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In America, it’s Halloween weekend, filled with youngsters dressing up in costumes and visiting door-to-door, gathering candy and listening to spooky tales.  The tradition comes, at least in part, from old Gaelic festivals, in particular one called Samhain.  It marks the end of the harvest season, and in some places begins the Gaelic New Year.  It is also the dividing line between what is known as the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the year.

While many think of the time as one for spirits and ghosts, the Samhain interpretation would mean the beginning of darkness, when the lines between the two worlds are the thinnest.  Bonfires are lit to preserve the light, and the forces of evil, in disguise, come to visit the earth.  In the case of one FOX television show in 2005, it would remind us of one girl’s future also on the edge, and her fate and behavior very much depends on the road taken from here.  Ultimately, the influences upon her and the people she meets, both good and bad, might change the entire world.  The sad part is, as the old proverb goes:  Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What path to take?

Welcome to the small coastal town of Point Pleasant.  A sleepy little bedroom community an hour or two south of New York City, the town’s peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by a freak storm, which washes up the body of a teen-age high-schooler named Christina Nickson (Elisabeth Harnois).  She’s revived by a local lifeguard, Jesse Parker (Samuel Page), and brought to a nearby doctor’s house to rest and recoup.  Taken in by Dr. Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi) and his wife Meg (Susan Walters), she becomes friends with their tomboyish youngest daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar).  Christina’s reluctant to even remember her past, let alone be returned quickly to her mysterious, usually absent father.

Christina has an odd effect on those in Point Pleasant, as tendencies are amplified, feelings are given voice, and inhibitions are unknowingly ignored in those around her.  Jesse’s girlfriend Paula (Cameron Richardson) is jealous of the relationship that might be growing between Christina and Jesse, and ends up with another boy, Terry (Brent Weber), causing a love triangle. (The sparks erupt at the end-of-summer bonfire — any references to Samhain are purely on purpose!)  Meanwhile, Paula’s mom, Amber (Dina Meyer), is a former classmate of Dr. Kramer, and she decides that the good doctor should provide some tender loving care for her… especially after she’s dismissed by her latest target, Lucas Boyd (Grant Show), who’s just moved into the town as well.

Lucas and Christina

It turns out that Boyd has a different target… he’s not only threatening Jesse’s religious mother Sarah (Claire Carey) because of her crusading son’s feelings toward Christina… but he’s ultimately trying to influence Christina towards darkness, as he works for her absent father.  Of course, daddy’s rather busy, as daddy dearest is apparently Satan himself, which would make the lost Christina the devil’s daughter.

She’s also the daughter of a human woman, who left shortly after Christina was born.  Christina’s search for her, and her interactions with the locals, will guide her towards either good or evil… and therein lies the conflict of the series.  Which path will Christina ultimately choose, and what will happen to the others in the process?

“It feels good having her here.  I feel good.”
–Meg Kramer, when Christina arrives in their home

While the Kramers are people of good heart, they’ve also dealt with tragedy along the way, as their daughter Isabelle died a few years earlier.  Christina’s entry into their life seems to have brought new hope to Meg… but temptation is finding its way towards her husband, thanks to Amber. Burgeoning boyfriend Jesse and new companion Judy are trying to help, but have their own issues to deal with.  The junior love triangle is starting too, but all these things are being nudged along by Boyd’s machinations and Christina’s emotions… and heaven (or hell) help those who get her angry.

Christina doesn’t know her capabilities early on, let alone the abilities of Lucas Boyd.  Her presence seems to erase inhibitions, letting the true nature of the people around her come into play.  And more often than not, there are other than just pure reasons for any particular action taken along the way.  Christina is learning… but is she learning the strength of good?  Or the anger and betrayal of evil?

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.  That struggle in the Christina character between the dark and the light seems to us to be a very good metaphor for being an adolescent.”
Point Pleasant Creator Marti Noxon

Little do they know what's coming....

Marti Noxon was one of the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Just as fighting otherworldly forces was seen in Buffy as a metaphor for the alienation of high school and the trials of those young people finding their way, so too were the efforts of Christina and the residents of Point Pleasant to be seen as a supernatural search for morality and meaning.  The struggles of each of the characters adds to the choices Christina ultimately has to make, and whether she comes down on the side of good or evil depends more on their natures than any one of them realizes.  And once Christina makes her final choice, the fate of the world could depend on it.

“It’s all about duality, it’s about the best of people and the worst of people.  The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.  It’s kind of fun, because it gives you an excuse for people to really look at themselves and say, you know, what do I want to be?”
–Marti Noxon

This is just a much more modern-day approach to the whole idea of Halloween, and some of its antecedents.  The observance of All Saint’s Day in many Christian religions is also traditionally the same weekend as Samhain, giving the “holiday” a feeling of yin and yang, of dark and light… a duality, just as Noxon and Point Pleasant were going for.  Characters did things you didn’t always expect, and even the best person in town had, if not evil, at least some doubt as to their own place in the occurrence of events larger than themselves.

This wasn’t necessarily even the big battle between good and evil, although the outcome would portend such a thing.  The battle on Point Pleasant could be likened more to the preliminaries of a chess match, where certain characters (instead of chess pieces), each of different strengths and weaknesses, fought more for position and possibilities than for ultimate domination… although such a thing might ultimately come.  And, opposed by enough lesser pieces, even the best and brightest of those among us could fall.

Who's influencing whom?

These are sometimes uncomfortable choices for everyone, and yet they are choices each of us makes every day, in matters large and small.  Unlike the characters on Point Pleasant, we aren’t archetypes on a canvas where we’re influencing the anti-Christ, but we are in a position where our choices influence those we love, those we interact with, and most importantly, how we see the world each day.  Marti Noxon is right when she sees Point Pleasant as a metaphor for these types of things, but they’re not just symbolic of choices for adolescents.  As soon as we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

The scariest part of all this is not even how our choices affect us, but how they affect those in our lives.  For that is the part which is really out of our control, and yet all we can do is present, hopefully, the best of ourselves to everyone around us, to display the virtues of compassion, empathy, love, and honor, even when our own natures (and our own dualities) want us to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is reading too much into a prime-time television series like Point Pleasant, and yet it is part-and-parcel of the influences of viewers’ lives, and one would hope that the lessons learned there would be good ones.  Because otherwise, television becomes the good-intentioned road to Hell its worst critics believe it to be, instead of what its supporters hope for… a path, not to Hell, but to a better place for all.

ELISABETH HARNOIS (Christina Nickson) was almost born an actress, starting her career in front of the camera at the age of three.  As a tween into a teen, she was Alice, the lead in the live-action TV version of Adventures in Wonderland for The Disney Channel.  After Point Pleasant, she appeared as a recurring character on One Tree Hill and is now a regular on the current season of CSI.

SAMUEL PAGE (Jesse Parker) earned a college degree in ecology, and promptly came home and announced to his family that he was moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  The move turned out successfully, as he’s played regular and recurring roles on American Dreams, Shark, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl.  He’s also modeled, and appears on the cover of the current Xmas catalog for the J. Crew clothing brand.

RICHARD BURGI (Dr. Ben Kramer) was the star of one of the few UPN hits not named Star Trek, in the 3 1/2 seasons of The Sentinel.  He’s also had runs in Judging Amy, The District, Harper’s Island, and Desperate Housewives.  Fans of short-lived series almost saw him as another hero, as he was one of the rumored candidates for the lead in the CBS series The Flash.

SUSAN WALTERS (Meg Kramer) was a regular on both Hotel and Nightingales before finding a lasting series in Dear John.  After Point Pleasant, she was seen in both One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries, in addition to a soap role on The Young and the Restless.  During an earlier stint on the daytime series, she’d met her soon-to-be-husband in real life.

AUBREY DOLLAR (Judy Kramer) has been featured previously on this site as the young reporter Cindy Thomas on Women’s Murder Club.  Another actress who started young, her first movie appearance was just prior to her teens.  She appeared for three seasons on Guiding Light, and also had a recurring role on Dawson’s Creek.

GRANT SHOW (Lucas Boyd) also started in soaps, playing on Ryan’s Hope for three years.  He hit prime-time stardom on the original Melrose Place, and was later seen in Swingtown, Accidentally on Purpose, Dirt, Private Practice, and Big Love.

CAMERON RICHARDSON (Paula Hargrove) started as a model before making the jump to acting.  Her first role was as a regular on the series Cover Me, which was later followed by Skin, 12 Miles of Bad Road, and Harper’s Island.  Now a new mother, she recently modeled for Forever 21’s maternity line during her pregnancy.

DINA MEYER (Amber Hargrove) has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) and Miss Match.  She’s likely more familiar to genre audiences, having appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Nemesis, Starship Troopers, and the Saw movie series, as well as starring on the TV series Birds of Prey.  Athletic by nature, she has performed many of her own stunts on-screen, and suffered a concussion during one particularly nasty stunt on Starship Troopers.

BRENT WEBER (Terry Burke) was discovered by a modeling agency when he accompanied his sister to an open call.  His career includes guest spots on Scrubs and CSI: Miami, and a featured role on the daytime soap All My Children.

CLARE CAREY (Sarah Parker) was a featured player on the comedy Coach, playing daughter Kelly Fox.  She was the “mother” of the Olsen Twins in the series So Little Time, and also a regular on the first season of Jericho and Crash.  She’s most recently been featured in multiple episodes of Chuck.

Point Pleasant is, thankfully, available on DVD, including five episodes never broadcast during its original run.  Since it was designed as a mid-season replacement, there’s a definite conclusion to the series if you get to watch all thirteen episodes… and a choice is made, although there’s plenty of room for more of the series to continue, had it been successful.  Alas, it was not, as FOX pulled the plug after Point Pleasant failed to garner the desired ratings, especially up against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and the original CSI.  Somehow, a series all about choices wasn’t one viewers made the choice to watch.  Maybe some of the less than perfect decisions of the characters hit a bit too close to home….

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”
–Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek

OK, so I’m a Star Trek fan from way back… so sue me.  But in this case, I think this is the most appropriate quote to describe Point Pleasant, and the displayed duality between good and evil.  If you wish to go another route, famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) described in his book, The Screwtape Letters, how ethics really fell into four categories… and how “good” only fit one of them.  A person making the right choices for the right reasons is doing “good”.  A person doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons is obviously evil.  But “right things for the wrong reasons”, and “wrong things for the right reasons”, are, to Lewis, simply rationalizations for evil masquerading as good.  Hence, the old saying about how “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

As we examine ourselves and the lives we lead, how many choices do each of us make which would fall far too easily into the “rationalization” categories?  Those are the ones which cause each of us doubt, and reflect upon those around us, positively or negatively… and we don’t always know how they’re seen.  Even if you aren’t religious in any way, those choices in life still have to be made, and still will be part of how we know ourselves… and how others come to know us.  We all have a duality inside… it’s what we create from it that makes our entire world… for good or evil.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — 8 aired — 5 unaired (all available on DVD)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  January 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 17, 2005
Aired at Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX premiered the series on a Wednesday night, before the series settled into its regular Thursday night slot at 9/8 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“My name is Victoria Winters.  My journey is just beginning.  A journey that I’m hoping will somehow begin to reveal the mysteries of my past.  It is a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place… to a house high atop a stormy cliff at the edge of the sea… to a house called Collinwood.”
–Victoria Winters, introducing viewers to Dark Shadows (1991)

Enter the Dark Shadows

Some say that Hollywood hasn’t had an original idea in ages.  Remakes, re-boots, and “re-imaginings” are everywhere, mostly because those with the money have become the ones making the creative decisions.  Ideas with any “name recognition” are considered (by bean-counters, at least) vastly superior to more original scenarios, only because those bean-counters (and therefore the audience they think they’re serving) can get a very quick handle upon what is being presented.  The audience is familiar with it, after all.

But sometimes, the idea of a remake isn’t a bad thing.  Especially when the guy with the original idea is involved from the beginning.  And, if done properly, the remake can get rid of some of the problems the prior incarnation may have had, like a limited budget, slower pace, and the occasionally wobbly set or two.

Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera on ABC, running on weekday afternoons from 1966 to 1971. Creator Dan Curtis (who also brought Kolchak:  The Night Stalker to television) believed that, with a bit of tweaking, the Dark Shadows scenario was ready-made for a more modern prime-time audience.  NBC agreed, and an initial order for 13 hours was made… and although the storyline was familiar, it certainly wasn’t the original 13 episodes of the original show.

Dark Shadows concerns the Collins family, whose ancestors were founders of the town of Collinsport, Maine back in the early days of America.  Their family history runs extremely deep (along with their family secrets), and the new governess, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going), starts to uncover truths that most would prefer to remain hidden.  She is introduced to the family matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Jean Simmons), and to the rest of the rather strange clan living at ancient Collinwood Manor.  These include Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Barbara Blackburn); and Elizabeth’s brother Richard (Roy Thinnes) and his young son David (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whom Victoria has been brought in to tutor and care for.

Barnabas Collins

Another Collins soon arrives on the scene.  Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) claims to be a long-lost relative, descended from his ancestor namesake who led the family back in colonial days.  This is confirmed by the painting of the original Barnabas, who looks strikingly similar.  In true gothic horror tradition, however, there’s only one Barnabas.  He is a vampire, eternally undead, who was chained up and sealed in the Collins mausoleum to protect the town all those years ago.  Now accidentally set free by the Collins family groundskeeper, Willie Loomis (Jim Fyfe), Barnabas has revived and is ready to take his rightful place again… and perhaps the heart of Victoria Winters as well.

“Hope you like this freak palace, Miss Winters.”
–Willie Loomis, upon bringing Victoria to Collinwood

There’s a large and involved web of relationships between the Collins family and the locals. Daphne Collins (Rebecca Staab), niece to Elizabeth, is unfortunately attacked by the newly revived Barnabas, and is ultimately killed by the authorities after becoming a vampire herself.  Her boyfriend Joe Haskell (Michael T. Weiss) pursues vengeance against Barnabas.  The attack on Daphne is also investigated by Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele), who figures out Barnabas’ secret, and ultimately convinces Barnabas that only she can create a cure for his curse.

The vengeful Angelique

The curse is, obviously, part of those old family secrets, when Barnabas was seduced by Angelique Bouchard (Lysette Anthony), the maidservant of the woman he was set to marry back in 1790.  Enraged when Barnabas rejects her, Angelique uses the powers of dark magic to curse Barnabas with vampirism.  She punishes him further by dooming all he loves to an early death, an anguish which he must continually experience throughout his unending existence.

“She is a force so evil, so powerful in nature that even now she reaches across the centuries to destroy me.”
–Barnabas, to Willie, describing Angelique

There are other residents of Collinwood, both helpful and suspicious of the Collins family and their secrets.  The series concerned the ever-changing nature and allegiance of the characters relationships, like on many soap operas, with a few good scares thrown in.  But, as stated earlier, this wasn’t the original Dark Shadows soap opera.

First, audiences had changed significantly from the late ’60’s.  The style and pace of television presentation was much faster in 1991, especially when compared to the almost glacial speed of the original daily half-hour afternoon serial.  Therefore, if there was to be an updated version, rewrites were mandatory.

Original creator Dan Curtis and his production team went to work.  The new version would take the arrival of Victoria as its beginning, just as the ABC soap opera did.  But the original series ran for a season before the arrival of Barnabas Collins, who shows up about 15 minutes into the first episode of the revival.  After that, each episode of the 1991 series encompasses about a month (or two) of the main storylines from 25 years earlier.  Six episodes of the new series used up the main daytime soap opera plot for almost a year.

“I, Victoria Winters, begin this journal in the hope that no matter what happens to me there will at least be a written record of these extraordinary events. Somehow, I have been thrust backward in time.”
–setting the stage for 1790

Barnabas and Victoria

In 1967, Dark Shadows bent the rules even more, as the gothic soap introduced a time-travel storyline.  The 1991 revival followed suit, when Victoria (who by now had become a love interest of Barnabas, even though she knew nothing of his curse) was convinced to participate in a séance.  When the lights go out, she is somehow transported back to the year 1790, caught up in the interactions of the original inhabitants of Collinsport, and the origin of their secrets.  These new characters (except for Barnabas, of course, who was still the same long-lived individual) were played by actors from the modern-day storyline, in new, dual roles.  We see the doomed love of Barnabas, the original seduction with Angelique, and others of the early Collins clan, as Victoria tries to save Barnabas from his fate… at the risk of trapping her in the past forever, or even dying in his lover’s place.

This time-bending storyline took the better part of another year on the original series, yet in the 1991 revival it took only another six episodes to play out.  Unlike the beginning of the revival, however, small but significant changes were made to the soap opera storyline (again, “re-writes”), and it was hoped that these changes would slowly move the new adaptation of the show away from slavish devotion to the original.  Besides, at six or so episodes equaling a year of previous plot, new storylines were going to be necessary all too soon.

Of course, that was only true if the show were to continue.  While the late winter run had debuted to tremendous ratings, the beginnings of the Gulf War shortly derailed any momentum built up by the show.  NBC constantly pre-empted and delayed the series for news reports and specials, and even audiences who actively wanted to watch the show were frustrated by uncertainty over finding it.  Ratings suffered, and ultimately Dark Shadows was canceled again, as it had been decades earlier.

What witchcraft is this? To cancel our show?

BEN CROSS (Barnabas Collins) was one of the starring actors in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Chariots of Fire, kicking off a terrific career.  He’s been seen as everything from a medieval prince (First Knight) to Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) to biblical hero Solomon (Solomon) to Spock’s father Sarek in the most recent Star Trek movie.  He’s also an accomplished musician and composer, with multiple musicals to his credit.

JOANNA GOING (Victoria Winters) also made the jump from soap operas to Dark Shadows, having appeared previously in both Search for Tomorrow and Another World.  She starred in the series Going to Extremes, as well as playing recurring roles on Spin City and Close to Home.  Most recently, she played Sean Penn’s wife in the award-winning independent film The Tree of Life.

JEAN SIMMONS (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard) came to prominence in the ’40’s and ’50’s, both in her native Britain and in America.  Best known here for her starring turn in Guys and Dolls and television miniseries roles in North and South and The Thorn Birds, she was nominated for two Oscars (twenty-one years apart!)  She passed away of lung cancer in January of 2010.

BARBARA BLACKBURN (Carolyn Stoddard) also had a soap opera background, featured on Ryan’s Hope prior to Dark Shadows.  A few small TV spots followed, including Law and Order and Close to Home, before she left the business in 1995.

ROY THINNES (Richard Collins) was a genre favorite, chased by aliens in the seminal ’60’s series The Invaders (also was re-booted into a miniseries years later, in which Thinnes made a cameo).  He was also featured on television in The Psychiatrist, From Here to Eternity, and Falcon Crest.  A guest spot on The X-Files became a return visit when his character was so well liked, he recreated the part in other episodes.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT (David Collins) played a brat child on Dark Shadows, but played a wiser-than-his-years (alien) teen-ager in Third Rock From the Sun.  He’s become a feature film actor and leading man, in (500) Days of Summer, Inception, and next year’s Batman feature The Dark Knight Rises.

JIM FYFE (Willie Loomis) was part of Tanner ’88, a spoof of election campaigns, and sixteen years later reprised that role in Tanner on Tanner.  In between, he was seen in Team Knight Rider, Once and Again, and in both The X-Files and its spin-off, The Lone Gunmen.  He also hosted two HBO specials for kids, helping them make environmentally conscious choices.

REBECCA STAAB (Daphne Collins) started in the soaps Guiding Light and Loving, before making the jump to prime-time.  She’s guested on numerous series, including Cheers, The Wonder Years, and The Mentalist.  A former Miss Nebraska and finalist for Miss USA, she is an avid outdoor sportswoman, comparing her garage to miniature “sports chalet”.

MICHAEL T. WEISS (Joe Haskell) started on Days of Our Lives, logging over 500 episodes on the series.  He’s well-known for his lead role in the TV series The Pretender, and most recently has been a part of the current CBS series Blue Bloods.

BARBARA STEELE (Dr. Julia Hoffman) had a long career in British film, dating back to being an extra in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.  A part in Fellini’s masterpiece followed.   Many horror and thriller features later (including The Pit and the Pendulum with Vincent Price), she found she was becoming typecast and retired from acting for a decade.  Barbara became a producer, winning an Emmy award for the mini-series War and Remembrance.  She then joined Dark Shadows, delighting fans of her horror work.

LYSETTE ANTHONY (Angelique Bouchard)  has spent most of her career in her native Britain (Dark Shadows was her only American series).  A regular in Cluedo (the British term for the boardgame “Clue” in America), she played Miss Scarlet.  Other appearances included Night & Day, The Bill, Hollyoaks, Casuality, and Coronation Street.  She’s reprised her role as Angelique in the Big Finish audio dramas for Dark Shadows.

The revival series has received a DVD release, although it is sadly devoid of extras.  Those suffering from more immediate blood lust can find the episodes on Hulu.com.  The original soap opera has also been released (at least, the majority of episodes, as some simply no longer exist).  There are various fan sites out there dedicated to both incarnations, and featuring detailed storyline information allowing for the comparison of the two series.  Another “re-imagining” of Dark Shadows was done as a pilot for The WB in 2004, but never made it to television (although screenings have been held at various Dark Shadows fan events since).  Big Finish audio in Britain has started a set of audio adventures furthering the storylines once again and featuring the talents of many of the actors from both series.

Remakes and updates abound for all sorts of shows.  The revival of Hawaii Five-O is starting its second season this fall on CBS, ABC has a new version of Charlie’s Angels, and a pilot script has been ordered for another try at the comedy BewitchedDark Shadows is, by no means, alone in this respect, but it is unique for retaining much of its original storyline instead of just a concept and characters.  But that’s likely because the story of Collinwood and Barnabas Collins was part of a continuing narrative (due to its soap origins), and the presentation already contained many of the elements that make a story interesting.  It’s really no wonder people keep coming back to it.

Therefore, it’s no surprise there is work going on for an updated movie version of Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, and featuring Johnny Depp as Barnabas.  The new film is scheduled for a big May opening in 2012, and a full advertising and merchandising push.  Other stars involved include Helena Bohnam Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jackie Earle Haley.  Although it re-arranges the story so there is no longer a time-travel element (the action is seen in chronological order), both the 1790 storyline and the more modern plot are parts of the movie, and anticipation is growing….

…as well it should.  Dark Shadows is a great concept, one which almost defines gothic horror for multiple generations.  It is only fitting and appropriate for Barnabas Collins to return from his coffin once more to live among the residents of Collinwood Manor, to fill us with chills and forbidden romance, to give the world a good, comfortable fright.  Because that’s what a vampire is supposed to do, right?

Death is for the mortal… eternal life remains in the Dark Shadows.

Vital Stats

12 aired episodes (2-hour pilot and 11 hour episodes) — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  January 13, 1991
Final aired episode:  March 22, 1991
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Later in the evening (although still on Fridays), befitting it’s more scary and sexualized nature.  But then, NBC didn’t tell many people when they were going to pre-empt it for war coverage anyway, so some weeks it aired at 9pm; some at 10;  and sometimes just delayed and delayed again.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Do you see that?  Now, it’s started.  The cycle has begun… and it can’t be stopped now.  Look, I’m not crazy… well, maybe I am.  It is sort of a madness.  It just seems to well up in me as it gets closer.  That’s why I know I have to stop it, end it, before it controls me more than it already does.  (…)  A doctor can’t help me, nothing can cure me… except dying.  That’s the only way… that’s the only way I know. ”
–Ted, pleading with his friend Eric to kill him, in the pilot of Werewolf

The world changes.  Sometimes, the change is small, sometimes large.  Sometimes the differences can be as great as day and night, as sun and moon.  But the real lessons learned are how individuals accept and adapt to that change, or how they ultimately fail to do so.  That’s where the drama comes from, in television and in life.

John J. York as Eric Cord

College is a time of change, but student Eric Cord (John J. York) never believed his college years would change his life this much.  It wasn’t school and the broadening of his mind at issue, but a strange encounter with his family friend and roommate Ted, who encourages Eric to kill him with silver bullets.  Ted has become a werewolf, who would rather die than being forced to kill again, but Eric refuses to believe him… until the transformation occurs.  Eric is ultimately forced to shoot Ted, but is bitten by the transformed Ted before he dies.  Now Eric is part of the bloodline, and acquired the curse of lycanthropy; he’s become a Werewolf.

Bounty hunter Alamo Joe

Eric’s world has just changed, and not for the better.  He’s being pursued by a bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance LeGault), who’s on Eric’s trail after he’s accused of “murdering” Ted.  And according to the red pentagram that starts showing up on his hand, Eric’s about to transform into a potentially out-of-control Werewolf.  The only way he can “undo” the horrible curse (and return to his normal life) is to kill the originator of the bloodline, the mysterious Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors).  Eric is now both the chaser, and the chased.

“You’re one of mine, aren’t you?  Tonight, we hunt.  Tonight, we feast.  On all the unsuspecting… together.”
–Janos Skorzeny, meeting Eric for the first time

What ensues is something like a thriller version of the television classic The Fugitive, with Eric trying to clear not only his name, but also insure his return to humanity.  He’s being sought as a criminal for murder, and searching out the vile person who can apparently end his new existence.  Through a 2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes, Eric’s world was turned upside-down as he encountered various innocents, and those that would hurt them (and him) along the way.

Some of the traditional accoutrements of “werewolf” transformations were kept, such as being susceptible to silver bullets and healing powers, but the transformations were now unpredictable, and not tied to the phases of the moon.  This allowed the writers of the series to have Eric’s change into a werewolf happen when necessary for dramatic purposes, instead of tying all changes to a specific time of day.  The series also established a continuing deterioration of the mental and willful control of the human/werewolf, placing a bit of a timer on Eric’s quest, but allowing for him to, at least initially, refrain from attacking innocents.  But it wasn’t the innocents Eric was after.

Eric and Janos

“I see my part as the devil.  I think the kids will like him, because when he’s on the screen it’s much more frightening; the action is more intense.”
–Chuck Connors on his role as Skorzeny

The leader of his bloodline, however, had been around for a while.  Janos Skorzeny was an old fishing captain, whose mind and body had been ravaged by the curse over 100 years.  Playing Skorzeny, Chuck Connors was about as far away from his heroic and iconic role as The Rifleman as he could get.  Sporting an eyepatch and a middle-European accent, he simply oozed villainy in every scene, relishing the chance to play a part totally against his own character.

Unlike The Fugitive, Eric actually catches Skorzeny in the middle of the series, but then change of another kind occurs.  Skorzeny is revealed to be just another in a long line of lycanthropes, and the real “originator” of the bloodline is one Nicholas Remy (Brian Thompson), who’s been alive for more than two thousand years… and more powerful and ruthless than Skorzeny could ever be.  Eric now has an even more malevolent enemy, better able to avoid Eric’s relentless quest.

Although he’s still being chased by bounty hunter Alamo Joe, who suspects his dual existence, Eric now has a new mission, and change continues.  But that’s what this series was all about.

Scare is the operative word.  I did not mind ending up faulted for the concept, but I did not want to be faulted for the execution.”
–Co-producer John Ashley

Werewolf was one of the initial offerings of the FOX Network in 1987.  The network landscape was changing, with the entry of a new player in the network wars and the grouping of formerly independent stations into a larger and hopefully more powerful group.  While others (particularly Paramount in the late ’70’s) had tried to start another network, FOX was the most successful, especially when they only rolled out weekend programming during that first summer season.  Werewolf was initially on Saturday nights, although it was moved to Sundays that fall.

The series was produced by John Ashley and creator Frank Lupo (Lupo, ironically, means “wolf” in Italian).  They had recently come off the hugely successful series The A-Team, and were looking for change as well.  Utilizing the horror/thriller concept married with ideas from The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, their initial FOX offering was born.  FOX embraced the idea, and utilized then-new marketing concepts such as a “call-in” line, advertised at the end of episodes, for information on lycanthropy and werewolf “sightings” across the country.  It looked, for a time, as if there was a hit in the making… but still more changes were to ensue.

The right villain?

FOX was also after a younger, more advertising-desired demographic.  The 66-year-old television veteran Connors was not exactly suited for their marketing, so storyline changes were made.  Skorzeny (whose character name was actually an inside joke by creator Lupo, homage to the villain in the original The Night Stalker movie) was replaced with new villain Remy, in order to have a younger actor to help promote the show (even though Connors had been enough of a “name” to gain most of the publicity for the series).  Connors and his salary demands for the series also meant frustrations for the producers and the network.  Messing with the mythology of the show, not to mention the chemistry of the actors, did little to help the series, and FOX also showed the impatience of youth in canceling the series after its first season.

Eric Cord never had his ultimate showdown with Remy, and was left with the curse when the show ended.  Some scripts for a potential season two were planned, featuring a further descent into the madness and uncertainty the curse could bring to Eric.  But alas, FOX has other plans for their growth as a network, and they didn’t include a 7-foot tall Werewolf (even when the make-up and transformations were spearheaded by Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker).  Change was mandated… but then, change was what Werewolf had always been about.

JOHN J. YORK (Eric Cord) has been a star player on the soap General Hospital for 20 years, playing the role of Malcolm “Mac” Scorpio.  He spun off the part in 2007 on the short-lived General Hospital:  Night Shift before returning to the main show.

LANCE LeGAULT (Alamo Joe Rogan) got his start in Hollywood as a stunt double for Elvis Presley, but found fame in his role as Colonel Roderick Decker, the Army man assigned with capturing The A-Team.  Known for his exceptionally deep bass, he once was the narrator for guided tours of Graceland, and producer Glen Larson once commented that he had “a voice that was four octaves lower than God’s.”

CHUCK CONNORS (Janos Skorzeny) first had a career as a baseball player, making it briefly to the majors before being “discovered” while playing for an L.A. farm team.  He found television fame in The Rifleman, but also had regular roles in the lawyer series Arrest and Trial, the western Branded, and the psuedo-western Cowboy in Africa.  He had a featured role in the SF movie Soylent Green, and played a more modern cowboy in the TV drama The Yellow Rose.  He died of pneumonia, linked to lung cancer, in 1992.

BRIAN THOMPSON (Nicholas Remy) has been featured on this site before, as the violent Eddie Fiori in Kindred:  the Embraced.  He’s known for tough-guy parts, especially for his role as the Alien Bounty Hunter on multiple episodes of The X-Files.  A veteran of both action movies and SF, he’s been seen with actors from Stallone to Schwarzenegger, and in four different Star Trek incarnations, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.

Werewolf has never been released on DVD, although it came about as close as a series can come.  The five-disc set had been advertised in trade magazines, given a street date, and cover art had been published, before the title was pulled only two weeks or so before it was to be available.  Apparently, there were music rights issues that were never settled, as the series used many popular rock tracks of the day during its presentation.  There was no “separate” music and dialogue tracks for the show existing, and so the music couldn’t even be “replaced” for DVD, and therefore no release is available.  There is, however, a great fansite with information on the series, screencaps from the various episodes, and lots of information on the cast.  Clips from each of the episodes, plus a couple of interviews, are available on YouTube.  Comic adaptations of the episodes were released a year later by Blackthorne Comics.

“When the world isn’t the same as our minds believe, then we are in a nightmare.  And nothing is worse than a nightmare… except one you can’t wake up from.”
–Alamo Joe

Changes, both small and large, affect everything we do.  Whether the change is personal, such as Eric’s journey, or ultimately affects millions as the rise of the FOX Network did, it is the process of change that makes the difference.  On Werewolf, Eric (at least on what we saw) had some control over his actions along the way, even as his entire self became something completely foreign to his previous existence.  This is the essential lesson that each of us must learn along the way; that we control the change, not that the change controls us.  No matter what the circumstances, our lives are still OUR lives, and even being left with bad choices is better than no choices at all.

Finding our way through the maze of possibilities might seem hopeless, but ultimately the essential nature of a being remains.  Skorzeny was a villain, through and through, and not just because of the curse.  His deterioration was accelerated by his own evil and his own nature.  Like Eric, the best of us may have circumstances to deal with, but it is in the choices we make that show our own interior selves… and I can only hope, like many others, that I make the best of them along the way.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes — none unaired
FOX Network
First aired episode:  July 11, 1987 (Fox’s first night of Saturday programming)
Last aired episode:  May 22, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  FOX didn’t air anything in that slot yet, as their only programming aired on weekends initially.  Much of its run was on Sunday nights at 8/7 Central, a tough slot for anyone, human or werewolf.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“I had three different separate shows running with three different writing crews, shooting crews, and casts. I would go into my dailies to see the filming from the day before and I’d be in the dailies for like three hours. It was really hard, but we had a great time””
–Producer/Creator Kenneth Johnson on making Cliffhangers

Welcome to the thrilling days of yesteryear!  Pay your nickel admission to the theater, and sit back with popcorn in hand to watch this week’s exciting adventures of heroism and dastardly villiany!  And when it’s all over, make sure you come back next week… you don’t want to miss seeing how our hero (or heroine) gets themselves out of their terrible predicament, because (of course) all good serials end with a terrifying cliffhanger!

OK, that’s from the movie screens of the thirties and forties, and Saturday afternoon serials like the original Buck Rodgers and The Perils of Pauline… but since this is a television site, I’ll have to settle for a show that tried to harken back to those days, the 1979 series Cliffhangers!

Three shows in one

Even though it was a throwback to an earlier time, Cliffhangers was unique for a television format.  It featured three very different “shows” during each hour, with each part finishing, of course, on a cliffhanger ending.  Like the old Saturday movie serials, an installment of each continuing story was featured every week.  So, viewers would see roughly 20 minutes of a modern-day globe-trotting action-adventure show, followed by a strange hybrid of sci-fi western, and finally a good old NEW gothic horror story, all in an hour program.  Something for everyone, NBC hoped.

And NBC rested a lot of hopes on Cliffhangers, as it was a spring replacement series in 1979, after NBC’s ENTIRE new fall line-up had been canceled before the previous November was out.  They were willing to try anything at this point, and in Cliffhangers, the network tried three different things… all at once.

CHAPTER 1:  Stop Susan Williams starred actress Susan Anton as the title character, a news photographer whose reporter brother had apparently been killed.  The incident was thought by most to be an accident, but Susan had received a frantic and urgent call from her brother just before his death, which led her to believe there was more to this story.  She convinced her editor Bobby Richards (television veteran Ray Walston) to send her after clues left in an address book she found in her brother’s apartment… just before someone tried to kill her.

Susan and Jack

What ensues is a world-wide journey (on the Universal back-lot, of course) from Marrakesh to Nairobi to Washington, D.C. with threats to Susan’s life at every turn.  She meets up with Jack Schoengarth (Michael Swan), a scoundrel who happened to know her brother in the past, and is periphially involved in the events the brother was investigating (and Susan is now trying to stop).  They find various clues along the way, as Jack is busy saving Susan each week from exploding cars, deadly cobras, and even rampaging elephants about to stampede!

Basically, what’s being emulated here is the classic The Perils of Pauline from 1933, just updated to a present-day setting.  NBC thought that Susan Anton was “the next big thing”, so much so that she was not only featured on Cliffhangers, but she had her own weekly variety series airing elsewhere on the schedule at the same time.  Unfortunately, the network’s love affair with Susan wasn’t shared by television audiences, and both shows were gone before the next season.  But that’s giving away the ending, and we’re supposed to be wondering what’s going to happen next….

“Don’t touch that dial!  It’s time for chapter three of The Secret Empire,  portions of which are in beautiful black and white!”
–The voice-over narration on the FIRST installment of The Secret Empire

Sheriff Jim Donner

CHAPTER 2: The Secret Empire was a definite departure from Stop Susan Williams.  In the beginning a traditional western, it soon became something quite different.  Basically a remake of a relatively unknown 1935 Gene Autry movie serial called The Phantom Empire, it combined cowboys with science fiction (showing that Firefly wasn’t the first… just the best).

Marshall Jim Donner (Geoffrey Scott) is on the trail of the Phantom Riders, masked horsemen who’ve been stealing gold shipments in 1880 Wyoming.  What starts as a typical western, complete with love interest/frontier doctor Millie Thompson (Carlene Watkins), shortly turns into a science fiction epic.  Donner stumbles upon the Phantom Riders hideout, a hidden cave containing an elevator leading to a futuristic underground city.  As the serial progresses, Donner discovers the evil leader of the city, Thorval (Mark Lenard), whose cunning plan is to brainwash the citizens above and take over their world.

To do this, Thorval needs gold to power his “compliatron”, hence the gold robberies.  The brave lawman uncovers not only the evil plot, but finds a resistance movement trying to stop Thorval, who’s already used his machine on many of his citizens.  “Donner Jim” (as the resistance calls him) rallies the rebels in order to help save both the underground city and his own people… and he ends up captured and re-captured multiple times along the way.  Donner’s serial cliffhangers include traditional western endings like his horse jumping a cliff (into a previously unseen river), and sci-fi threats like being attacked by a monstrous green creature from the underground (he’s “rescued” when the creature turns out to be friendly), and being “shot” by a futuristic ray gun (which merely immobilizes him, instead of killing him).

As if those aren’t enough, in later episodes Donner’s old and new friends end up in the Cliffhangers endings (both above and below ground), with Donner rescuing them to become the rightful hero of the piece.  All this was designed to evoke the feelings of the traditional movie serials, and in this respect The Secret Empire really couldn’t lose, since it was also the one most closely based on an actual serial from that era.  There was a distinct lack of updating done on this segment of the show (other than eliminating Autry’s “singing cowboy” schtick), and it was probably the most traditional, even if the hybrid subject matter was also the most unusual.

The underground city

The really unique feature  of The Secret Empire was the deliberate decision to show all the “old western” above-ground adventure in “beautiful” black and white (with a slight sepia tinge), while the underground futuristic environment was shown in color.  The dichotomy actually worked rather well, and was an excellent nod to the early 30’s origins of the Cliffhangers genre.  Unfortunately, there was one other inadvertent nod to that type of storytelling:  the series only lasted long enough to almost get to the end of the story, with both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire left as REAL cliffhangers, at least on the network run.  More about that later, because now, it’s time for our final exciting Cliffhangers tale….

“How would you like to be alive 100 years from now?  As young and vital as you are, 200 years from now?  To behold the earth in 500 years and beyond? (…)  I am offering you something no one else can… immortality.  Like the eternal sea.  Think of it.  The ceaseless tide….  I know you are beginning to feel it. (…)  When you fully comprehend the gift only I can give… I will be waiting.”
–Dracula (Michael Nouri) seducing his potential victim Mary (Carol Baxter)

Michael Nouri as Count Dracula

CHAPTER 3:  The Curse of Dracula was the only truly original tale featured on Cliffhangers, even though the idea of Dracula, horror stories and gothic romance had been around for quite a while.  Using the traditional vampyre mythos, creator Kenneth Johnson crafted a modern-day story concerning Kurt Van Helsing (Stephen Johnson), the grandson of the famous vampyre-hunting Van Helsing, and Kurt’s girlfriend Mary Gibbons (Carol Baxter).  They were on the trail of Dracula (played with distinctive flair by Michael Nouri), who by now had lived over 500 years and was apparently teaching Eastern European History at a local college (night classes only, of course).

Yes, this all sounds rather campy, and yet this was the one story where camp took a back seat to atmosphere and style, and although there were occasional deliberate laughs (Dracula runs a light, and tells the belligerent officer “I know red when I see it.”), the series was never played as anything but honest and serious (which, if you think about it, is rather hard to do with a mythology rife with possibilities for being overplayed).  Nouri shines as a villain who seems tortured by his existence, yet still understanding of his legacy, no matter what it may have cost others.  And even though the traditional story is about Dracula and Van Helsing, it’s Mary who pays the emotional cost.

The Count and his intended, Mary

The Curse of Dracula was the most popular of the three serials on Cliffhangers, and it was probably the best acted and written.  Viewers loved the emotional struggle of Mary, who at one point is a vampire hunter and at another becomes romantically attracted to this denizen of the night.  Far in advance of today’s vampire versions found in Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Moonlight, Nouri’s portrayal of the ageless Count was one of the first on prime-time television to be a romantic lead, even if he was ostensibly the villain of the piece.  This was one of the highlights of The Curse of Dracula, as at times Dracula was the threat in the cliffhanger, and at times he was actually the one saving someone else from his jealous minions.

The Curse of Dracula actually got an ending on television.  Supposedly, we joined each serial “in progress” and Curse started with Chapter Six… in the premiere episode.  The Curse of Dracula also benefited from a “recap” special when Dracula ’79 aired part-way through the season, as the numbering caused some viewers to believe they’d missed installments (they hadn’t).  Dracula ’79 was simply a re-edited version of the story so far, airing halfway through the series run, in an attempt to allow viewers who had missed the beginning of the series to catch up.  This unfortunately didn’t attract enough people to the show to save it, and so, with a resolution to The Curse of Dracula and apparent cliffhanger endings for both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire, Cliffhangers ended most appropriately.

Cliffhangers isn’t available on commercial DVD, although there are rough bootlegs out there.  Some of these include the missing “final” episode, which contains no Curse of Dracula, but the last episode of Stop Susan Williams book-ended by the final two installments of The Secret Empire.  In reality, all three stories had a conclusion, but NBC canceled the series and left one installment unaired, making certain that Cliffhangers really did live up to its name.  All of the stories were re-edited into movies for sale in syndication and abroad.  Stop Susan Williams became The Girl Who Saved the World, while The Curse of Dracula became The World of Dracula (since there was already a movie by the Curse title).  There’s a couple really great websites, one with lots of background on the show, and another with more specific installment-by-installment information, and both are filled with an amazing amount of knowledge on Cliffhangers.

“Well, I’ll tell you why nobody remembers it.  It’s because we were on opposite Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley when they were getting forty shares in reruns.  It was the absolute nightmare timeslot of all time and it’s funny because Cliffhangers was, at the time, the most expensive one-hour show ever made for television.”
–Kenneth Johnson

NBC in 1978 was a sinking ship, having canceled their entire new September lineup within three months of their premieres.  Spring series like Cliffhangers got a chance only because everything else had fared so poorly, but it took more than just a season for NBC to recover from their previous terrible Fall.  NBC was desperate to be rescued by almost any show, as the only hit they had at the time was Little House on the Prairie.  But with nothing to build upon, it would take a lot longer than Spring for their fortunes to change… it would take years.  And Cliffhangers apparently wasn’t the show (or “shows”, if you want to look at it that way) to come to NBC’s rescue.

Unfortunately, as many critics rightfully pointed out, Cliffhangers was based on the “filler” material that was shown between old-time movies, and perhaps more effort should have been focused on “feature” entertainment than “filler”.  But that belittles all those who loved (and still love) that kind of entertainment, and not everything is going to be Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind.  There will always be a place for excitement, chases, and heroes (and heroines) facing dire peril and doom…

…until the next death-defying chapter, and the thrill of the rescue!  Bring on the Cliffhangers!

Vital Stats

10 aired episodes — one unaired episode
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 27, 1979
Final aired episode:  May 1, 1979
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, but probably anything NBC aired at any time would have ended just like Cliffhangers.  Something had to go Tuesdays at 8/7 Central against Happy Days, and this was it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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