With his recent passing at age 78 from a brain tumor, producer/director/TV legend Dan Curtis left a rather fragmented fanbase behind. For some, his best work came in the 80s, when he turned Herman Wouk's epic novels about WWII – The Winds of War and War and Remembrance – into masterful mini-series. For others, it was his work in the '70s, when he fashioned a journeyman journalist with a taste for the supernatural into a crafty cult icon named Carl Kolchak (Curtis directed the TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler). There is, however, another contingent lurking out there in Curtis career land, a group of individuals dedicated to Dan's first foray into the continuing serial format. Using the soap opera as a stepping stone for his grandly Gothic melodrama, Curtis created Dark Shadows, a landmark example of midday macabre. Over the last few years, the TV titan had been overseeing the DVD release of the entire series. With Volume 23, we begin the approach to the end of the series, and the flamboyant facets that would mark the end of its 1250+ episode run.
Our intrepid time travelers, Barnabas Collins and Dr. Julia Hoffman, have visited the ancestral home of the lovelorn vampire in the year 1997, and the future was grim indeed. Most of the Collins family are dead, a few more were driven mad, and a repugnant ghostly figure named Gerard Stiles was roaming the decaying manor, ruling over the ruins with a menacing malfeasance. Hoping to avoid this horrifying fate, the duo return to 1970, where they learn that Stiles has already started his fiendish plot. Among the possessed children and portents of doom, Stiles succeeds and Julia ends up fleeing for her life. She ends up alone and afraid in 1840. There, she must wait for Barnabas, hide within the ancient family unit, and deal with a newfound foe – the disembodied head of Judah Zachary. Intent on continuing its murderous ways from centuries before, the nasty noggin sets its sites on the Collins crew (it's all part of a curse stemming from the Salem Witch Trials and a courtroom betrayal). Using – you guessed it – Gerard Stiles as his surrogate scapegoat, Zachary plots his revenge. Together with various victims, additional paranormal problems, and usual Collins craziness, we watch as the forces of darkness slowly consume and attempt to choke the life out of the living. It is up to Barnabas, Julia and a couple of strange allies to save the day. (Volume 23 contains episodes 1102 through 1142 of the series).
By this point in the Dark Shadows mythology, things were starting to unravel. The series was slowly sinking in the ratings, failing to fulfill the promise it had previously shown. Where once it was the very definition of early '70s watercooler television, the playgrounds and college campuses of the nation were no longer living by everything that happened to the Collins family. Some blamed the lame storylines featuring parallel times, oddball creatures (the Leviathans???) and a slew of new cast members (including future Charlie's Angel Kate Jackson). Others looked at the legacy the show had created and agreed that it was now truly a "shadow" of it's former self. In reality, creator Dan Curtis and head writer Sam Hall had run out of ideas long ago, and were now recycling classic bits - a lovelorn Barnabas…again, more whacked out prophecies with their auguries of evil, the possession of the children – to try and reestablish some kind of fright flow. But instead of doing so in the usual mild manner, everything was now turned up to 10 and overmodulated. New characters were suddenly introduced without context, many taking up permanent residence over beloved original personalities, and storylines shifted within days, not weeks or months.
The infusion of new blood didn't really help matters much, since Shadows had always relied on its stellar regulars to essay the differing characters needed. But from the moment that Gerard Stiles appeared – both in ghost form and in his 1840s persona - Shadows stumbled. Jim Storm, either in full fright mask form or studied 19th century seriousness, is arch and over the top as the newly established baddie, attempting to be both vile villain and vulnerable victim at the same time. During the initial episodes here, Stiles is just a goofy green ghost, a sinister smile filled with yellow teeth punctuating the dingy studio darkness. But when given over to the puffy shirts and marriage melodrama of his fortune seeking storyline, he's difficult to take. Part of the reason is that he is battling a severed head, and even with the attention to detail usually posited on the series' special effects, the cruel cranium is more or less laughable, as are their scenes together. Yet he is equally awkward in love scenes, in attempted seduction and familial backstabbing. He does deserve a little slack. Storm was thrown into an already established chemistry within the series (he arrived during show 1063) and was still finding his place some 40 plus installments later. It's a fate that befalls all the new personnel including Kate Jackson (as Daphne Harridge) and Donna Wandrey (as the soon to be vampire love interest of Barnabas, Roxanne Drew). They are unfaimilar with the rhythms of the show, and it takes a few dozen episodes for them to get their footing. Of course, the insane storylines didn't help matters much. All except Jackson seem lost in the lunatic fringe of Shadows surreality.
Indeed what holds the shows together then are the reliable standbys, the Jonathan Frids and David Selbys. With her husband behind the scripting, it's no surprise that the superb Grayson Hall gets to more or less drive the narrative through these later shows. She's a little absent minded when it comes to the memorization of dialogue, and easily drops out of character and into a strange sort of contemporary cynicism now and then, but she's the audience's window into this world, and Hall never forgets it. She may constantly ask the overly expositional question, and beat that long dead pony known as the bloody obvious to get the plot point across, but the truth is that Hall is axis upon which almost all of Dark Shadows pivots. Frid is never short of perfect as Barnabas, but he is almost always playing a heartsick monster, so its hard to know just what his performance limits are. Shelby can shake the rafters with his scenery chewing as well, but he's more of a pawn in these shows, destined to be lost in the myriad of behind the scenes subterfuge. Together with the mush mouthed merriment of Thayer David, the bubble-headed brilliance of John Karlen (as both the frightened Willie Loomis and the determined Desmond Collins of 1840) and the always interesting awkwardness of the teenage David Henesey, Dark Shadows draws us into its weird, often wacky world and fights to find ways to keep us there.
Still, Volume 23 seems overly jumbled. We do fly from story to story, from the murderous head and its jeweled mask (there's a little too much of The Thing That Couldn't Die here for true b-movie fans) to a son seeking revenge for his father's untimely death. There are matrimonial missteps, lovers spurned and way too many mistaken identities (or better yet, creative character coincidences) to have things flowing smoothly. What Shadows did best originally was the full realization of storylines. Quentin's werewolf escapades lasted for weeks, and when Collinwood was haunted by his vengeful spirit, there were literally dozens of episodes involving ghosts and ethereal dealings. By 1970, the desire to deliver and move on had apparently gotten so bad that something potentially evil and enduring – Stiles sends zombies after Barnabas and Julia as part of his plan to destroy the Collins' estate – lasts only a single show. Though it was always a good looking show, filled with obvious doom and gloom, Shadows newfound short attention span condemned it to an early grave. A soap is only as good as its continuing storylines, and while the horrifying head of Judah Zachary does have its macabre moments, the overall effect was less horror and more hissy fit. Viewed today, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth doesn't make the series any less enjoyable, but it also clearly sets it up for a briefer than normal lifespan.
Visually, Dark Shadows has always had issues. Even in its 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 23 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 23, Kate Jackson, Sam Hall, video operator Nick Besink and television critic/author Mark Dawidziak are present, and it makes for a very interesting set of Q&As. It's always interesting to here Jackson speak about her experiences, and Hall lets us in on many of the problematic plotlines strangest secrets. Besink's conversation is loaded with behind the scenes anecdotes and Dawidziak (a student of Dan Curtis and his various TV efforts) gives us more 'big picture' pronouncements about the series and its success. As part of a continuing oral history on the show, these excellent added features really provide the proper context for this DVD presentation.
While it may represent the final free-fall of Dark Shadows toward TV land's lost realm of eventual cancellation, Volume 23 in the DVD series is still a great deal of fun. Just watching the actors inhale plaster as they gorge on the backdrop is worth the price of a rental alone. But because the show was equally effective in mixing camp with the creepy and utilized the limits of the small screen to amplify its angst (tombs, mausoleums and underground caverns look so much more menacing when confined by a 4x3 set up) what we end up with is both silly and sensational. Though it doesn't represent Shadows at its best, Volume 23 still deserves a Highly Recommended rating. All Gerard Stiles goofiness and the hopelessly hokey head of Judah Zachary aside, this was still a watershed moment in broadcast entertainment, a real attempt to mix genres and craft something new and novel. While it could never be considered a pure horror masterwork, Dark Shadows does live on as a resplendent reminder of Dan Curtis, and his indefinable imagination in the world of Gothic terror. This determined force in television always championed character over carnage, and the brave, often baffling series he forged was a true reflection of this philosophy Thankfully, MPI is preserving his legacy for the ages. Dark Shadows, and Dan Curtis, deserve it.