– RANDOM STUFF –
I don’t know about you but I’m still in the Halloween mood, so what better time to tell you more about my watchthrough of barmy US soap, Dark Shadows. I promised I’d get back to you and, dear reader, I gladly make good on my promise (whether you like it or not!).
Last time I wrote about Dark Shadows, Barnabas Collins, the resident 200 year-old vampire of Collinwood, was struggling to keep the secret of his blood-drinking ways from the modern-day descendants of his family and postulated 14 ways the writers of the show could conceivably write ways in which Barnabas keeps his secret. The 14 possibilities ranged from the obvious (blackmail, murder), to the contrived (amnesia or bargaining). Well, I didn’t consider the fifteenth option, and it was obvious really. To keep the storyline going and prevent the other characters from finding out Barnabas’ secret, all you have to do is suddenly fling one of the main characters into the past, just as an impromptu seance is about to reveal everything to everyone.
Frozen in time during a séance, our main character Vicki Winters is next seen in a field in-front of the old Collinwood House. She calls out to Barnabas, but he doesn’t know who she is. As the voice-over before each episode reminds us thereafter, Vicki Winters is in the past among the Collins family who lived two hundred years ago. The names are different but the faces of the family’s modern-day equivalents are the same. Miss Winters is lost among a sea of familiar faces, living a history she cannot change.
Of course, this is 1795 so, Vicki is soon accused of being a witch. This is handy because that means the real witch, handmaiden Angelique, can get on with her business in peace. Her business involves enlisting the help of hapless groundsman, Ben, in order to wreak revenge on her former lover, the young (and at this point, still very much alive) Barnabas. After this, it all gets a bit confusing.
Barbabas is due to marry Josette, but Angelique casts a spell to make his wife-to-be fall madly in love with his uncle, Jeremiah, who’s roughly the same age. Jeremiah secretly marries Josette and is then shot in a dual by his jilted nephew. Jeremiah then comes back as a ghost and terrorises Josette, before turning on Angelique, as he discovers she’s the one who caused all the trouble. In the end, Barnabas marries Angelique but he soon learns the truth of his wife’s cauldron-bothering ways. Realising he’s been tricked, Barnabas does as many star-crossed soap-opera lovers do – he shoots Angelique. With her last handfuls of breath she conjures a bat to bite Barnabas on the neck, then curses him to walk the earth forever, destined always to lose the ones he loves.
Naturally, as a witch Angelique survives being shot at point-blank range by two (!) pistols and comes back to reverse her curse, rightly fearing what Barnabas is about to become. When she fails to save him, she tries to put a stake through his heart. When that also fails, Barnabas rises from the dead. Of course as soon as he realises his witchy wife has turned him into a vampire, he wastes no time throttling Angelique to death.
Unfortunately, being dead doesn’t slow the witch down much (again) but this time she’s a disembodied head who laughs a lot, perhaps demonstrating her much improved sense of humour, now that she’s an all-powerful ghost. Her curse soon starts to come true, starting with the youngest member of the Collins family, 10 year old Sarah.
Instead of revealing his death and the peculiar circumstances surrounding it (death by phantom bat bite), the proud members of the family ell everyone Barnabas went to England so, when little Sarah spots her beloved brother in the graveyard, she stays out in a storm, searching for him. Her sudden death from consumption is therefore indirectly caused by Barnabas. Sarah is the first of Barnabas’ loved ones to die. Next, ghostly witch Angelique sets her sights on her former mistress, Josette, who by now is determined to marry Barnabas, and won’t let a silly thing like his living death get in the way.
Today, a moment first related to us way back, nearly 200 episodes ago, finally arrived – the death of Josette. The details had been kept a mystery, however. Now, armed with the full back-story we finally see how Barnabas came to lose the love of his life on the clifftops at Widow’s Hill. Using Barnabas’ voice, the witch lured Josette to Widows Hill and showed her what Barnabas really is and the blood sucking animal she too is destined to become, if she goes along with him. As Barnabas approaches, the terrified Josette throws herself off the cliff.
With Josette now gone to watery grave, it seems unlikely her death will be as permanent as anyone else’s but the suspense and drama were expertly built up, right until the final moments of an excellently crafted story and a perfectly executed episode.
And this, I must confess, is the thing that has struck me the most about Dark Shadows lately. There is an ever increasing confidence and, dare I say it, sophistication from the people making it, and I don’t just mean the effects work.
When this watch-through began, it was so slow, I got into the habit of fast forwarding bits, ten minutes at a time (readers familiar with Amazon Prime probably find this function very useful!) but the stories have definitely gained pace since then.
Dark Shadows was originallyshown every weekday for 5 years, this makes it an especially interesting example of a production team gradually becoming more confident as time goes on. Compared to 200+ episodes ago when I started watching, this is now a much more polished production. Before, scenes between two or more characters would occupy an entire ‘act’ (on old American telly, ‘acts’ were essentially the bits between the advert breaks!). Now, we have inlaid video effects of a bat, and ghosts that hover and glide. They’ve made a decent stab at showing us Barnabas transform into a bat as well. Storyline-wise, things sometimes run up a blind alley – we haven’t seen Jeremiah’s ghost for ages and he was supposed to be stopping the witch. Poor little Sarah, Barnabas’ sister got ill twice (she recovered when the writers apparently thought of a stronger dramatic exit) But who knows? Things may come together.
I suspect the success of the program at the time, meant more money was spent on it and was used on experienced directors, more writers and the time to perfect video effects, inlaid upon the live action as it was being recorded. Technically, it’s quite accomplished, and story-wise things are moving much faster now.
A couple of hundred episodes ago we learned of three maidens, who haunt the cliff at Widdow’s Hill. The curse says everyone Barnabas loves is destined to die so, if correct, his dippy but broken-hearted cousin, Millicent, will likely be next. Together with Josette, and one other they will probably become the Three Widows, but who will the third be? Vicki Winters has just gone on trial for being a witch. We know she’s not but her efforts to change the past and prevent the deaths of Sarah and Josette have merely resulted in members of the Collins family believing she’s cursed them and foretold their doom.
So what now? Firstly, I think Vicki will get back to 1965 because we’re still being reminded at the beginning of every episode how she came to be in the past. I’ve no idea when she’ll go back, though, and I’m not sure if or when, she does return, will she know what happened to Barnabas? Will she be able to tell the modern-day Collins family what Barnabas is? Until he died, he was protecting her from the fanatics accusing her of being a witch, will be he able to save her or will she be the next one to fall victim to Angelique’s curse? Or maybe poor Vicki will be hanged as a witch? Unless she can’t die in 1795?
As usual with Dark Shadows it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next. As the writers and directors continue to get more and more confident, one thing is certain; things will continue to be interesting for a little while yet.
For all the improvements in the stories and production, watching this show stills feels like a bit of a guilty secret. I don’t care, Dark Shadows provides harmless bursts of complete and utter escapism and I want to see what happens next. They’ve kept Barnabas’ secret from any of the modern day characters for this long, but how much longer can they string it out? I will, of course, keep you updated.
Copyright Martin Gregory. 2018