Personalities aside, Dark Shadows is as good (or bad) as the storyline it’s telling. Like chapters in an epic novel, the show’s narrative is apt to take an abrupt turn now and then. The most remarkable shift of all had come in the spring of 1967, when the sleepy Gothic soap suddenly added a vampire to its heretofore mundane cast of characters, saving the show from cancellation and making TV history.
Assuming you can accept the conventions of daytime drama— the low budgets, the cramped sets, the occasional boom mike dipping into the frame, the extended dialogue scenes and the relative scarcity of action— Dark Shadows was a riveting show for the next six months. But then the show took another narrative turn, taking a lengthy detour back to the year 1795 before returning to the modern day with new developments in the vampire story. And so it would go, for the rest of the show’s run. Every few months, it would sweep its characters and settings off the stage, re-invent itself, and then do it all over again, frequently with the same familiar actors playing new roles.
Producer Dan Curtis had a special enthusiasm for period pieces. The show would eventually swoop back to 1796, then forward to 1897, back to 1797, then up to the present day, back to the past, then to 1995, then backwards again, even exploring alternate universes in “parallel time.”
Most of the fans just wanted to see what the vampire, Barnabas Collins, was up to, and how he’d handle the latest supernatural threat to the Collins family. Instead, viewers were jerked from one tedious period piece to another, buried under a succession of ancillary characters and dull story developments. If Dark Shadows had a fatal flaw, it was a tendency to spend weeks or months bumping around in the corners of creative blind alleys before inching its way out again. The audience drifted away, and in the spring of 1971 the show was cancelled so swiftly that its final storyline was allowed only a perfunctory resolution.
But when the show is good, it’s a delight. Dark Shadows has a cult following fanatic enough to rival the Trekkies, and I guess I’m a member myself. If you love the show, you not only forgive the flubs and the technical glitches, you can’t get enough of them. The more melodramatic the dialogue, the better. And your favorite characters are always the ones larger than life.
At least for me, the cherry atop the sundae is the dynamism of certain actors on the show. This is a little hard to explain coherently, but I’ll try. If you’re an old movie buff, you may have seen performers like Lee Tracy and Tod Slaughter, guys who are so much fun to watch and listen to that you don’t care whether their performances are convincing, and you don’t care whether the plot is any good or not. The entertainment is in watching them do their stuff, and in listening to the relish with which they deliver their lines. Sometimes flamboyance is a lot more fun than realism.
It took me a long time to realize that this was the real draw of Dark Shadows, and the element I most enjoyed about the show. Lately I’ve been watching the episodes that aired in the summer of 1968, and while the storyline at this point is pretty good, the real treat is that nearly every one of my favorite Dark Shadows hams is in attendance during this period.
Missing is Dennis Patrick (one of the great unsung TV character actors), who wasn’t really part of the core Dark Shadows family. Patrick played charming villains and cunning sleazeballs on everything from Laramie to The Untouchables to Dallas, and the blackmailer he’d played on this show had been dispatched by Barnabas the previous year.
Jerry Lacy checks in with the low-key role of an attorney, but what you really want is another, far more arresting character he played previously on the show, the ruthless witch-hunter Reverend Trask. (Lacy’s roaring, scenery-chewing performance as Trask was the best thing about the sojourn to the year 1795 that had consumed five long months of the show beginning in November 1967.) By this point in the narrative, Trask too has been killed, but his ghost appears briefly.
Of the handful of actors who’d been with the series at its 1966 inception, the only really dynamic one was Louis Edmonds. Most of them had been shoved into the background when Dark Shadows became The Barnabas Collins Show, but Edmonds was too good to keep on the bench. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in these Summer 1968 episodes, but the show springs to life whenever he does appear.
His voice is impossible to capture in print, but it’s one of the greatest treasures of vintage television. It’s a low, rumbling voice with a heavy, formal Mid-Atlantic accent. You’d swear he was a British actor, perhaps trying to tone down his English accent to play his aristocratic American character, Roger Collins. But Edmonds wasn’t English at all; he’d been born and raised in Louisiana. His voice underwent a good deal of training as he learned his craft, but the accent was his own, and he claimed that everyone back home talked just like he did.
Roger Collins is haughty and pompous, frequently seen wearing an ascot and holing a glass of sherry, and the character isn’t necessarily an appealing one. But Edmonds plays that voice of his like a musical instrument, and when he speaks he has my full attention. When I really listen for it, I can sort of hear the Cajun origins of that accent, but maybe it’s just my imagination.
Thayer David was another member of the Dark Shadows acting fraternity, and here in the summer of ’68 he’s playing the stuffy but gentlemanly Professor Stokes. David had been a handsome man in his youth, but by the time he joined the cast at age 39, he’d put on a lot of weight, and his thick, dark lips droop in a way that isn’t very attractive. But those characteristics help make him a memorable character actor, and the quality of his voice really seals it.
Again we have an elegantly Mid-Atlantic accent, delivered with genteel formality. There’s also a dignified bearing which makes the character stand out from the rest of the cast, since there are a lot of overwrought people on this show. David was versatile enough to portray eight different characters during its run (plus another couple in the two movies it spawned). My favorite of those is Count Petofi, a deliriously over-the-top character even by Dark Shadows standards, who wouldn’t appear until July 1969.
Needless to say, the heart of the show is Barnabas Collins, and the appeal of Barnabas is the dynamism of Jonathan Frid’s performance. Frid was a good actor, with a long resume of stage work in the US, England and his native Canada. I find his acting style on Dark Shadows a bit theatrical, which is a good thing. It makes him stand out, and if you’re going to put an 18th-Century vampire in the middle of your aristocratic modern-day soap opera, he needs to stand out. Frid tends to project when he speaks, and with elegant precision, clearly enunciating every syllable.
Physically Frid is thin, sallow and pale, so it’s not such a stretch to believe that he sleeps in a coffin. His hands are oddly huge, but he doesn’t physically dominate the screen— and with that voice, he doesn’t need to. He can be commanding, soothing, courtly or menacing, and his voice does most of the heavy lifting.
The public’s fascination for Barnabas Collins meant that Frid had a lot of pages of dialogue to memorize every night, which was challenging for the actor. Cue cards were always just out of camera range, but Frid was nearsighted and Barnabas Collins didn’t wear glasses. One thing you notice right away is how frequently he looks offstage (with varying degrees of alarm in his eyes), searching for a cue to his next line.
Frid is also the king of flubs on the show. Each day’s episode was performed from start to finish live-on-tape, and a mistake had to be awfully severe to prompt an interruption in the process. Editing the videotape in this era was next to impossible, so a lot of outrageous bloopers went out over the air: stagehands can be glimpsed, props fall crashing to the floor, cameras wobble during tracking shots, stone pillars shudder when bumped by an actor, etc.
Virtually the entire cast stumbles through a line of dialogue now and then, but Frid is particularly prone to mistakes. For example, just in the span of three weeks that summer, he offers the following:
“No point in trying to prevent that something that cannot happen.” (Episode 583)
“Well, because if you were to conduct the experiment… Who… How can I… um… fit into that… You’d be giving the life force!” (Episode 584)
“You know what to do, Mag… Vicki… um, uh… You know what to do now, Julia!” (Episode 585)
“We should not have let her… him go to her.” (Episode 597)
“Let’s hope that we suspect isn’t true: that Adam and his mate haven’t left.” (Episode 600)
But hey! The guy was basically performing five new plays every week, with very little rehearsal, and he had to carry much of the dialogue himself. He does a great job under the circumstances, and the bloopers add a lot to the show’s charm. If we can overlook a blown line on Playhouse 90, we can do the same for Dark Shadows.
Frid truly is the star, and his charisma elbows the show’s shortcomings out of the way. No matter how good or how dank the current storyline might be, when Frid is on hand, the show is compelling. I love his dramatic bearing, that velvety voice, and the way he uses it. But there’s someone I like even better.
In June 1968, the show presented a new character, Nicholas Blair. The writers were coy about spelling out exactly who and what Blair is, but it emerges over time that he’s a warlock: a supernatural agent of Satan himself with the power to hypnotize anyone into eternal enslavement. He can summon evil spirits and even raise the dead. Throughout that summer, the storyline is centered on Adam, a Frankenstein’s monster who’s been created using the life force of Barnabas himself (a transformation that happily cures Barnabas of vampirism). But the hulking Adam becomes progressively more violent, lonesome and deranged, ultimately threatening to murder the entire Collins family unless a mate is created for him. Nicholas Blair sees this sort of dark science as the perfect means by which to rule the world.
Clearly, this wasn’t a role that just anyone could play. Producer Curtis came up with the perfect, I mean perfect, man for the job: Humbert Allen Astredo.
That sounds like a bad pseudonym, but it really was his name. And I find his performance in this role to be the most dynamic of the entire series. He seldom has a scene with Jonathan Frid, but Astredo owns the stage no matter who he shares it with.
Like Frid, his speech is clipped and precise. Unlike Frid, he rattles off paragraphs of dialogue quickly and accurately. Best of all is his appearance: dapper but in a style not quite of this world, most often seen in a formal, light green suit, complete with hat and gloves. He has dark hair and pointy sideburns, and his eyes are gleaming black holes. He smiles often but like a shark, with an abundance of perfectly even, tiny teeth. He’s courtly and genial, but you know he’s always up to something, always manipulative and devious. There’s a subtle evil behind everything he says and does.
Nicholas Blair is the perfect villain. Astredo is so eerily perfect for the role that I’m tempted to claim that he wasn’t cast for it, he was summoned for it from the misty candle smoke at a black mass. But now I’m getting carried away. In reality, Astredo was a witty Broadway veteran and sailing enthusiast, known by his friends as “Bud.” Sadly, he passed away in February of this year.
I haven’t mentioned any of the show’s women, and that’s because there just isn’t much to say about them. For the most part they’re not very interesting, even in the show’s early months, when it was a fairly conventional soap about a young governess working for an aristocratic family in an old mansion.
Playing that character, Alexandra Moltke dominates the first several hundred episodes of the series. (Producer Curtis was out of his mind to entrust the leading role of his new soap opera to a young, inexperienced actress, but she worked out just fine.) ‘Forties film star Joan Bennett is also a significant presence in the early going, typically seen wringing her hands and scowling into the camera. Frankly, despite all her experience, the rest of the cast acts rings around her. There are other women on the show, of course. But for the most part I find them dull, unattractive and annoying. There’s very little romantic chemistry or sex appeal in Dark Shadows, even when the narrative requires some.
You don’t have to be gay to love Dark Shadows, but maybe it helps. Most of the actors were gay (certainly most of the interesting ones were), and it’s hard to ignore the recurring theme of distraught men with a secret. Barnabas is far more sensitive than cunning. He never refers to himself as a vampire, instead speaking vaguely of “my affliction” or “what I am” while looking away with downcast eyes. Men who become vampires on Dark Shadows never come out and admit it— instead, they wrestle with that identity, struggling and failing to contain impulses they can’t control. After giving in, they’re overcome with self-loathing. You could almost say that the male vampires of Dark Shadows spend their days in the closet rather than the coffin, and in that respect the show is very much a product of the pre-Stonewall era.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It would have been easy for the show to just follow the conventions of Dracula, but those are usually avoided. Part horror show, part Gothic romance, part character study and part family drama, Dark Shadows is always unique. It always goes its own way.
Now, you can say that Dark Shadows is a silly comic book of a show, and you’d be right. You could also say that it’s an imaginative, unpredictable circus, frequently delightful and always larger than life. You’d be right on that score as well. But whatever it is, as long as there are guys like Edmonds, Frid and Astredo in it…. I’m watching!