“Oh, God, that’s sick.”
I’m a longtime Dark Shadows fan. Too young for the original run of the series, I grew up with my mother discussing it in hushed whispers – the closest things she could find to show me at the time possessed of a similar bent were Kolchak the Night Stalker (an arguably superior Dan Curtis production) and Edge of Night (a strange soap opera centered around murder and crime with a tendency to air, possibly in reruns, in sporadic late night slots back in the 80’s).
While I may have seen an episode or two of Dark Shadows in public TV reruns early on, my experience of the series’ brilliant insanity hails from a far more recent vintage.
When MPI first started putting out the VHS of the original run back in the early to mid 90’s (albeit confusingly starting with the introduction of Barnabas Collins, an oddity of marketing they’d continue in the DVD era), I was finally able to discover what made the series the venerated pinnacle of daytime television it remains to this day – for all its myriad flubs, awkward line readings, missed cues and production issues.
While some level of entertainment can be had just watching for the aforementioned (and honestly, it’s a pretty easy target, akin to hitting the broad side of a barn in that respect – any episode featuring more than a few lines delivered by Grayson Hall as the nervous, hesitant to speak and often stammering Dr. Julia Hoffman is pure camp gold), what made the series truly unique was its focus on the supernatural.
Sure, early episodes leant more towards a Rebecca by way of Jane Eyre style of gothic horror and familial secrets (the titular “dark shadows” that envelop the town of Collinsport and its founding family). There was even a serial killer of sorts, and a mythical “phoenix” towards the end, pointing the way to where things would soon be headed. But with Curtis’ decision to shoot the works and bring a damn vampire into the fray, all bets were off. Witches, zombies (or at least gruesomely fleshed ghosts), Lovecraftian cultists, hell, even the devil himself popped out of the woodwork, and with all the traveling back and forth in time, one could be forgiven for mistaking what started off as a slightly unusual daytime soap opera for a BBC period costume production.
So long story short, I became a huge Dark Shadows fan. Back in 1997, I even went to one of those little conventions, and met Lara Parker (Angelique/Cassandra), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans), John Karlen (Willie Loomis), a quite peppy and friendly Denise Nickerson (Amy Jennings), even Diana Millay (Laura the Phoenix). Sadly, a few folks hadn’t showed, at least on the day I went – David Selby (Quentin) and one of my bigger crushes on the show, the lovely Nancy Barrett (Carolyn Stoddard).
So keeping all that in mind, let’s switch gears for a second. Trust me, there’s a point to all this.
Several years back, at the dawn of the new millenium Big Finish brought another of our beloved BBC sci fi programs of yore to audio, namely The Tomorrow People. Nicholas Young (John) and Philip Gilbert (Tim) were on board, and there were one or two stories that featured other cast members like Elizabeth Adare (Elizabeth) and Peter Vaughan-Clarke (Stephen).
While we were big fans of the original series (though admittedly it did drag a bit in the middle, or most of what comprises Set 2 on DVD), the revival audio stories, many by producer Nigel Fairs, were surprisingly grim, to the point of almost being unrecognizable as a continuation of the same show. While I gave due props for the effort, we didn’t really keep up.
And so it is that we come to The Flip Side, the 37th episode of the Big Finish take on Dark Shadows.
We recently (literally over the past summer) found ourselves rewatching the series straight from episode 1 (the original, hundreds of episodes before Barnabas ever crawled out of his tomb) through the Quentin flashback. Even doing somewhere between 5 and 10 episodes a night, it took months to progress this far, so while there’s still a portion of the series consigned to more distant memory, a sizable chunk of continuity remains quite fresh in my mind.
What I found was this. While every fan of the Dan Curtis daytime classic knows he had a penchant for injecting huge doses of the supernatural to say nothing of seance and I Ching effected time travel, the series was never quite as dark as one might imagine. There were the standard soap opera tropes, relationships, love triangles and dark family secrets. There were certainly more than a few characters finding themselves killed off as well, particularly in the flashback sequences, where it was easier to explain away and forget.
But Dark Shadows was still very much a product of its time and timeslot, and ultimately came possessed of a likeably warm undertone to all the shenanigans that drove the plot.
And here’s why I brought up the Tomorrow People revival. Because while I can’t speak for the series to date, the unavoidable question that comes to mind with Episode 37 of the Big Finish take on Dark Shadows is the same as with that earlier effort: namely this.
Is this episode, with oft-flighty budding matriarch Caroline Stoddard facing off against a revenge-minded serial killer from the future, really true to the show’s template?
Sure, Burke Devlin spent a long run of the show’s early episodes seeking vengeance on Roger for his false imprisonment by impoverishing and setting the youth of the Collins family against each other. But he was no killer.
While Matthew Morgan did indeed fall under the umbrella of multiple attempted murderer, he was ultimately driven by his fidelity to the family, Liz in particular. His later attempts centered around covering his tracks on the earlier, more accidental killing. Overall, he proved a fairly benign, Agatha Christie style murderer.
Barnabas was a vampire, with an addictive need for blood to survive. But it haunted him, and he spent much of the series chasing after a cure. Angelique was a vindictive, tantrum throwing virago. But all she really wanted was the love of Barnabas in the end. Even Chris the werewolf and Adam only wanted to be normal and to be loved, when all was said and done.
I know in recent years, the soap opera has veered into much darker territory, with primetime efforts like Alias and even the teen-oriented Smallville giving nods of the head to the repulsive depths of what has come to be referred to as “torture porn”, quite possibly the grimmest marker of our culture’s collective decline. And no, this one isn’t anywhere near that bad in the grand scheme of things.
But is this really the Dark Shadows we remember and love?
Well, we get three original series starlets: Nancy Barrett as Carolyn Stoddard, Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie Evans, and Lisa Richards as werewolf Chris Jennings’ put upon fiancee Sabrina. Amy Jennings also takes part, albeit portrayed here by one Stephanie Ellyne.
And there’s certainly strong attention to series obscuritana. One of the major characters here is one Jonah Rooney (Christopher Ragland), nephew to the (as I recall, unnamed) Blue Whale proprietor, Bob Rooney (who’s noted as having had a heart attack since).
There’s also Jim Hardy, named (but never seen) as one of the folks from the sheriff’s office involved in the investigation of Roger Collins’ fatal car crash (which sent scapegoat Burke Devlin to jail and effectively drove the first year of the series) – here as a proper “onscreen” character at last (portrayed by one Jonathon Marx).
On the lighter side, we even get a great line about Carolyn’s old rough trade boyfriend Buzz (Hackett, though I recall him being credited by first name only in his few appearances) being an accountant in Bangor, living with his boyfriend (like you didn’t see THAT one coming).
In fact, quite a bit of attention is paid to what happened to various characters from the series dating back to the last time we saw them on TV – making The Flip Side effectively a “first episode” of sorts. I know I was comfortable walking in over three years worth of releases into the Big Finish run. Hell, you even get the same old Robert Cobert music cues (which Curtis was prone to use in unrelated telefilms and major studio productions for years thereafter).
While we’re talking music, one interesting addition to the mix was a Todd Rundgrenesque song (complete with George Harrison-style slide guitar and ring modulated organ) by one Sean McGhee, a musico acquaintance of the director currently working on a project with a former member of Suede. While I’m not sure it fits with the more firmly 60’s vibe of Dark Shadows, it certainly brought back memories of 70’s era AM transistor radio…nice stuff, which I’m happy to say comes on its own separate track to enjoy at any time.
But…there’s a dark side to all this.
See, Caroline is more or less portrayed as a sad and hopeless drunk, effectively driving her few remaining friends away with her excesses (but yes, there’s a caveat to that statement coming up).
New character Jonah turns out to be some alternate reality futuristic version of himself, from a timeline where Caroline became queen of the Leviathans (remember them?) and essentially destroyed the world (to be simplistic about it).
He’s here to kill off…well, just about everyone, mumbling creepy manipulative thoughts into the heads of most of the characters, killing the “real” Jonah and his father, hypnotizing Sabrina into a near-fatal car accident, and trying to tear Carolyn apart EST-style in order to get the often emotionally unstable heiress depressed enough to commit suicide in front of her father. In the end, Carolyn gets an uncharacteristic if satisfying revenge on her tormentor. Wha…???
Yeah, this ain’t your daddy’s Dark Shadows. While I’m a huge fan of the whole “Dark Doctor” thing going on in the better part of Big Finish’s Sylvester McCoy Doctor stories, this more or less one ups those, bringing a similar feel to a more realistic and intimate setting, with people trying to destroy other people from the inside out – not merely a Burke Devlin style financial ruin, but literal murder and soul-destroying malicious manipulation. In a series that (for all its titular gloom and supernatural trappings) was essentially good natured (if “spooky”) daytime fun, this sort of retroactive grimness and modernist nihilism feels wrong somehow…inappropriate, at the very least.
Ultimately, there’s two ways to look at this. Some may find this sort of retake on an established favorite to be a huge improvement and update on the original, and hey, more power to them – Big Finish is certainly bringing some of the old gang back together here, and that’s always a good thing for the fans.
That said, those of us a bit more tied emotionally and bearing some affection to the template will more likely find this somewhat akin to the modern comics “retcon” mentality, where up and coming writers try to establish their territory and reputation by effectively crapping all over the writers and continuity that we all grew up on, and which gave them the sandbox to play in in the first place – a sort of studied ingratitude that less plays homage to its progenitor than seeks to tear down and reestablish the original in its own fractured image.
Look, here’s the bottom line, laid out in simple Q&A fashion. Is it interesting? Definitely. Am I looking forward to hearing further takes on the series, to see where the writers may take all this next? You bet. But if The Flip Side is any indication of where the series is taking things, I’m afraid it may be something more akin to morbid curiosity than true affection.
As the quote from Carolyn (when she learns of parallel-Jonah’s demented plan) that started this review points out, this is certainly not the Dark Shadows I remember and love, but some twisted alternate reality version – less the Carolyn Stoddard of yore than The Girl With the Vampire Tattoo. Enter at your own risk.