When Dan Curtis did something, he never did it halfway. Take his amazing mini-series The Winds of War. Trying to bring Herman Wouk's epic novel to the small screen was foolhardy enough. Actually distilling World War II down to 19 primetime hours was downright insane. But that was typical of the man responsible for such memorable examples of the medium as The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and the most brilliant of all, his gothic daytime drama Dark Shadows. Of course, Curtis' vision wasn't so spot on at first. He originally wanted the series to be a House of the Seven Gables for the coffee klatch, more of a broody melodrama of manners than a pure spook show. But with ratings floundering and ideas few and far between, he took his daughter's sage advice and added a ghost. The rest, as they say, was considered cult classic history. Thanks to MPI, the entire series (both its paranormal and pre-creepshow versions) are coming out on DVD. In The Beginning - Collection 4, we get a perfect opportunity to seen Curtis' avoidance of restraint in action. Over the course of these 35 episodes, it's a regular ghost gala!
Bill Malloy is still dead, and everyone still thinks Roger Collins and his fountain pen did it. As the sheriff gathers evidence, episodes 106 through 143, downplay Burke Devlin and his Collins-hating vengeance and celebrate the arrival of Roger's "wife" Laura. Before we get to the unlikely family reunion, however, our favorite liver-lipped caretaker, Matthew Morgan, show ups and starts causing trouble. After governess Victoria Winters clears Roger, she is kidnapped by the musky madman. Morgan confesses to killing Malloy, but swears it was an accident. Young David Collins befriends the fugitive, giving him food and shelter. Our sensitive squirt doesn't realize Morgan's also holding his nanny hostage. Victoria escapes, is recaptured, finally gets help from her grade school charge, and Morgan is beset by some rather angry spirits. Over at Collinwood, Laura's return may mean good news for Devlin. She was in one of the cars the night of the fateful accident. Unfortunately, our blond beauty is only interested in two things - the story of the Phoenix (the bird that, upon dying, rises from the fire and ash) and the soul...I mean LOVE of her son, David.
Forget all the inkwell plotting of Collection 3. Who cares if nearly 15 hours of '60s TV was reduced to a filigreed silver writing implement? THIS is where Dark Shadows dove off the deep end and decided to give freaks a chance - in this case, the arrival of Laura Collins, a literal human horror whose mythological needs demand a fresh body to inhabit every few years less she burn up and fail to rise. As played with Madison Avenue model beauty by a blonde Diana Millay, we get a bestial Breck girl who doesn't want to have fun...she simply wants her son's body as a weird way station. Her desire begins a surreal cat and mouse in which little David Collins (David Henesy, another fan fave rave) is simultaneously courted, controlled, and coveted by this monster mom. Millay's portrayal is brilliant - a bit like Rosemary's Baby taken exclusively from the Satanic parent's side. She comes across as wicked and creepy, wild eyed and guardian safe. It's easy to see how David keeps getting duped. His father is a fey uncaring lout who's only interested in keeping his own hindered hide safe. And Victoria is too busy being victimized to provide any real (s)mothering. Thanks to the introduction of this infectious fiend, Shadows finally fulfilled the promise that Josette's spirit had hinted upon.
This section also gives us a chance to bask in the glow of one of the series unsung supporting heroes - Thayer David. Many marginalize this actor for his unusual looks, overly arch mannerisms, and lack of slickness or subtlety. No matter what role he played - Matthew Morgan, Ben Stokes, Count Petofi, or the famously smelly gypsy Sandor - he was a regal revelation. David's upper crust background and intense Broadway training made him the perfect foil for some of the more unpolished members of the cast. Even better, when later matched with equal talents - the great Grayson Hall, the genius of Jonathan Frid - he never failed to impress. His Morgan remains a seminal moment in the Shadows oeuvre. It represented a completely corruptible character, a manmade murderer literally haunted by his actions. In David's hound dog face, we see every realized regret. Yet just behind the eyes, to the left or 'sinister' side of his brain, we see the evil that will lead to acts of even greater desperation. Call him a tragic villain or an overripe soap stumbling block, but you can't deny David's power in the part. He makes the pre-vampire version of Shadows eminently watchable.
Indeed, thanks to the concluding Morgan mystery and the arriving flight of Phoenix fancy, The Beginning - Collection 4 is a mini masterpiece in the otherwise uneven Curtis canon. It was a stroke of genius to bring Millay into the mix - the Collins women were already wearing out their welcome, and both Ms. Winters and Maggie Evans seemed forever stuck in enigmatic ingénue mode. Laura Collins was mystery on purpose, a question mark that everyone wanted the answer to. She was manipulative and mean, focused and fierce. The fire sequences, both implied and practical, really added to the terror, and main target Henesy was very adept at playing stupidly scared. Laura was one of those rare Shadow instances where actor and part paired up flawlessly. It would happen again when Frid filled Barnabas' shoes, and when John Karlen became the real Willie Loomis. Of the myriad of reasons fans still flock to this show some 40 years later, The Phoenix storyline stands as one of the most compelling. Though it won't end for another few installments, it provides one of the most satisfying subplots in the entire Shadows mythos.
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 Robert Corbet'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. There are a few fondly remembered words from Laura Collins herself, Diana Millay, and a conversation with writer Malcolm Marmorstein and producer Robert Costello. Between Curtis anecdotes and backstage gossiping, it's a good collection. All three Q&A are entertaining and insightful. 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 faithful.
Since we are almost at the end of Shadows DVD release run (at 146, we are only 65 episodes away from the arrival of a certain "cousin" from England - and Volume 1 of the original DVDs), perhaps it's time to try and put the series into proper perspective. Remember, the shows offered here represent the growing pains of the series, the talent trial and error that led back to Curtis' love of classic monsters and the introduction of Bram Stoker's favorite neckbiter. Without the shift into the supernatural, who knows where this glorious gothic romp would have ended up. One things for sure, Dark Shadows: The Collection - Volume 4 earns an easy Highly Recommended rating. As a matter of fact, things just keep getting better from here on out. Laura will continue to pursue her son, treasure hunters Jason McGuire and the aforementioned Mr. Loomis will finally show up, and the spirits that have laid resting in the massive Collins estate will be still no longer - in essence, an already good show turns great! Soon, it will be unstoppable. Until then, we can look back and remember what it was like before ghouls totally ruled the roost. For this facet alone, Dark Shadows remains a true classic.