We’ve seen the last of Barnabas Collins, Julia Hoffman, and the Collins family of the 1960s/70s.
Back in 1840, Desmond Collins tears down the transdimensional stairway built by his cousin Quentin. He tells his fiancee Leticia Faye what Barnabas told him about the room in Collinwood’s east wing that intersects with an alternate reality, then they go upstairs to take a peek into the room.
Desmond and Leticia watch as the alt-Flora and alt-Julia discover the body of Lamar Trask on the carpet. The two alt-ladies have no idea who this person could be, but assume that he must have been stabbed by Flora’s mad husband, Justin; Justin is “the problem” alluded to earlier, the reason these Collinses lock their bedroom doors at night.
Flora and Julia quickly dispose of Lamar’s body by taking it out to the woods and burying it.
The focus now shifts to the alternate Collinses. We’ve seen the last of Desmond, Leticia, and the 1840s Collins family too. The final episodes of Dark Shadows play out in the other reality with a bunch of people we barely know.
As usual, most of them are the same actors in new roles, or alternate versions of characters we’ve met. Flora (Joan Bennett) is no longer a scatterbrained romantic novelist, but one of those determined Collins family matriarchs. Quentin and Gabriel (David Selby and Christopher Pennock) remain brothers, but they are Flora’s and Justin’s sons (I’ve no idea how that works out genetically); they have an older brother Morgan (Keith Prentice, the only newcomer) and a younger, adopted sister, Melanie (Nancy Barrett).
Morgan has just become engaged to Catherine Herridge (Lara Parker), but he’s bringing her into a family with dark secrets.
Each generation of the Collins family is forced to hold a lottery. They put slips of paper into a vase and the person who draws the marked paper has to spend a night in a haunted room in the abandoned part of the house. The Collinses who have done this are either found dead the next morning, or they’ve gone mad with fright.
Justin was the last person to enter the haunted room, ten years ago, and has been in a catatonic state with occasional outbursts of stabby madness since.
It’s a pretty good set-up for a story, but as the final chapter of Dark Shadows, it has flaws.
I’ve picked up from some of the DVD interviews that Dark Shadows‘s ratings had been diminishing. This was their last-ditch effort to save the show, but it had the opposite effect. Many of the show’s lingering fans stopped watching. Ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled in the spring of 1971.
I can see why. This alt-reality has little connection with the Dark Shadows we’ve been watching up until this point, and it’s hard for the viewer to care what happens. When the show has taken us into another time period or alternate dimension before, at least one long-standing character is there, someone we already have an emotional investment in, to ground things: Vicky, Barnabas, Julia. Not this time.
The closest we have to a long-standing character is Josette, widow of this universe’s Barnabas. She isn’t played by Kathryn Leigh Scott made up to look older, but by an actress of the appropriate age.
This Josette has a grown son, Bramwell, played by Johnathan Frid. They are poor relations to the family at Collinwood.
Both Johnathan Frid and Lara Parker had expressed interest in playing characters besides Barnabas and Angelique. Here, they’re given a chance to be Heathcliff and- er- Cathy in the Dark Shadows version of Wuthering Heights.
Now that he’s expecting to make some money when his ship, literally, comes in, he’s returned home to live at the old house with his mother, and hopes to marry Catherine–but Catherine refuses to break her standing engagement. They end up having implied hot sex, then she marries Morgan anyway. The two men get into a duel, in which Bramwell is wounded in the shoulder. Out of spite to get back at Catherine, Bramwell marries her younger sister Daphne, who nurses him after his injury and has a girlish crush on him.
When Daphne perceives the truth–that Bramwell still loves Catherine–she wilts away, broken-hearted, and dies in a deathbed scene reminiscent of Melly Wilkes in Gone With the Wind in which she unselfishly asks her sister to find happiness with her own about-to-be bereaved husband.
On top of this, Catherine learns that she’s pregnant early, too early, in her marriage and keeps it a secret from everyone except Bramwell since he is, after all, the baby’s father.
In one DVD interview, John Karlen said that viewers wanted Johnathan Frid to go on being the Vampire, but I don’t think that’s why this part of the story fails for me. My favorite part of the show was the storyline involving the dream curse, building Adam and Eve, and the evil machinations of Nicholas Blair; Barnabas wasn’t a vampire during that whole stretch. I think it’s that Bramwell and Catherine aren’t likeable, and yet the show insists that we’re supposed to sympathize with them while they selfishly destroy other people’s lives. And it’s entirely due to their own choices. There’s a lot of tragedy, pain, and misery in this story due to the family curse, but this couple’s respective marriages pile more of it on. I felt more sympathy for craven, cowardly Gabriel and poor, mad Melanie.
Justin isn’t the only one at Collinwood who goes around stabbing people. Melanie was the first person to enter the room to find her father and was in there long enough to pick up a little madness herself. From time to time, she has bad spells and speaks as if she were another person–someone who knew Brutus personally and hated him–or else she suddenly goes at people with a knife.
As Catherine discovers the first night she spends at Collinwood.
Aunt Julia shows up just in time, gets Melanie to put the knife down–not in the bad way–and offers to put the girl to bed with a soothing cup of hot chocolate. Because hot chocolate is the best way to stop a knife-wielding maniac. A pity that more people don’t know this.
Melanie doesn’t remember any of this once the spell passes, but she knows she has these bouts of stabbiness. She’s afraid that she killed the secretary, which puts a damper on the romance developing between her and the secretary’s brother Kendrick (John Karlen), who has come to investigate her mysterious disappearance. Julia and Flora have also buried this body in the woods. Kendrick finds it with the aid of this universe’s Gerard Stiles, who works as a psychic detective, and naturally suspects that one of the Collinses did it.
There’s a mystery about Melanie’s parentage that she and Kendrick solve eventually. Flora and Julia guard the secret so closely that I had ideas about the identity of the girl’s mother–but when she was revealed, it genuinely surprised me.
After Justin dies, the family is called upon to perform the lottery again.
They balk at first. Quentin and Morgan are hopeful that if they can find out what Brutus actually did, they can break the curse and spare their family more sorrow. The two men chivalrously and sexistly don’t want any of the women to take part in the lottery drawing, but Julia and Flora insist they should. So does Catherine, now that she’s a Collins too, although she thinks it’s all superstition. There’s some discussion whether or not Melanie should join in. Gabriel just doesn’t want to be the one chosen and hopes that if there are enough other people involved, his chances of pulling the marked paper will be smaller.
An evil spirit in the house, presumably the one responsible for the curse, throws hints at them about getting on with it and which persons should participate.
They hold a seance with Melanie as the medium, since she already has a connection to the spirits haunting Collinwood, but all she can do is shout “Lottery now, or all will die! Plague! Die! Plague! Die!” Which isn’t exactly helpful.
Melanie and Quentin subsequently come down with what the Collinses call “the plague,” although it seems to be more of a high fever with delirium. Melanie, in her delirium, speaks as if she were that person who despised Brutus Collins, and introduces the name of James Forsythe to the narrative.
The first time the family goes through with the lottery, Gabriel is chosen, but he pulls a trick and gets one of his drinking buddies to take his place in the haunted room. That man is found dead the next morning; Gabriel was only in the room for half an hour or so, but he isn’t quite right in the head afterwards. It’s generally assumed that he’s fled Collinwood, but actually he continues to lurk around the hidden passages of the house and pop up at intervals to go all stabby at members of his family. He says that he’s the one who stabbed the secretary.
The second time, Catherine draws the marked slip of paper, but Morgan and Quentin have been opposed from the beginning to allowing any of the women to go into that haunted room, no matter what. With his brother’s assistance, Morgan locks himself in the room instead.
We see him sit and wait awhile, then discover a secret door in the wall behind the bed. He ventures inside.
When the family unlocks the door in the morning, Morgan is still alive, but he says that he is James Forsythe. He’s been possessed by the spirit of Brutus Collins’s old enemy, and James has no kind feelings for the Collinses living 160 years later either.
He’s got good reasons for hating the Collins family. The first thing James does is start digging up the cellar at the cottage, until he finds a skeleton which he identifies as the body of his sister, Sarah. He claims that Brutus murdered her.
The ghost of Brutus Collins (played by Louis Edmonds) shows up to acknowledge this with some evil laughs.
It’s through James we finally hear the full story behind the curse. The Collinses decide that the best way to get Morgan back is to hold another seance with an exorcism thrown in; while this is going on, James tells them what happened.
His story is shown as the earliest flashback we’ve ever had on this show–the 1680s–and it creates an architectural anachronism that really bothers me.
But the story behind the curse first: Brutus and James were business partners in a shipping company. James discovered that Brutus was egregiously cheating him of his share of the profits. Well, James was cheating too, with Brutus’s wife Amanda, a woman young enough to be Brutus’s niece (she’s played by Nancy Barrett).
Amanda agreed to provide Brutus’s account books as evidence of his fraud, but when they went down into the room behind that hidden panel in his bedroom, where the accounts were kept, Brutus caught the couple at it and murdered them both. He laid the bodies out on slabs in the secret room, then killed his sister Constance when she discovered his crime.
James doesn’t go into the death of his own sister Sarah, but presumably it occurred after this. The living James in the flashback doesn’t mention her at all. Perhaps, like Kendrick, she came to investigate his disappearance and paid dearly for it.
It’s Brutus, at the end of his spree, who places the curse on all his descendants.
My architectural nitpick: When I first heard about the curse and the haunted room going back to the 1680s, I was sure that this couldn’t have begun at the present Collinwood. It’s a Gothic Revival house and couldn’t possibly be that old, older than the colonial old house. The style was popular in the 1800s (the house shown in the exterior shots only goes back to 1885 and is mostly more recent); I could just believe that it was built in the 1790s since there were earlier examples (Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House) that Jeremiah Collins might have been inspired to imitate. But no one would have built a house like that a century earlier. Yet we see the tragedy of James Forsythe, Amanda, and Brutus Collins play out in the same Collinwood we’ve always known. (And if they’ve had that same carpet on the stairs for 300 years, it must be worn through.)
The haunted room was Brutus’s own bedroom, which explains why there’s furniture in there even though no one’s set foot in it for more than a brief period of time, apart from the dead and insane. It doesn’t explain why the candles are always lit, though, unless it’s the ghost of Brutus who keeps them going.
By the way, somewhere in here, David Selby left the show. The other characters continue to refer to Quentin as if he were still around the house, but he isn’t seen again.
After the truth emerges, the spirit of James departs. Morgan is himself again, although, like his brother Gabriel, his night in the room has left him a bit touched in the head. He’s very suspicious of what Catherine was up to with Bramwell during the week when he wasn’t himself.
He tells his aunt Julia that he found the secret room. James’s and Amanda’s bodies are still lying there, covered in shroud-like sheets of cobweb but otherwise perfectly preserved. It was when he touched James that Morgan became possessed.
During the relative safety of daylight, he takes Julia into the secret room to show her.
Julia insists that she sees one of them move, but sadly nothing comes of this.
The only ghost that shows up is Brutus. He pops up to give them more evil laughter and promises that “The curse will go on… and it will lead to more tragedy than ever before!” Mwa-ha-ha!
This starts with Melanie going all stabby-mad on Kendrick on their wedding night. The family locks her up in the tower, and Ghost-Brutus promises that she will stay insane until the curse is broken.
Lottery, round three. This time, it’s Melanie’s brand new husband Kendrick who is chosen. He’s eager to go, hoping he can break the curse and free Melanie from her madness, but Morgan has other ideas.
Morgan has overheard a conversation between them that reveals she’s expecting Bramwell’s child. Tipping over into madness, he lures Bramwell into the haunted room that evening and locks the door. When Catherine admits her love for Bramwell, she gets tossed in too.
I didn’t have much sympathy for Morgan either up to this point–Keith Prentice was much too stiff and wooden. But once he goes mad, his performance picks up and becomes more entertaining. His evil laugh is a good one, better than Brutus’s.
Catherine and Bramwell are left to face the horrors of the haunted room together. These horrors consists of a wildly swinging chandelier, the spirit of Amanda overtaking Catherine a couple of times, and the ghost of Brutus throttling Bramwell. It doesn’t seem like much, and makes those people who died or went insane look like wusses. The couple braves it all out and at dawn, Brutus gives it one last try, then announces that the curse has been broken. He’s found a “true Collins,” which I take to mean one that’s as much of a destructive, self-centered bastard as he was himself.
When Morgan finds them still alive in the morning, he has one last go at them too, and winds up being killed himself. Catherine and Bramwell are then free to marry each other before their baby is born… which they could’ve done easily three months earlier and spared everyone a lot of trouble.
Kendrick and Melanie are about to leave Collinwood, when Melanie is carried into the drawing room, unconscious, with two prominent bite-marks on her throat.
“If it wasn’t impossible, I’d say she’d been attacked by a vampire!” declares Ben Stokes, who’s been hanging around the edges of this story.
We cut to the portrait of Barnabas hanging in the front hall–but a voiceover from Stokes assures us that this isn’t so. There is no vampire. Melanie was bitten by an animal in the woods. She and Kendrick went on to live happily ever after. So did Catherine and Bramwell, who stayed on at Collinwood. And the “dark shadows” were no than a memory of the distant past.
After the final episode, there are a couple of extra features on the DVD:
1. A montage of scenes from the show from Victoria Winter’s arrival to the last episodes, shown under an upbeat version of the Dark Shadows theme music. Seeing people like Dr. Guthrie and Dr. Lang made me feel nostalgic for parts of the show I really enjoyed and could watch again. Although, if I do end up watching this show again, I’m stopping when Barnabas and Julia leave 1841.
2. The voice of Roger Davis, who played Peter Bradford, Jeff Clark, the painter Charles Tate and some other minor characters, accompanies photos of the main characters as he tells us what the show’s writer Sam Hall foresaw for these people:
- Elizabeth Collins Stoddard continued to run the family cannery until her nephew David was old enough to take over the business; Roger had died by then. Elizabeth retired and went on to run an exclusive ballet school in Germany that was even more bizarre than Collinwood.
- After her experiences with the occult, Carolyn wound up as a psychical researcher, working at a university and investigating supernatural phenomena with Professor Stokes. Which sounds like a show I’d want to watch, as a forerunner of Kolchak and The X-Files. She did run into Adam again, after he’d gotten a good education and got rid of his facial scars. He still wanted to marry her, but she wasn’t interested.
- Quentin didn’t want to stay on at Collinwood after Daphne’s death (although since she didn’t die in 1841 and become a ghost, I’m not sure how he managed to meet her). He traveled the world and, hearing rumors that Count Petofi still lived, tried to find him to see if there was some cure for his werewolf problem that didn’t depend on a magical painting.
- Maggie Evans returned to Collinsport about a year after she fled, divorced (presumably from Sebastian), and settled down in her father’s old cottage. She took a job at the local sanitarium and helped her former fiance, Joe Haskell, who you may remember went crazy after being repeatedly assaulted by various monsters. When Joe was released, he got his old job at the cannery back and he and Maggie married.
- Chris Jennings never solved his own werewolf problem. After killing the woman he loved while in wolfman form, he killed himself. Well, they can’t all get happy endings.
- Barnabas and Julia traveled too. Julia fell dangerously ill after seeing Barnabas through the same disease. After pining after tragic lost loves for a couple of centuries, the no-longer vampiric Barnabas finally got it into his head that there was one woman who had stood by him through all kinds of trouble, protected and defended him, and did her best to talk him out of his bitey impulses. He and Julia Hoffman married, in Singapore of all places. That’s sweet. I hope they went on to have more weird adventures.
I found this more emotionally satisfying than the end of the actual show. It was especially nice of Mr. Hall to provide some closure for characters who otherwise dropped out of sight with no explanation.