Thursday, September 20, 2012

Long Shadows

Cast of Dark Shadows, the original ABC-TV series
You do know I'm a nut for Dark Shadows, right? I grew up on the original TV show; watched portions of it again in the 1970s and 1980s when it was syndicated; viewed the entire series in the early 1990s when it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel; wrote one novel for the HarperCollins book series (and one unofficial novel); and scripted three of recent Dark Shadows audio dramas for Big Finish, which star members of the original series' cast. I attended several of the annual Dark Shadows festivals, mostly in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and was fortunate enough to meet quite a few of the surviving stars. Then there were the two original theatrical movies based on the series (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows), the 30-plus novel series written by Marilyn (Dan) Ross in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1990 revival series, and, most recently, the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows (which, unfortunately, I damn near loathed; not because it wasn't the Dark Shadows of old, but because it rightly stank on its own merit).

You think I've had enough Shadows for one lifetime? Well, of course not.

Actually, it's been over 15 years since I've watched any significant number of the original series episodes. When I was working on the novel(s) and audio dramas, I put on a few now and again to refresh my memory, but mostly I referred to Pomegranate Press's rich library of Dark Shadows books and various online resources to get the details right. Frankly, during the time I went whole hog into the creative work, I was too caught up in the business end of things to think much about the franchise from the perspective of a mere fan — a fact I've often lamented, despite the joy I took in the writing. After I watched the Burton film, I realized just how vague many of my recollections of the old series really are. Thus, I decided, it was high time to give the show another look from a very much refreshed perspective.

Yep. A few months back, I started running Dark Shadows from the very beginning, with the intent of watching all 1,225 episodes, however long it might take. Yes, I know... for many diehard fans, that means big whoop, since they've been watching, discussing, critiquing, and deconstructing the show over the course of many complete runs. That kind of devotion hasn't been my lifelong desire, although I do admit to believing that if you've lived a good life and said your prayers every night, when you die, you'll go to Collinwood. That's the way it ought to be, anyway.

So, I'm a few hundred episodes in, during the early period when Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is at his most evil. When I was a kid, of course, it was the whole vampire business that excited the living crap out of me, but watching it now, Barnabas Collins — cold, two-faced, murderous predator — is really quite disturbing. Naturally, being daytime television in the 1960s, there wasn't much graphic about it, and though the actors played it very seriously, you could safely let your kids watch it without fear they'd be damaged for life (although, back then, some particularly sensitive souls did persist in attempting to get the show banned because it just might have ruined your young'uns forever and forever). Later on, of course, Barnabas became far more even-tempered and sympathetic, even heroic. So much the better, I suppose, but even now, I find Barnabas, dark, powerful, and unrepentant, far more fascinating than brooding, tortured, sometimes wishy-washy Barnabas.
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett), Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds),
Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick)
Although I recollected the show's pre-Barnabas days as being pretty good, this time around, I was particularly struck by how well the distinctly non-supernatural storylines held up. Early on, Louis Edmonds, as Roger Collins, had a much more prominent presence than in later days, and he truly chewed up the scenery, particularly in his confrontations with Burke Devlin (Mitch Ryan), who was out to ruin him (for wholly justifiable reasons, I might add). I enjoyed watching Roger go on a rampage more than Barnabas putting the bite on someone. In fact, when Barnabas first came round, the storyline of Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick) and his sidekick Willie Loomis (originally James Hall, then John Karlen) blackmailing Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) for a murder she never actually committed was just wrapping up. Oftentimes, the episodes alternated between these two subplots, and the more true-to-life blackmail story far outshone the budding vampire tale. I rather hated to see Jason McGuire meet his demise, for he was truly a fine villain. (For what it's worth, Dennis Patrick returns as Paul Stoddard way down the line, and he's quite excellent in that part, as well; I do look forward to that point in the series.)

I manage to catch a few episodes here and there, so this full run may be a couple of years in the making, who knows. In any event, an awful lot of that old Dark Shadows excitement, which fell by the wayside while I was involved in the business of writing Shadows, has come rushing back. Warts and all — and yes, there are many of them, oftentimes hilarious — Dark Shadows retains much of the sheer imaginative power that enthralled me all those many years ago. Indeed, it has been one of the constants of my creative life. It's magic, that's what it is.


Unknown said...

Nice article, Mark. Thanks to you, I'm doing pretty much the same thing (except for the first time). Back in July I watched all the Dark Shadows episodes on Netflix, and was disappointed when they stopped right in the middle of a story. By that time I was hooked, so I bought the entire set on DVD and started over from the beginning. I am now within a couple of dozen episodes of where I left off with Netflix. I think part of the attraction for me is the fact that every episode is like watching a live play; you never know what could happen. It's fun to watch how the actors recover from their mistakes live on camera. And the soap opera format allows for LOTS of character development, which draws you into the story. Yes, I'm hooked.

johnpeters said...

Nice blog. When I saw the title on my blog pop up (yours is one of the blogs I have listed there), I thought it might be something about the lengthening shadows of autumn!

Anyway, I have tried to watch the show on Netflix, starting from the beginning, but never get very far. I love watching them, but my kids are always getting on the TV for x-box, movies, etc. (We only allow a single family TV in the house, so it's a timeshare thing).

My boys do enjoy watching it some, however, to see the mess-ups. Maybe, some day soon, I'll get a chance to sit down and watch more than an episode at a time. I recall loving the series as a kid, and enjoying it from time to time since then.

And Tim (the first commenter), does Netflix not go all the way through the series?

Anonymous said...

I am on my second time through the series in about 20 years, it's well worth a second run. If you like Dark Shadows check out Strange Paradise, it's a lesser known Canadian series that a few Dark Shadows staff went to work on after DS. It is darker and stranger if that's possible. Someone has posted the entire series on you tube but start on episode 66 that's when it really starts to hit its stride. I really wish someone would bring back DS to daytime a vampire soap these days with all the Twilight Fans would be huge.

Unknown said...

@johnpeters: Netflix has about 240 episodes that start with the Barnabas story. There are 1225 episodes. If you just watch what's on Netflix, you start at episode 240, so you miss about the first year and a half of episodes, and the 900 some that follow.