Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remembering a classic TV horror series: "Dark Shadows"

To celebrate Halloween and preserve my fondly held memories of the original 1966-’71 ABC TV series in the time before the Burton-Depp big screen reworking of the show comes out (and is either an absolute joy or a big-budget embarrassment), I hereby present an appreciation of the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The series scared the hell out of me as a child, but I still collected the trading cards, the comic books, and even the daily cartoon strips. As a young adult I was able to consume ample amounts of the show in reruns and found that it was both a really terrific horror TV show and a delightful piece of Sixties camp (that decade, as I note frequently on the Funhouse TV show, is the “gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and…”).

First, the horror: the series began in June 1966 as a classic Rebecca/Jane Eyre-style narrative about a governess, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), who comes to the town of Collinwood to mind a child in a creepy old New England mansion.

In its first few months, some ghosts appeared, but the most interesting supernatural plot twist involved a character who was a “phoenix” (Diana Millay) and wanted to bring her son (the boy being cared for by the governess) to immortal life. “Laura the Phoenix” was a pretty odd creation for a daytime soap, but was topped in March ’67 by the opening of a coffin that let loose vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).

At the end of ’67, the show introduced its first time-travel storyline, in which Vicky Winters was sent back (by a séance) to 1795, before Barnabas was a vampire. At that time he intended to marry his beloved Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott), but was cursed for eternity by seductive witch Angelique (Lara Parker). After Barnabas' “origin story” ended, the show quickly went into horror-overdrive, introducing a Frankenstein plot, a werewolf saga, The Turn of the Screw, a gypsy curse, Druid-like figures, and a plague that wiped out the Collins family.

The time-travel got more and more frenzied as the show continued, but it all seemed to make sense, since DS was after all a soap and had five half-hours each week to delineate its plotline. The time periods covered after the original “origin story” was over went from ’68-’69 to 1897, to ’69-’70 and then “1970 parallel time,” to 1995 (!), back to 1970, and then to 1840 and “1841 parallel time.”

The last move occurred when Frid, now the series’ superstar, demanded that he didn’t want to play Barnabas any more, and thus was indulged with a Wuthering Heights-ish plotline in which he became “Bramwell Collins.” The show unfortunately was cancelled during that flashback — with only a TV Guide article by one of the scripters (Sam Hall, married to the show’s “Dr. Julia Hoffman,” Grayson Hall) to explain where it would’ve gone after that.

Dark Shadows was thus an incredibly ambitious series and its creator, Dan Curtis, was wisely aware of what pieces of literature (all safely in public domain!) he could pilfer from to juice up the storyline. The show was indeed scary as fuck for its time, since it was done live on videotape and thus to monster-movie-fan kids like me, it had a “reality” that the old Universal b&w films didn’t have.

It had extremely primitive special effects, but they were extremely disturbing for that era — the best example being a scene where Angelique was burned alive, with Lara Parker (right) emoting wildly as a fire effect was overlaid in front of her. (This isn’t the scene, but it’s another example of that effect.)

Today that scene would be taken as nothing by kids who’ve seen far more realistic fire effects in movies and TV, but back then this was traumatic viewing for young people, if only because of the screams of pain from the character — and the fact that this was also on in a “comfortable” afternoon timeslot, as afterschool viewing! Lara Parker attributed the show’s over-the-top acting style to its directors in an interesting comment made at one of the DS conventions.

Like every soap, the show was contingent upon secrets that would be revealed in seemingly endless two or three-character conversation scenes, but DS actually offered a payoff of sorts to these chat-filled encounters with the attacks by “cursed” characters and the weird incantations and rituals that became a part of the various storylines.

In the years since, various soaps have gone out on a ledge storywise — off the top of my head, I think of the “weather wizard” plot on General Hospital, an amazing exorcism plot on Days of Our Lives, and the very strange lengths to which the show Passions went with its witch character, played by Juliet Mills.

DS was comprised almost entirely of these sort of plot twists — the normal world of cheating spouses and nefarious schemes that has fueled the soaps since the Thirties on radio was nowhere in evidence on the show. It was a high-key endeavor that did require that you not miss any episodes, but also that you were willing to go with the weirdness as it cropped up.

At points, they went into places that flopped in my estimation (the whole “Adam and Eve” Frankenstein plot was just awful), and at others they introduced characters in one plotline (the heartthrob “Quentin” played by David Selby was originally a ghost in the Turn of the Screw story) and then threw them into another thread (he was also a werewolf!).

And yes, there was the campiness. The Sixties was a time when “gimmick” series ruled — flying nuns, spies who talked into their shoes, cars that had the souls of old ladies in ’em (not forgetting the uber-campy Batman, natch). Dark Shadows ran with this as well — even though the show was played straight, its sometimes-outlandish plot twists were of a piece with the “camp revolution” going on in pop culture at the time. This made the show even more of a weird creation — an over-the-top gothic horror soap with elements that could be laughed at and others that were genuinely kinda creepy, all underscored with the “what comes next?” mechanisms that drive the soap opera format.

The show has of course developed a massive cult and has the distinction of being the ONLY soap to come out on VHS and DVD in its entirety (of course, we’re only talking five years here, as opposed to the lifespan of Guiding Light, but still that is 1,225 episodes, all on disc!). It also was the first soap to widely be seen in reruns (a little research reveals that a Canadian show inspired by DS, called Strange Paradise got there first….)

The show’s producer and creator Dan Curtis, who was also behind the cult telefilms The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror, definitely had a knack for TV horror. He also definitely knew how to cast — one of the lingering joys of Dark Shadows is its cast, who continue to appear at the conventions that honor the show, and who have aged incredibly well (most of the cast members look as if maybe two decades or so have passed since the series bit the dust; instead it’s been exactly 40 years).

For evidence of that I need only point you to the websites of Lara Parker, David Selby, and Kathryn Leigh Scott (pictured), a Funhouse interview subject who has kept working as a performer, but is also an author and publisher.

Okay, enough with the reverie and on with the clips. I found it utterly fascinating in doing research for this blog entry that not only is the entire run of DS out on DVD, but the owners of the copyright have apparently had no problem with LOADS of episodes and special features from the DVDs being on YouTube.

I offer the cream of the crop below. For those who already are familiar with the original series (the 1991 “revival” is available on YT, but I didn’t find that particularly interesting, except for the casting of Barbara Steele as Julia Hoffman), you can watch the first episode of the show from 1966 here and the first 370 episodes are all up (really!) here.

The video label MPI put out some themed video compilations that come in handy for those who have never seen the show. The first one that deserves a spotlight is “The Scariest Moments of Dark Shadows”:

Another intriguing MPI vid-comp is here, called “Vampires and Ghosts”:

Another shows you the series’ trippiest moments. It is called “Nightmares and Dreams” (I’m telling you, DS was a VERY strange program for its era…):

Finally, since the bulk of the media attention concerning the new Burton film is devoted to Johnny Depp, not Burton, here are his feelings about Frid’s performance in the original series. And here, to refresh your memory as to what Frid did that made him so “iconic,” is another MPI vid-comp, this one called “The Best of Barnabas”:

It does seem like every extra from every DS DVD has been put up on YT, so here are a few of my faves, all vintage items featuring Frid when he was considered a “teen idol” (he was at this point a man in his mid-40s, much like Patrick Macnee when The Avengers hit). Here he is in 1970 on What’s My Line? in his full Barnabas regalia:

And here he is in 1969, doing a very sober-minded interview (about vampires, coffins, and teen adulation) on The Merv Griffin show (seated between Barbara Bouchet and Rocky Graziano!):

The helpful souls who comment on YT vids supply a lot of information. I had wondered at what point the “Dark Shadows Music Videos” (yet another MPI vid-comp that is not online in one piece) had been created. It turns out they were put together initially for the airing of DS here in NYC on the late, lamented WNYC-TV (Ch. 31) by Alan Matlick, a broadcast engineer, to make the reruns “longer.” Here is the first of the bunch, the super-melo “I Barnabas”:

In closing, I leave you with one of the most unique aspects of the show: the fact that its “bloopers” weren’t outtakes, they actually aired on the program. Dark Shadows, like most soaps, was produced on a shoestring budget, and so retakes were not allowed (unless someone cursed — but that’s a story for another time).

Thus, the actors’ line-flubs, scenery mishaps, and major screw-ups all aired on ABC, making it even more impressive that DS was still scary — since you could see its main vampire and matriarch regularly blowing their lines, supernatural fires going out at the worst possible minute, and doors opening and closing randomly during scenes.

The “blooper” reel for the show has been released on DVD and is not only amusing, it’s also an amazing record of a time when a major network show included fumbles, because the producers were pinchin’ pennies:

A final note about the upcoming Burton film: in the clip I linked to above, Depp had noted that they would stay close to the iconic look that Frid created for the role, but the one on-set photo released thus far shows Johnny in wacked-out mode again. That could be a great thing, if indeed Tim Burton is going to do something seriously creative in “re-imagining” the show.

Burton has also stated his admiration for the original series, which is reassuring to hear, because it was entirely evident that he wasn’t a fan of Batman comics from his Batman pictures, and he obviously wasn’t a fan of the Planet of the Apes movies from his big-budget effort to resurrect that franchise.

Truth be told — although I did really like his Sweeney Todd — Burton hasn’t made a film project that he originated (and thus has seemed “personal”) since Edward Scissorhands, and he’s now at the point of doing a feature version of one of his old short projects, the one-joke Frankenweenie.

Aside from fascinating, unconventional items like Ed Wood and Big Fish, he has been applying the “Tim Burton touch” to remakes and adaptations of very familiar works for two decades now. Let’s hope that his Dark Shadows brings back the sense of innovation and imagination he displayed in his early features. Although, with the kooky, crazy makeup, I’m sorta having my doubts. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong….)

1 comment:

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