To address her nephew David’s (David Henesy) insistence that he’s seen and spoken with an apparition (Sharon Smyth) identified as Sarah Collins, family matriarch Elizabeth Stoddard Collins (Joan Bennett) reluctantly agrees to participate in a séance along with her brother Roger (Louis Edmonds), daughter Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), and Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke Isles). Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), the centuries-old vampire in the family, also cooperates with the ritual…purely to maintain some control over the event and to prevent his vampiric secret from being leaked to the family.
Once the séance gets underway, the ghost of Sarah chooses to speak through Victoria. At one point during the ceremony, the lights go out and when normalcy is restored, Vickie has disappeared. In her place is a strange young woman (Margo Head) who identifies herself as Phyllis Wicke. Clad in period clothing, Ms. Wicke explains that she is on her way to Collinwood to begin her duties as the newly hired governess to Sarah. What’s happened to Vickie? She’s been transported to the past, circa 1795, to take Wicke’s place…whereupon the first individual she encounters (after being mystified by the pristine appearance of “The Old House”) is the Barnabas Collins she knows in the present.
November 17. 1967 kicked off one of the most memorable story arcs on the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows—a time-traveling excursion that finds series heroine Victoria Winters in the Collinsport of 1795 and interacting with ancestors of the family she knows from the present day. (The storyline took five months, though the writers worked it that “time and space has been suspended” so Vickie’s trip into the past took no more than five minutes in her present time.) In a move that was no doubt part economics and part cleverness, the roles of the ancestors are played by the same actors portraying the present-day characters; Edmonds essays the role of Joshua Collins, the cold, distant patriarch who rules Collinwood with an iron hand. His wife Naomi is played by Bennett, who suffers her husband’s cruelty by tossing back glasses of sherry at every opportunity. (I’ll admit there’s a touch of creepiness in this arrangement, since the past characters portrayed by the actors are married…whereas they play brother and sister in present-day.)
Vickie’s excursion into the past gives her a spectator’s view of the origins of the Collins family’s tragic past. Son Barnabas Collins is engaged to be wed to Josette du Pres (Kathryn Leigh-Scott), who’s the spitting image of Vickie’s Collinsport chum Maggie Evans. (This was remarked upon in an early story arc when Barnabas kidnapped Maggie, intending to turn her into Josette.) Maggie’s father Sam (David Ford) plays her father from 1795, Andre du Pres, and the role of her aunt, Countess Natalie du Pres, is essayed by Hall (a.k.a. Dr. Julia Hoffman). There are some chuckleworthy moments in the 1795 story arc as Vickie finds herself momentarily discombobulated in meeting these new people; for instance, the bounder known as Lieutenant Nathan Forbes—who will not only scheme his way into marrying the naïve Millicent Collins (Barrett) but provide damaging testimony when Victoria is on trial for witchcraft—is portrayed by the same actor (Joel Crothers) identified as Joe Haskell, Maggie Evans’ boyfriend/fiancé in present-day Collinsport. (You would think that this same thing would have happened to Barnabas when he emerged from his coffin in 1967 but we know they hadn’t worked out the 1795 story arc yet.)
The 1795 story arc of Dark Shadows introduced audiences to Angelique Bouchard (Lara Parker), who would become Barnabas Collins’ nemesis throughout the rest of the series. Barnabas and Angelique had a brief romance in her home stomping grounds of Martinique and while Barn has clearly moved on (what with the whole Josette thing and all) Angelique has taken the break-up a little hard. Unbeknownst to the Collins family, Ang is a practitioner of the dark art of witchcraft…and she’ll use her phenomenal powers to bedevil Barnabas and his clan at every turn. For starters, she casts a spell that makes Josette and Jeremiah Collins (Anthony George) fall hopelessly in love; the two of them get married on the sly and a clearly cheesed-off Barnabas challenges his uncle to a duel, resulting in Jeremiah’s death. The diabolically wicked Angelique then uses her magic to make little Sarah deathly ill, extracting a promise from Barnabas that if she can cure his sister, he’ll agree to be manacled to her till death do them part. When Barnabas finally learns Angelique’s witchy secret, he busts a cap in her ass…but before she dies, she places upon him the curse that turns him into the bloodsucking fiend fans of the show came to know and love.
Other characters who cross Victoria Winters’ path in 1795 include religious fanatic Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacy), the witchfinder general whose supposed skill for ferreting out witches fails him here in that he accuses Vickie of sorcery (overlooking the obvious candidate in Angelique), resulting in her trial and conviction for witchcraft. Trask meets a particularly nasty fate at the hands of Barnabas Collins in that he’s walled up in the basement of “The Old House” a la The Cask of Amontillado by the vampire—yet actor Lacy wouldn’t be finished on Shadows; he played a number of characters identified as “Trask” and in fact had started portraying a lawyer named Tony Peterson before the 1795 story arc started.
But the most memorable personage from the past was Ben Stokes (Thayer David), an indentured servant in the House of Collinwood who unfortunately is bewitched by Angelique into becoming her Willie Loomis-like henchman. It wasn’t David’s first Dark Shadows rodeo; he essayed the role of killer Matthew Morgan in a story arc from the pre-Barnabas days of the show…but the character legend probably played more characters on Shadows than any other performer. After the 1795 story arc ended, David turned up as Professor Timothy Stokes—an ancestor of Ben’s who reveals that despite having to be Angelique’s stooge and suffering the relentless cruelty of Joshua Collins, he did pretty well for himself when the events of 1795 came to an end. Thayer really classed up Shadows with his first-rate performances, although there’s a hilarious moment in one of the episodes where his Ben Stokes runs into a tree and nearly knocks it over (mighty unwieldy trees in those woods).
The “bloopers” on Dark Shadows were legendary, owing to the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of time spent on each episode due to the constraints of television production at that time (much of the content was videotaped in one take, and if an actor fluffed a line…so be it). One of my favorites is in a segment where Victoria and Naomi are having a conversation about young Daniel Collins, played by Henesy. Actress Isles identifies the kid as “David”—his 1968 counterpart—before correcting herself with “Daniel.” What makes this funnier is that Bennett makes the exact same mistake in her next line.
The 1795 Collinwood story arc remains one of Dark Shadows’ true highlights, or what my fellow blogger and Facebook movie maven Christopher Snowden calls “the show’s golden age.” It’s the storyline that I remember watching when the show was in reruns on that local TV station in Savannah (I think it was WTOC…but don’t hold me to this), and the opening narration about how Victoria Winters is “surrounded by a sea of familiar faces” really opened up the floodgates of Lake Memory Banks. The time travel device was utilized on several other occasions, including trips to 1840 and 1897 (and even a future time, 1995). I was thoroughly entertained throughout (I especially liked how the experience transformed Joshua Collins from an unfeeling wanker into a man filled with sorrow and genuinely concerned for what’s happened to his son) yet Christopher has warned me what’s in store (which I’ve already started): the “dream curse” arc, which he describes as “spending six weeks in a dentist’s chair.” We shall see.