Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dark Shadows

50 years ago Dark Shadows started it's run. I didn't watch it back then, of course. It wasn't aimed at 11 year old boys. It was a soap opera trying to take advantage of the 60s craze for Gothic romances. These were all the thing at the time. Every paperback shelf had a section of Gothic Romance novels. All of them had the same basic plot - a simplified version of Jane Eyre. The covers all had a young woman running with a castle or large house in the background. The plots were always about a young working woman, often a governess, coming into a new environment. There would be a mystery with some spooky overtones and the man she was interested in was always implicated. By the end she'd solve the mystery but be in danger and he'd save her and they'd fall in love.

Dark Shadows had all of those elements. But it wasn't enough. After a few months of sluggish ratings, they decided to change the show from suggesting the supernatural to embracing it. First they added some ghosts then a human phoenix. That went well enough that they decided to add a vampire. That's when they struck gold.

I started watching it after it changed time slots and was no longer running during school hours. My mother suggested it because "it was popular with the college kids".

When I started watching it, they were wrapping up one of the time travel plots and introducing a cult called the Leviathans. There were also Lovecraftian elements involving a creature who was s inhuman that the sight of him drove people insane. Barnabas had already been cured of being a vampire, Quentin of being a werewolf, Angelique had retired from witchcraft and Victoria Winters had left the show.

The Leviathans' creature started as a baby but grew up fast. His eventual human form was named Jeb Hawks. There were two other groups. One was headed by Barnabas and was trying to stop the Leviathans. The third group was the innocent bystanders. This group kept getting smaller. All the Leviathans had to do was show someone a magic box and they gained a convert.

I was rooting for Jeb and his group. He was younger and Caroline was in love with him. Caroline was pretty and had hair so perfect it looked like a special effect. Jeb couldn't be too bad if a hot chick like Caroline was with him (after seeing all of the episodes I discovered that the monsters always fell for Caroline).

I was following the show but not really hooked until Barnabas tried to steal the magic box. A bat was hidden in it. It bit him and transformed him into a vampire.

That's when I got hooked. Jonathan Frid's version of a vampire was, and still is, unique. More than anything, he reminded me of a drug addict. Except when he gave in, people died.

Eventually Jeb turned against the Leviathans but was destroyed himself.

Barnabas went into a parallel universe only to be chained in his coffin for weeks while Frid and the main cast filmed House of Dark Shadows. Eventually Barnabas was freed and returned to his own universe only to have a vision of the future in which the Collins family was destroyed. Returning to their own time, Barnabus and Dr. Julia Hoffman, his constant companion, tried to stop the destruction. They failed but got another chance when Julia traveled into the past. They finally succeeded and returned to find the Collins family alive and happy.

The final plot took place in the past and in the parallel dimension. For the only time in the show's run, Frid played a different character - Bramwell, Barnabas's son. By then the show was running out of ideas and ratings had dropped.

In the late 1970s some of the episodes were run late at night.

In the mid-1980s, the show was resurrected on PBS and shown in its entirety. I watched it religiously and finally saw all of the parts I missed.

In addition to its TV run, Dark Shadows spun off two low-budget movies with the original cast, a revival in the early 1990s and a high-budget movie in the 2000s.

I credit most of the show's success to Jonathan Frid. Frid was an excellent actor but he admitted that he was slow to learn his lines and he was a constant presence in the show. His performances were always tinged with some panic that he'd mess up a line (he often stumbled over his lines). Since Barnabas was always hiding something, his added an edge to his character. At the same time, Frid was excellent at being the tragic hero, trying to make up for his personal failings by helping others. The rest of the cast was also strong and the writing, while corny, was engaging. And it was unique among soap operas that you had to keep watching it because periodically everything changed.

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