I was lucky enough to actually watch Dark Shadows, ABC's supernatural horror soap opera, when it originally aired. During its final year (it premiered in June, 1966, and was unceremoniously canceled in April, 1971), I was a kindergartner who never failed to have my afternoon snack (grilled Velveeta on rye, strawberry Kool-Aid - easy on the ice; I don't want it watered down) on my Lost in Space lap tray, watching the absolutely bizarre goings-on at Collinwood, the rambling, mysterious 40-room mansion that was the nexus of the supernatural goings-on in Collinsport, Maine. With vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, and parallel universes - all presented on a day-in, day-out basis, there just wasn't anything else like Dark Shadows on television at the that time, and certainly not during those afternoon hours of pre-cable TV, where games shows and traditional soap operas ruled the airwaves. It scared the hell out of me (a TV or film experience kids simultaneously dread and enjoy), particularly that charismatic vampire lead, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), and I was frequently banned from watching it for days and weeks at a time.
However, you won't find Barnabas or any of that "monster of the week" material in MPI's Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1. MPI's four-disc, 35-episode boxed set goes back to the very beginnings of the soap series, starting with episode one, before the gothic soap opera ever thought of bringing in a vampire to save its ratings. Originally conceived by producer/director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, The Winds of War) after experiencing an evocative dream about a young girl riding a train to a mysterious mansion, Dark Shadows was still quite unusual for its day: a gothic suspense soap opera, set amidst the deep, mysterious woods and rocky cliffs of Maine, where a young orphaned woman, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), comes to the forbidding Collinswood Mansion to find herself. Designed specifically for the women TV viewers watching at home (when a still significant number of women put "housewife" down as their sole occupation), Dark Shadows came with all the requisite gothic romance conventions: a young, lovely, innocent heroine; a wind-swept, picturesque, romantic locale, a selection of male fantasy figures (the dark, brooding Burke Devlin, the patrician, wasp-tongued Roger Collins) to dream about; a massive, spooky Victorian mansion with creaky doors, darkened hallways - where someone was always creeping or lurking - and generations of forbidden secrets and ghostly legends; and an eccentric extended family of characters, all jumbled together in a maze of interconnected past histories and treacheries, with the perhaps slightly mad Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) at the center, as the matriarch and keeper of all the secrets of the powerful Collins family.
Dark Shadows is quite unique among daytime serials from this era, in that the entire series (save for one lost episode where only an audio track remains) has been preserved. Shot on tape (with a budget that usually demanded single takes only), the video feeds for some early Dark Shadows episodes were backed up by a black and white kinescope (a 16mm film camera, aimed at a monitor, recording the video feed) for stations that couldn't yet receive ABC's "live" feed. So Dark Shadows, through an amalgamation of the original video masters and the kinescopes, survives in its entirety today -- most rare for an early TV soap. And that, along with the fact that the series, heavy in fantasy and horror elements, was syndicated for decades (another unusual occurrence for a network soap), certainly has fueled the cult following that surrounds the show to this day. Viewers who caught the show and loved it during its original run, don't have to just fondly remember the series; they can watch it in one fell swoop (albeit, a pretty long one fell swoop: 1225 half-hour episodes were transmitted, although the shows were numbered up to 1245, due to network preemptions).
And MPI, the sole owner of the rights to reproduce Dark Shadows on video and disc, have done just that: the entire series was released on video between 1989 and 1995 (I remember seeing a wall of video tapes of the series at a local library). The Barnabas Collins episodes, certainly the most popular episodes in the series (episodes 210 - 1245) have already been released on DVD (imagine the bill for that!). Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1 goes back and starts the process of releasing the remaining first 209 episodes of the series, before Barnabas was introduced.
As fans of the series well know, Frid's Barnabas Collins, a tortured, floridly romantic vampire that became a surprise sex symbol for millions of women viewers, was brought on to Dark Shadows when ratings started to stall. Conceived only as a supporting character there for a limited run, Frid's appearance saw a resulting spike in ratings (can you imagine the fun traditional female soap fans had when they told their friends about this wacky soap over on ABC, starring a vampire?), and put Dark Shadows on the road to an increasingly complex supernatural construction. Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1 has none of those elements, and fans of the series may (and I emphasize "may") find these early episodes a bit creaky and slow. I love the series (I watched it all again a few years ago on the Sci-Fi Channel - thanks by the way, Sci-Fi, for dropping it two weeks before the end of the series), and obviously, the whole post-Barnabas stuff is marvelous. But I was particularly intrigued with this boxed set, and enjoyed it almost as much as the Barnabas episodes.
First of all, these early shows are necessary for setting the stage for the later goings-on during the Barnabas years. We get a sense of the history and past of the Collins family, their place in the town (they own the biggest cannery as well as the largest fishing fleet), as well as great introductions to the central Victoria Winters and Elizabeth Collins Stoddard characters. Joan Bennett, who was sometimes shaky with her lines in later years, is solid here in these early episodes (although some recalcitrant props, including doors that won't open and walls that appear ready to fall down, battle for her concentration). With her brooding, sad beauty, she's quite effective as the doomed matriarch of Collinswood, spending eighteen years wandering the halls of her estate, never once venturing outside, waiting for her long-lost husband to return. And Moltke is letter-perfect as the naive yet searching orphan, Victoria. I can imagine quite a few viewers wishing they were her (how appealingly romantic her plight must have seemed, particularly to someone faced with a day's laundry and ironing).
I also enjoyed these early episodes precisely because of their sometimes rough construction and execution. As a lover of anything TV, watching these early Dark Shadows episodes is an invaluable look into the production of live soaps from that period, and as such, quite informative as well as entertaining. Those rough spots are part of the charm of Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1. This is TV before it became so surgically professional (and thus sterile) in its execution that now, even local station shows look like network products. I love the kinescope/VTR look of Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1; I love the relatively dark lighting, cheap sets, and missed cues of the actors. This is a kind of TV I grew up on, and it's sadly missing from today's pretty, generic, soullessly executed network junk.
It helps, too, that the storylines here, although stock gothic romance conventions, are quite nicely brought over by the talented supporting cast. In particular, I enjoyed Louis Edmonds' just-this-side-of-camp portrayal of the patrician, waspish Roger Collins. Relishing every line he's given, Edmonds snaps out his delivery with a droll stuffiness that I found perfect for his character (and quite funny). Mitchell Ryan, as the mysterious, dangerous Burke Devlin, is nicely cast (unfortunately, he was fired from the show and his character recast), Kathryn Leigh Scott immediately connects with the audience as waitress Maggie Evans (she would soon become one the series' most popular actors), and Nancy Barrett captures the spoiled, willful, lonely Carolyn quite well (she's also a real looker; watch her sexy dance at the local tavern, the Blue Whale, where I think she frugs). As with any soap or serial, the two main purposes of the show is to sell "soap," and to keep audiences coming back day after day, to see more commercials, to sell more "soap." And the early episodes of Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1 do just that. I found myself caught up in the well-written (Art Wallace) episodes, and I'm eagerly awaiting Collection 2, to see what happens next....
Here are the 35, 21 to 22-minute episodes (run length times vary, as they did for most serials shot live) for Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1, as described in the set's insert booklet:
Episode 1 (June 27, 1966)
Victoria Winters travels from New York to Collinsport and arrives at Collinwood to serve as governess.
Episode 2 (June 28, 1966)
Victoria meets Roger Collins, who is disturbed to learn that Burke Devlin arrived in town on the same train.
Episode 3 (June 29, 1966)
Burke attempts to obtain information on the Collins family from Joe Haskell, Carolyn Stoddard's boyfriend.
Episode 4 (June 30, 1966)
Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and Roger question Victoria, who later meets David Collins.
Episode 5 (July 1, 1966)
Victoria tells Carolyn about her background as an orphan. Sam Evans relates the story of Josette.
Episode 6 (July 4, 1966)
Victoria attempts to learn why she was hired. Matthew Morgan accuses her of snooping.
Episode 7 (July 5, 1966)
After Burke visits Sam, Roger is convince that Burke has returned to cause trouble for him.
Episode 8 (July 6, 1966)
Carolyn admits to Joe that she loves him and he proposed to her that they marry.
Episode 9 (July 7, 1966)
Carolyn tells Victoria the legend of Widow's Hill. Carolyn goes to the Collinsport Inn to see Burke.
Episode 10 (July 8, 1966)
Roger insists that David should be sent away. Burke deceives Carolyn on why he returned.
Episode 11 (July 11, 1966)
Burke assures Elizabeth he has not returned to cause trouble but he inquires about buying Collinwood.
Episode 12 (July 12, 1966)
Roger tells Victoria the legend of the widows. Maggie is upset not knowing what is troubling her father.
Episode 13 (July 13, 1966)
Victoria catches Burke in the garage standing by Roger's car. Elizabeth and Roger are skeptical of Burke.
Episode 14 (July 14, 1966)
While Burke waits for Roger to join him at the Blue Whale, he visits with Carolyn and Joe.
Episode 15 (July 15, 1966)
David is convinced his father hates him. On his way to town, Roger loses control of his car and crashes.
Episode 16 (July 18, 1966)
Elizabeth is appalled to learn that Carolyn went to the Blue Whale to see Burke.
Episode 17 (July 19, 1966)
David has a nightmare about Roger's accident. Bill Malloy is certain the crash was caused deliberately.
Episode 18 (July 20, 1966)
Roger takes Victoria to confront Burke. David examines an object he had hidden in his room.
Episode 19 (July 21, 1966)
Elizabeth is upset at Carolyn's interest in Burke and informs her that Burke wants revenge.
Episode 20 (July 22, 1966)
Roger accuses Burke of causing his car accident. Victoria questions Roger's assumption of Burke's guilt.
Episode 21 (July 25, 1966)
Victoria receives a letter informing her that a private detective has investigated her background.
Episode 22 (July 26, 1966)
Burke persuades Sam to paint his portrait. Roger is angry that Carolyn doubts Burke's guilt.
Episode 23 (July 27, 1966)
Constable Carter investigates Roger's car accident. David grabs a wrench from the Collinwood garage.
Episode 24 (July 28, 1966)
Carolyn admits it was her idea to bring Burke to Collinwood and that he made no threats.
Episode 25 (July 29, 1966)
Elizabeth refuses to tell Roger her reasons for hiring Victoria. Victoria finds a hidden object.
Episode 26 (August 1, 1966)
The sheriff obtains a warrant to search Burke's hotel room in connection with Roger's accident.
Episode 27 (August 2, 1966)
Burke confers with his attorney, who has obtained financial information on the Collins family holdings.
Episode 28 (August 3, 1966)
Maggie tells Roger that David was trying to get into Burke's room at the Collinsport Inn.
Episode 29 (August 4, 1966)
Burke finds David in his room and they become friends. Burke sees David hide an object in the room.
Episode 30 (August 5, 1966)
Roger finds it hard to believe that David may have been involved with his car accident.
Episode 31 (August 8, 1966)
Burke attempts to protect David, but later warns Victoria in private to beware of the child.
Episode 32 (August 9, 1966)
When the sheriff questions Elizabeth about David, she tries to protect her nephew.
Episode 33 (August 10, 1966)
Joe shows up intoxicated at Collinwood. Victoria goes to meet Burke at the Blue Whale.
Episode 34 (August 11, 1966)
Responding to Victoria's story about her past, Burke shows her the report his detective has furnished.
Episode 35 (August 12, 1966)
Sam tries to get out of painting Burke's portrait. Carolyn becomes jealous of Victoria.
As expected, the actual look of the episodes can be rough at times, due to the original source materials. However, I must say that I was surprised at how well the full frame black and white video image appeared. Most of the time, the image was surprisingly sharp and nicely balanced in contrast, with an almost creamy look to the black and white videography. Not bad at all.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono soundtrack accurately reflects the original network presentation. Unfortunately, due to live-shoot variables, the original soundtrack can go in an out at times. Close-captioning -- which isn't available here -- might have smoothed over some of those rough spots.
Every episode of Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1 starts with the original slate marker of the episode (as well as the announcer reading the slate), giving taping and air dates -- pretty cool. There's a full episode guide (with a couple of nice stills), along with what looks like a trading card, with a picture of Victoria Winters on it (I assume there will be other ones included in future sets). On disc one, there's a short introduction to the series by Alexandra Moltke, which, although nice, does contain some story spoilers, so you may want to watch that after you're into the series. On disc two, there's a seven minute interview with Moltke, who discusses the series and her experiences playing Victoria (it's pretty honest; she admits to not really liking the character). On disc three, there's a continuation of the Moltke interview; this segment running nine-and-a-half minute, has Moltke discussing the various actors on the series. On disc four, there's an original ABC promo for the series (which misnames Collinswood as "Collins House"), as well as the coolest extra on this set: the first episode of the series, complete with all of its original commercials, including Off Bug Foam, Bactine Spray and Colgate Toothpaste. For lovers of vintage TV, there can't be enough TV commercials included - too bad the whole set of episodes didn't have them.
Quite a few people skip right over to the Barnabas Collins period of Dark Shadows, missing out on the straighter gothic romance plots in the first 209 episodes of the series. Now on DVD for the first time, the first 35 episodes of the serial are available in Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1, and it's a terrific introduction to this landmark TV show. Even without Barnabas, and with a good selection of extras (love those original TV commercials), I highly recommend Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Collection 1. For lovers of vintage TV, it's a (super)natural.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.