DVD Review: Dark Shadows, more of the Phoenix saga

While watching Gone With the Wind recently, I also viewed some of the extras in the DVD set, including screen tests for prospective casting. I’d forgotten that 30 years before taking the role of Elizabeth Collins Stoddart, young Joan Bennett had been one of the Scarlett O’Hara finalists before Vivien Leigh knocked her, Paulette Goddard, and all the other contenders out of the running.

I mention this since, after weeks of having very little to do except keep Collins family secrets, Joan Bennett finally has an opportunity to put in a real performance.

The Phoenix paintingWe learn at last what force lies behind those strange compulsions moving the characters to act in strange ways (as well as keep the plot going): it’s the family ghost, Josette Collins.

Now that Sam Evans is no longer able to paint pictures of Laura Collins in flames, Josette takes a more direct approach. She appears in David’s bedroom and completes the unfinished painting herself.

When Vicky goes into David’s room, she is horrified to find that the David-shaped blank space in one corner has been filled in–with David’s face. The others are likewise terrified, since no one had been in the room before Vicky went upstairs. No one they know of could have finished the painting. Yet the paint is still wet.

Faced with this undeniable evidence of some supernatural agency at work, the only thing they can think to do is immediately destroy it. The painting is thrown into the drawing-room fire. A woman screams. I first thought that this was meant to be a metaphysical cry, signifying Laura’s pain or even her destruction, but Vicky, Sam, and the Collinses hear it too. However, it goes unexplained. The next time we see Laura, she’s fine and as determined to gain custody of her son as ever.

As the bizarre tale of Laura Collins continues, her story becomes more coherent. While Vicky and her sort-of boyfriend Frank are driving through the Maine countryside one night after dinner in Bangor, Vicky smells jasmine–Josette’s signature scent. She directs Frank to turn down a side road and they end up at a house near a graveyard. A little old man answers the door.

“You’re alive?” he asks the young couple, and explains that everyone else who knocks on his door is dead. His job is to let them in. In spite of their state of being, he lets Vicky and Frank in.

This introduction to the character and setting is delightfully creepy, but I’m sorry to say that nothing much comes of it. The only ghost we’ll see any sign of is the one who brought us here.

The tomb of L. Murdoch Stockbridge The old man shows his living guests around the house and adjacent crypt, where members of the Stockbridge family have been buried since the early 1700s. He also keeps books that record the Stockbridge family marriages and deaths.

Vicky smells the scent of jasmine again and is drawn into the crypt to find the tomb of L. Murdoch Stockbridge, who burned to death in 1767. Later on, one of the old man’s books falls from its shelf and opens to a page containing information about L. Murdoch Radcliffe, who also “Died by fire!” in 1867. The tombstone is discovered in the graveyard outside.

Back at Collinwood, Vicky questions Laura about her family, which goes back very far in New England’s history. “One of the oldest,” Laura tells her.

We’ve heard Laura’s maiden name before this, but from this point on it’s mentioned frequently. Laura Murdoch Collins. Laura Murdoch Collins. Laura Murdoch Collins. Just to hammer it home in case the viewer missed Laura’s connection with the previous L. Murdochs who died by fire 200 and 100 years ago.

This 100-year cycle clears up something I’d noticed earlier and thought was a mistake. When Laura first told David about the phoenix, she said that the bird went up in flames and rose from the ashes every 100 years. Every version of the legend I’d heard before has it as every 500, 1,000, or even 5,000 years. But the interval had to be shortened for this storyline; American history doesn’t go back far enough for a pattern of fiery deaths to emerge otherwise.

More of Laura’s unearthly powers begin to show themselves. After finding Laura with Burke Devlin at the cottage, Elizabeth demands that her sister-in-law leave Collinwood without David. She says that she’ll tell Roger what she’s seen. Laura responds that Elizabeth will be sorry–she has resources too. Then she settles down to gaze into her fire…

At the house, Elizabeth has a dizzy spell and falls halfway down the stairs. Roger and Vicky find her. She insists she’s fine, but the last 10 minutes are a blank. As she tries to remember, another, worse spell follows. Elizabeth is put to bed and doctors are summoned, but they can find nothing medically wrong with her.

Elizabeth and CarolynThis is the big scene for Joan Bennett as Elizabeth’s memories fragment. Sometimes, she doesn’t even recognize Carolyn, who sits tearfully at her mother’s bedside. In other moments, she speaks of her daughter as if Carolyn were still a little girl.

The episode comes to a head later that night just as Elizabeth’s memory begin to return. A shadowy, cloaked figure appears before the windows. Elizabeth screams and collapses.

When Vicky and the Collinses rush in to help her, she can only babble incoherently about a bird in fire and a stone. The family wants to send her to a hospital, but Elizabeth adamantly refuses to leave the house. She makes Carolyn promise to abide by her wishes and leaves her daughter in charge.

Very soon afterwards, when Laura visits Elizabeth in her bedroom, Elizabeth goes into a catatonic state that baffles her doctors. Frank confers with Vicky; he suggests they bring in a parapsychologist to investigate the case.

“That’s a little far out,” says the young woman who has just accused Laura of casting some sort of witch’s spell over Elizabeth. Not to mention following clues pointed out by a ghost.

Dr. Guthrie examines ElizabethFrank prevails and brings a new character into the story, Dr. Guthrie. The doctor isn’t as far out as one might expect a parapsychologist to be. He takes a psychological approach to Elizabeth’s condition and, after examining her, declares that she is in a trance!

In hopes of breaking whatever hypnotic hold Laura has over her, Carolyn finally agrees to let her mother be taken from the house and placed in a hospital. It’s the first time Elizabeth has left the grounds of Collinwood since before Carolyn was born.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.