Someday in a movie, a wild animal is going to tear somebody's throat out and the investigating officer is going to say, "It looks like a vampire did this." But "Dark Shadows," NBC's new resurrection of the old Gothic soap opera, hews slavishly to convention.
That is, when they find one of the vampire's first victims, the investigating officer says, "Looks like some kind of wild animal tried to tear her throat out!"
A young woman observes later that all these nasty attacks are "only the beginning," and that's literally true, because the two-part, four-hour NBC miniseries -- tomorrow and Monday at 9 p.m. on Channel 4 -- doesn't end, but instead bleeds right into the revived "Dark Shadows" weekly series, which premieres Friday.
That caveat emptored, it's only fair to add that this latest little death march for "Shadows," which was a daytime soap on ABC from 1966 to 1971, does indeed have the soggy charm of damp camp, sometimes funny and never all that scary, persistently entertaining even when ludicrously predictable.
The fangs don't come out, not on camera anyway, until midway through Part 1, when the slender stately stranger from England, Barnabas Collins, noshes a bimbo outside ye olde local bar. Collins has arrived in the seaside community of Collinsport after about a 200-year nap to take up residence in his ancestral home. Of course, he's his own ancestor, an undead ringer for the guy in the spooky portrait on the Collins clan's living room wall.
"The Collins blood does have a rather persistentstrength," Barnabas notes with a straight face on arrival, and later, with fang in cheek, he tells the family, "My business has always been so -- consuming."
Soon the inevitable series of disappearances and gored corpses begins, and the local constabulary are naturally baffled. It's all according to formula if not according to Hoyle, but somehow in its baldly unimaginative way, it works. Maybe after all the umpteen variations on the Dracula tale, going back to basics as this show does renews it one more time.
Or pumps fresh blood into it, as it were.
The film improves substantially in Part 2, when a well-intentioned (or is she???) woman doctor endeavors to "cure" Barney by attacking a "very destructive cell" he's been toting around the last coupla centuries. Barnabas wants to recover, he says, but then the sight of a woman's pale and inviting neck presents itself, his eyes turn red with lust and, before he knows it, he's brought in another gusher.
Vampirism, which has served storytellers as a metaphor for all kinds of things, here becomes a metaphor for addiction, and works quite well.
Ben Cross, the imposing British actor, plays Barnabas without ever acting as though he imagines himself above the role, though of course he is. His very angular face can look surprisingly creepy when the right blue lights are thrown at it and it's shot at a low angle.
Jean Simmons inherits the dowagey role of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard from the late Joan Bennett, who played it on TV and became the first big-time actress to grace the daily soaps. Barbara Steele is eerily naked-faced as the doctor with the cell theory, and Joanna Going plays Victoria Winters, the governess who arrives at the mansion as the story begins and fitfully narrates the tale.
"It will soon fill all the days and nights of my tomorrows," says she.
The highest old time is had by Jim Fyfe as the demented stable hand Willie Loomis, who, once he becomes enslaved to Barnabas, corresponds to the Renfield character in the Dracula stories (the name "Dracula" does not come up). When Cross isn't gnawing on necks, Fyfe is chewing the scenery veritably to bits.
Silly? Yes. Foolish? Yes. An utterly irredeemable waste of your precious time? Well, not quite. With producer-director Dan Curtis, who did the original soap opera, in charge, "Dark Shadows" here and there has glints and glimmers of electric fun, and perhaps even a moment or two of actual vampirical truth.
'Held Hostage' Some viewers who watch "Held Hostage," ABC's Sunday night movie, may feel guilty that this fact-based story of an American wife keeping vigil for a husband kidnapped in Beirut doesn't elicit more sympathy and concern. But the sad fact is, the highly emotional story is told with a curious lack of conviction.
Marlo Thomas is convincing as the wife, Sis Levin, who wrote about her husband's capture in the book "Beirut Diary." But the film, written by Dennis Nemec and Bruce Hart and airing at 9 on Channel 7, spends so much time on political sermonizing that the essential human drama gets muted.
Levin's husband, Jerry, a foreign correspondent, was abducted in Beirut in 1984. The film opens with their blissful marriage; then Sis follows Jerry to perennially war-torn Lebanon, an assignment he chooses on his own, and both decline to leave when warned to do so by American officials.
After the kidnapping, Sis gets out, and the movie depicts the kind of ordeal that a hostage spouse can go through. Unfortunately, it's not very gripping to watch -- waiting by the phone, agonizing, lobbying for support from ineffectual State Department zombies, watching a videotape of hubby from days gone by.
Along the way, there is lecturing and hectoring about mistakes the United States has made in the Mideast. "We have no coherent policy," says the suddenly expert Sis. "We simply go from crisis to crisis trying to put out fires." The shelling of Beirut by U.S. forces is repeatedly criticized.
The fact that Jerry Levin is played by the snivelly David Dukes mitigates one's concern about the character's fate. Instead of keeping that fate a mystery, the filmmakers keep cutting to Jerry in captivity, showing us things Sis was not able to see.
Current, hyper-dramatic events in the Middle East do indeed make this story, however poignant, seem insignificant, but if it had been told with more insight and less pontification, it would carry more clout. You feel sorry not so much for Sis Levin, abandoned by the powers that be, as for Marlo Thomas, abandoned by those who made the movie.
'Upstairs, Downstairs' Don't worry if you forget to send "Masterpiece Theatre" a 20th-anniversary card, because the anniversary celebration will continue on for nine weeks, starting tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 26 with a reprise of three splendid episodes of "Upstairs, Downstairs," best loved of all the British serials that have aired since "MT" premiered on Jan. 10, 1971.
A few cherishable moments from the life of the Bellamy household -- the wealthy family upstairs and the loyal servants down -- kick off a collection of "Twentieth Anniversary Favorites" that will also include episodes from "I, Claudius," "Elizabeth R" and the jewel in the crown, "The Jewel in the Crown."
Alistair Cooke, the invaluable guide who's been sitting on his "Masterpiece Theatre" duff for two decades of sublime storytelling (accompanied by his expert annotating), says he's always felt "Upstairs, Downstairs" had "a disturbing depth which was not probed by people who enjoyed simply the surface fun and glitter of an admittedly superior soap opera."
His thesis is best borne out by the last of the three shows airing tomorrow night, "All the King's Horses," the penultimate chapter in the 55-chapter saga (additional episodes, set prior to 1904, were never shown in the United States). James Bellamy (Simon Williams) returns from New York filled with tales of overnight wealth, and lavishing the spoils of his own speculative adventurism on members of the family, including father Richard (David Langton), who had always sadly considered his son something of a flop.
Head parlormaid Rose (Jean Marsh, of course, who helped create the series), enchanted by the prospect of fiscal independence, entrusts her nest egg to James to invest. Alas, the time is October 1929, and the episode will end in heartbreak for the Bellamys and for anyone who watches. That it's airing as the boom '80s give way to the bust '90s only makes it more trenchant.
The servants in the cellar and the masters in the parlor deal with catastrophe in different ways, with the tone downstairs set by the wise, the enduring, the virtually omniscient cook Mrs. Bridges (Angela Baddeley), who utters to a distraught Rose the inarguably immortal words, "Everything will be all right in the morning."
The luminous cast also includes Gordon Jackson as the head butler, Mr. Hudson, and Lesley-Anne Down, later a big star, as Georgina.
First on the bill tomorrow night is "Guest of Honour," set in 1908, when Edward VII drops in (well, not exactly drops in) for dinner, setting the house into the British equivalent of hysterics. By the time of the second episode -- 1925 -- Lady Bellamy, played by the beautiful and elegant Rachel Gurney, has vanished with the Titanic, and yet, as in all good serials, life goes on.
"Upstairs, Downstairs," though it spanned four seasons on "Masterpiece Theatre," didn't go on as long as many of its fans would have liked. Tomorrow night's reminiscence shows why the Bellamys never wore out their welcome, why Alistair Cooke shows no sign of wearing out his, and why "Masterpiece Theatre," funded lo these 20 years by Mobil and produced by WGBH in Boston, deserves the broadcast equivalent of eternal life.