Dark Mansions (1986)

So how did Yvette, wife of shipping scion Jason Drake really die when she plunged from the bluffs outside her home? Was it suicide as her snippy sister-in-law Jessica claimed? Or did she get too close to the edge picking flowers and she slipped out of Jason’s desperate grasp in the version he related?

But wait, his crabby brother Phillip claims Jason pretty much killed her and lured her to edge and didn’t do anything to stop her! And who could forget her son Nicholas came up with a version where she was picking flowers for him and she got too close to the edge despite his warnings? Okay, we should probably forget that account since it came after his blind cousin used her supernatural powers to hypnotize him into recovering this memory after he also recovered the “memory” of being born with a dead twin he never knew had. (Even the blind cousin’s dog looked flummoxed by it all during its reaction shots someone thought was a good idea to edit into the sequence.)

Don’t worry about spoilers here – the only thing capable of being spoiled in Dark Mansions is that nothing is resolved. Not only do we never find out anything definitive about her death, no one in the Drake family even cares what happened, even those who maintain it was no accident.

Even better though is that when nosy writer Shellane Victor (staying with the Drakes to help write the family memoirs) speaks with other family members, they contradict each other about the most basic details, such as who was even at the picnic on the bluffs when the incident happened. Or about the blind cousin who we are told went blind from the trauma of seeing it happen, but then acts shocked when she hears Nicolas tell his story about Yvette falling. (It defies logic why a family this dysfunctional would ever entertain the notion of inviting an outsider to ask questions about all their dirty laundry.)

Shellane arrives at the Drake property just in time for another tragedy as Jason and Phillip’s father is killed sailing an experimental ship in the middle of a storm when he is hit by lighting. Blind cousin Noel’s supernatural powers she got after turning blind allow her to know her grandfather was killed in real time while eating dinner with the rest of her family. (She also uses her awesome touch to figure out by feeling Shellane’s face that she looks just like Yvette, which is even more stupidly amazing when you remember she was never blind when Yvette was alive and thus never had to grope her face for comparison purposes.)

The reading of the will is highlighted by the revelation that their dad gives control of his shipping company to his wife instead of his sons because Phillip is too reckless and Jason is too romantic. As if eager to not let their late father down, Phillip stabs the will in anger with a letter opener while Jason begins an smarmy effort to pork Shellane.

Regardless of all this drama, the diamond jubilee ball the Drake family is holding to celebrate their company will still go on! And after everyone except the blind girl’s dog comments on how much Shellane resembles Yvette, is anyone surprised when scheming Jessica “helps” Shellane pick out a dress from the off-limits portion of the house and suggests a hairstyle for her as well and it’s exactly the same look as the portrait of Yvette she surreptitiously hung in place of the portrait of the dead grandfather that was to be revealed to all the party goers? Even less surprising is that this has nothing much to do with anything other than amounting to an childish prank. But then everyone hears Yvettte’s voice! Coincidence or something more?

About half way through the movie, as subplot after subplot was introduced and never followed up on, I had the sick feeling in my stomach that something even more sinister than your standard issue “ghost of a murdered gal trying to finger her killer from beyond the grave” situation was going on. A plot much more heinous than any ghastly spectre roaming around the estate gardens making ooga-booga faces. Yes, Dark Mansions turns out to be the dreaded “failed pilot recycled as summer TV movie”!

ABC wisely took a pass on this prime time soap with supernatural overtones back in 1986, apparently realizing the Drake family was just not that interesting (Michale York and Paul Shenar as duelling brothers wasn’t exactly J.R. and Bobby Ewing) and the supernatural angles were so half-baked, they felt like a thrown together after thought.

Dark Mansions then is a uniquely bad viewing experience that barely qualifies as a movie. Nothing is resolved, while innumerable story elements are introduced never to be followed up. Why is no one allowed into grandma’s sewing room but her and the blind girl? Is grandma really paranoid? Did grandma really fall down the stairs at the first mansion or was she pushed? When the second identical mansion was built on the property after grandma’s fall and her refusal to go back, were the staircases in the new mansion replaced by elevators? Is there any lady the handyman isn’t trying to bang? Are the cousins really going to get it on (they aren’t blood relations you know)?

Even when the movie lamely finally sputters to an end, it’s beyond slapdash, a few sentences that purport to give some closure to things just thrown up on the screen that makes you realize how little anyone actually cared about anything beyond squeezing some bit of return from this ill-conceived project which was just as dead on arrival as Nicholas’s twin.

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