Friday, 17 June 2016

Gothroads: a 50th anniversary celebration of Dark Shadows

Imagine Crossroads if the motel staff were attacked by a werewolf.  Or, if you prefer, Acorn Antiques if all the antiques were cursed.  And Miss Berta's new baby was really a malevolent Lovecraftian god.  Well that, in a nutshell, is Dark Shadows.

It couldn't have happened on purpose.  Nobody, not even Alan Partridge on hallucinogens, would have pitched a daily afternoon soap opera about a time-travelling vampire and his cursed family.  But, bizarrely, it happened.  And for a brief, dreamlike window of time in the late 60s and early 70s it was one of the biggest things on American TV.  Presumably because everyone felt compelled to keep tuning in to make sure they hadn't imagined it.

Hardly anyone in Britain's heard of Dark Shadows.  If the name means anything to the person in the street (and I don't advise you to approach random strangers about it), it'll probably be Tim Burton's big screen version of a few years back.  And even that's not very likely, as nobody liked it (except one crazed Johnny Depp fan I once saw in a comments section under a Guardian article) and it was swiftly forgotten.  I haven't seen it (goodness knows I've passed up enough opportunities to buy it in charity shops for a quid), but I've seen a Tim Burton film, so I think I get the gist.
The genuine article did, briefly, make it to British TV screens, but not till nearly 25 years after it was cancelled, as one of a raft of old shows transmitted by the Sci-Fi Channel when it launched here in 1995.  That's when my obsession with it stems from.  I was 15 and had been taken out of school, diagnosed with clinical depression (which isn't easy to identify at that age, as the symptoms are very similar to those of being a teenager).  The Sci-Fi Channel's afternoon schedule, rerunning series like Lost in Space, Night Gallery, and Boris Karloff's Thriller, became my school, building on my existing love of Doctor Who and The Avengers to instil a fascination with old TV and everything 60s and 70s that continues to take up a lot of my time.  But Dark Shadows was my favourite subject.  I taped every episode.  In the absence of any reference works on the show (I acquired loads later on) I created my own by making a note of the cast and crew of each episode, and even adding a suitably haunting phrase from each episode's opening narration to serve as its title.  Though when I started watching it wasn't the most obviously compelling of viewing.  I'm going to give you a little history of Dark Shadows now, and it has quite a lot of spoilers in, if that sort of thing worries you.

The word nobody can avoid when describing Dark Shadows is "gothic".  But when it started it was gothic in the Jane Eyre/Mary Stewart sense, rather than the Dracula sense.  The show was the creation of Dan Curtis, a wildly creative lunatic whose first success had come with putting golf on TV.  Dark Shadows was his dream project.  No, literally, it was: he dreamt about a beautiful, dark-haired young woman getting off a train and approaching a spooky old mansion, and decided it was the ideal basis for a TV show.
Image result for victoria winters

The girl became Victoria Winters (played by Alexandra Moltke, who claimed to have been cast as she was the only innocent-looking actress in New York, where the show was recorded), and the house became Collinwood, in Collinsport, Maine, where she came to work as a governess for the Collins family.  These included (in a casting coup for daytime TV) scandal-haunted former movie queen Joan Bennett, as scandal-haunted matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.  With no idea of her parentage, Victoria hoped to find the secret of her origins, but she never did, as other, far weirder, things got in the way.

At first the show dealt in melodramatic stories of revenge, blackmail and murder that might have been exciting if they didn't unfold at a pace that felt appreciably slower than real time.  Several weeks of story revolve almost entirely around a fountain pen.  It's not even a haunted fountain pen.  All this didn't prove a magnet for viewers, and facing cancellation when they'd hardly even started, Curtis and his writers decided "Why the hell not?" and made a decision that would change everything: they chucked in a ghost.

The phantoms of Collinwood had been mentioned since the show began, but it was always intended that the real ghosts would be the secrets of the past that haunted Elizabeth and her brother Roger.

(A quick word about Roger: originally intended as the show's main baddie, he quickly mellowed to become more like the actor who played him, the wonderfully louche and sardonic Louis Edmonds.  I love Roger.  When I was 15 he gave my nascent gaydar one of its very first pings.)

Anyway, one Friday afternoon, the ghost of 18th century ancestor Josette Collins climbed down from her portrait in a special effect nobody had ever expected to be used on a daytime soap.  All she did was waft about a bit, and none of the other characters even saw her, but it turns out that "the ghost's out of the portrait" means exactly the same thing as "the genie's out of the bottle".  Word got round, and the viewing figures started to climb.  Things stayed fairly low-key on the supernatural front for a while - a ghostly voice here, the briefly-glimpsed spectre of a character murdered a few weeks ago there.  But they were strictly rationed - these were uncharted waters, and who knew what effect too many spooky goings-on in the afternoon might have on America's housewives and schoolkids?

This first, timid flirtation with mysterious forces beyond comes to a climax when a whole herd of apparitions manifest themselves just in time to prevent Collinwood's mad caretaker from killing Victoria by scaring him to death.  In time, Dark Shadows would plunder most major works of gothic literature for plot elements: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turn of the Screw (twice), Rebecca (the Dark Shadows version was set in a parallel universe and had Rebecca return from the grave as a heat vampire masquerading as her own twin sister), etc etc, but its first fully-fledged supernatural storyline involved an original creation.  It had always been intended that Laura Collins, mother of Victoria's young charge David, would return and try to get custody of him.  Originally, she was meant to be an alcoholic.  In the event, she was a human incarnation of the legendary phoenix, who returned to life every hundred years to have a child she'd eventually lead to a fiery death.  I've read that last bit a few times now, wondering if I could rewrite it to make more sense.  I couldn't.  It's not me who's not making sense, it's Dark Shadows.  It is, I think inarguably, the strangest TV series there's ever been.  And this was when it was still in its boring phase, with only one thing of any consequence happening a week (ie per five episodes).  This is where I came in, but I was lucky: the Sci-Fi Channel showed two episodes a day, so I got to see two things happen a week.

If people know anything about Dark Shadows, it's that the main character's a vampire.  This is Barnabas Collins, another ancestor, who gets released from his chained coffin by a treasure-hunting petty crook and passes himself off at Collinwood as a cousin from England, an origin that seems to satisfactorily explain to the other characters any odd behaviour he might display.  That's something to bear in mind if I ever find myself stateside.  Jonathan Frid, a Canadian stage actor, took the role (apparently against Dan Curtis' wishes) as a short-term assignment before starting a job as a drama professor.  Nobody expected what happened: Barnabas Collins became a phenomenon.  The character was intended as a black-hearted villain, but that was swiftly undermined by the soulfulness Frid played him with.  Frid found memorising pages of new dialogue every day a nightmare, but to the audience at home his halting delivery and panicked glances at the teleprompter made it feel like he was talking to them.

Where Dark Shadows got really interesting for me was with the arrival of Grayson Hall.  A flamboyant, Oscar-nominated character actress with the looks and voice of a Disney villainess, she too joined the cast on a short-term basis, in the role of Julia Hoffman, a doctor who starts off as a Van Helsing figure, but - in a brilliant twist - offers to find a cure for his condition (the decision to cast a woman in the role was last minute, and before she appears the character's referred to as male - so if you want you can interpret her as TV's first major trans character).  Hall brings a remarkable, high camp intensity to the show.  When I first saw her I didn't really know what camp was.  I definitely didn't know what a gay icon was.  I just thought she was the most fascinating person I'd ever seen. And I still do.  Like Frid, she became too popular to lose: as a pairing, they were dynamite, and they swiftly establish themselves as the beating heart of the show, shunting poor old Vicki Winters off to the sidelines.

You can't really call Barnabas and Julia heroes: in any sensible TV show of the time they would have been the baddies: he's an undead ghoul with a penchant for trying to turn hapless young ladies into the recreation of his lost love, while she proves happy to cover up for him, hypnotising the unfortunate girls into losing their memory of it all when things don't quite work out.  One unusually harrowing episode sees the two of them kill a friend of Julia's who learns what's going on.  This leads to an episode that comprises 20 of the most peculiar minutes of TV ever, with Grayson Hall giving what's practically a one-woman show of screaming, wailing and sobbing as Julia's taunted by a vengeful ghost.  It's an understatement to say her performance is over the top: the top is so far beneath her as to be invisible.  It's perhaps the worst possible way to introduce someone to Dark Shadows, but here it is anyway:

Seven months after Barnabas came out of the coffin and turned a ponderous afternoon drama into a monster hit, the show's writing team (greatly boosted by the addition of Grayson Hall's husband Sam, whose witty, inventive scripts had a huge impact on the show's overall quality) hit on TV's most insane, brilliant idea since the makers of Doctor Who figured out how to excuse the recasting of their lead character.  They decided to thrust the show's audience, along with the hapless Victoria Winters. back to the year 1795, to find out how their unlikely hero became a vampire in the first place (well, the audience finds this out - Vicki remained infuriatingly unaware of most of the supernatural events happening around her until Alexandra Moltke became so bored of the character she got pregnant in order to be released from her contract).

The real masterstroke (not least from a budgeting point of view) was that the characters in 1795 were played by the same actors who played the 1960s characters.  One key character though, was played by a new addition to the cast.  The beautiful witch Angelique, whose unrequited love for Barnabas eventually leads her to curse him to become a vampire, was Lara Parker's first professional acting job - something that's almost impossible to believe as she's so brilliant, so malevolent and - most importantly - so much fun to watch.  Trips through time (including one to the far-off year of 1995) would become a regular feature of the show, with most of its regular cast becoming a repertory company who got the chance to play a new character every few months.  But (to Jonathan Frid's increasing chagrin) Barnabas remains a constant - and wherever in time he may go, Angelique's invariably there to cause some kind of trouble.

I started off with a mention of Crossroads (I like to think of Dark Shadows as Gothroads): as a daily soap of the 60s and 70s, that's probably the British show Dark Shadows is most like (but with vampires) - and, shot live-to-tape, it's prone to the same pitfalls that Victoria Wood so lovingly spoofed in Acorn Antiques: misjudged performances, flubbed lines (Jonathan Frid's relationship with the script is the same as William Hartnell's in Doctor Who, and just as endearing), unscheduled guest appearances by boom mics, flies and crew members, and (more like early Doctor Who, this one) special effects that don't quite do what they're meant to.  These mistakes are cherished by fans of the show, and add immeasurably to the show's fun factor.  My favourite is actor David Ford, never able to get his lines right, guiltily hiding a script when he realises the camera is on him.  Perfection is the most boring thing possible, and one thing Dark Shadows could never be accused of is perfection.

My initial affair with Dark Shadows was intense, but brief.  In 1996 my dad got a new girlfriend, and we moved in with her.  For some reason we couldn't get cable there, so it was no more Sci-Fi Channel and no more Dark Shadows for me.  I wasn't quite devastated, as at the time my interest in old TV shows was being edged out by a new interest in the same sex (many years later I'd learn that most of Dark Shadows' male cast members shared that interest).

Now it's 20 years later (surely that can't be right?), I've managed to reconcile those two interests, and, as Dark Shadows has reached its 50th anniversary, I've decided I'm going to watch every single episode.  That's 1225 episodes, made in just under five years.  For a soap opera, intended to continue indefinitely, that's actually a pretty short run.  But Dark Shadows is the only programme with that sort of episode count that's ever been released on DVD, streaming and what have you in its entirety (indeed it's the only soap of its time that still in exists in its entirety - well, almost.  There's one lost episode, but that's from the show's ill-regarded Barnabas- free final story arc - Frid declined to continue in the show unless he got to play another character, so in the show's last months he's Barnabas' non-vampire son from a parallel universe, re-enacting Wuthering Heights with a doppelganger of Angelique), and it's quite a fearsome challenge.  But it's exciting.  Right now I'm pretty much exactly where I left off, at the show's insanely overcomplicated 1968 episodes (sample plot thread: an evil warlock is trying to create a race of devil-worshipping supermen using a Frankenstein monster and a lady monster who has the soul of the most evil woman in history.  Though there's a lot more to it than that...), and I still have the introduction of heart-throb ghost/werewolf/Dorian Gray rip-off Quentin Collins (the only character to rival Barnabas' popularity with viewers) and the extended trip to 1897 that's widely regarded as the show's golden period ahead of me.  I'm obsessed all over again.  Though now we've got the internet I suppose I don't need these index cards any more.

There are a million more things to say about Dark Shadows, and if you want to hear them, Danny Horn's Dark Shadows Every Day blog, which examines each episode in turn, is much funnier and more perceptive about the show than I could ever dream of being.  If you'd like to give Dark Shadows a go, but are intimidated by the tedium of the early episodes, Danny recommends episode 250, with kidnapped waitress Maggie Evans trying to escape from Barnabas' clutches as a good starting point. Indeed, it's a great episode.  If you don't like it, you won't like anything Dark Shadows has to offer.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

The House in Marsh Road (1960)

Jean Linton (Patricia Dainton) is a bit of a cross patch, and it's not surprising given the feckless behaviour of her husband David (Tony Wright).  He's supposed to be writing a novel but all he ever finishes is the odd book review when he's running out of money for booze.  The pair live in a succession of boarding houses, leaving a trail of unpaid landladies behind them.  And now Jean's had to suffer the ultimate humiliation of getting a job.

But their luck suddenly changes with the death of Jean's auntie (it's all right, she barely knew her), who leaves her a house in the country.  It comes complete with a superstitious Irish housekeeper (Anita Sharp-Bolster - what led her from classic Hollywood films of the 40s like Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street to low-budget British fare like this I don't know) who's convinced the house has a permanent resident: a poltergeist she's named Patrick.  And it looks like she might have something there, what with doors mysteriously slamming and an armchair that keeps scuttling across the floor.

David's all for flogging the house (Sam Kydd's offered him the astronomical fee of £6000 for it) and squandering the cash on living the high life in London.  When Jean refuses he finds alternative entertainment in the form of local strumpet Mrs Stockley (Sandra Dorne, the poor filmmaker's Diana Dors), ostensibly employed as his typist.  Jean, meanwhile, is comforted by local estate agent Derek Aylward.  Gradually David comes round to the idea of murdering poor Jean for her inheritance, but Patrick might have something to say about that...

Directed by b-movie veteran Montgomery Tully, The House in Marsh Road looks exactly like what it is - a cheap, quick, second feature.  but Dainton and Wright snipe at each other entertainingly, Dorne's pouty performance is irresistibly camp, and there are some surprisingly effective shocks (a mirror smashing when Mrs Stockley looks into it, a grate suddenly slamming into place to save Jean's life as David tries to push her down a lift shaft), and it's hard not to admire just how brazen a steal from (sorry, homage to) Hitchcock's Suspicion the scene where David brings Jean a glass of poisoned milk is.

Monday, 4 January 2016

The Terror (1938)

My first post in quite a while, inspired by a viewing of a film considerably older than anything else I've featured here before...

The 1920s: London is being terrorised by a criminal mastermind known as Mike O’Shea, whose true identity is always concealed beneath a gas mask (he’s quite the sinister sight).  It’s even a mystery to his henchmen (Henry Oscar and Alastair Sim), who are eventually caught by the police and sentenced to 10 years in prison, while O’Shea escapes with a fabulous amount of gold.  Understandably consumed with resentment, the pair each plot to track their former boss down and relieve him of the loot once they are released.  When the day comes, the former partners go their separate ways to find O’Shea, but both are eventually led to a curiously inhospitable country guest house run by the conspicuously suspicious Colonel Redmayne (Arthur Wontner), who seems very keen not to add any more guests to the three he already has: self-professed psychic Mrs Elvery (Iris Hoey) and her featherbrained daughter (Lesley Wareing), and mild-mannered retiree Mr Goodman (Wilfrid Lawson). 

Based on a play by the then-exhaustingly ubiquitous Edgar Wallace (whose death in 1932 had, if anything, only accelerated the tide of films based on his work), The Terror’s plot doesn’t hold any surprises, but this is all part of its charm.  Look away now if you don’t want spoilers, but it’s hard to believe that any viewer wouldn’t immediately identify Lawson as the villain due to his character’s excessively underlined pleasantness (everyone even pronounces his name “Goodman” in case we didn’t get it).  Similarly, from the first appearance of pleasingly-named drunken wastrel Ferdy Fane (Bernard Lee) it’s obvious he’s going to both turn out to be the crack Scotland Yard detective everyone’s talking about and get the girl (the Colonel’s daughter, played by beautiful Linden Travers).  But who cares if it's obvious when it's all so entertainingly played by such a brilliant cast? As well as the above-named, there are brief but very welcome appearances from Kathleen Harrison and Irene Handl as the Colonel’s kitchen staff, while Richard Murdoch has a small role as an incompetent detective.  It’s a shame, though, that Wontner, a twinkly Sherlock Holmes in the early 30s, is short-changed by a script that gives him little to do but behave in a sinister manner.

Good fun all the way through, the film steps up a gear in its final third with the return of Sim’s character, who's been absent for most of the film, disguised as a mild-mannered country parson in order to have a good sniff round the ruins near the Colonel's abode.  Even at this early stage in his screen career (he’d made his first film three years earlier) he’s an obvious star, stealing every scene with his facial expressions alone.  The film takes a sharp turn into gothic melodrama territory for its marvellously overripe climax, with Lee and Travers held prisoner in the catacombs of the ruins, garbed in a monk’s habit and giving it the full Tod Slaughter as he exposes the non-existence of his sanity by  promising to marry the luckless pair before killing them (I need hardly add that he then proceeds to play a conveniently-located organ).  They’re saved when Sim, who Lawson thought he’d put out of the way, returns from the grave in a moment of pure Universal Horror.

Obvious though both identities may be, the idea of the identity of both hero and villain being a mystery is makes for a fun twist.  And for modern viewers there’s a good chuckle to be had from a reckless young investigator we first see (with his back to us) being scolded by his crusty superiors turning out to be played by a man who’d become best known as James Bond’s grumpy boss.