Dark Shadows… In the Future!

Collinwood in ruins Their future, our past.

After escaping from Collinwood in the alternate dimension just as it was burning down around them, Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman discover that they haven’t returned home after all. They now find themselves in a long abandoned and decayed Collinwood in 1995.

Ah, the music, paintings, beautiful people of the 1990s. What will they be like? Will there be flying cars and robot servants? Daily flights to our bases on the Moon?
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Dark Shadows: Getting Out of that Alternate Dimension

Over in the divergent reality version of Collinwood, alt-Angelique is becoming highly suspicious that her long-serving and trusty housekeeper Miss Hoffman isn’t the woman she’s known for years.

Dr. Hoffman hits Miss HoffmanShe’s right, of course; this is our Dr. Julia Hoffman, who followed Barnabas Collins over from their universe into this one, killed her housekeeper counterpart while defending Barnabas, and is impersonating her to keep apprised of Angelique’s evil plans.

Dr. Hoffman slipped up when she was being questioned by the police about the various murders that have happened at Collinwood–and there have been a lot of murders lately. The inspector is an old acquaintance of Miss Hoffman, so it seems rather odd to him that she doesn’t remember his wife died 3 years ago. It seems odd to Angelique too, but even though she already knows about the dimensional portal in her boudoir and has actually seen Dr. Hoffman through it, she doesn’t put the pieces together until she sees the other versions of Quentin and Maggie exchanging some heavy-handed exposition about how Julia Hoffman has joined Barnabas. I thought she was smarter than that.

Angelique then lures Dr. Hoffman into a little room in a sub-basement of the house and locks her up, promising to keep her there until she reveals everything she knows about Barnabas. Dr. Hoffman loyally refuses to speak. Besides, she feels pretty sure she’s not getting out of there alive even if she does talk.

This leaves Barnabas alone at the old house, tending to the woman whom he and Julia revived; since this woman, Roxanne, and Angelique are both struggling to keep alive using the same life-force, both have bouts of faintness and weakness. Once Roxanne is strong enough to speak, then Angelique will die, but Barnabas isn’t sure what to do to help Roxanne gain strength now that his doctor friend has disappeared.
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Dark Shadows: Thinning out the Alternate Dimension Cast

In the alternate reality version of Collinwood, Angelique Collins, who has returned from the dead and is posing as her twin sister Alexis, is working to poison her former husband’s second marriage. She does this in a variety of nasty ways. Fortunately for her, Quentin Collins is a short-tempered and insensitive jerk, and Maggie, the second Mrs. Collins, is a complete wuss so they’re both very easy to manipulate.

Now that Maggie is back at Collinwood, the Rebecca plotline that these three characters are involved in picks up where it left off when she fled the house. We get the Dark Shadows version of the key scene at the costume party, in which the second wife inadvertently wears the same dress as the first, late wife did a year earlier. Instead of Miss Hoffman, the Mrs. Danvers stand-in, tricking Maggie into wearing the dress, it’s Angelique herself who suggests it; as Alexis, she can then say that she had no idea that her sister wore the same outfit at last year’s party. The real Alexis wouldn’t know.

Costume Party

When Quentin sees Maggie just before the party begins, he has a hissy fit, accuses her of doing it deliberately, and storms out of the house. Maggie simply doesn’t have the composure to deal with any of this before the guests start to arrive. The party is a disaster.

Quentin still isn’t back by the time the party ends, and Maggie is a whimpering wreck as she wanders the vast house looking for him. Eventually, she makes her way to Angelique’s room, where her enemy appears to her in ghostly form and tells her how gauche and generally inadequate she is and why doesn’t she kill herself?

Maggie at the window Maggie does get as far as leaning dangerously out of the open window, shot at an arty camera angle… but she’s stopped in time by this universe’s Elizabeth Stoddard.

Quentin is unapologetic about his behavior when he does finally show up in the morning. This incident creates an enormous rift between him and Maggie; she turns to Cyrus, the nerdy Dr.-Jekyll scientist, as a sympathetic friend and ends up being kidnapped by his Hydish alter ego, John Yeager. Few people care when Maggie disappears. Quentin assumes she’s run off to New York again. Elizabeth is worried about her. Only Barnabas believes that something horrible has happened to Maggie and searches the Collinwood grounds and vicinity.

This is where the alt-universe bodies start to pile up. Like the plots that go into the past, this alternate reality gives the show’s writers opportunities to kill off as many characters as they want, since they aren’t playing for keeps.
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Dark Shadows: More Alternate Dimensions

Barnabas Collins has entered an alternate universe via an empty room at Collinwood. Unfortunately, he gets locked up in a coffin almost immediately by this universe’s Will Loomis and doesn’t get to see all the interesting goings-on that the Collins counterparts are playing out–events that include the Dark Shadows‘ interpretations of Rebecca, with Angelique in the title role, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

But this version of Rebecca has an unexpected twist.

After weeks of putting up with everyone believing that she was really her dead twin sister Angelique, Alexis Stokes visited Angelique’s coffin in the family vault. This settles the question about Alexis’s identity for everyone, including me; Angelique’s body is in the coffin and looks perfectly fresh, not like a woman who’s been entombed for six months. But it turns out that there’s a reason for that and Alexis has made a bad mistake in touching her late sister’s hand when she bids her farewell.

Angelique changes places with Alexis Angelique opens her eyes. She’s been waiting for just such a touch to bring her back, and gets up out of her coffin to exchange places with the horrified Alexis.

A few minutes later, Angelique as Alexis returns to Collinwood, and the real Alexis is in the coffin, shortly to be cremated.

Angelique is determined to solve her own murder. She will later say that the last thing she remembers is someone sticking a pin into the base of her skull and falling to the table, but she didn’t see who did it. She also wants to get her old life back, including getting her husband away from his new wife.
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Dark Shadows: An Alternate Dimension

Collinwood is a huge estate, but the more I see of it, the greater its state of disrepair becomes evident. It’s not only the number of disused outbuildings we’ve seen on the show; the main house itself is mostly empty. The west wing, where Adam once hid and where the children discovered Quentin’s bricked-up room, has been closed since the turn of the century. Lately, Barnabas has been prowling the equally abandoned east wing, although no information is given on how long that’s been shut up.

The 20th-century Collins family lives in a few rooms in the central block. They aren’t poor by any standards, but when I see what the Collinses were and what they might’ve been, I start to think this is one of those decayed New England families that you run into in Lovecraft stories–not as bad as the Whatelys, but kind of like the Marshes without all the amphibian intermarriage.

Angelique's parlor in the alternate universeIn his wanderings, Barnabas discovers a room that gives him glimpses of a very different Collinwood. Most of the time, the room is empty, but once in awhile he opens the doors to find it lushly decorated and occupied by alternate versions of people he knows well.

Elizabeth Stoddard is no longer mistress of the house, but she and her brother Roger appear to be poor relations living there on the generosity of a wealthy cousin–one Quentin Collins. Julia Hoffman isn’t a doctor, but the housekeeper.

A portrait of Angelique hangs over the mantelpiece; conversations between the people we see in the room establish that she was Quentin’s wife but died six months ago. This lush room was hers.

Willie Loomis isn’t a barely literate handyman, but William Hollingshead Loomis, author of the historical biography, The Life and Death of Barnabas Collins.

William Hollingshead Loomis, author of 'The Life and Death of Barnabas Collins'Miss Hoffman contemptuously flings a copy of this book out through the doorway while Barnabas is standing there watching–he can’t cross the barrier of the doorway himself and the people in the room can’t see or hear him. He reads the last pages and learns that this other version of Barnabas Collins died in 1836 after a happy and fulfilled non-vampiric life, survived by his wife Josette and a number of children and grandchildren.
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DVD Review: The Signalman

On June 9, 1865, the boat train from Folkestone to London derailed. Among the passengers on that train were the famous novelist, Charles Dickens, accompanying his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, and her mother. None of them were badly injured in the crash, but Dickens aided and helped tend to other injured passengers, some of whom died. The accident left him shaken and understandably reluctant to travel by train.

Smoke from the tunnel

This train crash and the Clayton Tunnel disaster of 1861 are attributed as the inspiration for Dickens’s ghost story, The Signal Man.

It’s surprising that the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas only used one of Dickens’s short stories, since he was the man who re-popularized the old Christmas ghosts tradition during the Victorian era. A Christmas Carol has been overdone to death in film and television, but Dickens did turn out other spooky pieces regularly at the holiday season–many of which are forgotten today.
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DVD Review: Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance

This short feature is an extra on the DVD for Casting the Runes, also made by ITV Yorkshire Television in the 1970s. It is very short, only about 15 minutes, and appears to be part of an educational video for musicians on how to score a television show; it begins with an interview by the composer who wrote the music for it.

After the composer’s introduction, we go to the film and meet Mr. Humphreys as he arrives at the Wilsthorpe rail station. A helpful narrator, reading text from James’s story, informs the viewer that “[Mr.] Humphreys had inherited — quite unexpectedly — a property from an uncle: neither the property nor the uncle had he ever seen.” (James’s Mr. Humphreys is described as a young man; the actor playing him here, Geoffrey Russell, is considerably older. IMDB tells me that he was 51 at the time this was made.)

Humphreys is welcomed warmly at the station by his late uncle’s man-of-business, Mr. Cooper. By his frequent misuse of words in the English language, Cooper would seem to be a descendant of Mrs. Malaprop. Cooper escorts Humphreys to the house he has inherited, and Humphreys has his first look over the grounds of the place.

Because of its length–or lack thereof–the story in this film version is highly compressed. There are only the two characters, Humphreys and Cooper. James’s story also gives us Cooper’s wife and daughter, a lady who comes to visit, and a few servants; if any of these people appear at all in the film, they are no more than lineless extras.

The most attractive feature of the new property to Mr. Humphreys is a yew-hedge maze. Mazes, he tells Cooper, are of “mathematical interest” to him and asks if Cooper has ever been inside. Regretfully, Cooper says he hasn’t, although he’d like to see it. Humphreys’s late uncle had the gates locked and forbade anyone to enter; he had a “dislike to the memory of his grandfather,” who created the maze. No one has set foot within the maze in years.

From Cooper, Humphreys also learns that the grandfather was a strange man and that no one seems to know where he’s actually buried. When Humphreys observes that a man who designed a maze would surely have designed his own mausoleum as well, Cooper says that none was ever built and that he’s certain the old gentleman isn’t in the family vault.
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DVD Review: Casting the Runes

The Runes Casting the Runes is perhaps M.R. James’s most famous story, certainly his most influential. Its central concept of having a curse you can pass to someone else–or have it rebound back upon you with horrific results–can be seen in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell as well as the recent hit It Follows. The story itself was the basis of a terrific horror film made in the 1950s by Jacques Tourneur titled Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, depending on whether you saw the UK or US version.

But that’s not the film I’m going to talk about.

The television version of Casting the Runes made in 1979 wasn’t part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, but was made by ITV Yorkshire Television. Unlike the BBC, and like most U.S. stations, ITV has commercials. In this case, the commercial breaks separate the show into 3 Acts as if it were a play.

While the structure of this TV version remains close to M.R. James’s original short story, there are several significant and noteworthy changes. The story has been relocated to Yorkshire and has also moved from the early 1900s to a contemporary setting to make use of modern technology. And, the most unexpected and curious change of all–the hero Dunning has become a woman.

Edward Dunning, an expert in alchemical manuscripts who reviews articles and papers for an unnamed scholarly society, is now Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis), who makes documentaries for a local television station (much like the one that made this program). Her most recent work is a series of programs debunking superstitions and supernatural claims. One of these shows is highly critical of an expert in the occult and self-proclaimed magician named Karswell–and Mr. Karswell does not take kindly to criticism.
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DVD Review: The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale, aired on the BBC on Christmas day 1972 and again the following Halloween, then disappeared into the BBC archives for decades. But it wasn’t forgotten. For many British people around my own age, it’s the equivalent of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or the little Zuni fetish doll chasing Karen Black around in Trilogy of Terror–the spooky made-for-TV movie you saw once as a child that scared the hell out of you.

Jill and some blobby thingsNigel Kneale is rare among television writers in that he’s famous enough to have his name at the top of the credits. The only other writer of similar standing I can think of would be Richard Matheson.

Kneale is probably best known for his Quatermass series (I really must settle down and write something about Quatermass and the Pit one of these days; I’ve been meaning to since last fall.) What made me buy this DVD from Britain, aside from curiosity regarding a hi-tech ghost story I’d heard so much about but never seen, was the additional attraction that Kneale does commentary on the disk.

This story begins as Jill Greeley (Jane Asher) arrives to begin her first day’s work at an enormous neo-Gothic Victorian house that’s in the process of being converted into offices and lab facilities for a team of researchers.

The most interesting thing I learned from the DVD commentary is that, while the interiors are all studio sets, the house used for the exterior shots once belonged to Ada, Lady Lovelace. She was Lord Byron’s daughter but also famous in her own right for her work on Charles Babbage’s theoretical Analytic Engine; she’s credited as the first person to write a computer program and the programming language Ada is named after her. Kneale says he only learned about the house’s history during filming and it’s a coincidence that Jill is a brilliant computer programmer–a remarkable job for a woman in the early 1970s.

As Jill’s tiny car enters the house’s courtyard, it’s nearly crushed between two large lorries backing up in opposite directions. What’s striking about this scene is that even though Jill is leaning on her car’s horn, neither of the lorry drivers nor any of the dozen or so workmen unpacking crates of equipment from other trucks nearby pay the slightest attention. This will become a theme.

Jill moves her car out the way just in time, but she’s badly shaken up by the incident while the other members of the research team arrive.
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DVD Review: The Ash Tree

M.R. James’s story, on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm, is about a 17th-century gentleman who accuses a woman of witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, the accusation isn’t unfounded and she places a curse on his family that will not only destroy him but also his grandson 50 years later.

James tells his story in chronological order, beginning with the grandfather then going on to the grandson. The BBC version, made for their Ghost Story for Christmas series in 1975, reverses the order. It also makes a slight alteration to the family tree, so that the curse passes from great-uncle to grandnephew.

The television version of The Ash Tree opens in the 1700s just as Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) returns from his travels in Italy upon his uncle’s death to claim his inheritance. Sir Richard is full of progressive ideas and plans to improve his newly acquired estate. He sketches up a Palladian front for his old manor house, decides on a spot for a Grecian-style temple, and speaks to the vicar about building a family pew in the parish church. At every opportunity, he mentions his pending marriage to one Lady Augusta and the progeny he hopes to have–sometimes both in the same breath.

That Sir Richard’s thoughts go straight from marriage to baby-making is probably not due entirely to his sense of duty in carrying on his family line; this becomes apparent once we meet his lovely fiancee (Lalla Ward).

Sir Richard and Lady Augusta share a premarital kiss.

Together, they are a fast and modern young couple. Lady Augusta rides over unaccompanied to visit her fiance and see her future home. The two laugh over racy books like Tom Jones, hang up nude paintings brought back from Italy in the front hall, and kiss right in front of the servants.

But a strange darkness already overshadows their prospective happiness. As Sir Richard rides around his new estate, he observes dead sheep and cattle in the meadow. The shepherd says that that happens when they’re left out and that animals shut in for the night are safe from “the sickness.”
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