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 ingĂ©nue 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

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)