At last, here’s the real Dark Shadows: The Dark Angel, an exceptionally spooky edition of Mystery! starring Peter O’Toole (King Ralph) as an eerie uncle terrorizing his innocent niece.
Set in 19th-century England, The Dark Angel concerns sweet, beautiful, 17-year-old Maude (Beatie Edney), who will inherit her father’s fortune when she turns 21. Shortly before he dies, the well-meaning but foolish old man has made his brother Silas (O’Toole), whom Maude has never met, her guardian. Soon Maude is transported to Uncle Silas’ run-down castle and ushered in to greet him.
Director Peter Hammond (Inspector Morse) really knows how to showcase a character: When Maude (and the viewer) first sees Silas, he’s nestled against the plush pillows of a daybed, wearing a robe arrayed like a flowing gown, his long fingernails stroking his cheeks. He looks like some loopy combination of Oscar Wilde and Tiny (”Tiptoe Through the Tulips”) Tim, and when Maude enters his room, O’Toole gives a light, girlish laugh of delight. All the emphasis is on Silas’ feminine qualities, yet what’s most unsettling about him is his immediately apparent lust for Maude, the way he gasps at his niece’s beauty and furtively strokes the ends of her long hair when she bends over to hand him his ”medicine” (opium, it turns out). This unusual uncle keeps little white rabbits in his bed, and rubs one across a startled Maude’s cheek. Uncle Silas is, in short, one weird dude.
And one shrewd dude as well. He’s planning to keep Maude around until she inherits her fortune and then pry it away from her. For her part, the good-hearted, obedient Maude yearns to leave her uncle’s gloomy mansion and pursue a romance with the young, handsome, and awfully dumb Captain Oakley (The Jewel in the Crown’s Simon Shepherd). At the same time, she doesn’t think her uncle is evil — just a little… odd.
That is, until he sticks her with a French governess named Madame de la Rougierre (Jane Lapotaire), a perpetually tipsy sadist who watches Maude’s every move. Madame de la Rougierre (”Allo, Maude, my leeetle baboooon!”) is hilariously appalling: She gives her young charge a piano lesson, and when the girl makes a mistake, the older woman slams the keyboard cover down on Maude’s fingers. O’Toole’s cockney maid just about sums things up when she mutters, ”Ooh, I hate them French women — they ain’t natural, I think.” Later the governess takes the girl out for a picnic lunch in the neighborhood graveyard. Leaning against a tombstone, waving a flask of whiskey, De la Rougierre closes her eyes and sighs, ”Don’t you love the dead, child? I’ll teach you how to love them.” Er, I’d rather have some math homework, Madame.
It soon becomes clear that Silas, De la Rougierre, and Silas hulking thug of a son (Tim Woodward of Masterpiece Theatre’s A Piece of Cake) are planning to bump Maude off for her inheritance, which leads to a lot of furtive glances, screaming chases down dark stairways, and, as someone remarks, ”perfect pools of blood.”
The Dark Angel is, as host Diana Rigg puts it in her introduction, ”a tale of genuine gothic terror,” based on the novel Uncle Silas by horror pulp fiction pioneer Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). The novelist E.F. Benson has written that although Le Fanu’s stories ”begin quietly enough, the tentacles of terror are applied so softly that the reader hardly notices them till they are sucking the courage from his blood,” and so it is with The Dark Angel.
O’Toole is magnificently desiccated throughout, and Edney is a perfect damsel in distress — frightened but plucky, with a sharp mind, a soulful gaze, and, underneath all those petticoats, a body that won’t quit. It’s no mystery why Edney’s Maude brings out the beast in Silas, and it is this carnal aspect of The Dark Angel that keeps the show from becoming too ethereal or campy.
Mystery! is fast becoming PBS’ most dependable series. Its recently completed second group of Hercule Poirot adventures was better than the first, and let us never forget the fall’s delightfully wicked Mother Love. The Dark Angel merely extends Mystery!’s winning streak.