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Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Dark Shadows" is the greatest thing ever (Vampires, cont'd)

Some years back, I was listening to an episode of "This American Life" centered around stories about Halloween. Host Ira Glass opened the show with a segment on a group of deranged lunatics who got together each week to watch an old television soap opera called "Dark Shadows."

I hadn't thought about the show in a long long time, but as I listened to the lunatics deconstruct the show--"See, there were four knocks on the door. It used to be only three knocks, but I guess they brought in a new director who felt an extra knock was needed every time someone came to the door"--memories seeped back into my consciousness like the misty fog rolling across the great lawn of the Collins' estate, forming nimble shapes of fragile forms out of the ghastly mists of rolling time (as the show's opening narration might say; in reality, as I listened to the show, I merely said, "Huh. I used to watch that when I was a kid. Forgot all about it").

And it's true. I did watch the show when I was a kid, for a while. It must've been in reruns then, airing each weekday afternoon, and I'd sit on my grandmother's wine-red short-shag carpet in front of her monolithic blotchy color television screen (seriously, watching color television at my grandparents' house was not unlike going to a museum to view Matisse paintings, which might be why I have such poor eyesight, unless of course I already had poor eyesight then, but no one had yet noticed), staring intently.

The TAL segment mentioned that the Sci-Fi network showed "Dark Shadows" each weekday, two episodes back to back. So I set my VCR, taped a week's worth of episodes, spent a rainy Saturday watching them straight through, and thought, wow, jesus christ this is an awful show.

Dreadful, really. And wonderful, if not absolutely brilliant.

Here's the thing about "Dark Shadows": Since it was very expensive to film a scene, as in the film itself cost a lot of money, directors and actors did not stop for anything. If a line was dropped, if a line was bungled, if a prop failed to function properly, if a piece of the set fell over, the scene continued. In one famous bit of television lore, the set actually caught on fire during the filming of one scene, but the actors plodded on, even as they stared off-camera in horror and their faces began to glow orange, sweat popping from their pores, from the flames.

I watched each episode intently, waiting for these unscripted moments ripping through the manufactured reality. It was like watching Pirandello as performed by actors afflicted with all sorts of maladies, from speech impediments to Alzheimers to Asperger's Syndrome. A fly would land on someone's forehead during a particularly fiery monologue; a door would slam dramatically, causing the sash of the window next to it slam down like a guillotine; a stapled script would be visible on the bed of an 18th Century witch's room. Cameras wandered into, then out of, shots. And always the visible shadow of the boom mics, no doubt the reason the show was called "Dark Shadows."

Oh, and at the end of each episode, there was a stagnant shot the set as the credits rolled--and at least once every tenth episode, a baffled actor, shoes in hand, costume over one arm, would wander into this stagnant shot, realize his or mistake, and try to back out of the shot as inconspicuously as possible.

It wasn't just these momentary lapses of reality which I loved though. It was the show itself, a ridiculous mix of Gothic horror and 1960s chic, with a great deal of time-traveling thrown in for the hell of it.

Most of the show centered around Barnabas Collins, a mysterious "distant" cousin of the Collins family, visiting from England (the show was set in Collinsport, Maine). The show expended a great deal of expensive film hinting and hinting and hinting that Barnabas wasn't everything he appeared to be. Before the show confirmed it, only Terri Schiavo could've missed the truth about Barnabas: Barnabas was a very old vampire.

What kind of vampire usually depended on whatever absurd storyline the show's writers had going on. Barnabas was alternately a sinister villain, a love-sick madman, a misunderstood, compassionate creature of misfortune, a set-prop, or a vengeful dick.

Barnabas was, for good reason, the most popular character on the show, a truly compelling creation, especially for daytime television. Most of the credit for the character's success belongs to Jonathan Frid, who played the vampire with as much dignity as one could muster in a show featuring people screaming in horror at bats on strings. Greg made a pretty good observation about Frid's performance, actually. I was telling him about how Frid has confessed he didn't have a damn clue what was going on as he was performing his lines because he was too busy trying to learn his lines, and Greg said, "Yeah, you can tell. Which adds to his aloof interaction with all the other characters. It's almost as if he's performing a different scene entirely, and it works."

True. Frid's Barnabas is convincing as a centuries-old vampire precisely because he seems so unconcerned with the small problems of those around him, and I don't mean he's unconcerned in a vampire way; he's unconcerned in a human way. He's over 200 year's old--why the fuck should he give a damn about Caroline Collins' bad hair day? And of course Barnabas Collins' detachment comes out of Frid's concentration on hitting his cues and delivering his lines--he's not concerned what the actress playing Caroline has to say, but he's very intent on when she stops saying it, because that's when he's supposed to start talking.

Too many actors play vampires as if they're more interested in emoting than sucking blood. Frid did the opposite, in a way. Which is why the character of Barnabas is still remembered.

(cont'd, why I don't know)


Alan Abramowitz said...

Dark Shadows was great for its mistakes, It Stuttering, flubbed lines, dalling sets. But we knew it was live on tape.
The plots were excellent (1795 & 1897) to dismal (the Leviathans and 1840) And they were entralling; so much so they were addicting to adolescents.

MM said...

Not just to adolescents--they're addicting to aging gay couples as well :)

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