You know it had to happen eventually. There was only so much gothic intrigue and famous monsters of movieland minutia that old Dan and his clan could mine before the bottomless pit started to suddenly fill up. For a while, Dark Shadows had been coasting on good will, clever characterization, and a tomb raider ideal for old horror fiction. Series creator Dan Curtis never met an old spook story he couldn't plunder for his 'growing more preposterous by the minute' daytime soap opera. Yet now, having unexpectedly become a hit with both a mature and an adolescent audience, the network machine demanded more and more of what made Shadows a sensation – hackneyed creature feature histrionics and lots of them. But by the time the show started into its final leg of legitimacy (before going out with a whimper in 1971), the sacrificial urn of inspiration had run dryer than the line deliver of Don Briscoe.
Having cast aside one contemptible villain (that perverted pastor, the Reverend Mr. Trask) for yet another chewer of scenery (grand thespian gourmand Thayer David and his heinous hippy with the bad-ass hand, Count Petofi) while still tampering with Quentin and Barnabas in the never-ending quest for Tiger Beat exposure, everything appeared to be in place. But then even more gypsies got tossed into the mix, those oddball I Ching hexagrams started showing up left and right, and it wasn't long before Charles Foster Emerson Delaware Tate, a painter with a tendency to sketch things into existence, was making people out of his palettes.
And it just got goofier from there. That's right, Volume 16 of the continuing DVD release of Dark Shadows finds the serial in complete and utter chaos. As is want to happen whenever the narrative net is cast to widely, a lot of divergent elements, all demanding attention, are crying out for recognition, reconciliation and reclamation. They all seem to flounder and sink under the weight of their ever-increasing weirdness. It's kind of fun to watch this scary sudser squirm, since there is so much deliriously deranged camp to be found in its increasingly crazy corners. But it is also a wee bit depressing.
For a while Shadows sailed on a skillfully crafted set of storylines that offered both drama and dread (and some occasional kitsch just to be on the safe and silly side). But suddenly, everything has now gone creepily catawampus, and even the expert acting and occasional directorial flourishes can't seem to resuscitate it. That strange strangled sound you hear while watching these episodes may just be the last gasps of a once sensational series struggling for life. And there is no real guarantee it will survive.
Volume 16, released in January of 2005, has us deep into the last third of the show's run (1966 - 71, 1225 episodes). It features 40 installments, #817 through #857. 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 blow any more mightily for the Collins family in 1897. Their clan is plagued by curses, corruption and a complete lack of fashion sense. And more paranormal pond scum is on the way. Brother Quentin is a werewolf, and his gypsy gal pal Magda went out searching for a magical item, the Hand of Count Petofi, which she hoped would help. Naturally, the limb-free Count followed close behind. In Volume 16, Petofi indeed has his hand back, has bamboozled many of the townsfolk, and has his mysterious thumb in more pies than Little Jack Horner. His mincing manservant Aristede right by his side, the dapper demon is possessing people, making a general mess of Barnabas's plans, and belly aching to go to the future. He is also trying to avoid the big cheese of the vagabonds, King Johnny Romano who has come looking for his clan's sacred stolen body part.
Barnabas the vampire, who, as you already know, returned to 1897 to save the life of young David Collins in 1969, has really muffed things up. Events 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. In Volume 16, Petofi will capture the neck nibbler and try to determine the secret to his tendency toward time travel. And just to make sure he will get his way, Petofi casts a few spells, calls in a couple of favors and hires himself a new maid to make maniacal with him. It will take another visitor from 1969 to save the bloodsucker, though it may be too late to keep him from the pointed end of a tree limb.
With Judith in the nuthouse, man of the manor Edward Collins thinking he's a servant and young Jameson bordering between life and death, circumstances really couldn't get any worse for the Reverend/Mr. Trask. He himself is haunted by spirits, and has a nasty habit of writing out confessions to murder when he's not paying attention. In Volume 16, his beloved daughter Charity will become possessed by the spirit of Pansy Faye, a cockney medium that sings the same crappy song over and over again. She's also a slutty wench, just what a supposed man of the cloth needs in his life. Luckily, he himself runs into Amanda Harris, a fetching young woman who twists and turns his tyrannical head. What he doesn't know is that ex- Trask employee Tim Shaw is using Amanda to get back at the self-righteous reverend.
By the end of this 4 DVD set, several people will be among the dearly departed, a few more will be acting peculiar, Count Petofi will be closer than ever to achieving his goals, while Quentin, no longer going paw postal every time the moon is full, tries to figure out a way to release himself from the Count's supernatural kung fu grip.
It is really sad to see how scattershot and schizoid Dark Shadows has become in just a single box set. Whereas Volume 15 was a campy delight, a delicious combination of plotting and peculiarity meant to kitsch up the place with pleasure, Volume 16 has turned all troubled and tired. Where once the series was smart and stern in its continuing stories, it has now suddenly found itself as muddled as a foggy Collinsport morning. With various characters dropping in and out of the narrative, a new twist or turn in every scene, let alone episode, and a non-stop bag of special effect tricks to keep the audience easily confused, there is just something not quite right about this string of 40 installments. Of course, Shadows was notoriously convoluted, looking for any and all ways to keep favored friends or fiends around for additional fan frenzy. And if it didn't have books like Jane Eyre, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, or Dracula to crib from, they found a way to concoct their own original supernatural stuff. But for various real reasons, Volume 16 is a stumbling block from previous DVD presentations of the series, a labored letdown after a rather resplendent buildup.
The first big problem is in the area of plotting. Dark Shadows always laid on the narrative with a palette knife instead of a fine brush, building up layers of subplot until the show was literally seething with story. But by the time we get deep into the Count Petofi arc, the series appears to be in jeopardy of swallowing itself. Carefully crafted details, spelled out to make sure that they pay off in the end are quickly quibbled over and then discarded. Characters constructed out of nuance and subtlety take abrupt sharp turns in tone and attitude (i.e., the mild maid, Beth Chavez, suddenly goes into weeping psychopath mode in the course of a single conversation). And then there are the multiple storyline threads, events and elements so distant and disjointed that leave you scratching your head instead of satisfied with closure. Certainly, some of the resolutions are being held for later in the series run, but the overriding sentiment throughout Volume 16 is, "Hurry up and get it done: we've got another 15 players whose plots need updating today".
Indeed, the greatest flaw with the scripting in Volume 16 is the absolute wealth of attention diverting cast members. Within the span of 40 episodes, the show tries to deal with all the Collinses (and there are a buttload of them), the various women in each of their lives, visitors from out of the country and out of time, perilous villains, all their henchmen and minions, and the random band of roving gypsies with a mute manservant at their side. That's not counting the numerous paranormal entities roaming around this Maine locale – werewolves, vampires, ghosts, ghouls and various varieties of the living dead. With so many parts spread out over far too many plots, the pieces become jumbled and distracting. And instead of resolving something, taking it to its logical end and getting it over with, Shadows keeps adding in the plot shifts. If someone is dead, you can bet they are faking as part of some scheme for revenge. Love always has an ulterior motive outside emotion and longing. No one visits the Collins clan without a reason, and no one acts without a dozen divergent consequences controlling the deed.
Now, if you had more time to temper these expanding exploits with shading and suspense, you'd be onto something strangely gratifying – an epic story in scope and mood. But Shadows is a mere 22 minutes an installment, and there is a sense of racing throughout each and every script. Unlike previous Volumes, where they would allow atmosphere to build during a house haunting, or an attempt to cure a lycanthrope, nothing in Volume 16 is given time to connect. Just as we get interested in a character or circumstance, creator Dan Curtis and his staff of writers are rushing past to the next item on the agenda. Even a character who seems to be omnipresent in Volume 16, Count Petofi, gets a lot of short shrift here. Certainly his speeches are laced with lugubrious language, making his mannerisms larger than life. But he is also king of the hampered plan, as many of his best maniacal moves are thwarted before they even begin. Apparently afraid of letting this ultimate villain loose on the rest of the series (oddly enough, the previous resident asshole, the Reverend Mr. Trask, is also given incredibly light duty here), Petofi must have been voted "Most Likely to Go Off Half Cocked" by his fellow classmates at Nemesis College. Even his homoerotic relationship with manservant Aristede gets the backburner treatment here.
But some of the acting really derails Volume 16 more so than on any other installment of this box set series. During the course of the 1897 storyline, we meet schoolteacher turned zombie turned socialite Tim Shaw (played by Don Briscoe), his paid for lady friend Amanda Harris (Donna McKechnie) and Charles Foster Emerson Delaware Tate (Roger Davis), the only painter in the history of the arts to make his carefully considered oils literally come to life. Now, Briscoe, God rest his soul, was always a notoriously bad actor. He never met a line reading he couldn't reduce to a series of misplaced syllable accents. But in Volume 16, he is plotting revenge, wanting to get back at the Rev. Trask for all the vile things he did to him while Shaw was under his employment. But Don is just not capable of conniving; he doesn't have a deceptive bone in his body (nor a supernaturally evil one, as his modern times turn as a wolfman confirms).
So all of Briscoe's cunning comes across as casual, not cruel, and he never once makes Tim a potential problem for the good/bad reverend. Davis, on the other hand, never met a conversation he couldn't lace with menace, making each and every written work weep with malice aforethought. He is always in desperation mode, never cranking down the dour or dire to give his artist a sensible streak. Sure, Tate is capable of pen and ink miracles (bringing people into being with the stroke of a sharpened piece of charcoal would be pretty daunting for the average human) but he'd much rather bitch and moan about his unrequited love for Amanda than put his power to potentially profitable use. He takes the concept of the tortured artist to new, nonsensical heights of histrionics.
However, it is Ms. McKechnie that takes the prize for most pathetic thespian ever. She is a blank, boring babe who barely provides the overwhelming eye candiness that Amanda Harris is supposed to have. While each man in Collinsport thinks she's some sort of smokin' hot cookie, the feeling must be something found within the water (or casks of brandy) they all consume. She is without a single shred of personality, missing all the finer elements of humanity - like complexity, cleverness or caring. Of sure, she is supposed to be a painting come to life, a woman who doesn't remember a world before two years ago. But does that mean she has to be a complete and utter lox as well? Are turnips really supposed to out perform her in emotional resonance? When she screams, it's meant to be like listening to an old lady fart: you're embarrassed for all the parties involved, including yourself for having to hear it.?
The baffling bad news of course, is that Amanda is part of a complicated love quadrangle between Quentin, Tim, Charles and herself. They are all fighting over her like scurvy ridden pirates with a sack of oranges. Add in the lecherous leering of Rev. Trask, and the equally uncomfortable looks she gets from Count Petofi, and you'd swear she was Lady Godiva, nude and natural on horseback. But she's not. She's a dim bulb in an ever-darkening room. Along with Briscoe and Davis, Ms. McKechnie almost single-handedly destroys everything Dark Shadows has built up before.
Thank goodness then for the rest of the cast. They keep Shadows bearable, even bawdy, through the ramshackle moments in the show's situation. Louis Edmonds is so unbelievable gay that you swear the 90s were named after him, while David Selby shades Quentin in ways that are always fascinating and fresh. Though they occasionally come across as a pair of bickering lovers who didn't get the house on Fire Island that they had been hoping for, Thayer David and Michael Stroka continue to make Count Petofi and Aristede (respectively) the most craven criminals ever to hit daytime television. Along with the dependable brilliance of Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall and the always lost in her own world Laura Parker (Angelique is one fudged up witch), Shadows appears to be able to survive this dire plot point predicament. Even with Nancy Barrett braying away like a cockney mule as "Pansy Faye" (actually, her other character, Charity Trask, is channeling the British bit of crumpet) and Jerry Lacy's high pitched barking as the Reverend (man's nuts must be in a bind, for Christ's sake), these players pave the way for an eventual smoothing out of the stifling situations present in Volume 16.
Until then, however, we are saddled with the show that can't make up its mind what it wants to be. Is it still a soap opera with horror overtones or a supernatural thriller with melodramatic conceits? Will the villains continue to back into victories, or will we ultimately see some of the evil evidence in Collinwood finally vanquished? Will some of the more superfluous characters die off, or just disappear (it happened to Magda the minute Julia Hoffman – Grayson Hall plays both roles – arrived on the scene) making way for a streamlining of the story? Or will matters only get worse, with more meandering machinations piling up and around each other? Time will tell, since another Volume of this DVD collection will be released before the ink is dry on this dissertation. But one thing is for sure: the simple guilty pleasure that once was Dark Shadows has become like that Goth chick in the local coffeehouse – complicated and weird. Sometimes, way too intricate plotting can provide a few moments of merriment. But more times than not, we get frustrated and famished, wishing something would just end before another facet can be formed from it. Volume 16 is a disappointment. Recommended, but still an annoying experience.
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 16 looks surprisingly good, much better than other installments – say, Volumes 13 or 14. There are rich vibrant colors and a lot of nice lighting atmosphere here. 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 traumatics occur throughout the show, the sound engineers tend to pull back on the levels, meaning that whatever happens directly afterward 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. On Volume 16, David Selby – old Quentin Collins himself, the multi-faceted Nancy Barrett, creator Dan Curtis and producer/production assistant George DiCenzo make themselves available for a little insightful Q&A. Selby discusses the use of music, Quentin's theme, and how he had a chance to record a recitation to said tune during the series' heyday. It remains a highlight for him. Barrett seems befuddled, remembering what a difficult experience being in Shadows limelight really was to her. Curtis takes some of the wrap for running out of ideas, admitting that he more or less worked through the entire canon of the horror genre before trying to create a few myths of his own. And DiCenzo is just happy to be talking about the show, getting some of the recognition he deserves for seeing Curtis's vision realized on the late 60s boob tube. Each individual here is outgoing and expressive, painting in many of the details as to how this innovative show made it on the air, and the impact it had once it did. With 16 Volumes of these interviews already in the can (and many more on the way), a wonderful oral history of Shadows is being presented and preserved for future generations to explore and enjoy.
When we last looked at Volume 15, is was easy to see that Dark Shadows had become like an engine revving at far too many RPMs, but afraid to put on the brakes for fear of popping a gasket. The show had picked up substantial steam and there was no possible way it could have slowed down. Volume 16 is the result of such a runaway train temperament. There were just too many coach cars for the crew to carefully manage. They all want attention, they all need care and consideration. Maybe over the course of the entire story arc, with every element in place and each and every plot point played out and perfected, this would all work wonderfully. But as it stands in Volume 16, Dark Shadows is a mess – a goofy, glorious, gratuitous mess, but a mess nonetheless. Here's hoping that as we move through the next DVDs, we see an end to Trask, a comeuppance for Petofi, a settling of scores for those who've been blowing in the payback breeze and a resolution to many of the mangled love stories. As a series Dark Shadows was and still is incredibly inventive and a lot of fun to watch. But there needs to be a thinning of all the ancillary antics here. When it's focused, it's fine. But a cluttered Shadows is near anarchy incarnate – not the best advice for a continuing serial.
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