Rumor has it that Dan Curtis, frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm for his tanking Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, asked his adolescent daughter for some creative advice. "Put a ghost in it" was her educated response. After all, the series had spent weeks hinting that there was something supernatural wrecking havoc within the Collins clan. Why not let a poltergeist finally show its spooky fašade. Curtis acquiesced and, oddly enough, it worked. The ratings picked up, and it wasn't long before Shadows fully embraced the power of the paranormal. For years, fans have been up in arms over the decision regarding the DVD release of this classic cult phenomenon. While VHS did a similar job of scattering the storylines, Curtis announced that MPI's digital version would begin with the arrival of Barnabas Collins and move forward, avoiding the original 210 episodes prior until 'sometime in the future'. Many a tooth was gnashed over that decision. Luckily, said inevitability has finally arrived. Divvied up into collections of 35 installments each, the four disc Volume 2 of Dark Shadows: The Beginning has just hit the format, and those unfamiliar with the initial incarnation of the series are in for a subtle shock. While not as macabre as the rest of the run, these first few segments are a hilarious, pre-haunted hoot.
Without getting into a lot of episode-by-episode detail, here is where shows 36 through 70 take the forming storyline. Burke Devlin, wrongly accused of manslaughter in a fatal hit and run car accident, has returned to the town of Collinsport. There, he hopes to drive cowardly co-conspirators Roger Collins, and Sam Evans to confess to their part in his frame up. Only problem is, Devlin is disliked, and Roger's wealth and Sam's fatalism leave the revenge plot rather confused. Collins Fishing Fleet manager Bill Malloy knows the truth, and he sets up a meeting to discuss the details. He never makes it. The other part of Burke's plan involves manipulating young Caroline Stoddard and buying up as much Collins property as possible. Meanwhile, Matthew Morgan, Collinwood's loyal caretaker, is obsessed with Elizabeth Collins, ruling matriarch of the brood. He vows to protect her against Victoria Winters. He's convinced that the arrival of this new nanny has set the spirits inhabiting the estate on edge. Elizabeth tells the new arrival about the fated family history. Threats are made. A body washes up along the shore of Widows' Hill. Young David Collins receives a mysterious crystal ball as a gift. And a ghostly apparition suddenly appears from the portrait of Collins' ancestor Josette.
If all you know of Dan Curtis's crackerjack Gothic soap is Jonathan Frid and his romanticized vampire, endlessly brooding for lost love Josette while avoiding the horndog advances of wicked witch Angelique, you ain't really experienced Dark Shadows. In fact, the previously mentioned decision to start the DVD renaissance of the series with the introduction of the dandy neckbiter was perhaps wise from a financial standpoint, but odd from a continuity concept. The Collins' miseries started long before distant cousin Barney showed up with his aversion to daylight, mercurial innuendos, late night parlor games, and tendency toward vein draining. Prior to the introduction of the supernatural element to the series, Curtis wanted a drawing room drama with minor paranormal attributes - a House of the Seven Gables given over to standard afternoon sudser stock. That's why these first few episodes play out like Dynasty circa Nathaniel Hawthorne. The main narrative focuses not on spirits and the unrest of the undead, but on a fatal car crash, numerous high society suspects, flailing family infighting, and an ongoing competition of privileged comeuppance. Like all snobbish swells, the Collins clan has their closeted skeletons. Yet some refuse to stay safely behind such wardrobe doors. Instead, they fume around the fringes like New York theatrical thespians.
Between Burke Devlin's desire for vengeance (not to mention his growing fondness for unctuous urchin David Collins), the stalker like creepiness of Matthew Morgan, the alcohol fueled doom and gloom of artist Sam Evans, and Roger Collins' raging bravado, it's no wonder Victoria Winters feels lost and disoriented. She was supposed to be the star here, the main character carrying the majority of the kitchen sink intrigue and prompting the advancing otherworldly discontent. But with all the whiny male histrionics going on, she's often cast aside like a low paid member of the hired help. It's such subversive exposition and misplaced mincing that makes Beginning Shadows such a cornball kitsch delight. When you've got the amazing actor Louis Edmonds serpetining through a collection of carefully modulated hissy fits, you know you're in for a quaint camp hoedown. Add in Mitchell Ryan's ineffectual Burke, a man who seems destined to suggest and insinuate more than he will ever reclaim, and you're surrounded by a bunch of preening, post-macho men. Heck, even whiny runt David seems positively powerful compared to his frequently fey elders. No wonder Barnabas was such a welcome addition to the series. Aside from bringing on the boo in a much more menacing fashion, he gave the ladies something to swoon over. Before the natty Nosferatu, Thayer David was the only qausi-legitimate heartthrob, and old liver lips wasn't giving off all that much home viewer vibrancy.
Of course, Alexandra Molke's wasn't much of a leading lady, either. She's practically beige in her personal shadings. Whining may have gotten you far in the late '60s world of Maine's upper crust, but audiences want heroines more in touch with their sexuality than their sniveling. But since Curtis wasn't out to rip bodices, he kept pouring on the plot points. One thing about Dark Shadows that's surprisingly consistent (both pre- and post-Drac attack) is the number of narrative threads the series examined at one time. We could have complications between Carolyn Stoddard and her stoic mother Elizabeth Collins, a big beef between the family and a visiting face from the past, Victoria's constant lack of comfort with her spooky circumstances (and her lineage), young David's psychological profiling (he's a dead cat away from some serious serial killing), and there's still more tales to contend with. Your average soap would have made a monument out of just one of these interconnected complications. But under Curtis and writer Sam Hall's Hecksapoppin' tutelage, the show had to go on, and in as many different directions as possible. This means that Dark Shadows in never dull. As a matter of fact, the rapid pace helps save us from some of the more confusing core dynamics. Until monsters made their entrance, Curtis and company were a tad disorganized. Such shabbiness remains Beginning's saving grace. It turns the potentially turgid into quite a loony lark.
To call the transfers provided hit or miss is to acknowledge something MPI is already well aware of. One has to remember that Curtis' decision to preserve the show was considered comical back in the day. Aside from reruns or syndication (which soaps rarely managed), there was no need to keep a program once it had aired. Several significant shows were, therefore, unceremoniously erased, the videotape reused until it grew frail and unmanageable. The monochrome image therefore fluctuates wildly. We get some instances of crystal clear black and white, and other examples of fogged out kinescope. All the episodes are imminently watchable, but if you're looking for a pristine digital reconfiguration, best set your sights elsewhere. The miracle of Shadow's continued existence compensates for the occasional visual problems.
Old fashioned Mono is just that - a weak one speaker dynamic. No matter the fancy Dolby Digital redirection, we still get minor hiss, some drop out, and an echoing Manhattan soundstage quality throughout. We never miss a line of dialogue, and Bob Corbett's memorable underscoring comes across famously. Still, like the image, we are dealing with old school technology here. So the occasional flaw is perfectly excusable.
Unlike the original Dark Shadows sets, which had interviews at the end of each disc, The Beginning collects all of its context on the final DVD. Here, we get actress Katherine Leigh Scott (who played Sam Evan's no nonsense daughter Maggie, among other characters) providing a small amount of Collinsport and Collins family history. There's a smart interview with Victoria Winters, a.k.a. Alexandra Moltke, and a discussion of behind the scenes elements with series unit production manager Michael Brockman. When you consider that there have been over 100 previous bonus bits strewn across the entirety of Shadows delivery on DVD, the lack of significant supplements is understandable. Just having access to these early shows is enough for the show's faithful.
As with most mocked concepts, time has been much kinder than many critical opinions. Some point out how old fashioned and stodgy the show seems, the supernatural element needing to lift it out of its daily dramatic doldrums. Others point to the numerous gaffs and mistakes and argue that Curtis was clearly flying by the seat of his underperforming pants. Yet just like any misunderstood masterwork, the faithful fully understand what Dark Shadows delivers. From characters you can cuddle up with to situations that play out like a John Waters version of The Edge of Night, this is a wonderfully weird and entertaining endeavor. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, here's hoping MPI continues to legitimize the legacy of this fantastic show. It, and it's slightly daft creator, definitely deserve it.