“I can’t understand why I have the feeling that something frightening is going to happen.”
It always starts with a box.
You’ve finally figured out what you’re going to do with your life. You’ve got an unstable girlfriend hidden in your house, who’s provisionally agreed not to massacre herself until you get back. You’ve arranged with a friend to destroy the coffins that he was saving up for you. And now you’re going back home, so that you and your girlfriend can use a magical oil painting to travel one hundred years into the future, turn into different people, and live happily ever after. Everything is going according to plan.
And then somebody hands you a mystery box, and the world slips sideways.
Barnabas Collins has fallen in with a pair of eccentric drama students, who have given him a special drink that I suppose makes him more amenable to weird grad student death pranks.
The tall guy is leading some kind of seminar. “The past is but the beginning of the beginning,” he says, “and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.” His scene partner looks at him attentively, eyebrows fully arched.
“And beings which are now latent in our thoughts,” he says, “and hidden in our loins,” — whoa, that got weird in a hurry — “shall stand upon this earth, as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh, and shall reach out their hands amid the stars.”
And then he does some hand gestures. We might need to workshop this a little more.
Barnabas opens his eyes, and hoists himself off the platform. Now, you might imagine, sanity will reassert itself.
But, no. This is eccentric millionaire Barnabas Collins, who never leaves a bad idea alone. He invents his own hand gesture, which thrills the drama nerds, and then he recites a poem. You’re going to want to pay attention to this poem. It doesn’t mean anything, and it’s not going to help, but they’re going to say it a bunch of times, so you might as well get used to it.
“The water shall nourish each grain of sand
Wedged between ancient sacred stones
And guide us to the threshold of a time to be
And restore our flesh and bones.”
He carries it off. Jonathan Frid has certain core skills, and one of them is the ability to deliver verse with gravitas — and the less meaningful the text is, the more gravitas he provides. This particular chunk of gravitas is so dense that you’d need a wheelbarrow to carry it away.
He turns, and gives the grad students a significant look. They stare back at him, not entirely sure what to do.
The guy says, “My name is Oberon,” which is unlikely. Barnabas just stands there and looks at them. After a moment, the girl volunteers, “And I am Haza.” Nobody asked.
Oberon is super pumped about how this is going so far. He shouts, “We bid you welcome, master!” Barnabas sneers, “You have performed your tasks well.” He doesn’t seem overjoyed about it. “Thank you, master,” says Haza. Apparently, Barnabas is their master.
“There is one thing that must be done before I leave,” Barnabas intones, sepulchrally. “Do you have the ancient book.”
“Yes. We have it,” Oberon says. He does not produce the book.
We get a nice close-up on Oberon, and he’s got glitter on his face. They both do, Oberon and the other one. This new storyline is tilting in a worryingly Twilight-y direction.
“Then I shall do what must be done,” says Barnabas. “Have you made the necessary preparations.” Barnabas keeps asking questions in a way that doesn’t sound like it’s a question.
“Everything is ready for you, master.” Oberon is super into this master idea.
Haza goes and picks up an intricately carved wooden box. “Here is the Leviathan box,” she says, as she passes the box to Oberon, and then Oberon passes the box to Barnabas. This, we are meant to understand, is the Leviathan box. You can tell because it’s the one that has Leviathans in it.
Barnabas gloms onto the merchandise, and says, “It is written that only this box shall accompany me.” I guess the ancient book needs to make its own travel plans.
“But you, Haza, and you, Oberon, shall be with me — in spirit. Do you understand?” They indicate that they understand. I think we all understand why you wouldn’t want to bring Oberon and Haza along. I wouldn’t even want to split an UberPool with them.
“When the time has come,” Barnabas says, “how shall I know the chosen ones.” It’s actually not clear whether Barnabas is telling Oberon and Haza what’s going to happen, or the other way around. They each seem to have half a set of instructions.
Haza pipes up. “It has been written in the ancient book, that when you seek guidance, you will find it in your dreams.”
“It is for that reason,” Oberon concurs, “that we must go on, in spirit.”
You see what I mean about the instructions? First, Barnabas is telling the grad students what’s written in the ancient book, and then they’re telling him about it. No wonder this seminar is so lame; nobody’s actually done the reading.
They start wrapping things up. “Soon,” Oberon says, “we shall herald the arrival of a new and all-powerful leader!” Barnabas shoots him a look that’s like, yeah, I know, obviously I know that, that’s the whole thing that we’re doing right now.
Barnabas asks, “This box must not be opened until that time?” and Oberon says “Yes!” which is not an easy piece of syntax to get your head around.
Finally, Barnabas grimaces directly into the camera for the closing statement.
“I shall not fail. The power and the wisdom of two thousand years shall protect me and guide me, and that which has been prophesied — shall one day become reality.”
And then there’s a peal of thunder, with nature once again responding right on cue.
So, I have to ask at this point: What in the sam scratch is going on? Two minutes ago, Barnabas was super concerned about Josette, and now he’s suddenly in charge of this drama school death cult.
There appear to be three possible interpretations of what we’re looking at.
Number one: Barnabas is being possessed by some powerful force to which we have not yet been introduced.
Number two: Barnabas has been a sleeper agent for the Leviathan box this whole time, just waiting for his activation signal.
The third possibility is that this isn’t the show at all; it’s actually the commercial break. In a minute, Barnabas is going to intone, “How shall I keep these ancient cloaks as fresh and clean as sunshine,” and the kids will tell him about the brighteners and water softeners in All-Temperature Cheer.
And then, just when all seems lost: Julia!
Which is thrilling. We’re back! It’s 1969 again, and Julia is back on the show!
Now, I don’t know when you picked up reading this blog — I don’t keep track of these things — so you may not be aware of our very strict policy regarding Dr. Julia Hoffman, namely: she is one of the all-time great characters in fiction. Julia is always interesting, in every scene; she has no choice in the matter. Grayson Hall imbues every line with at least three separate and contrasting facial expressions, and everything that she says is a lie. I have missed Julia very, very much during the extended 1897 time trip, and I never want her to leave again.
Here, I’ll show you. We find her in the Old House, reading her own journal, and reacting to it as if the text that she has just written is coming as a complete and utter surprise.
“Tuesday, November 18th, 1969,” she says, in thinks. “It’s now been over a month since I returned from my strange and terrifying journey to another time. I’ve waited here every night at the Old House, hoping that Barnabas would somehow give me a sign, but there’s been nothing! When I first returned, I frequently heard voices from the past — faint voices that frightened me, for I didn’t know whether they inhabited the same rooms as I, or merely the dark and tormented corridors of my mind.”
So there you have it. Julia is a woman who actually writes entries in her diary about the dark and tormented corridors of her mind, and when she reads it back, she makes shocked facial expressions. Julia can even surprise herself; she’s that good.
Closing up shop, she stows the notebook in her handbag, and we learn that a gray-haired stranger wearing a dark hat and black gloves is standing outside the window and watching her, for some mysterious reason. He hangs back until he sees her exit the house, and then he paces slowly after her.
Then there’s a little sequence in the woods where she stops walking because she thinks that she hears somebody following her, and then she keeps going, and it turns out somebody actually is following her. The whole thing takes a little over a minute, with no dialogue or plot elements. No comment on this right now; just parking it here. We’ll come back to this later.
Julia gets back to Collinwood, where she talks to Carolyn, who’s back too, hooray, except she’s in one of those moods that I have no patience for, where nothing is going wrong, but she feels gloomy anyway.
“I can’t understand why I have the feeling that something frightening is going to happen,” she says, which in my opinion is not an acceptable thing for a character in scripted entertainment to suggest. It is the screenwriter’s responsibility to provide the character with something interesting to talk about. Actual human beings can experience mood swings with no obvious source. Fictional characters do not have that luxury. Either introduce a plot element, or cheer up.
She’s also currently engaged in a battle with her casualwear, walking around with a sad expression at the top and a clown explosion in the south-central region. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why we ever left the 19th century — not just the show, but us, and our entire civilization.
The sad thing, actually, is imagining the costume director finding that skirt at Ohrbach’s sometime in mid-July, and thinking, oh, I can’t wait until we get back to 1969. The first chance I get, this is going on Carolyn. This is an outfit that must be televised.
Then there’s another fifty-second sequence of not very much at all. Carolyn offers to make Julia some tea, and Julia says sure, so Carolyn leaves the room, closing the doors behind her. Then we see Julia kind of silently puttering around the drawing room — touching objects, tapping on the piano, opening the window, closing the window, indicating that opening the window made her cold, walking to the center of the room and staring at her notebook. Just absolutely nothing of consequence. Again: just parking this moment; we’ll come back to it.
Because then something absolutely magical happens. Julia’s pointless reverie is interrupted by voices — faint voices from the past, inhabiting the dark and tormented corridors of each other’s minds. It’s Magda and Pansy Faye, our pals from 1897, performing a little storyline coda.
“I don’t understand this, I ain’t done nothin’ wrong,” Magda growls, and Pansy chirps, “Who said you done something wrong? I told you, Mr. Edward wants to ask you some questions.” They do a little knockabout cross-talk routine, with Pansy explaining that Barnabas and Kitty were seen entering the Old House, and they never came out again. Magda replies that she don’t know nothin’, because Magda is Chico Marx, and there’s simply nothing we can do about it.
While all of this is going on, Julia stands there and emotes frantically, punctuated with little subliminal flashes of Barnabas’ portrait and Josette’s portrait, pulsing through the scene. This is a new visual trick they picked up a few weeks ago, when Kitty was musicboxing and Barnabas was asserting hypnotic control. It’s very televisual and avant-garde. It’s just a great scene overall.
Pansy insists that Barnabas and Kitty have vanished without a trace, and then the voices fade away. Julia makes approximately six dozen elaborate facial expressions in a row, and then bursts into the foyer, to tell Carolyn that Barnabas is dead. She’s over-reacting, really, but what do you expect? This is a person who practically loses consciousness reading her own diary entries.
And then, coming to you live, directly from the woods somewhere: This guy’s feet.
We break away from Julia’s scene of teatime terror, which was fraught with human interest, to watch the gray-haired stranger as he strolls around in the open air.
We see him walk around a bit, step, step, step, and then the camera slowly pulls across the ground to finally rear back and show us an empty clearing — and then the crazy stone altar appears.
A crash of thunder and lightning, a huge dramatic music cue — you know, bum bum BUMMMMM, one of those — and then we go to commercial.
A couple words from Ban antiperspirant and Di-Gel antacid later, we roll back from a static shot of the altar to show the stranger standing there, looking at it. It just apparated in front of him out of fuck-all nowhere, but he doesn’t seem super concerned about it. He just turns and walks away. The altar tries some more thunder and lightning, but it’s no use. The man is simply not in the market for supernatural Chromakey altars.
Instead, he strolls back to the Old House, and tries the door. Finding it unlocked, he lets himself in, and takes a look around. He slowly walks across the room. He lights a match. He uses the match to light a candle. And then it’s back to Julia and that horrifying skirt.
The reason why I keep pointing out these little longeurs is that this is what the entire Leviathan story is like. This episode is an example of the kind of thing we’re going to see for a while — a sporadically phenomenal show, with weird people saying mysterious things, big emotions, funny surprises, avant-garde directing tricks, and utterly outrageous fashion choices — intercut with irritating stretches of nothing at all.
That last pause with no dialogue or plot points was a full two minutes of screen time, not counting the commercial break. Man walks through woods. Altar appears. Man opens Old House door. Man lights candle. And it’s not even setting anything up — I know who the strange intruder is, because I’m a time traveler and I’ve seen this before, and what he’s doing makes absolutely no sense. Why would [REDACTED] be so blase about enormous lawn ornaments appearing within his line of sight? Why is he randomly breaking into the Old House? And so on. It doesn’t actually mean anything, and it’s getting in the way of my sarcastic appreciation of that skirt.
And after this Julia/Carolyn scene, there’s another eighty seconds of silence — just [REDACTED] and his candle, staring at the portrait of Barnabas for no reason at all, as Julia watches him through the window and clutches her coat collar.
Yesterday, I quoted this bit from The Dark Shadows Companion:
This unsympathetic portrayal was coupled with a storyline that, compared to the high-gear 1897 saga, quite simply dragged. An irate viewer, writing to one of the daytime soap magazines, complained that the actors seemed to have only half a script and then improvised for the rest of the episode about “how weird the people are down at the antique shop.”
And this is what the irate viewer is talking about. I share the irateness. Looking back over the episode, there’s a minute of nothing as Julia leaves the Old House, another minute of nothing while Julia’s in the drawing room, two minutes of nothing after Julia hears voices, and then another minute and a half of nothing to finish the episode. Meanwhile, something unspeakably odd has just happened to Barnabas, and we don’t even get to see him again.
That’s six minutes of nothing happens, placed throughout a twenty-two minute episode like little speed bumps. Every time we get some momentum going — like Julia hearing Magda and Pansy, and falling to pieces over it — we get another one of these sudden drops in altitude. It’s not quite half a script, but it’s two-thirds at best.
So this is the weird downshift that the audience experiences, rolling out of 1897 and rejoining the present day. There are so many people that we want to see again — how’s David? is Chris okay? where does everybody think Barnabas went? — and they give us gloves and shoes. This is what happens when you try to write a daily television show and a feature film script at the same time. Something has to suffer, and there’s a very good chance that something is us.
Tomorrow: Little Shop.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the opening shots of the teaser, the camera pans across the Old House drawing room, as Nancy Barrett explains that Josette has killed herself, while Barnabas is held prisoner by two mysterious beings. The implication is that we’re looking at the Old House in 1796, but Julia’s sensible wool coat is hanging by the door.
As Haza hands Oberon the urn, there’s a glimpse of one of the studio lights above.
When the stranger follows Julia through the woods, you can see the edge of the green burlap that stands in for the forest floor.
When Julia talks to Carolyn about the present she’s wrapping, you can see the shadow of the camera moving around in the hall.
Behind the Scenes:
The gray-haired stranger in the shadows is played by Mark Aldre, in his only Dark Shadows appearance. This is his only screen credit, as far as I can figure.
Also, I don’t suppose there’s any way to know, but I wonder if Julia’s diary in this episode is the same red notebook that she hid in the clock in the foyer, all the way back in 1967. Maybe she got it out of Tony Peterson’s safe. If it is, then her handwriting must be incredibly compact, because it looks like she’s still filling out the sixth page.
Tomorrow: Little Shop.
Dark Shadows episode guide
— Danny Horn