If it is remembered for anything else (and there are a lot of elements in the show to keep its memory fresh) Dark Shadows was a daytime drama where the vast majority of the kitchen sink corruption came from paranormal, not interpersonal, problems. Certainly, Dan Curtis's daring experiment in late-60s TV let its narrative occasionally languish in bad marriages, sibling rivalry and personal vendettas. But the story really scored when the occult got its claws into the convolutions. During the vast majority of Dark Shadows Vol. 14 (the latest box set installment of the cult classic from MPI) the plot parameters and story glory are dictated by witches, firebirds, vampires, ghosts and werewolves. Where once this solid, if stilted showcase found its fun in backstabbing, adultery and interfamilial fireworks, it now peppers its pulp with bloodsucking, anthropomorphism and flaming death. Having realized that the ratings responded to a healthy heaping of spook and specter, the 1897 plotline is simply jam-packed with curses, black masses and more arched eyebrows than at a John Belushi look-alike convention. And as a result, what was once just a gullible, guilty pleasure becomes a resplendent riot – an exaggerated exercise in over-the-top scene stealing that rivals even the most outrageous classic camp-fests.
All Hellsapoppin' at the end of Volume 13. Quentin Collins, the family cad and the reason why Barnabas has traveled back in time, has been killed, resurrected as a zombie, and finally restored to human form by Angelique. She has done this as a personal favor to Barnabas, who has agreed to marry the wild witch. Meanwhile, the Collins children – Jameson and Nora – have narrowly escaped a fire at Rev. Trask's school. It was set by their magical, meddling mother Laura, who needs the kiddies to finish off some strange sacrificial ceremony to the Egyptian god Ra.
As Volume 14 opens, the kids are back at Collinwood and their mother has entered into an uneasy alliance with her ersatz ex-husband. Edward will let Laura stay in the cottage on the grounds, just as long as she keeps out of the family's personal business. It will be hard, what with her son and daughter constantly on her mind. Quentin's wife, "Crazy" Jenny is still locked up, but the secret of her survival is slowly leaking out. Quentin wants to be rid of her once and for all. But Judith and Beth want to keep the insane lady under wraps – that way, Quentin won't find out about his babies. Jenny escapes and meets an untimely end. But before she dies, Magda the gypsy is shocked by Jenny's existence at Collinwood – it turns out the loon is her long lost sister! Vowing revenge on whoever killed her kin, Quentin soon develops a decided unease about the full moon. It only gets worse when animal-ravaged bodies start showing up.
Barnabas is still trying to find the link between 1897 and "the present", but the ties are becoming tenuous. Collinsport is abuzz with news of a new rash of murders - wanton women found dead with bite marks on their neck. Suspicions are high, and when Barnabas attacks Laura to protect the Collins children, the fire-loving Phoenix vows to fix his fate. Utilizing her familiar, the groundskeeper Dirk, she sets about letting everyone know that long lost cousin Barnabas is really a vampire.
By the end of the fortieth episode in the set, Barnabas has bitten Dirk, turning him into one of the undead. And this crazed cadaver is running around Collinwood lunching on everyone he sees. Seems that, sooner or later, the brood will discover that there is more than just a supernatural presence in their midst. They are practically swimming in submerged evil.
A good way to categorize Volume 14 in the continuing series of Dark Shadows DVD releases is with the snappy subtitle "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves". Indeed, as the ineffectual men of Collinwood run around with their dickies in a dither about some minor issue or another, the ladies of the realm are getting on with the business of beefing up the storylines. Both good and evil wear feminine garb and it's the gals of Dark Shadows who really set the wheels of wickedness in motion. Certainly, the Rev. Trask is a forcible villain, as hissable and hateable as any entity in the entire show's run. But he cannot match the battle of the blonds – Angelique and Laura "The Phoenix" Collins for sheer supernatural sneakiness. These yellow haired harpies go mantra-y-mantra so often over Barnabas and his bloodsucking secret that you hope the paranormal catfighting will never end. Both Laura Parker as the wickedest witch in the world and the oddly appealing Diana Millay as the resurrecting firebrand chew up the scenery with equal aplomb. Unfortunately, Laura is on the losing end of this confrontation, as she lets her Egyptian god inspired guard down one too many times to survive. Her fatal flaw – fire – and her unsound obsession – sacrificing her children to Ra – means that Laura won't be around for an extended stay at the stately Maine manor. And that's too bad. While she is around, she makes everyone residing in Collinwood and the Old House feel uncomfortable and overly warm.
On the side of sensible, we get mistress and servant, landowner and chambermaid. Judith Collins is the ruler of the roost at Collinwood, and while she may seem like an effectual entity most of the time, her unwavering belief in her own ideals makes her a wonderfully heroic half-wit. You can always sense when the lady of the manor is about to stick her snooty nose into things; they seem to almost immediately go from bad to frantic. Judith is the kind of matriarch who sees no problem in letting a weird private school headmaster (the aforementioned Trask) set up shop on her property, even as his educational credentials seem questionable at best. She will argue that keeping Quentin's crazy wife locked up in the tower was an act of compassion and that giving her babies away to a foster family was "the right thing to do". Judith is obsessed with scandal and can't see her way around the acceptance of shame. As personified by legendary Hollywood actress Joan Bennett, you can sense that all her good intentions will one day explode in her frigid face.
On the opposite end of the feminine spectrum is Beth Chavez, faithful maid to the Collins family – and occasional concubine to the roguish Quentin Collins. Beth is fierce in her determination and loyal to a fault. She seems incensed over the slightest injustice and worries more about the people she serves than the possible dangers to herself. She actually cared for Jenny, wanted her to get well and regain her children, and feels cheated by the Collins's when, after Jenny's demise, she is summarily dismissed. Beth is the sole conscious in Collinwood, the only person focused on solving problems, not keeping secrets. It's just too bad that Terrayne Crawford is such a one-note performer (that single facet being "bemused consternation"). Beth would have more impact as a character if it weren't for such a static bit of acting.
And then there are the psychotic delights representing the maniacal and the vengeful – in essence, the real meat and potatoes of the show. Throughout the course of Dark Shadows Vol. 14, two main characters really stand out. The first is crazy Jenny Collins, the madwoman in the tower/basement with a deep seeded need to kill and/or maim her husband, the randy Romeo, Quentin. In a previous review she was described as all fright wig and bared teeth, a vision of retaliation wrapped up in a Bob Fosse dancer. The reason for such a sketch is simple: Jenny is played by Marie Wallace, a statuesque stage star who actually worked with the great Broadway choreographer in Sweet Charity. As the insane spouse spurned by Quentin, Marie is part bitch-mother from Aliens, part Lizzy Borden with a more Gothic fashion sense. Her acting is always intense and her mannerisms are reminiscent of Diane Keaton at her most agitated. By the end of her time on the show, they have toned down her battiness considerably, but she gets in a few more handle fly-offs before the Jenny era comes to a close.
But without a doubt, the greatest slice of scene stealing ham in the entire Dark Shadows Vol. 14 collection is Grayson Hall as the over the top gypsy, Magda. Our vagabond vamp gets three main story arcs to work her wonders in and each one is as juicy as the next. First, she is saddled with trying to help Barnabas and Quentin battle Laura. Then, when she finds her nutjob sister Jenny, she vows to protect and care for her. And when she fails at that, she gets to give Quentin – and all his male offspring, mind you – a nice heaping helping of lycanthropy. In every instance, that interminable diva Hall literally fills the screen with her unbelievably awesome overblown self. She gets to give an extended weeping wail upon the death of her beloved sibling that has to be seen to be believed.
It's not as if the boys are balking in the background during Volume 14. Indeed, many of the more memorable moments, after all the high-pitched hissy fits and lady-based lunacy, result from direct input and/or actions by the mostly spineless men of Collinwood. For his part, Jonathan Frid finds more and more interesting ways to turn Barnabas from a neck-biting vampire into a fatally flawed tragic hero. He is the stoic center throughout much of this Dark Shadows storyline, fulfilling his role as the outside observer drinking in all the details with absolute command and authority. Quentin Collins is also a leading light in the success of the 1897 storyline. But where he once was a swaggering savant with a devil may care attitude, actor David Shelby now instills Quentin with a deeply troubled, vulnerable side. Having been cursed by Magda for his role in her sister's fate, Shelby gets some incredibly hilarious moments as the moon rises and "the change" occurs. But for the most part, Quentin is a befuddled drunk who takes his fate with far too many snifters of brandy. Of the other testosterone talent in the show, Roger Davis gets to play romantic lead (badly) and insane stooge (gladly) as the mangled and manipulated groundskeeper Dirk Wilkins. Louis Edmunds's Edward Collins is perhaps the most closeted dandy in the history of the "gay" 90s. And even though he makes his sole appearance in the set very late into Disc 4, it's always a treat to see John Karlen, here as family fool Karl Collins, to fey up the festivities.
There are a great many convolutions in Dark Shadow's massive narrative, issues and instances where a simple question or a direct confrontation would have settled a lot of hokey hash. Collinwood is made up of either the most judgmental bunch of boobs ever to suck on that proverbial silver spoon or the whole clan is the most gullible goons ever to walk the manor wings. A child will have a dream or see something and immediately their word is the Gospel truth. A person someone has never met before offers some advise or a suggestion and, miraculously, it is adopted. With so many supernatural beings around, you wonder why magic doesn't play a bigger part in fixing or avoiding some problems. Certainly there are spells and brews that could cure some of the situations simmering here. And how certain secrets are kept in a cloister that acts as if it knows everything about everyone, including characters yet to be introduced into the storyline, is something only a witch like Angelique could explain.
Yet all this overlapping leaps in logic and unsound decision-making is what keeps Dark Shadows so fresh and fun. There is a 'shout to the screen' quality to the show that indicates that either it's far more involving than you will admit to, or you've gone certifiable after 20 plus hours of supernatural sudser. And from the way Volume 14 ends, it looks like we're in for more complicated conniptions and arcane awkward results. As it moves along its stilted, silly and downright sensational storylines, Dark Shadows begins to bolster a rather strong case for its longevity. Certainly it's campy and tacky, filled with gloriously goofy moments. But it is also enthralling and engaging, something that few shows from nearly 40 years ago can claim. This is one old soap that you can find yourself fascinated with almost immediately. It is neither dated nor direct. Instead, Dark Shadows is unstuck in time and much better for it.