You know what they say about the soap opera format: you can turn off the story, comeback three weeks later, and the characters will still be crying or conniving over the same situation and circumstances. Indeed, for most serialized dramas, the space-time continuum plays perplexing tricks. Babies born in March will show up in May as angry, angst ridden 13 years olds, pregnant and looking for still more sex. Actors who were written out years before return, retrofitted with back story and bravado to explain why they have not changed one iota since they walked off the set. Lovers marry, divorce, remarry and die before returning as the reincarnated spirit of each other's true carnal crush, and relatives crawl in and out of the woodwork with such strange regularity that you'd swear they were part-termite. If you love the continuing drama, in either its daytime or nighttime tablature, you're used to the slow moving narratives and random overhauling of favored characters. But one show bucked the bilious trend, constantly tossing more and more plot at the audience, guaranteeing that if you missed one show – nay, one SEGMENT of the show - you would probably be lost and remain confounded for many days to come.
If it stood for anything, Dan Curtis's Gothic goofiness known as Dark Shadows definitely dared to be different. Instead of working the old rich upper crust crapola into a froth of familiarity, he took a decidedly supernatural slant to all the typical melodramatic sludge and came up with derisory roses every time. And as we learn in Volume 15, Danny Boy and the brood weren't afraid to fudge with plotlines. Indeed, they were more than ready to ruin and refashion them within a single sentence, let along an entire "season".
Volume 15, released in November 2004, has us trailing towards the last third of the show's run (1966 - 71, 1225 episodes). It features 40 installments, #776 through #816. If you'd like specific explanations about the actual events that transpire in each segment, you can find all the information you need from Dark Shadows Online, 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:
Life really couldn't suck any harder for the Collins family in 1897. Their clan is plagued by curses, corruption and a complete lack of fashion sense. And more paranormal poopie is on the way. Brother Quentin is a werewolf, and Magda the gypsy has gone off to find a "cure" for his lupine ways. In Volume 15, she returns with a magical item, the Hand of Count Petofi, which she stole from her ragtag brethren. She hopes it will help the skinwalking scourge. All it manages to do is mangle people's faces and bring its rightful owner, the crocked Count himself, to Collinsport. Petofi's plan is simple. Using his gentleman's gentleman Aristede to run interference for him, the Count will ingratiate himself into the Collins' family and find out what he can about the mysterious manus. And if that doesn't work, he will simply possess young Jameson Collins, turning the tired walls of Collinwood into a circus of spiritual unrest.
Barnabas the vampire, who, as you know, returned to 1897 to save the life of young David Collins in 1969, has really muffed things up. Everyone in the village was petrified that there was a bloodsucker on the loose, and our toothy titan had arranged it so that groundskeeper Dirk Wilkins would take the blame. Well, in Volume 15, things have gone from bad to bungled, ending up in the death of a few family members and a couple of close friends. And now Barney has got to hide his whereabouts, as every dufus with a piece of wood and a mallet is after his living deadness.
With his first wife, Minerva, dead the Reverend/Mr. Trask sets his sights on the Collins' fortune, and head of the household – the spiny spinster Judith. In volume 15, it's not long before he's wed the woman and is plotting to gaslight her into a sanitarium. Along with family attorney and part-time dabbler in the Black Arts, Evan Handley, Trask is determined to "haunt" Judith right into the funny farm. But a spousal spook may have already beaten him to the stalk. By the end of this 4 DVD set, several people will be acting peculiar, Count Petofi will turn his attention away from the hand and onto the possibility of time travel and Quentin is desperate to stop going pawl postal every time the moon is full.
As if it wasn't time to do so before, it's a brand new era of extensive scenery chewing for the cast of Dark Shadows, a chance to munch on the masonry and snack on substantial sheet rock with incredibly campy abandon. Individuals who remember the show for being so fabulously ludicrous as to warrant fits of the unintentional giggles could very easily point to this portion of Dan Curtis' patented convolutions – the arrival of Count Petofi and his overly groomed manservant Aristede – as the kitschiest calamity since Grayson Hall donned brown face. Thanks to the fierce infusion of ham from master of the overly Method muttonchops, Thayer David (actually, he looks more like a psychedelic walrus, but that's beside the point) the arrival of Victor Fenn-Gibbon, a.k.a. Count Petofi, a.k.a. the most gloriously goofy character since Jennie went wild-eyed, announces a new agenda in the acting for Dark Shadows. Where once there was subtlety and a tendency toward the glum or morose, its time to celebrate the body eccentric and let your freak facets fly.
Accompanied by his own Waylon Smithers – a sniveling little weasel known as Aristede, wearing more makeup than an entire enclave of Kabuki - Petofi walks into the main hall of Collinwood, and once safely inside, makes his presence felt like the remnants of a rather ripe belch. David as a performer long worked his weird magic across the Shadows set, be it in the guise of Ben Stokes, Sandor Rakosi or Matthew Morgan. But in the permed persona of the corrupt Count, he reaches levels of glee-filled evil unheard of in daytime tee-wee. A child is suffering and he laughs. A woman dies and he's delirious. Be it some act of supernatural silliness or an actual threat to his burly bulk, our hyper-theatrical thespian will rend the woodwork with his salivating malevolence. And like a dumbwaiter in drag, Michael Stroka matches David pomp for circumspection. Stroka occasionally seems like another attempt at teen idol worship, a smart, if deranged, dandy with just enough creepy charisma to send the wee ones away with their panties in a bunch. Equally capable as Thayer of pushing the limits of line reading, and more than happy to flash his capriciously straight teeth every time the camera is on him, Aristede is both bad-ass and boy toy, flippant valet and same sex slave. Certainly, when compared to the previous credibility strainers like Grayson Hall, Jonathan Frid and David "The Shrieker"
Selby, David and Stroka are merely par for the coarse. But when placed in combination, or in companionship, they make for very strained bedfellows.
Indeed, there is also a weird proto-homosexual vibe running through this volume, mostly due to the risqué repartee between Aristede and Victor Fenn-Gibbon/Count Petofi. Several of their conversations revolve around how "beautiful" Aristede is, the cut of his clothing, how "friendly" he and the Count are and endless recountings of those late nights when the "legendary unicorn" made an appearance in Aristede's bed. Now, that final comment is later clarified as so much supporting for Petofi's claim to otherworldly powers - he professes to have been the last man on earth to own one of the mythical beasts – but his boasts certainly sound more like conquests than conceits. Granted, Shadows has always been a bit fey, what with Louis Edmunds essaying each character like his accent isn't the only thing that's clipped, or a young David Henesy screaming for his beloved "friend", the middle aged Burke Devlin all throughout the pre-Barnabas storylines. But with the introduction of 1897, the whole notion of the "gay" 90s has been given a bizarre, paranormal predicament. The result is a female cast that looks dowdy and demure while the men prance around like painted peacocks. When Jerry Lacy, as the loathsome Reverend/Mr. Trask looks like Wolfman Jack's life partner, you know you're in for some classic cult craziness.
But it's not just the cast that leads us into Loonyville in Volume 15 of Dark Shadows (though Joan Bennett does batshit up the place after she's haunted, and Henesy gets the chance to channel Thayer David's Petofi with devastating accuracy). This is the point in the series when special effects began to bolster the oft mentioned, but seldom seen, supernatural aspects of the storyline. It used to be that when something spooky or startling happened, you would have to take someone's word for it. The transformation or terrorizing would occur off camera, with the reaction shot our only hint at the horror being braved. But in the new, improved Shadow situation, we actually start to see the ways of the wicked materialize before OUR very eyes. At any given moment, Barnabas will appear or disappear, Quentin will transmogrify into a werewolf and the Hand of Count Petofi will float around, scaring anyone who comes into its amputated path. Indeed, the missing member of the Count's biological family tree is one of the more impressive items in the new regiment of the realized repugnancy. While obviously a foam fake, the mitt still boasts some gnarly veins and a nice bit of broken bonage on the stump end. While there is far too much reliance on the standard smoke and mirrors (not to mention strobe lighting and thunder clapping), Dark Shadows is finally starting to walk the walk it so sheepishly talked about just episodes before. And it's just as jokey as the supporting scene stealing.
Don't get the wrong idea about the bountiful bluescreen or twisted tag team of David and Stroka. No one actor or aspect overwhelms the narrative more than any other in Volume 15. Each one gets his or her moment in the spotlight to spaz out like a first year improv student, ratcheting up the ridiculousness before another one shows up to match them, goofball to grandstanding. Nancy Barrett, hampered with the thankless role of Reverend/Mr. Trask's killjoy dullard of a daughter, Charity (even the name is a total turnoff) gets to shake her royal rump when the spirit of a London dance hall singer named Pansy Faye possesses her. Heck, this straight-laced lady even suggests a couple of bawdy cockney songs to the shock and dismay or her Bible thumping papa. Edmunds goes from cowardly curmudgeon to baby-ish butler while under a spell, and his Portifoy's complaints are sticky buns of biliousness. From an all-too brief appearance of John Karlen as the craven Carl Collins, to the sinister stare of Clarice Blackburn's spectral Minerva, it's a festival of the farcical as everyone proves just how peculiar they can be.
Yet more important than the histrionics and hissy fits, the gnashing of teeth and swishing of hips, Volume 15 of Dark Shadows is a spectacular disaster, as convoluted and logic leaping as the previous 700 episodes put together. Schemes play out in minutes, not days. Subplots arrive and resolve themselves before they can derail the underlying premise. Secrets told in one segment are crass common knowledge before the ink is dry on the document (or the spit has settled on the ear). Ancillary characters show up, utter a single line, and then disappear forever. Other members of the support crew step directly into center stage, shine very brightly, and then fade away before they can eclipse the main Collins clan. And through all these mangled intrigues, past the madcap plot holes and arcane acting choices, you find yourself completely caught up in each and every labyrinthine thread of the narrative, and a shameful sense of joy overtakes you. Call it a guilty pleasure, or chalk up your affection to the "so bad it's good" category of criticism, but the truth is that, for what it is, Dark Shadows is a classic of craziness and a masterwork of mannered mania.
So as the flubs and faults pile up like the growing roster of werewolf Quentin's kills, you just stare on, gratuitous grin swiped across your muttering mug. Don Briscoe does an obvious double take, searching in dire need of the seemingly absent cue cards, and as he struggles for the next sound he's supposed to make, you laugh in randy relief. A one-off character named Julianka (some supposed gypsy shaman) is brought to life by a ditsy dame named Diana Davila, and while you marvel at her swinging 60s makeup and hairstyle, you can't help but chortle as she massacres a strangely non-Slavic accent. Aristede whips out his deadly dagger, a curved piece of cutlery called "The Dancing Lady" and you snicker to yourself that it's the closest he'll get to handling anything remotely female. These are the reasons Dark Shadows has stayed such a fan favorite for oh these many years. Sure, there are some who will argue that the Gothic garrulousness of the series, mixed with some substantial dark ride dynamics, made the series a delightful diversion from the standard soap dopiness. And for most of its run, the narrative was more ghoulish than gamy. But at this point in the family plot, with a disembodied hand chasing curse laying gypsies, vampires clashing with pompous windbags and everyone battling incredibly bad facial hair, the mittens of the macabre are off and it's every sham for itself. And again, the typical lack of closure we experience whenever a 40-episode romp in Collinwood ends begets just one natural reaction. More...MORE...MORE!!! There's no denying it: Dark Shadows was, and still is, a great show, hands...down.
Visually, Dark Shadows has always had issues. Even in it's 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 15 looks surprisingly good, much better than Volume 13 or 14, with rich vibrant colors and a lot of nice lighting atmosphere. The 1.33:1 full screen images have far fewer issues, making the occasional ones that turn up stand out all the more. While the overall picture quality still screams of the tired technology from a bygone era, this is still a good looking show, considering its age.
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 traumatic 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's 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. In Volume 15, David Selby – a.k.a. Quentin Collins, Michael "Aristede" Stroka, Big Lou - Louis Edmunds (famed for playing the various patriarchs of the Collins clan) and Donna McKechnie (a newcomer who played Tim Shaw's girlfriend starting in this Volume) all make appearances. Selby continues his contemplations on why the show was such a success, even offering up a little pop culture psychology. Stroka, a first timer to the DVD set (sadly, he passed away from kidney cancer a few years ago) regales us with his memories of being on the Shadows set, working with Thayer David and Jonathan Frid, and the time he was caught in curlers by the crew. Personable and very genuine, his contribution to the bonus material is wonderful.
Also in good spirits – but obviously bad physical shape – is the lugubrious Louis Edmunds. With massive scaring from some manner of facial surgery giving him a sad, surreal visage, Edmunds is still in grand form as he explains his English accent (it's a Southern thing, supposedly) and the incredibly hard schedule the cast had to suffer through to shoot the series. While it may be painful to watch this one-time charismatic charmer as he struggles to speak and braces from some apparent discomfort, his Q&A is still a fitting tribute to a great man and a class act. Our final, almost famous face is Donna McKechnie, and like the newcomer that she is to both the show and the DVD series, her memories are all of first impressions, career moves and incredibly long hours. When hired to take on the role of Amanda Harris, McKechnie was appearing on Broadway in Promises, Promises and juggling both a daytime series and a nighttime stint on the Great White Way is the main focus of her talk. Indeed, with such a stellar career on the stage (she was in the original cast of Company and A Chorus Line) it's amazing she took time to talk about Shadows here. It's the mark of a true professional that she regards her time on Dan Curtis's creation as a highlight in her impressive oeuvre.
Like an engine revving at far too many RPMs, but afraid to put on the brakes for fear of popping a gasket, Dark Shadows has picked up substantial steam in Volume 15 and there's no possible way it can slow down now. The arrival of Count Petofi and his Hellspawn hand, along with several other storylines in frenzied free-fall, means that this supposedly serious supernatural soap opera has finally crossed over into the continent of camp, a domain it will never fully escape from for the remainder of its run. Frankly, it's difficult to determine why anyone would want it to. Though it was never really known for its nuance and refinement, Shadows circa Season Numero Uno was merely a Maine based knock-off on all the standard continuing serials on television, even with all it's House of the Seven Gables showboating. But thanks to the infusion of ghosts and ghouls, spirits and specters, Shadows V.2 is a rock solid slice of the asinine encased in a thick outer coating of puritanical prissiness, all mixed up with some very post-modern meddling. As an experiment in excess and a case of constant cribbing from the literary classics of the horror genre, Dan Curtis and his cracked creative team have no equals. Shadows the show is a magnificent muffin, a coagulating confection of ancestry and anarchy proffered via an ongoing story style. Except now, these dour vestiges just can't sit still. They intend to move at phantasmagorical pace, and if you can't keep up, too bad. Shadows is in it for the long haul. So you better just hang on and enjoy the ride. You'll be glad you did.
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