the Gulf War. I had a reason to watch the show because I was a Dark Shadows fan. So, I did what a person did at the time; I read the newspaper and I read TV Guide and I followed the show around like Waldo wherever it might pop up on the schedule in between Iraq’s regularly scheduled missile attacks on Israel.  I never missed an episode. So, if motivated, it was scientifically possible for a viewer to keep up with the crazy schedule of the show. But the rest of the nation was not properly motivated. Logic dictates that the program, despite its quality, did not significantly motivate viewers en masse. And that's what happened.

Dan Curtis was 39 when the original Dark Shadows went on the air. To put this into perspective, not only was he a relatively young man, but his greatest inspiration, Tod Browning's Dracula, was only 35 years old when the original TV show premiered. Yeah, it was only five years older than the Dark Shadows remake is now. It was all pretty fresh, cosmically speaking. In fact, the original novel was less than 70 years old at that point. But by 1990, Dan Curtis was 63. Horror had reinvented itself at least twice since he was a prime mover in the field. And while no one would call him tired, he produced a Dark Shadows remake that had the kind of dated swagger that comes from someone who helps invent a genre. Because of that, maybe he doesn't see a lot of need to check in with what has become of that before jumping in again. I kind of get the feeling that everyone around the office considered Dark Shadows 1991 relevant because Dan Curtis said it was relevant .  Unfortunately, the Zeitgeist didn't get the memo.

In the long run, I think this serves the 1991 Dark Shadows series better now than it did at the time. It has a stately confidence that grows as the series moves on. But I don't know many people who hang out at the water cooler gushing about how excited they are to see more stately confidence that night on TV. Perhaps, in 1990, God help me, it needed a blond Barnabas with spiky hair and a leather jacket. That was the fashion back then, and at least it would be a tribute to paying attention. And that's great. They didn’t do that. After all, conservative clothes never go out of style. It has an admirable stodginess that a 63 year old guy who had  just spent a decade waging World War II would look at and say, "Yeah, that's about right." 

Yes, let's admit it, we answered the question, "What if somebody gave a Dark Shadows and nobody came?”  Because it was not Twin Peaks. It was a response to the Zeitgeist of 1967 that got made 23 years too late. Me? My idea of a great band back then was and still is the Ink Spots. So, I like the fact that the show is not some winkingly postmodern flavor of the month, diagnosing the audience's sperm motility the old-fashioned way with a high style that can't make up its mind if it's parody or sincere. Like Twin Peaks. Instead, that show just bullies you by condescendingly Lynchsplaining that whatever tonal interpretation you have of it is wrong. But my real beef with that show is that it was successful and reportedly good and a lot of people liked it and instead of priming the audience for Dark Shadows, it created a situation where Dark Shadows was criticized by many for not being it. 

And because the man works his ass off to run this particular Bartertown, I have to acknowledge the head of the Historical Society here. It would be ooky not to.  You get the daybook, I believe, because Wallace has big executive stuff to do. The guy is a fantastic writer. Go back and read Monster Serial if you want proof. Look at the first line of his Alien review. It is rhetorically sublime. The man knows what he's talking about. One day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to hook a reader with a simple first sentence like the one he uses there. Wallace loves Twin Peaks, and he's smarter than I am to an extent that makes me a gym coach who's gotten stuck trying to muddle through an organic chemistry textbook because the actual teacher has jury duty. He loves Twin Peaks, so go watch it. I'm just cranky because what kind of a world is it where a guy dressed up like Barnabas Collins (Dale Cooper in his natty black suits) gets all of the cultural cachet while the new Barnabas Collins struts around in vaguely dated turtlenecks that make him look like Ron Burgundy's mortician?  Barnabas Collins was not a man with much need for business casual circa 1979.  I swear to God,  I think Willie just raided Roger’s latest donation to AMVETS and convinced Barnabas that it would impress Victoria. I'm sure he talked Barnabas  into slathering himself with Paco Rabanne, wearing a gold chain under the offensive turtleneck,  and probably sansabelt slacks just to complete the ensemble.  Ben Cross brings a uniquely regal sensibility to Barnabas, and it works best in the context of the 1791 flashback. That's really where the character comes into his own, and since everyone knows what the mystery of Barnabas Collins actually is, I wish they had simply started the series there. It would have given a fresh sense of sympathy and relevance to his quest for Josette, allowing them to enter the modern era with Barnabas as an understandably reluctant vampire. That was a magical choice that the original series had to discover through trial and error. There's no need to repeat the learning process. Let the story itself do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Cross is forced to play an almost cartoonishly suave and confident vampire who is largely interesting because he's named Barnabas Collins. I wish they had allowed him to explore the nervous, fearful, and  paranoid, dethroned aristocrat that I always think of when considering the essence of Barnabas Collins in those early episodes.  Cross was reportedly a man with a tremendous and ebullient sense of mischief, and I think he would have risen to that challenge with a lot of gratitude.

Having had fun at the expense of a show I actually like, let me list what really works in this pilot. The cast is incredibly strong.  Joanna Going is positively luminous as Victoria Winters.  Alexandra Moltke strikes me as playing a loving caregiver for a disturbed boy who also does what she can as an educator. Joanna Going gets to play a highly credible educator who also happens to have a skill at reaching this disturbed young man. It's an important distinction, and it makes it easy to root for her as a character capable of solving Collinwood's mysteries rather than someone I'm just kind of concerned about. The rest of the performers spend most of their time doing what casts do in a pilot; they recite exposition. But they execute it with a sense of investment and stakes. Roy Thinnes’ natural presence and dark integrity help to create a different type of Roger Collins, but one I am just as interested in seeing revealed. This is a man who has been married to a fire demon and has lived to tell the tale. And it's wonderful to see Jean Simmons out of makeup, despite having rock and rolled all day and partied every night.

In a cast of standout performances, there are several unexpected ones that work exceptionally well and are worthy of special praise. Dan Curtis and the team make lightning strike twice with the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as David Collins. Like David Henesy before him, he has a blend of maturity, menace, confidence, and vulnerability that does the impossible by making a child character just as interesting and unpredictable as any of the adults. Equally terrific is Barbara Blackburn. She combines Caroline’s necessary youth with a mature intelligence, sense of wit, and honest, smokey-voiced eroticism grounded more in those inner qualities than simply relying on her bone deep physical beauty. As with the women of the original Dark Shadows cast, Hollywood really missed the boat by not casting her in everything possible for the next 30 years. 

My favorite of all of them is Saint Jim Fyfe. His audition was reportedly an explosive exercise in risk-taking that commanded his casting… despite being nothing like John Karlen.  Because the character is so distinctive, he gets to have far more fun than anyone else in the cast. Fyfe and the writers know that this character is destined to be a sympathetic everyman, loyal to Barnabas more and more out of an instinctive sense of his master’s nascent humanity than fear.  It’s only now that I can see a series where Willie is the audience surrogate more than Victoria.  Making Willie the troubled inheritor of the Ben (Stokes) Loomis mantle grounds his sense of loyalty in something larger than himself, and it is the thread that so beautifully ties together the two eras occupied by the show. No, he’s not John Karlen. But he does what I think Karlen would champion; he makes the character his own rather than an imitation. It’s a trait shared by his castmates, but he gets to explore the furthest dimensions of it. There are few episodes of the series where he doesn’t make me laugh and tear up just a tad. Fyfe embodies the single most important adage in selecting performers: choose the most interesting actor, not just the most naturalistic. 

If Dark Shadows 1991 failed to be a show with numbers demanding a second season, and if it falls short of being the late-Eighties music video nightmare that might have gotten all the gang talking at the sock hop, it doesn’t matter. It sustains its half-season with a unique, compelling, and headstrong voice that doesn’t need to ask for anyone’s approval. Dan Curtis’ braggadocio may have created a strangely anachronistic show, but given the nature of its lead character, that may have been the most loyal choice possible. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Jan. 5

 
Taped on this date in 1968: Episode 404

By PATRICK McCRAY

Does Vicki have the power of witchcraft after all? All bets are off when a smitten jail guard quits his day job to become Collinsport’s newest lawyer for her defense. Peter Bradford: Roger Davis. (Repeat. 30 min.)

Judge Matigan goes from defending Vicki against Trask to distancing himself when she reveals her anachronistic origins. From the wings, a handsome young gaoler named Peter Bradford volunteers to defend her innocence. Meanwhile, Barnabas is interrupted by a spying bat when he attempts to tell Josette the true identity of the witch. 

If the Monolith from 2001 were to have taken a break from filming his upcoming Valentine’s Day special across the hall, he would have dropped in on this episode of Dark Shadows. Apes at his feet. Golf club over his shoulder. “Thanks for the Memories” wafting around him thanks to Bob Cobert. Why? Change must be heralded. And to be certain, change is arriving. Dark Shadows, cauldron of moral ambiguity, is about to get its first, pure hero. Ladies and gentlemen, join me, Richard Strauss, and the Also Sprach Zarathustra Dancers as we welcome Mr. Roger Davis

Specifically, Peter Bradford. A character unlike any that the show has introduced in 400 episodes. He’s a capital-R Romantic hero in the midst of a Greek tragedy. Both the actor and character bring everything right to Dark Shadows, filling needs we never knew the show had until now.  It's appropriate that this segment of the show should feel even more like a Greek tragedy than Dark Shadows normally does. And that’s saying a lot. If this program were any more Greek, it would smashing plates and awaiting the Pierce Brosnan musical number. The show may have have been low in budget, but the stakes in the drama are inventive and gripping.

The forces opposing Victoria Winters are like those tormenting Gods themselves. They are relentless. Vast to the point of institutional. And inevitable. Vicki’s journey is a maddening cycle of hopes dashed, raised, and dashed again. The arrival of Peter Bradford is part of that cycle, but it also feels like the storyline is finally bucking with an unexpected defiance toward fate. Vicky deserves it. It's awfully cheeky of the universe to pick on Victoria in the first place. Did it not have a worthier target? This is the person famous for saying that she doesn't understand.  I love her to death, but I think few could argue that Vicky could get stuck on a broken escalator. As always, I ask why is she back there? Why was she chosen?  

Especially with her growing fascination with Josette and her era, Vicky makes an ideal witness.  She departs for the past as something of a Collins fangirl, herself. Her reverence for the Collins fam puts her in a perfect position to be let down by the clay footed reality. The mighty have to fall. It’s what makes high drama so satisfying. Besides, we can’t get the deposit back on the periaktoi, so we might as well use them. Pure as they come, Victoria is untouched by the tragic flaws creating the forced implosion of the Collins family. She’s an outsider. (Then again, so is Angelique… and Josette.) It makes sense that an outsider would be her undoing. 

Everyone admits that Trask is full of monkey feathers, but they seem incapable of honoring the wisdom of Susan Powter and stopping the insanity. She is surrounded by ineffectual voices of wealthy, Enlightenment reason consistently subordinated by a superstitious redneck.  In this episode, it looks like she’ll be getting the best lawyer in town. Complete with judiciary super powers, Addison Powell might as well enter nude and greased up on a wrecking ball to save her, just like Miley Cyrus did, and Kate Smith, before her. The day is saved until she makes the mistake of telling the truth, and then the needle scratches off the record with cosmic inevitability. 

Enter Peter Bradford. This guy’s different. He doesn’t even look like he belongs in a Dan Curtis production. Tenor, not baritone. Sandy haired, not dark. Physically proportionate rather than elongated and looming. The Dan Curtis taste in casting men who look like he did has trained us to expect a pattern, and Roger Davis breaks it. In doing so, he feels like an ambassador from the real world, and we instantly trust him. As he offers a tearful Vicki his help, seasoned viewers wait for the music or lingering shot that would normally signal a hidden agenda. Wait all you want; we finally have a genuine mensch. If Dark Shadows is a universe where the average person harbors secret hazards, then the very presence of an average person implies statistical outliers. One would be a Trask, who is nothing but a public menace. And now, we meet his opposite. Just as rare. Seemingly, just as inevitable. 

In his debut, Davis does what few actors can: he makes doing the right thing actually interesting. We see a compassionate strategist in Davis, with a purity of purpose that suggests a man who will not back down. That very sense of dedication hints at a man of both love and principle, who will, by turns, be equally feral and contemplative. His benevolence has a necessary edge, and Davis’ native senses of intelligence, passion, and mischief are precisely the elements that define the program’s unpredictable bravado.

Vicki may finally have a fighting chance. As Dark Shadows explores its power to push beyond limits, it also finds new limits to push. 

This episode was broadcast Jan. 11, 1968.

Long Live The Phoenix: The First Monster of Dark Shadows


There are a lot of serious Dark Shadows fans who have never seen the 200 or so episodes of the series prior to Jonathan Frid's introduction. That represents about a year's worth of episodes and at least three overlapping storylines, all of which are essential viewing if you ever want to really understand Dark Shadows.

The first week of the show might be the most important block of episodes in the entire series. I'd put it on the shelf next to the first issue of Neil Gaiman's comic series The Sandman or the pilot of The Shield, in terms of who thoroughly it establishes themes that would go on to inform the rest of the series. As much as I love the soapy stories that follow that first week of Dark Shadows, the only storyline you must see involves Diana Millay's turn as the show's first monster: Laura Collins, "The Phoenix." And hooboy, she's a doozy.

Serialized storytelling has the habit of blooming during its darkest times. Spider-Man was introduced in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy, because why not? What did they have to lose? The X-Men saw a similar revival during the 1970s during a run of the series when almost nobody cared about the characters. Barnabas Collins has long been seen as a similar Hail Mary pass by Dan Curtis to grab the audience by the short and curlies and demand their attention ... but Laura Collins did it first. And nastier. 

Laura was introduced as a seminal soap opera character: The Ex. She had only been whispered about prior to her return to Collinsport, but everybody knew she was bad news. She had been married to Roger Collins (which doesn't speak well of her character), was the mother of a young sociopath and was involved -- somehow -- in vehicular manslaughter that sent an innocent man to prison. But she was something else, too: a full-fledged demigod with a horrifying goal. She doesn't return to Collinsport to bury any hatchets with Roger or his old friend/nemesis Burke Devlin ... she'd come home to murder her child. It's a compulsion she's barely aware of and is helpless to resist. It's as tragic as it is grotesque.

The storyline also leans heavily into film noir, not only in the superficial elements (cops, shadows, lots of tobacco and lies) but also in the sense that there was no possible way for the plot to resolve itself in a happy ending. Along the way it expands the demon haunted world of Dark Shadows in a way that made the inclusion of a vampire not only make sense, but feel almost like a relief.

If you want to give this storyline a spin, it takes place across episode 123 (found on the Dark Shadows: The Beginning, Vol. 4 Disc 2) to episode 192 (The Beginning, Vol. 6 Disc 2). Go watch it!

Friday, January 8, 2021

Diana Millay (1935-2021)

 

By PATRICK McCRAY

The passing of Diana Millay has a poignance to it on many levels. For many fans, Dark Shadows was a part of their lives since its first episodes went on the air. It was a contemporary show rather than a piece of another generation’s nostalgia. As one of the first cast members, only 31 when she took the part, it is a wistful reminder that the show is on a steady course to becoming an animal that lives completely in memory. 


As Laura Collins, she followed Burke Devlin as a feared and much-talked-about piece of the recent past that refuses to be done with the Collins family. Is she a reminder of past sins? Given Roger’s cold and distant nature, it’s easy to assume that she is the victim of some sort, there to rescue David from a parental love so vacant that Liz is compelled to order carry-out in the form of Victoria Winters. Instead, she adds to Roger’s complexity when we find that she is the show’s first real female villain, causing us to think twice about who he was. Not only that, but she sets the stage as the first, real “outsider” female, creating a motif that balances Vicki. Vicki is also an outsider, but one who seeks only meaning and identity. Like Angelique after her, she represents the danger of women from the larger world. Laura allows us to appreciate the positive nature of the women on the show we’ve so far met. A primarily female audience was given a band of surrogate sisters, and now they and we have to close ranks against the interloper.

As that, her greatest legacy was as the first supernatural villain on the show. Ghosts are fine, but can they truly stack up against a living creature with an agenda? Not in the drama department. The introduction of Laura is the program’s first, longrunning risk into the personified paranormal. Yes, there was the ghost of Josette, but she’s expected in a spooky house, and exists at this point as a special-effect more than a truly interactive character. For all of the credit given to Jonathan Frid as the show’s first great supernatural foe, Laura has him beat. Not only that, but as a type of monster with no heritage nor blueprint. I’m still not sure what a Phoenix is, but Millay certainly was. The cool confidence of her performance successfully charted that new frontier for the show and made safe every choice they tried afterwards. 

Interview after interview gave Millay the platform to describe the joy of helping to create that character. She identified strongly with the mystical, alluring creature, both lustfully of this earth and empowered by primal forces beyond time. In her hands, the novel nature of the threat was an invitation for ownership and creativity. That self-assuredness cemented a character that is as credible as it as fantastic, and Millay gives Laura a set of missions that should contradict each other, but don’t. She is ancient-but-contemporary, tied to the past of Roger, his ancestors, and countless fathers before. But she is decidedly contemporary, also, existing on her own with no need for the Collins material resources or status. Yes, she needs something, but it’s the most unjustly ignored element of the Collins wealth: David. 


Millay relishes her performance like few on the show, and like the concept of the Phoenix itself, is a study in contradiction and balance. She convinces us that she is a loving mother and a ruthless force of hellish consumption. Few performers can maintain both of those impressions, but Millay had to and did. She was impossible to pigeonhole as someone with only one dimension. Thanks to the delicate nature of her acting, we experienced David’s twin senses of total fear and total need. She had to bring both of those elements out in David Henesy so that we could experience genuine sympathy toward his plight from her first moments until the end. I’m still undecided about the fate he faced beyond the flame. It’s a totally irrational curiosity, but Millay’s dedicated sincerity is impossible to ignore.  

The adage in performance is that every character is the hero in their own eyes. With Diana Millay, we never doubt it. When she returns as the character, it’s a harder sale to pitch, but she manages to do so again… with a twist. Now, undeniably a villain, Millay repeats her mission, but with a more colorful bent for unapologetic evil. She’s no longer an unopposed god among mortals. The presence of Angelique, Barnabas, and even seasoned occultist Quentin gives her a reason to revel in her plans rather than coyly allude to them. It’s yet another dimension to a character of teasingly allusive possibilities.  

Millay delighted in her identification with the role, often insisting that she had worlds in common with her. As a cast member dedicated to mysticism, going so far as to write several books on the subject, she was both an ensemble member and a committed fan of the show’s subject matter. She was an actor, reveler, and even thematic ambassador. Of course, she wrote about the supernatural.  Of course, she wrote and performed motivational lectures. Put the two together and you have Laura, and the Phoenix, and Millay and the ebullient sense of mischief that made us believe that Collinsport was a world of possibility for everything that followed. 

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