One of the longest-running shows in American television history, Unsolved Mysteries, is both a guilty pleasure and a staple of suspense fanatics. Airing for over thirteen consecutive seasons (starting in 1986 with a series of specials on NBC) with an impressive array of over 250 episodes, it's pretty safe to say it had a lot of fans. It was a true original as television's first "suspense reality" series, presenting a re-enacted series of real-life events that could not be explained by conventional means. As an added bonus, the show's producers often asked viewers for help in solving the cases by calling a toll-free number---reportedly, more than 40% of the 1,200 cases have been solved this way. Regardless of your personal opinion of the show's authenticity, you can't deny that it wasn't interesting stuff...and that's what makes good TV, doesn't it?
Even for the casual viewer, Unsolved Mysteries was an easy show to get hooked on. While there was no advancing plot from week to week and no season-ending cliffhanger, the appeal of the show was rooted in its "predictable unpredictability". You knew exactly what you were going to get from each episode---a series of virtually random suspense stories, backed up by multiple witnesses---but the stories themselves were creepy enough to hold the attention of the viewer. The simple presentation of seemingly unexplainable stories was ground in reality, but helped to pave the way for purely fictional mystery shows like The X-Files and its many followers.
Although the show was first hosted by Raymond Burr during the earlier days, most viewers will associate Unsolved Mysteries with the incomparable Robert Stack (seen above), who unfortunately passed away in 2003. Stack served as the dark, foreboding host of the evening's events, and his presence was as much a part of the show as the stories themselves. In all regards, he was but one part of many that made Unsolved Mysteries work so well, and it's quite possible that his failing health was a factor in the show's end in 2002.
Since then, the show has remained in syndication (airing primarily on The Lifetime Network), although many fans have clamored for its release on DVD. Thankfully, First Look Home Entertainment has answered the call, although not in typical TV-on-DVD fashion. For a show with so many episodes under its belt, a season-by-season release would be incredibly expensive (and minor overkill, in this reviewer's opinion). Instead, a series of "Best Of" volumes, presented in 4-disc sets, have been released with a variety of themes (soon-to-be-available volumes include Miracles, Legends, and Bizarre Murders). This volume, Ghosts, contains 34 segments hand-picked by creators John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer, and are listed below:
Disc One: Friendly Ghost, Resurrection Mary, Matchmaker Ghost, Queen Mary Ghosts, Grace's Ghost, Voice From the Grave, Ghosts Go to Court, The Entity, and Ghost Boy.
Disc Two: Black Hope Curse, Tallman's Ghost, Ghost Blimp, Gordy's Ghost, Highway Vision, Civil War Ghosts, Profiling the Paranormal, and Ghost Lights.
Disc Three: Lizzie Borden's House, Tatum's Ghost, Ghostly Attraction, Ghost Writer, Mary Celeste, Comedy Store Ghosts, Myrtle's Plantation, General Wayne's Inn, and Devil's Backbone.
Disc Four: Gettysburg Ghosts, Frightened Family, Moss Beach Ghost, Lady in Black, Bullock's Deadwood, Lake Wales Haunting, Mystery Hum, and Always, Karen.
As with most classic TV shows, Unsolved Mysteries plays a little differently on DVD. It's not the episodes themselves: while the stories are firmly rooted in their respective time periods, they have a timeless quality that keeps things interesting. However, the urgency of the show has diminished somewhat, primarily in the way viewers could help solve the crimes. Since some of these riddles have been solved already (and some are too far in the past to seem important), Unsolved Mysteries has developed something of a handicap since its original airing. Still, these episodes remain a collection of consistently engaging stories that can still be enjoyed by lovers of suspense and mystery. In any case, the DVD treatment by First Look is surprisingly high-quality and won't disappoint fans of this long-running show. Let's see how this set stacks up, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
The technical presentation of Unsolved Mysteries was never its strong point, but First Look has still managed to score decent marks in the video department. While the bulk of these episodes still has a mild coat of grain, the overall detail and color levels in this 4:3 full frame presentation aren't bad at all. Additionally, the black levels are relatively solid with only a minimal amount of dirt and scratches, making this presentation equal to or better than the original broadcast counterparts. In all regards, that's the best that fans can really ask for.
Likewise, the show's soundtrack has also undergone a bit of restoration. Although it's technically mixed in 5.1 Surround Sound (according to the packaging), the majority of the audio mix is anchored in the front channels. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of this audio mix, as dialogue and sound effects came through with clarity. It's not a gimmicky remix in the least, providing a subtle ambience that should really please fans of the show (although I have to knock down the score a bit for not including the original mix as well). Unfortunately, no optional subtitles have been included, and that's never a good thing.
Presentation, Packaging, and Menu Design:
Another pleasant surprise is a quality packaging and presentation job, highlighted by terrific animated menus. The eerie score and subtle imagery really add a lot to the overall presentation...and hey, the Unsolved Mysteries theme never gets old in my book. Each of the four discs contains roughly 90 minutes worth of stories, with chapter divisions for each (no layer change was detected). Additionally, most of the special features were presented on Disc One. The packaging was also really cool, as each disc is housed in a clear slim plastic case (similar to Futurama) with spooky cover art and an episode listing on the back. The four cases rest in a black sleeve, which really looks sharp overall. This was a fantastic presentation by First Look, and a true highlight for this release.
Thanfully, the episodes weren't the only things to discover on this four-disc set, as a number of bonus features have been thrown in for good measure. First up are a series of Audio Commentaries with creators John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer (as well as a few various episode directors). These prove to be a valuable inclusion, as the participants provide an extra layer of insight to these mysteries (often shedding light on some of the updates). Additionally, the creators have included a short Video Introduction (5 minutes) where they give a nice overview of the series, specifically in the early stages (although they seem to have a strange habit of not looking directly at the camera).
Moving on, we're also given another nice inclusion: a Tribute to Robert Stack (15 minutes), which provides a nice overview of the long-running host's life and career. Seen above with his wife of nearly 50 years, Rose Marie, Stack seemed to be a genuinely nice guy and a truly devoted husband. Overall, this heartfelt tribute was a nice change from the "doom and gloom" of this release's massive lineup of episodes, and was a welcome addition overall. Next up, we're also given a Behind-the-Scenes Look at the 200th Solve (6 minutes), which serves as a nice testament to the viewers' enthusiasm and devotion. Lastly, there are a few Previews for other First Look releases. All in all, this wasn't a packed lineup of bonus features, but it was more than I was expecting.
While the magic of the show itself has suffered a little over time, there's no argument that Unsolved Mysteries was one of the most influential shows of the last few decades. Thankfully, this DVD presentation by First Look is a solid effort, and hopefully the trend will continue in future volumes. From a solid technical presentation to a decent assortment of bonus features, Ghosts is a release that will satisfy casual and hard-core fans of Unsolved Mysteries alike. If you're new to the show, a rental should be in order...anyone else can consider this one Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a mysterious art instructor hailing from Harrisburg, PA. To fund his DVD viewing habits, he also works on freelance graphic design and illustration projects. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.