Here it is - the end of the line. The moment we Dark Shadows fans, old school and nursery alike, have waited for since Dan Curtis deemed the series worthy of a digital format update. We've lived through Sci-Fi Channel's decision to cancel the syndication deal, and wondered why the VHS release format (otherwise known as 'Barnabas First') was followed once it went to DVD. We stood by as volume after volume hit the streets, the slow decline toward the Leviathans and multiple time line complexities needing to occur before the original pre-Gothic soap opera origins of the show were explored. Over the last five Beginning installments, we've enjoyed the scenery mastication of Mitchell Ryan and Louis Edmonds, wondered at the fetishising of a silver pen, enjoyed the whacked out wonders of the Phoenix, and wished for some manner of harm to come to the draining little dickens named David. And now we've arrived, at the beginning of the end, or the end of the 'Beginning'. Barnabas is about to return from beyond the grave, and as we will learn in Volume 6, he will be assisted in said task by one of Dark Shadow's most magnificent characters.
When last we left the Collins clan, Eagle Hill Cemetery was the scene of an involuntary disinterment. It's all part of the ongoing drama trauma surrounding the sudden return of Laura Collins, her unnatural obsession with her son David, and the mystery manner in which Roger's reclusive ex managed to 'return' to Collinwood. With Dr. Guthrie hot on the trail of the truth, young David is receiving many a mixed signal. On the one hand, his mother wants him to go away with her, and he's kind of keen on the idea. After all, he has been trying to kills his pappy. On the other, the ghost of Josette Collins is telling him to beware, and as a sidelight, help the poor doc. There's yet another sťance, multiple revelations, and a final frightmare denouement in a fishing shack consumed by flames. Just as things seem to settle down, an old friend of matriarch Elizabeth saunters into town. Jason Maguire wants to defraud the grand dame out of her husband's formidable fortune. With the help of his conniving co-conspirator Willie Loomis, they intend to dredge up the Collins jewels. Instead, they bring back the clan's secret shame - a vampire named Barnabas.
You can have all your Quentins and your Count Petofis. You can celebrate your gypsies, tramps, and graverobbing thieves, and shed a single tear for the neo-romantic realities of the classic unrequited love stories of Josette, Angelique, and their caped crusader. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, Dark Shadows belongs to Barnabas Collins, the actor Jonathan Frid who turned him into an icon, and the petrified peon who served as the vampire's resplendent, wussed out Reinfield, Willie Loomis. Arriving in Episode 199, but not really coming to life until James Hall was replaced by the splendiferous John Karlen, what could have been nothing more than a scaredy cat siccophant became a character of great humor, amazing depth, classic camp qualities, and just enough Method histrionics to remind audiences that Shadows was more than just rich people perplexing over their shortcomings. Willie, in all his groveling glory, may not be perfected by the time Volume 6 ends, but with Karlen at the helm, creating one of the series' most memorable cowards, the formation is fun to watch.
But before the brilliance that is the Jason Maguire/Willie Loomis caper, we still have some reborn bird to deal with. Laura Collins is still trying to convince David to go away with her, which in Black Magic Morse Code means give up his soul and let the Phoenix live on inside him. From 179 to 190, we get more of Diana Millay's ice queen cruelty, and enough David Henesy hissy fits to last a lifetime. The whole storyline remains a superb combination of suspense and silliness, the 'will she or won't she' elements of the character's goal giving audiences a thrill and a chill at the same time. It's almost a shame when it ends, but we know there are even better things coming in a scant 19 installment. From 191 onward, Elizabeth recovers from her trance, returns to Collinwood, and is almost instantly inundated by a former friend of her husband, and his drifter confidant. It has to be said that the introduction of Maguire and Loomis is an excellent way of turning the narrative in Barnabas' direction. The idea of two conmen coming to the Collins and trying to rob their family fortune has the right Bram Stoker like sensibility.
Having said that, there is an awkward anticipation that comes from knowing that we are so close to the opening salvo in Shadow's total supernatural transformation. The Phoenix and the ghostly apparitions of previous episodes are nothing compared to a nasty neck biter with a penchant for human vein vodka. As Dennis Patrick and James Hall work their well-seasoned scam, as they get the Collins' confidence and prepare to switch on the swindle, we want things to hurry up and get creepy. When Karlen comes in at 206, he shifts the entire dynamic between the pair. Willie goes from criminal to crazy man in a way that's undeniably satisfying. If those brand new to the Shadows experience learn anything from the 200 plus installments scripted pre-Nosferatu, it's that creator Dan Curtis might have been able to make a spook-less version of the series work. Sam Hall and the rest of the behind the scenes crew could probably forge a decent Half Hour of the Seven Gables, the inherent aura of melancholy created by such manipulative melodramatics doing a good job of providing angst and ambience. But the decision to go ghost, and then ghoul, ended up being the right one. We might not be celebrating Dark Shadows without it.
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 the 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. But unlike Volumes 1 - 5, there is more here than just the standard quartet of interviews. On disc four, we are treated to some extra footage from Episode 191 (the first after the death of the Phoenix), the entire restored version of 211, complete with Barnabas' arrival and some wonderful vintage commercials. There is also a syndication sales reel and promos, plus a group of bumpers and adverts from the series' Sci Fi Channel days. With yet another fascinating Q&A, this time with writers Malcolm Marmorstein Ron Sproat, as well as newsreel footage of Joan Bennett, we get the typical excellent assortment of extras.
It feels kind of anticlimactic, when you think about it. The first volume of Dark Shadows hit DVD in May of 2002. It's taken over six years, and 32 box sets (26 for the Barnabas years, a half dozen for the pre-bloodsuckers episodes) to bring the show full circle, and while depressed for the end, fans should actually be ecstatic. Many classic TV shows fail to complete their entire digital run. For every Andy Griffith Show or Dick Van Dyke, there's a Leave it to Beaver (two seasons and...nothing) or The Simpsons (releasing their collections so slowly that original viewers will be receiving Social Security before every episode is out). So it's time to celebrate, sit back, and stare in wonderment at what Dan Curtis accomplished in an era where television wasn't known for bucking trends or pushing the medium's boundaries. But like an overlong novel loaded with narrative mastery and occasional flights of foolishness, Dark Shadows is an endearing entertainment that defies the standards to stand the test of time. It easily earns its Highly Recommended rating. Thank you MPI for sticking with this title. Those of us who've become addicted to the kooky Collins clan and all their macabre misadventures really do appreciate it.