Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dark Shadows - A History; Part Two - Vampire

Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows 1967

In early 1967 Jason McGuire, an old “friend” of Elizabeth Stoddard appeared at Collinwood causing the family matriarch much trauma.

Dennis Patrick and Joan Bennett, Dark Shadows, 1967

McGuire, portrayed by character actor Dennis Patrick, it seems had been the person to have buried Elizabeth’s murdered husband under the floorboards of the Collins basement after Stoddard had shot him. Appearing back in town after years at sea McGuire had returned to town with both blackmail and marriage in mind. McGuire was charming on the surface but was ruthlessly determined that Elizabeth would marry him and give Jason open access to the family’s wealth.

Dennis Patrick and John Karlen, Dark Shadows 1967

McGuire was assisted in his plan by a vicious little thug by the name of Willie Loomis, played originally by actor James Hall, but almost immediately replaced by actor John Karlen. Mean, tough, sneaky, and about as much a potential rapist as you've ever seen, Willie was one loathsome punk. Quickly repelling just about every person he met in town, McGuire never the less insisted that Loomis become the new Collinwood caretaker replacing the dead Matthew Morgan. Stuck with her blackmailers demands, Stoddard hires Loomis who moves in, immediately setting his eye on Stoddard’s daughter Carolyn.

Original Willie Loomis, John Hall, spies on Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), Dark Shadows 1967

McGuire just wanted to settle down to the quite life of a rich dilettante, and despite the complaints of Carolyn and Elizabeth’s frustrated brother Roger, his plan had every chance of working, except that Willie just couldn't hold it together, he just couldn't help but be a total bastard. Rude to Elizabeth, just plain insolent to Roger and to a degree his old friend McGuire, and sexually menacing to both Victoria Winters and Carolyn Stoddard, eventually blackmail or not Elizabeth demanded that Willie leave, and Jason finding that he couldn't really argue the point, agreed. So Willie was fired, and McGuire let Willie know that hanging around Collinsport might be a dangerous thing for Loomis from then on, and then Willie gets into a bar fight with Burke Devlin, even pulling a knife but still getting beaten to a pulp by the local hero. Despite all the setbacks, getting rid of Willie Loomis was going to be harder than anyone could imagine because Willie had quite by accident solved a two hundred year old puzzle.

Willie Loomis pulls a knife on Burke Devlin, Dark Shadows 1967

There was a legend that a hidden fortune in jewels was buried by a Collins at some point in the 1790’s, Loomis, while staying at Collinwood, had figured out the clues and was sure that he knew where the lost treasure was hidden. On April 17, 1967, Willie followed the clues from an old document, to the Collins family crypt, where he found the latch for a secret door leading into a hidden crypt. Using heavy tackle, Loomis is able to get the door to open where he found a lone coffin sitting in the middle of the room, a coffin wrapped in heavy chains. Excited at his discovery, Loomis quickly breaks the ancient chains binding the box, pushes open the heavy lid expecting to find his fortune in jewels, but as his face twists in horror, Willie Loomis discovers something very different instead.

What Willie found, Dark Shadows 1967

When talking about Dark Shadows, much of the credit for the show’s success is deservedly laid at the feet of the actor Jonathan Frid and his powerful performance as Barnabas Collins the 200 year old vampire,freed from his coffin, but not from his sins.

Frid a Canadian stage actor had been working in the United States for several years with some limited success, however he was getting ready to leave the theater for a time to take up a teaching position. With a few weeks to spare before going on to the new job, Frid accepted a short term role his agent was offering him on a soap opera.

Jonathon Frid as Barnabas Collins, Dark Shadows 1967

Instead of the standard doctor or lawyer role, this soap, Dark Shadows, wanted Frid to play a mysteriously returned member of the leading family who was in fact a 200 year old vampire. Thinking the part would be fun and a great way to earn some money while waiting to go to his new job, Frid accepted the role of Barnabas Collins. Nobody, least of all Frid, expected the role to be anything more than a short-term story with Frid playing a villain due to be quickly dispatched before the program returned to more normal soap opera shenanigans. From the start though, Frid's Barnabas was compelling, sexy, dominating and often horrifying. Barnabas Collins was both a terrifying monster, but also a man with a tragic past and a tragic curse.

Barnabas Collins, Vampire, Dark Shadows 1967

Barnabas Collins quickly made himself at home as part of the Collins family. The fact that Barnabas appeared to be quite wealthy (there had in fact been jewels hidden in the coffin with him) and not after any of the families wealth made him a welcome addition to the family. Convincing Elizabeth to let him settle into the families “old house” located on the edge of the estate, he began the long process of restoring the decrepit building. The only thing that set off any alarms was that Barnabas had hired the abhorrent Willie Loomis to work as his handy man. Yet even that was surprising to everyone, most especially Jason McGuire because suddenly Willie was a completely different person. The arrogant punk was gone replaced by a timid almost frightened man, desperately looking to be left alone. McGuire was convinced that Loomis had found the treasure and was playing his own incomprehensible game and Jason wasn't going to let Loomis get away without cutting him in for his share. Unknown to everyone though was that Barnabas, using Willie as his Renfield, was moving ahead with his plan to turn local good girl waitress Maggie Evans into his vampire bride.

Barnabas Collins menaces Maggie Evans, Dark Shadows 1967

It turns out that family legends were incomplete, and that while resident ghost Josette Collins, had been the bride of Jeremiah Collins, she had actually been in love with Barnabas, and it was because of his change into a vampire that Josette had thrown herself from Widows Hill. Barnabas, believing Maggie to be the reincarnation of Josette kidnaps the girl and slowly begins the process of converting her not only into one of the undead, but also into Josette herself.

Barnabas threatens both Maggie Evans and Willie Loomis, Dark Shadows 1967

As the story unfolded and Maggie was Barnabas’s helpless prisoner, Willie Loomis began to emerge as an unexpected, though completely reluctant hero, unable to refuse his vampire master but also unable to allow him to consummate his dark lust on Maggie, Willie found himself in a hopeless situation, but found the inner strength to free Maggie and get her to safely out of the hands of the vampire menacing the girl.

Before going on too much further about Frid and the rest of the cast, I want to take some time to praise the exceptional actor John Karlen, certainly one of my favorite performers on Dark Shadows. As Willie Loomis, Karlen runs the range from toxic villain to stuttering slave to desperate hero, and is completely believable the whole time. Willie begins as a completely despicable person, but by the time he rescues Maggie, Willie has proven himself, at least to the audience to be capable of true heroism in the face of losing his very soul. As the series went on Karlen, like most of the cast, would go on to play a variety of roles on the series, but it was as Willie Loomis that the actor truly shined. Speaking of Karlen, after Dark Shadows he went on to star in one of my all-time favorite European vampire movies, the wonderfully corrupt, Daughters of Darkness. Not too much time to go on about that movie right, now, but take my word for it, just an awesome little film.

With Barnabas on board as a permanent character, the storyline needed some fast rewriting. Maggie is saved by Willie Loomis, but both characters end up at Windcliff Sanitarium further upstate, Willie as an insane kidnapper, and Maggie because in grand soap opera tradition was suffering from  total amnesia with no memories of her kidnapping what so ever.

An amnesiac Maggie is found wandering the streets of Collinsport, Dark Shadows 1967

Meanwhile while Maggie recovers, Sam Evans, Joe Haskell, who at this point is now Maggie’s boyfriend, and the police spread the false story that Maggie has died as a way to gain time to capture the other kidnapper that the police were certain Loomis was working with.

Maggie Evans and the ghost of Sarah Collins, Dark Shadows 1967

For now with his secret safe and Maggie Evans, as far as he knew, dead, Barnabas, still more or less a villain set his sight on Collins governess Victoria Winters, but before he could move too far into his plan finds himself haunted by the ghost of Sarah Collins, his young sister who had died around the time Barnabas had become a vampire. 

 Faced with this haunting, Barnabas found himself driven to guilt and doubting his plans to find a bride.These days the idea of a sympathetic vampire is pretty common, it’s a standard trope seen all the time about the tragic character cursed to a living death, taking lives against his will, but unable to stop himself. Sure in 2013 we've seen it a thousand times, but Barnabas Collins did it first. Long before Louie and Lestat or any of a dozen other likable vampires, Barnabas Collins was the first to take a good solid look at his vampiric unlife and realize that he had issues.

In his favor though Barnabas did not sparkle

Luckily for both the vampire and the audience, he took the 20th century approach and found himself a specialist.

Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman, Dark Shadows 1967

Barnabas is found out by the brilliant medical researcher Julie Hoffman, who along with a psychiatric degree also specialized in diseases of the blood. While working at Windcliff, Hoffman takes one look at Maggie’s blood in a microscope and knows that whatever got to Maggie, wasn't like anything she had ever seen before. With-in days Hoffman has discovered what everyone else has missed, that Barnabas Collins is in fact the original Barnabas Collins and is the local vampire, convincing him to let her try to cure his vampirsm. 

For a while she even succeeds, allowing the vampire to walk in the sun for the first time in 200 year but in a moment of jealously about Collins growing relationship with Victoria Winters,  Hoffman changes the formula, causing Barnabas, with great make-up by Dick Smith to revert (temporarily) to his full 200+ years.

Grayson Hall and her character of Dr. Julia Hoffman, in my opinion, were in their own way, as important in the rise of Dark Shadows from what was now a popular show into becoming the monster hit and cultural phenomena it grew into as Jonathan Frid’s vampire.

Jonathon Frid & Grayson Hall, Dark Shadows Publicity Photo 1967

Sure Barnabas was the star, but in Hall’s middle aged doctor, with her brilliance, guts and completely unrequited passion for the vampire, the series had come up with a character to play both with and against Frid, as well as coming up with something the series had been seriously lacking at that point, a strong central female character. Elizabeth Stoddard was likable, but the character was always written as unaware and in the dark, and somehow lacked that spark that would have made her a dominate character on the series. It was no fault of Joan Bennett, a classic actress, but it was as if the writers simply had no idea what to do with her. Meanwhile while Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans were beautiful and talented, they were also both playing the role of ingénue and lacked the character strength to stand against Frid’s vampire. Nancy Barrett’s Carolyn was certainly strong enough to play against Barnabas and had some great moments as Barnabas’s replacement for Willie. But having the young Barrett’s character so obviously lusting over what was basically an older uncle, wasn't going to be allowed to last. But there was something about Julia Hoffman that just worked. Grayson Hall was a plain looking middle aged woman, and there was no attempt to physically glamorize Hoffman. The doctor worked as a character because she was brilliant and respected on her own merits, but who still found herself completely smitten by a man who looked at her as his best friend. It was a frustrating position, but one that many of the women at home could identify with, and Hall’s doctor become immensely popular. Hoffman’s quiet passion for Barnabas while never even slightly shared, leads her to put everything else including the lives of others in danger if it meant protecting her beloved vampire. The pair made for a fantastic combination of partners and foils and Hall would quickly become the female lead to Frid’s Barnabas.

Dark Shadows Cast Photo, 1967

At this point Curtis along with writers Ron Sproat and Sam Hall, Grayson Hall’s writer husband decided it was time to tell how Barnabas became a vampire. Victoria Winters it was decided would travel back in time to the 1790’s and while the rest of the cast played different roles, they would tell the origins of the Collins family, answer the mystery of just what happened to Josette, show how Barnabas Collins became a vampire, all while Victoria Winters would fight against charges of witchcraft. The storyline would run for several months and by the time it was over, Dark Shadows would be the most popular show on daytime television and Jonathan Frid would be a star.

Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman, Dark Shadows 1967

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