The soap opera is a strange entertainment format. It requires a long-term investment of time and attention. It constantly laps and repeats itself, remembering to stop and restart its exposition every now and then to allow new fans to catch-up. But perhaps, most miraculously, it trades on tired old formulas and hackneyed clichιs about love, loss and life to make its supposedly serious and always melodramatic points. And the reasons for their success are salesmanship simple: daytime shows just drip with the sleazy sexuality necessary to vend these familiar bubbly suds to the masses. Nighttime versions of the housewives' home companion just substitute a softcore sensibility for ALL plot pointing. So it must have been the hardest pitch in the history of pilot positing when Dan Curtis, at the time a small time producer of off-brand fare for the networks, offered the idea of a governess and a creepy old house to ABC. Surprisingly the broadcasters bought the idea, hook, line and spook show and Dark Shadows was born, the first daytime drama based in the exclusive elements of horror.
The series initially focused on Victoria Winters, hired au pair for young master David Collins and the Collins family. As she went about her business and learned the secrets of the old New England family, she searched for unknown family lineages, exposed reasons for revenge (both financial and personal) and experienced a wealth of interpersonal contradictions. It was typical soap stuff. Ratings matched the meandering plots. But a suggestion from Curtis' young daughter to up the terror temperament (with the introduction of a ghost) found the right chord of commercial appeal. Shadows was suddenly a success, and when the family vampire Barnabas Collins entered the overripe realm, the cult was cemented. Curtis' vision of a glorious Gothic drama was finally realized. Over the decades, Dark Shadows would be fondly remembered by millions of fans and replayed in syndication on stations like The Sci-Fi Channel. Now, thanks to MPI, you too can relive the weird, wonderful world of vampires, witches, warlocks, werewolves, gypsies, tramps and thieves...and of course, evil little children.
Volume 13, released in July 2004 by MPI finds us more than halfway through the show's run (1966 - 71, 1225 episodes). It features 40 installments, #697 through #737. If you'd like specific information about the actual events that transpire in each segment, you can find all the information you need from http://www.darkshadows.com/main.html, under its Episode Guide. However, for the sake of discussing the storylines inherent in this set, we must look at the previous events that transpired:
After traveling to the 18th Century to save former governess Victoria Winters from the gallows, Barnabas Collins is faced with two competing problems when he returns to the modern world. A friend of the family, Chris Jennings' is having a difficult time with his werewolfiness. His condition is getting far worse and more uncontrollable, and nothing that Dr. Julia Hoffman has done has been able to cure him. The haunting of the estate continues unabated, as the ghost of Quentin Collins continues to use the children, Amy and David, to torment and terrorize the family. The residents of the stately manor have fled to the old house Barnabas' home to seek protection. But the spirit still works his wicked influence over the young ones.
At the start of Volume 13, Quentin's secret room in the West Wing is discovered, and David disappears. When he is found, the boy is in a deep coma. Hoping to save the child, Barnabas employs the mystical powers of the I Ching to, once again, travel back through an otherworldly portal. He finds himself in 1897, where the ancestors of the Collins are arguing over control of the family fortune. Edith Collins, matriarch of the clan, is about to die and she has two pressing matters to resolve. First, who will inherit the estate and second, the horrible family "secret" must be passed down to the next generation. The household assumes that Edward, the eldest, will end up with everything. But the other siblings want to prevent that from happening. Carl, the sad little jokester of the family, can't believe his grandmother would leave him broke. Judith, the sour old spinster, believes she has been the most dutiful family member to the dying old croon and should become the beneficiary of everything.
And then there is the black sheep rogue, Quentin. He wants Collinwood for himself, and will stop at nothing to get his way. With the help of an evil lawyer friend, Evan Hanley and a couple of gypsies employed by Edith Magda and Sandor Quentin wants to call on the powers of darkness to secure his inheritance. But Barnabas is there to stop him, so Quentin must call on evil forces to deal with this stranger from another time. Enter Angelique, an old nemesis of Barnabas from another dimension, ready to wreck havoc on his life, and the lives of those he loves, including new governess at Collinwood, Rachel Drummond.
Oh yes and there is some mysterious "thing" being kept locked up in the tower room...something with a vendetta against most of the Collins clan...
When most people think about Dark Shadows, they recall it in campy, cheesy terms. They remember the overacting, the desire to make even the most mundane special effect seem spooky and the continuing serial sentiment buried at the heart of its horror darkness. There are a few diehard fans who remember the overripe storylines, plots revolving around the man-made monster called Adam, Angelique the incredibly wicked witch and her weird, people-hopping Dream Curse, or the all powerful, severed Hand of Count Petofi, stolen by gypsies. Just listening to those descriptions make the mass mockery sort of understandable. Dan Curtis raided every potential plot from the canon of creature features and shock fests to formulate his mad maniac and monster party, and the results - for the most part - were effective if incredibly diluted. This was late 60s DAYTIME television mind you, not an era known for the most daring of broadcast philosophies. The fact that Shadows even made it to air, and lasted for as long as it did, is testament to its internal drive and audience pulling power. It's hard to ignore the fact that, once you remove the archetypal facade and legendary leanings, the characters and situations offered are very engaging and always interesting. It is easy to lose oneself in the sense of family ancestry in decay, supernatural sentimentality and melodramatic macabre mischief. None of it is very real, but what soap opera is? At least Shadows shies away from the sex and sin offered by most continuing serials to focus on stories that, while draped in typical kitchen sink concepts, try to explore more non-traditional fiction forms.
Now, when Dark Shadows wants to, it can be downright addictive. Like warm ooey-gooey fudge cake with cold vanilla ice cream or a reality show centered around failed celebrities, once it turns on the tacky and pulls out all the subtlety stops, the series shapeshifts just like several of its main characters into a thing of hyper-melodramatic hilarity. But it's not unintentional comedy we are cackling at; Shadows is far too fiendish in its fixations and mysterious in its manners to warrant such misplaced wit. No, what we find, especially in box set 13, so merrily amusing is the kind of interfamilial sparing that made the classic soap opera format so fetching to begin with. Shadows had always wanted to bridge the gap between horror and the hackneyed and with the "Quentin Collins: 1897" storyline, the series finally perched upon said precipice. Combining all the elements that kept fans foaming at the fangs, this time travel attempt to rescue David from the fiendish whim of Collinwood's resident rapscallion was a stroke of storytelling genius. It gave us classic Barnabas (back from the dead and biting necks again) the return of angry Angelique (Laura Parker has the craziest eyes in all of villain-dom) and a few new endearing dunderheads to add to the already overloaded canon of classic characters.
Volume 13 introduces us to Carl Collins (John Karlen, who usually plays Barnabas's Renfield, Willie Loomis). A fey prankster who seems constantly on the verge of giggling, crying, and wetting his pants, all at the same time, Carl enjoys his life smack dab in the middle of the lap of luxury. Perhaps this is why he is so devastated when it is suddenly, and shockingly, snatched out from under him. Edward Collins (played by Shadows master thespian, "Big" Louis Edmonds) has a smart little turned up moustache to match his equally out of joint nose and as voiced with hyperactive authority by Edmonds, Edward is like a Victorian dandy version of Dr. Zachary Smith. Essaying the easy to identify role of Crazy Jenny, Marie Wallace resembles Anne Reinking on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her fright wig whack outs are abject lessons in the art of going batshit on screen. But perhaps the most juicy bit of recasting (if you have not already guessed, Shadows used existing company members for multiple roles to keep the constantly colliding planes of existence realistic and reliable within the show) was turning the cosmopolitan Grayson Hall and the robust Renaissance man Thayer David into a couple of smelly, thieving gypsies. As Magda and Sandor, they provide untold moments of mirth with their broad accents and even more amusing mannerisms. Each actor looks like they are having the time of their life in these "alternative" roles and their obvious energy spikes an already high bit of camp into psycho-surreal melodrama. It is this frazzled family dysfunction that makes Dark Shadows Collection 13 so meaty, far more fleshed out and crazy character driven than ever before.
Yet Dark Shadows Collection 13 belongs almost completely to David Selby. This newcomer to the series is given the near impossible job of making the loathsome lothario Quentin Collins into something more than merely the JR Ewing of pre-1900s Maine. Sure, Quentin is the quintessential bad boy we love to hate, but Selby's quest is a little more convoluted than that. While we hiss most of what Quentin stands for and cringe as he makes another lecherous pass at the nearest available female, we also find a strange sense of sadness to his personality. Quentin will forever be the prodigal son, the free spirit set to wander, only to come back wounded, or even defeated. All of his bravado is false and his moustache twirling (make that mutton chop tweaking dude's got some fierce facial hair) a ruse to hide his sense of impending doom. Sure, he dabbles in the black arts and has driven a massive wedge between himself and the rest of the clan with his aggressive adultery and lack of discipline. But in the end, all Quentin really wants is some guarantees: guarantee of love and affection; guarantee of a place to live; guarantee that there will always be a power to battle the evil he invokes. Since the curses visited on Quentin in Dark Shadows Collection 13 are merely a drop in the bucket for what he will face in future installments of the show, his impact on Dark Shadows is immediate and dare say it the equal of Jonathan Frid's Barnabas when the bloodsucker first appeared at Collinwood.
For every element in Dark Shadows that works beautifully (Clarice Blackburn, playing the ever put upon housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson, never gives a bad performance) there are some that fall flat on their dated faces. The swirl psychedelic effect used to suggest the ethereal plane is unintentionally hilarious and the use of chroma-key and partial dissolves is only effective some of the time. They are often counteracted by the overall narrative; a good example being previous installments buildup to the end of the Quentin/Collinswood haunting episode. Luckily, creator Curtis and his primary writer, Sam Hall manage to find ways to make the inexplicable believable. Many of the sets have the prerequisite look and feel of New England Gothic, although they hardly ever match the scope of the still photos used as establishing shots. Indeed, the Collinswood Estate (really a girl's boarding school) is one of the most iconic images from the show. Dark Shadows is not perfect. Certainly, the outdoor scenes are horribly claustrophobic sets and the mansions massive size seems centered on four or five basic rooms. Occasionally effects can fail and actors can flub their lines. And obvious shortcomings like a certain monster man's inability to act can stop the show dead in its tracks. But it's the storylines that kept Shadows from sinking completely, interesting events in the lives of larger than life (or death) individuals.
With his mostly silent spook show antics in the previous DVD sets, Quentin Collins's bid for control of the family fortune is now center stage in Dark Shadows for what will be one of the greatest, if not the actual longest, continuous storylines in the series history. While this particular plotline will be flecked with the supernatural witchcraft, voodoo, gypsy curses, vampirism, zombies, werewolves, ghosts and mythical creatures of doom (a.k.a. the Phoenix) it will be the ever-changing family dynamic that will become the focus of Dark Shadows and, frankly, the series is better for it. There is a snap and a crackle to the dialogue in #13 that is sorely missing from other installments of the boxsets. Thanks to the previously praised acting, all the lines sound like supercilious outtakes from a Tennessee Williams play. Even better, this segment of the 1897 storylines lays the foundation for more madness to come. With the introduction of the demented Rev. Trask (who gives private education a VERY bad name with his boarding school as private torture chamber known as Worthington Hall), the soon to be discovered connection between the gypsy Magda and Crazy Jenny (and the consequences of such a finding) and the arrival of Carl's new girlfriend, the bawdy Pansy Faye, it's the beginning of a beautiful bunch of bedlam for the residents of Collinsport. The only issue you will have with Dark Shadows Collection 13 is that it leaves you with such a stirring cliffhanger that you'll have to wait another month or so before the fate of those trapped in the fire at Trask's agony academy is revealed. Until then, you are left to relish one of the most miserable, miscreant roundelays of repugnant relatives ever to grace a daytime soap opera. Dark Shadows Collection 13 is the series finding a perfect match between the supernatural and the sudser. And it indeed makes the wait for #14 that much more aggravating.
Visually, Dark Shadows has always had issues. Even in its recent syndication cycle, fans complained of video variations, tape tremors, awkward black and white kinescopes and other less than solid visual representations. All of these lovely artifacts are preserved and presented in MPI's transfer of the series. They even offer a word of warning as to the print problems before each DVD begins. Overall, Volume 13 looks surprisingly good, with rich vibrant colors and a lot of nice lighting atmosphere. The 1.33:1 full screen images do have their issues, but they really don't take away from the enjoyment of the show.
On the audio side, this is one of the better presentations of Dark Shadows currently available on DVD. Usually, there are problems with drop out, muffling or other sonic shortcomings. But they are far less frequent on this set than with others. Also, when the over the top traumatics occur throughout the show, the sound engineers tend to pull back on the levels, meaning that whatever happens directly afterwards is almost indecipherable. But for a show filled with music, sound effects, dialogue, aural cues and underlying atmosphere, Dark Shadows Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is fine.
The sole extra here (except for a pamphlet outlining the episodes offered) is a series of four separate interviews (one on each disc in the set) featuring a different member of the cast and/or crew. In Volume 13, David Selby a.k.a. Quentin Collins, Laura "Angelique" Parker, 'Crazy Jenny' herself, Marie Wallace and set designer Sy Tomashoff are presented. Selby gives a straightforward narrative on how he ended up with the part of Collinwood's resident letch and discusses several of the problems with playing such a cad. Parker is lost, leaving reason and rationality behind to spend her entire Q&A sounding like a far more fetching Anne Rice. She deconstructs and reinvents the vampire legend so many times in her rambling retorts that you'd swear she's starting to believe the show was real. While she has many nice things to say about co-star Frid (her "Barnabas") she is starting to wear out her value as a commentator on these DVD collections (this is one of her many sittings in the interview seat). Marie Wallace describes how wonderful it was to only have to work a few days a week on Shadows (her commitment was smaller than the actual "regulars" on the show) and explains how hard it was to act through layers of badly combed wigs. Only Tomashoff is vague and superficial with his recollections. Treating the fan base like they've never heard of the show before, he does describe the small soundstages the series filmed on before delivering a great deal of the same routine material that other crew members have offered. While getting a chance to hear the actual participants in the show wax poetic about their part in Shadows legacy is intriguing, it would be nice if the discussions were more "focused" and not so random or routine.
Whenever a modern soap opera dabbles in the occult, it usually results in rib tickling ridiculousness. There was Diedre Hall of Days of Our Lives, a far more mature version of Regan McNeal, possessed by evil and spouting sinister silliness. Her hilarious story arc was The Exorcist all over again, except this time, the multi-part demonology resided on the decidedly dopey side. Before it went off the air, Port Charles tossed aside most of its cast to try and capture supernatural sensation in a bottle. The series was cancelled soon afterwards. Even the latest upstart in the daytime drama world, Passions, is a completely paranormal playlette featuring witches, spells and - up until the death of actor Josh Ryan Evans - a talking doll named Timmy. And if people want to toss Dark Shadows in along with the other examples of ersatz eeriness that passes for horror on broadcast (and now cable) television, so be it. After all, a reputation of cheerful cheesiness and tacky appeal has followed this show since it went off the air. But unlike other examples of specter and monster madness, Dark Shadows succeeds. Thanks to carefully crafted scripts, stellar (and sometimes stunningly silly) acting and an attention to the detail founded in classic literature and the stories inherent within, it managed to make the unimaginable pragmatic and the strange seem sensible. Dark Shadows is not a great show. It's not even the best supernatural drama Dan Curtis would be involved in (that would be The Night Stalker). But it does show that, sometimes, going against the grain of network normalcy can result in something really special. And Dark Shadows is that almost great thing.
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