Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Dim shadows

I was sad to see that Jonathan Frid, the actor who cast a large shadow on my childhood by playing Barnabas Collins on “Dark Shadows,” died the other day. (And here’s the joke: Seeing the trailer for the campy new Tim Burton version killed him.) Like many other kids in the mid-to-late 1960s, I raced home from school to watch it; that’s what one had to do in those pre-VCR, pre-DVD, pre-DVR days: catch it in real time or miss it. My daily viewing was further complicated by the Glen Jupin factor. Glen Jupin was a classmate that my grandmother watched along with me in the afternoon for a little spare cash. He was also a fraidy cat, unable to handle the gothic horror of “Dark Shadows,” or its implications that various family members could be ghosts or secret monsters. Every day it was a battle with my grandmother over Glen Jupin, who wailed that the show was too scary. My retort was the obvious one: If he didn’t like it, couldn’t he go do something else? Why did I have to suffer because he couldn’t handle it? Some days I’d win, some days Glen Jupin in his pathetic striped lime-green shirt would win, and now as an adult I understand my grandmother’s decision-making process. I’m sure it seemed fair to take turns letting one of us win. To me, it just seemed arbitrary, and made me argue all the more.

In my playwriting workshop on Saturday, as we were discussing “Dark Shadows” and the late Mr. Frid, my friend and fellow playwright Tira volunteered that one could watch all the “Dark Shadows” one could ever want online via Netflix streaming. She said that she and a friend got roaring drunk and watched a bunch of them. So that night I fired up the xBox, logged onto Netflix, and started with the first episode featuring Barnabas (almost a year after the show’s debut). I watched three 22-minute episodes (22 minutes because of the lack of commercials), committing the terrible error of not having a friend over and getting roaring drunk first. At some point, I’ll watch some more, because my thinking is this: maybe they get better. In fact, I’m sure they get better; they would have to, because there is nothing conceptually possible below the nadir.

The first episode with Barnabas was episode 210, and the only part of Barnabas that was in that episode was his hand, at the very end. What precedes that is the most plodding of soap operas anyone has ever witnessed. Almost every bit of the preceding 22 minutes is a roundelay of inquiries about the whereabouts of a young ne’er-do-well named Willie Loomis whom everyone wishes gone. Here’s somewhat how the dialogue sounds:

Elizabeth Collins (to Jason McGuire, who is blackmailing her): You said that Willie Loomis would be gone!
Jason McGuire: Did I? Well, perhaps he is.
E: Well? Is he?
J: He may be. Have you seen him?
E: I haven’t. But Victoria may have. Vicki, have you seen Willie Loomis?
V: Willie Loomis! That awful man. Why, have you seen him?
E: I haven’t. Have you?
V: No, I haven’t. I thought he had gone.
E: Did he?
V: I don’t know. I didn’t see him.
E: So you don’t know if he’s gone.
J: See? He may well have done.
E: But we don’t know. (To the maid:) Have you seen Mr. Loomis?
Maid: Willie Loomis? I thought he’d gone.
E: Has he?
M: I don’t know. Should I make up his room?
E: Has he gone?
M: Not that I know of. I could make up his room.
E: Not until we’re sure he’s gone.
V: But we can’t be sure he’s gone.
J: He may well have done.

The last time I heard dialogue like this was in a production of “Waiting for Godot,” but that was purposely comic. Had Beckett and Ionesco not predated “Dark Shadows,” I’d think they owe a royalty. I can’t help thinking that Tim Burton got roaring drunk watching this and finding nothing but humor in it. Me: I fast-forwarded. A lot. In watching three 22-minute episodes, I’m estimating that I watched about nine minutes, because that seemed like the amount of actual content. Everything else was stuffing.

The pace is glacial and the staging awkward. (In the first few minutes, I watched a camera pull in for a closeup — and cast a huge shadow across an actor’s chest. Nice.) But one thing was palpable: Why Barnabas Collins, and the show featuring him, became, for a short time, such a sensation. Right at the outset, Jonathan Frid and the writers establish the anguish, the loneliness, and the inner torment of someone cast out of his own time and condemned to play a role he doesn’t want: that of someone who feasts on others. It’s a nice performance of a conflicted character, someone struggling to be evil, which would be easier, while trying to hold onto his goodness, which is harder. That made an impression in 1966, and it still does today.

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