The House

This 1954 episode of the otherwise long-forgotten suspense TV show, The Web, is one of the special features on the DVD for the documentary about Dan Curtis,  The Master of Dark Shadows. It’s noteworthy because it was written by future Dark Shadows writer Art Wallace and its story bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the soap opera’s earliest plots.   Viewers of the show will find a lot that’s familiar here.

Walt Cummins at (not) The Blue WhaleThe House begins when a stranger (Charles Dingle) enters a bar in a small New England fishing village. He tells the bartender that his name is Walt Cummins and talks a bit about warm, English beer to indicate that he’s a traveler, before  mentioning that he’s been here before but not in many years.

Would the people he used to know still remember him? In particular, he asks after a woman who lives in a big house at the edge of town, Elizabeth Stover (not Stoddard).

Sure, says the bartender, Mrs. Stover still lives there with her daughter Louise even though the place “is about ready to fall down”. The funny thing is that Mrs. Stover refuses to leave her house, has stayed there for 25 years since her husband John walked out and took her jewelry with him. Everyone in town supposes that she’s waiting for him to come back some day.

Mr. Cummins smirks and says that he’ll be “a real surprise” to her.

The scene shifts to the home of Elizabeth Stover.

In spite of the story’s title, the limited budget of this early TV drama means that we never really get a look at the house in question. There’s no exterior shot, not even a still photo; the only part of the interior we see is the entry hall and staircase and, one step down, a parlor decorated in the late Victorian style. Nothing on the grand scale of Collinwood. But then the Stovers aren’t wealthy people with the same social standing of the Collinses.

The House

Elizabeth Stover (Joanna Roos) is sitting in her parlor when her daughter Louise (Marian Russell) comes in. Louise’s boyfriend Joe, a local fisherman, has just proposed to her; much as she would like to accept, Louise doesn’t want to leave her mother alone in a house that’s practically falling down around her. When she brings up the idea of Mom moving in with them after they marry, Elizabeth says No. She can’t think of going anywhere else.

“Is it because of Pa?” Louise asks, but doesn’t really get an answer.

So she consults with Joe. She hates the house herself, but couldn’t they move in with Mom instead of asking her to make a new home with them?

Joe doesn’t really like this idea. Could they at least get the place fixed up? Louise says her mother wouldn’t hear of it, but eventually she talks Joe around anyway.

Elizabeth, Louisa, and Joe

The couple bring their news to Elizabeth, who agrees to this arrangement; the only other option is Louise putting off her marriage, and her mother really doesn’t want to stand in the way of her happiness.

That should settle the problem for everybody, but just as they’re celebrating the engagement, the creepy Mr. Cummins comes to call. An old-fashioned soap-opera musical sting tells the viewer that this means trouble, even before Mrs. Stover recoils at the sight of her visitor. She sends the young people out of the room.

“So, you’ve come back,” she says once she and Walt Cummins are alone. “You said I’d never see you again.”

His response is cheerfully indifferent. He has come back, and he means to stay. When Elizabeth tries to throw him out, he brings out his big threat:

Mr. Cummins makes demands

“You know, a body can forget a lot of things in 25 years… but not this.” He isn’t coy about it, but says quite blatantly that he was here when she murdered her husband.

Mr. Cummins takes up residence in a back bedroom, and bullies Mrs. Stover into cooking his breakfast.

When Louise wonders who this man is, Elizabeth’s answers about him being “an old friend” who’s fallen on hard times are so evasive that Louise gets the idea that this is her father and, for some reason, he and her mother want to keep the truth secret. This didn’t happen with Carolyn on Dark Shadows, but it’s kind of amusing in light of the fact that the same actor (Dennis Patrick) played both the blackmailer Jason McGuire and her long-missing father Paul Stoddard.

Anyway, Louise invites Walt Cummins to her wedding. When he picks up on the mistaken reason behind it, he plays up to it–not lying outright that he is her father, but certainly letting her believe that it’s true.

When Elizabeth protests, Walt takes another step along the blackmail path. “Being your husband wouldn’t be such a bad idea at that.” This Elizabeth isn’t wealthy, but she has a more comfortable home even in this neglected house than he’s used to, and it looks like her prospective son-in-law is a young man of some ambition.

Elizabeth responds that she’d “rather die.”

Walt retorts, “You die, or I die?” and brings out a new threat: what if someone were to tell that beautiful daughter of hers what’s buried in the cellar?

Meanwhile, Louise’s so happy that “Pa” has come back that she and Joe are making plans of their own. Surely there’s no reason now for Mom to continue to let the house fall to pieces. Why don’t they get someone to come in and fix it up?

The next day, a repairman shows up at the door. The first thing he wants to do is have a look at the house’s foundations…

This sends Elizabeth Stover into a brief round of hysterical laughter. “You mean,” she says to Louise, “because you think he’s your father, you’ve arranged to dig up the cellar?”

Elizabeth and Louisa

At last she’s found the courage to tell her daughter the truth–not only about Walt Cummins, but about what happened to her husband.

She even tells the repairman exactly where to dig.

But when the repairman comes back upstairs, he has something to tell Elizabeth that’s not what she was expecting at all. If you remember the storyline on Dark Shadows, yeah, it’s exactly like that. Except that Walt doesn’t get his comeuppance at the fangs of a vampire. In that respect, I found the ending rather disappointing.

Not a lot of early, live television survives, so even without the Dark Shadows connection, this is an interesting peek into a type of TV show that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s probably a kinescope, but the quality isn’t too bad. You can glimpse a camera or boom shadow here or there, but there are no egregious forgotten or flubbed lines or technical errors. The whole show runs about as long as a single Dark Shadows episode, but they pack a lot into that time.


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.