For those of us late to the Dark Shadows Appreciation Society (this critic has some rather foggy memories of visiting the series sometime circa 1970), the arrival of 'cousin' Barnabas Collins and his brooding, blood soaked romanticism supposedly marked the beginning of the series' true testament. Beforehand, everything was typical daytime handwringing happenstance, plot convolutions, and not so subtle embraces. Well, how wrong that assessment was. Anyone who saw the show when it was rerun back in the '90s knows that's not true, especially since the program didn't maintain its afternoon serial style for long. An offhand suggestion from creator Dan Curtis' daughter, a ratings spike later, and Shadows would become fully invested in the ways of otherworldly evil. A perfect example of this strategic switch arrived with the introduction of Laura Collins, and the classic Phoenix storyline. For DVD lovers, this particular plot began back with Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Volume 4. Now, with Volume 5, it's all Phoenix, all the time - and the devoted couldn't be happier.
With the case of Bill Malloy more or less wrapped up, episodes 144 to 178 concentrate on the controversial return of Laura Collins, the mess she makes for suddenly "remarried" Roger Collins, and her obsession with the legend of the Phoenix. Of course, as the plotline unravels, we learn that she has a literal connection to the fabled flame bird. Wanting her son David to go away with her (read: die and be reborn), Laura tries everything to manipulate the Collins clan into granting custody. When clues to who she really is get too dicey - Maggie Evans' painter father Sam creates a portrait which literally shows the lady consumed by an inferno - our evil entity lashes out. She burns the hands of the artist, and when Elizabeth tries to interfere, she is struck down with a mystery mental illness. Of course, this doesn't stop Burke Devlin from butting in, Victoria Winters from exploring the everpresent 'Ghost of Josette' angle, and psychic investigator Dr. Peter Guthrie from holding sťance after sťance. By the end, the police are convinced that Laura had something to do with the death of a similarly named individual in...Phoenix, AZ, and the family is opening a long closed crypt to see if someone with a similar name who died 200 years before can be connected to the case.
Leave it to Dark Shadows to turn family dysfunction and marital animosity into a supernatural romp featuring an ancient Egyptian fire God, a bubbly blonde glamour gal, and enough high strung histrionics to make Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a quite night among the Middle American rabble. The entire Phoenix storyline is sensational, a baffling battle royale between the wicked witchiness of Laura and the standard bitchiness of the rest of the Collins crew. Louis Edmunds and David Henesy get a chance to air out their overdone acting chops as they battle Diana Millay for the title of supreme scenery chewer. With her permanently arched Maybelline eyebrows, angular features, and Hellspawn determination, everyone knows whose going to win out. With Willie Loomis, Jason McGuire, and our soon to be legendary undead leading man a mere 15 episodes away (the aforementioned graverobbers show up in Episode 193), Laura is the linking material between the glum Goth-less version of the series and soon to be supernaturally stuffed Shadows, and thanks to the brilliant back and forth between Sam, Victoria, Burke, David, and Roger, her storyline stands as perhaps one of the series' best.
It's also nice to see Joan Bennett get in on the paranormal action. As matriarch to a bunch of babbling whiners, Elizabeth rarely gets a stand-alone showcase. But when Laura gives her the patented Phoenix Mind Meld treatment, turning her into a deranged dowager, our old school Hollywood diva really gets to shine. So does Henesy. Little David is often the butt of many Shadows' jokes, his child star insecurities giving rise to frequently flailing performances. But in interacting with his onscreen mother, and responding to the threat she represents, his character helps center the suspense. By the end, we actually care what happens to him even if for the previous 143 episodes we have found David to be an unbelievably bratty little wuss. While John Karlen's Willie Loomis, Jonanthan Frid's Barnabas, Grayson Hall's Dr. Julia Hoffman, and David Selby's Quentin Collins represent the pinnacle of the series thespianism, the work done during the Phoenix arc is damn impressive.
If there's a chink in the exemplary armor exhibited by the show, it's the arrival of John Lasell as Dr. Peter Guthrie. Many fans - and yours truly - find his button down blandness unable to match future turns by such Shadows luminaries as Thayer David (who plays the equally investigation-oriented Dr. Timothy Stokes), and he does seem out of place here, especially when surrounded by actors like Edmonds and Devlin's Mitchell Ryan. And speaking of the man with a major grudge against the Collins' conglomerate, it's a shame that the series didn't really know how to end the Burke Devlin storyline. Once the Matthew Morgan mess is cleaned up, he seems to be sticking around for no good reason. Sure, he still pursues the random Collins gal (or their unwitting employee) and conspires with Laura to win over David, but Devlin, once the main villain in the initial Shadows stratagem, definitely gets the bum's rush the minute the ghouls start taking over. Still, we'll take such shabby treatment as long as we get more Laura, more menace, and more flagrant fire imagery. Indeed, there is so much conflagration on hand during this run of the series that 'combustion' should get a screen credit.
This critic receives a lot of grief every time he mentions previous reissues of Dark Shadows on VHS and DVD, so let's set the record straight right now, shall we. When Curtis first decided to put the show out for home video consideration, he did indeed start with the Barnabas material first, going back to the show's spook-less origins once all the monster-mashing was out and available. That being said, the transfers provided are still rather hit or miss, something MPI is already well aware of. 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 amazing (and quite 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. As in Volume 4, there are a few fondly remembered words from Laura Collins herself, Diana Millay. There is also conversations with writers Malcolm Marmorstein and Ron Sproat, and some genre deconstruction from author and "horror expert" Leonard Wolf. All four Q&As are entertaining and insightful. When you consider that there have been over 110 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.
Since we are almost at the end of Shadows DVD release run (at 178, we are only 33 episodes away from the arrival of everyone's favorite neckbiter - 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 last hurrah for a soap opera turned supernatural, a trial and error tendency that led back to Curtis' love of classic monsters and the introduction of Bram Stoker's favorite fiend. Without the shift into spooks, who knows where this glorious gothic romp would have ended up. One thing's for sure, Dark Shadows: The Beginning - Volume 5 earns as easy Highly Recommended rating. As a matter of fact, things just keep getting better from here on out. Laura's secret will soon be revealed, 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. It's narratives like the Phoenix that remind us why Dark Shadows is a true television classic.