Thursday, May 2, 2013

Dark Shadows - A History; Part One - Beginnings

Title Screen, Dark Shadows, Episode 1, June 27, 1966

It begins in 1966; at night.

A train moves through the darkness. Inside, Victoria Winters, an orphan with a mysterious past travels to assume her new position as Governess at Collinwood, the ancestral estate of the Collins family, wealthy, powerful and with terrible secrets all their own. Wondering if the unsolicited job offer from the family matron Elizabeth Stoddard, as well as the large salary to go with it might somehow be connected to her own history, Vickie, played by newcomer, Alexandra Moltke is excited, apprehensive and astounded by the sudden turn her life has taken, but like the brave young woman that she is, Winters plans to make the most of this opportunity.

Alexandra Moltke as Victoria Winters, Dark Shadows, June 1966

In another seat, brooding, Burke Devlin, portrayed in classic he-man fashion by Mitchell Ryan, having served time for a crime he did not commit is returning to his hometown, Collinsport, seeking revenge. Devlin’s business is with Roger Collins, one of its residents of the great house and the man who framed Devlin for a drunk driving fatality.

Mitchell Ryan as Burke Devlin, Dark Shadows, June 1966

At the station, Devlin offers Vickie a ride to the local hotel where while waiting for a cab to take her to the great estate she meets local waitress Maggie Evans, portrayed by the versatile and talented Kathryn Leigh Scott. Maggie does her best to warn Vickie that the Collins family is bad news. Despite the warning from Maggie, Devlin’s clear dislike for the family and her own discomfort, Victoria decides to go to the estate regardless.

Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie Evans, June 1966

At Collinwood, Victoria meets Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, portrayed by veteran actress Joan Bennett, the Collins family matriarch, who mysteriously hasn't left the grounds of the estate for almost 20 years, and who even more mysteriously gets very upset whenever anyone mentions going to the basement, Elizabeth's supercilious, snob of a brother, the insufferable Roger, portrayed with perfect Ivy League accent by the great character actor Louis Edmonds.

Louis Edmonds and Joan Bennett, Dark Shadows, June 1966

Carolyn Stoddard, Elizabeth's out of control, but decidedly sexy, teenage daughter, sharply played by actress Nancy Barrett. Carolyn has a taste for drinking, dancing and bikers, the last of those cause Carolyn's boyfriend Joe Haskell no end of frustration.

Nancy Barrett as Carolyn Stoddard,, Dark Shadows 1966

And finally Winter’s new charge, Rogers young son David, played by the insufferably untalented David Henesy, whose every line was an overacted screech, and who even now almost 50 years later still find myself grinding my teeth over whenever he opens his awful mouth.

But I digress.

Victoria Winters meets Burke Devlin, Dark Shadows, June 1966

Dark Shadows, that wonderful Pandora’s Box of ghosts and ghouls, warlocks, werewolf's, witches and vampires was one of the most over the top, just plain fun programs in the history of television. Premiering on June 27, 1966, created by producer / director Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows in its 5 years ran for a massive 1225 episodes before taking its final bow in April 1971.

Dan Curtis

Curtis would claim that the idea for the series came to him when he dreamed, one night, about a girl on a train. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but if so, that dream must have left a strong impression. Scheduled by ABC, Curtis and writer Art Wallace wrote the series bible, setting the characters and basic situations. Curtis hired his production staff, notably Lela Swift who would go on to become the leading director of the series, Sy Thomashoff who would design the memorable and spooky sets, and Robert Corbert, whose theme and incidental music would go on to be used not just in Dark Shadows, but numerous other horror and suspense films, becoming some of the most recognizable music in television history.

Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Dark Shadows June 1966

Dark Shadows would grow to become a legitimate cultural phenomenon, generating novels, comicbooks, a comicstrip, games, toys, posters, records and several feature films. Decades after the original run, Dark Shadows would return in 1991 as a nighttime series, rebooting the original with a brand new cast, and then most recently in 2012 Dark Shadows returned to the big screen as a major feature directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. Very few television series have had the resilience of Dark Shadows, which when you consider that the original was a soap opera, usually shot in one take, with almost no budget and no time for reshoots, is a pretty impressive legacy.

Carolyn dances while Joe Haskell  broods behind her, Dark Shadows June 1966

Originally following the standard soap opera tropes of murder, seduction, blackmail and sex, although with a heavy gothic twist, Dark Shadows oddly just wasn’t the hit that either Curtis or ABC, hoped for. As the weeks went on, Victoria Winters followed clues that suggested that Elizabeth Stoddard was her mother, Stoddard’s terror that someone would discover her dead husband, buried in the basement. Burke Devlin plotted his revenge on both Roger Collins and Sam Evans who was Roger’s unwilling accomplice and Maggie’s alcoholic, artist father, wonderfully played by actor David Ford.

Roger Collins, Burke Devlin & Sam Evans, Dark Shadows 1966

Meanwhile, Carolyn was proving to be far too wild for her straight-laced boyfriend, Joe Haskell, portrayed by the clean-cut Joel Crothers, and Matthew Morgan, the normally gentle Collins caretaker, played by actor Thayer David, brutally murders a man who he feels threatens the family he owes his loyalty too, and then kidnaps Vickie to hide his crime. Just another day in Soapland.

Joe Haskell and Carolyn Stoddard on one of their normal dates, Dark Shadows 1966

Yet, from the start there was also a small hint of something more, something slightly dark lurking in the background that filled the new series with a quiet but real sense of omniscient dread. David you see, well he talked to ghosts. Not that anyone other them David ever saw them, but never the less he claimed that they were all over the Collins estate, and it was sort of odd the way David would seem to know things that he should just not have known.

David Collins, Dark Shadows 1966

In September of 1966 David Collins began telling his family that he had become friends with Josette Collins, a member of the family who in the late 18th century had jumped to her death from the cliff of the aptly named Widows Hill, and whose portrait hung on the walls of the abandoned original Collins house located on the edge of the estate. As always the family treated this as another example of David’s distributed behavior. On September 30, 1966, the audience discovered what David’s family didn’t know; there really were ghosts at Collinwood.

Victoria and David find the portrait of Josette Collins, Dark Shadows 1966

Alone in the night Josette Collins slowly stepped out of her portrait then danced around the ruins of the original family home. Series regular Kathryn Leigh Scott played the lonesome ghost whose dance brought Dark Shadows into the supernatural.

With Josette’s dance, the ratings for Dark Shadows began to rise, slowly, but noticeably.

In an excellent cast of character actors, in my opinion, probably the best of the whole lot was the wonderful Thayer David. David, a large man who could move effortlessly from role to role began as the Collin's murderous caretaker Matthew Morgan. Basically a gentle, simple man, but never the less dangerous when pushed, Morgan was exceptionally loyal to Elizabeth Stoddard, loyal to the point of committing murder when he believed she was in danger of having her secrets exposed.

The ghost of Josette Collins appears before a captive Victoria Winters, Dark Shadows 1966

Vickie witnesses the killing, forcing Morgan to kidnap the governess holding her prisoner for some time. Eventually deciding that he has no choice but to kill the girl to hide his crime, Morgan prepares to kill Winters with an ax  but before he can strike the killing blow, Morgan, is frightened to death by the ghosts of the man he murdered, as well as the three ghosts that haunted the cliff at Widow's Hill, as he is getting ready to murder Vickie with an ax. 

Thayer David as the murderous Matthew Morgan, Dark Shadows 1966

Reappearing later in the series in what would be his "primary" role the brilliant Professor T. Elliot Stokes, Collinwood's resident Van Helsing. David also had memorable turns as the young Barnabas Collins 18th century servant Ben Stokes (basically Morgan in 19th century drag), and most importantly as the happily amoral wizard, Count Petofi. No matter if he was a gypsy, a monster, a professor or a thug, David made a completely believable gypsy, monster, professor or thug.

Matthew Morgan is confronted by ghosts, Dark Shadows 1966

The death of Matthew Morgan at the hands of the Collinsport ghosts was excellent for ratings, and Curtis, not being a fool, could see that his show was onto something. If a touch of supernatural was good for the show, then maybe trying a full on supernatural storyline would drive the ratings through the roof.

Shortly after the death of Matthew Morgan, the Collins family, most especially Roger Collins were rather surprised at the reappearance in Collinsport of Laura Collins, Roger's estranged wife, David's mother and a woman who everyone had thought died in a fire in Phoenix the year before.

Diana Millay is Laura Collins, Dark Shadows 1966

With Laura, played with charming viciousness by ‘60’s mainstay, Diana Millay, back in town Devlin's revenge against Roger Collins came back to the forefront. Laura had been in the car with Roger and Devlin the night of the accident that killed a pedestrian. Roger and Laura had claimed that Devlin had been driving, but in reality, Roger had been at the wheel during the crash, while Devlin was passed out in the back seat. Devlin had hopes that Laura would clear his name, but instead she attempted to use that information to blackmail Roger into paying a huge divorce settlement and giving her sole custody of David.

Laura and David Collins, Dark Shadows 1966

Roger had never been particularly close to David, suspecting with some cause that there was a good chance that Devlin was the boy's father and not Roger, so at first Roger seems willing, but somehow the old snob sees something in the boy (who knows what) that makes him reconsider. So while battling Laura to keep David, Roger admits to Devlin his guilt in both the car crash as well as framing Burke for the crime. Satisfied with hearing the words directly from Roger, as well as watching him disgrace himself in front of his family, Burke not only doesn't turn Roger into the police, but also agrees to help Roger keep David away from Laura.

In a rare show of unity, Deviln and Roger speak to David about Laura, Dark Shadows 1966

Burke of course is not doing this kindness to Roger out of any kind of affection, it's was more because Devlin was concerned about what might happen if Laura left town with the boy. Laura it seems, had been confirmed as having died in a fire in her Arizona apartment the year before, and yet here she was as good as new. Burke and Vickie had come across evidence to suggest that Laura Collins was actually thousands of years old, an immortal Phoneix, who was reborn again and again, by taking her children with her into the fire.

Burke Devlin and Laura Collins, Dark Shadows 1966

A fate that Laura clearly had in mind for young David.

Laura moved ahead with her plan over several weeks, but in the end Vickie and Burke were able to save David and stop Laura, who without David joining her for her rebirth was consumed by the fire instead.

Original opening credits for Dark Shadows

The ratings for the Phoenix were excellent, and also when broken down showed that along with the expected housewife viewers, Dark Shadows was also attracting a much younger audience as well. It was obvious that the same young audience that was watching the Addams Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters and Batman were now getting off school and tuning into Dark Shadows. The addition of a monster was exactly what they had needed for higher ratings and the success of the Laura storyline convinced Curtis to move directly into another supernatural story.

Laura calls David into the fire, Dark Shadows 1966

For his next monster Curtis decided to take a look at the classics. Something that would be both scary and sexy at the same time. Curtis had decided that Dark Shadows would do its own version of the classic novel Dracula. Curtis version would be a lost member of the Collins family, who would come to town and begin draining the locals dry. Curtis even had a name for him.

They’d call him, Barnabas.

The future?

(end part one)


  1. Interesting. I knew that Barnabas Collins wasn't introduced immediately to Dark Shadows but I didn't realise that it started out as an ordinary soap with a slightly gothic twise. I wonder how much of that change was simply Curtis trying to get the formula to work with TV viewers? Either way it paid off.

  2. Excellent summary.

  3. Reminds me of when I start a project and it takes on a life of its own.