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Remember how I warned it’d be rough sailing come the second half of the series?

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OK, let me clear my throat. Do note that with a script this long and involved, a few spoilers are unavoidable here, so be warned.

Here’s the gist of what’s going on this time around.  The townsfolk stage an effective overthrow and oust Sheriff Tate.  Her replacement is none other than town loon Maggie Evans, who proceeds to enact a fascist takeover of the unquiet seaport town – curfews, compulsory blood screenings, jailings.

Angelique’s vengeful fit of pique at Amy Jennings’ husband has resulted in their child being both prematurely aged and therefore inadvertantly afflicted with Quentin’s werewolf curse.  Barnabas returns, has queasy vampiric sex with his erstwhile bride and turns Kate into a vampire.

Many cast members die, many more are shown to be manipulated by two perhaps unexpected sources, whose surprising delve into magick proves more effective and powerful than the much feared Angelique…and that’s just on the plotting end of the equation.

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While filled with more twists and unexpected turns than a Hitchcock film, the simple fact is the midpoint of Bloodlust is where things turn crazy, often threatening to spiral out of control.

With Bloodlust trotting out a litany of more tragedy and death than the televised Dark Shadows managed to pack into a full 5 years of daily continuity, Big Finish continues the overly grim trend and tone set in its earlier Dark Shadows audios.

Now, this is perhaps no real surprise to regular listeners thereof – by the time of the series’ conclusion last summer, we’ve all become accustomed to long-beloved characters being subjected to untold horrors if not coming to existentially awful ends.  But where things begin to go off the rails a bit lies, like the aphorismic devil, in a few of the details.

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While there are veteran cast members and recurring audio characters aplenty to be found herein, there are also a fair portion of newcomers to the line (and perhaps to Big Finish per se).  For the most part, they acquit themselves well, and each of them had seemed to fit in quite well during the earlier, more sedate and directly gothic first half of this audio miniseries.  But once we trip the line into episode 8, some of this begins to change.

Here’s a few impressions that stood out, to this point.  While not exactly a major player in the events, the unlikely-monikered Benjamin Franklin (Roger Carvalho) manages to come off a tad one note as matters progress, despite featuring in scenes that veer from romantic support to enraged frustration.  He certainly gives it the old college try, but there’s just something about his tone that feels cold, unemotional…false, even, regardless of the scenario.

Cody Hill’s (Walles Hamonde) relations with the confused (and eventually outed) Harry Cunningham (Scott Haran) come off less romantic than carrying slight, if uncomfortable undertones hinting at smarminess if not seedy predation – at the very least, he’s certainly the aggressor in their affair.  And while Tommy Cunningham (Michael Shon)’s earnest naivete is wholly apropos for a character in his unlikely situation, his howling transformation into lycanthropy elicits more of a bemused smile in the listener than the intended frissons of terror.

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Finally and most glaringly, Andrew Collins (and yes, that really is the man’s name) plays the long-absent Barnabas as less the tortured romantic of Jonathan Frid or even the gloomy, haunted stranger of Colin Baker’s iteration during the events of The House by the Sea than as marked by an adoption of what feels like every cheesy “sinister vampire” cliche out there (encompassing elements of everyone from Bela Lugosi to Forever Knight’s Nigel Bennett, apparently without irony or ameliorating nuance).

While probably unnoticeable for those unfamiliar with the series, it’s jarring for longtime aficionados, particularly when he and Angelique get into what can only be described as a comically camp sequence of over the top orgasmically sexual (vampiric) relations at the end of episode 8.*  While I’m sure time and ongoing scripts will allow him to settle into the role as well as, say, Julian Wadham’s very un-Patrick MacNee take on John Steed has, at this point it’s far too different, too cliche an approach to work.  Again, time will tell.

* this patently absurd, nigh-slash fiction scene was actually the direct spur for our concerns about the direction of future episodes in last month’s review of the first six installments.

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That all being duly noted, there are many of the same elements present that made the earlier episodes work so well.  Asta Parry bears her gruesome fate with sufficient believability and (considering what’s happening in the script) restraint to demand a well deserved tip of the hat for her efforts.  Caveside prurience aside, Lara Parker continues to give a nuanced performance as Angelique, as does Lachele Carl as Sheriff Tate, moving believably through frustration to bitterness and resentment to resurgent action.

Even David Selby’s warm tones and presence in the cast offer reassurance and a measure of nostalgic comfort to longtime fans, though there are a caveat or two: his Quentin sounds a bit resigned if not tired throughout, with his promise to Tom that he’ll stay with him all night through his first transformation broken in what seems like seconds (he opts to head off to chat with Angelique instead).  It adds up to something of a middle ground in the grand sum, of more value to Dark Shadows teleseries veterans than to newcomers.

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“Nobody was supposed to get hurt.  We were protecting people.”
“And what falls into your category of ‘people’, exactly?  Who exactly is ‘people’, Maggie?  And who is ‘a creature’?”

Perhaps the high point of the second half is also one of its true oddities: a penultimate chapter, full episode knockdown drag out verbal cat fight between Maggie and Angelique.  Both sides score major points, with Maggie digging deep into televised history on her part, but it’s no question whatsoever who comes out the winner here, with Angelique skewering both her opponent’s reactionary cum fascist overreaction and power grab and the passive aggressive manipulatory nature of the post-Josette Maggie Evans character per se.  It’s so positively dead on and incisive a dissection, one is amazed the woman continues to fight thereafter (however weakly).  And this takes an entire episode!

While many of the characters praised in the first half (not to mention a few noted hereinabove) have either already met or meet their final fate too early in the second half to make mention of here, there are still a plethora of deftly interweaving storylines to keep the listener on edge as the mystery gradually unravels, and an old nemesis reaches out from the past to cast a malevolent shadow over Collinwood and the seaport village it overlooks.

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Even with such “spoilers” as noted herein, there are more than enough twists and turns to sustain a full 13 episode run, and while the second half of the series does teeter off the cliff of gothic horror straight into overblown absurdism in the areas noted earlier, fans of Dark Shadows will certainly want to take a dive in – strong money’s on any such listener staying the course straight through to the denouement, which delivers not only some last minute surprises (you may or may not have figured out the true baddie of the piece, but you will be shocked at who winds up as the hero or heroine!), but even tries to give the surviving characters some measure of a happy ending.

To put all of this into perspective, for my part?  While it’s true that I’d certainly have preferred a more sedate and insidious build along the lines of the first half over the bombast and cheese of the latter end’s Universal-reminiscent monster mash, the fact is that I remain appreciative of the (likely intense) coordination and efforts of the trio of scripters, duo of directors and veritable army of thespians involved (which for major portions hereof remains quite impressive, if not top notch).

And when it comes down to brass tacks?

I’m definitely looking forward to the next one like this.

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/dark-shadows-bloodlust-collected-episodes-8—13-1131

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