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 followed the narrative from Day 1, 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 3 of Dark Shadows: The Beginning has recently hit the format, and those unfamiliar with the initial incarnation of the series are in for a regular pot-boiling riot.
When last we left the Peyton Place-holding members of the town of Collinsport, death and the diabolical were in the air. Episodes 71 through 105 concentrate on the ongoing investigation into Bill Malloy's death. If you remember, Burke Devlin has returned to town to seek revenge against the Collins family. He believes that the influential brood set him up to take the fall for a fatal car accident. He wants mincing oldest son Roger to admit his guilt, or he will crush the entire clan - and the town with them. Malloy may have had some information on the case, but his body recently washed up along the shore. As the sheriff looks into the possible suspects (first Roger, then Burke), we get more demented histrionics from little David, a sidetrack visit by Victoria Winters to the family lawyers, and some major green-eyed soap sudsing between Maggie Evans, Joe Haskell, and Carolyn Stoddard. During this run, Burke also tries to buy a competing cannery (the better to undermine the Collins fortune), hires Mrs. Johnson to be a spy inside the family estate, and twists David against his father. Victoria Winters also feels the vast majority of the machinations. She is attacked, locked in a vacant wing of the manor, and witness to the spectral vision of Bill Malloy, Indeed, ghosts are playing a much bigger part in the Collins' fall from grace than ever before.
It's all about the pen. That's right - nearly 15 hours of fountain tipped plot pointing. In one of the more loopy pre-Barnabas storylines, the ongoing saga of Burke Devlin, his wounded ego, his stint in the slammer, and his hatred of the Collins gang goes completely Edge of Night. In full blown soap opera form, we get accusations, strange alliances, witness tampering, and apparitional evidence. It's enough to make you pray for the quick arrival of the hated Leviathans. And all over a rare silver filigree writing implement. In some ways, it makes sense. Dark Shadows was always a show that got major mileage out of the smallest idea. Sure, it frequently dealt in cosmic calamities like time travel, the living dead, witchcraft, and weird paranormal rituals. In fact, if it wasn't for the first few episodes of this General Hospital House of the Seven Gables we'd never believe the later installments' groovy ghoulishness. But it was small things - a portrait, a music box, the severed hand of Count Petoffi - that kept the baffling ball rolling. Dan Curtis really loved the New England ideal, with its old money, even older vendettas, and sea chantey sensibility. It rings across every frame of this fascinating show, rendering even the most mundane moments alive with traditional terrors.
As for the acting, episodes 71 to 105 truly belong to two people. The first is Big Lou - Louis Edmonds. A closeted homosexual in the days when being gay meant possible physical harm (not to mention industry blackballing), his Roger Collins is nothing more than a drag version of a spoiled rotten dandy. With a voice so clipped he could cut glass, and a mannerism so foppish he practically channels Oscar Wilde, Edmonds owns this storyline - and with good reason. Roger is the center of all the intrigue. He's the supposedly guilty party Burke is trying to blame. He's the source of young son David's ongoing homicidal streak. He uses Victoria as an alibi and then turns around and threatens her. And he pitches one mean hissy. Indeed, Edmonds makes many of these early installments, saving us from otherwise drab line readings and strained New York stage acting. The other creative catalyst is Mitchell Ryan. As the conniving and scheming Devlin, he does everything except chew the scenery - and that's only because Big Lou leaves very little backdrop behind when he finishes with a performance. Ryan is the manlier yin to Edmonds yang, and together they create an engaging cat and mouse. It's a shame that much of this material would be dropped once old vampire Barney shows up. It can be a lot of fun - in small, 30 minute doses.
Of course, this is not the only enjoyment one can glean from Shadows. Little David's "friendship" with Burke smacks of similar platonic '60s man-boy affairs - Dr. Smith and Will Robinson, Jody Davis and Mr. French, Mark Wedloe and Gentle Ben - yet there is something far more insidious going on here. Maybe it's the Collins' boy's proclivity toward crimes, or the fact that Devlin so readily relies on the kid to do his dirty work. Whatever the case, it's a seedy little situation that resonates as even more sordid in 2008. Naturally, every party needs a pooper that's why Volume 3 of Shadows invited the lame love triangle between Joe Haskell, Carolyn Stoddard, and Maggie Evans into the mix. There is nothing duller than supposedly impassioned people making small talk for the sake of time filling. Dark Shadows was many things over the years - throwback to Universal monster mania, bizarre amalgamation of myths and folklore, stark raving insane - but a high powered daytime romance was never one of them. The love stories often came across as labored and uninteresting, and that's clearly the case here. Luckily, we have the hyperactive Roger, the scheming David, the diabolical Burke, the seaweed draped corpse of Bill Malloy, and that damned pen to keep us clued to the tube. Before the bats and the bloodsucking, this is what Shadows was all about.
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. There's a continuation of the previous volume's interview with Victoria Winters, a.k.a. Alexandra Moltke (it's quite good) a few fondly remembered words from Mitchell "Burke Devlin" Ryan, and a discussion with Frank Garner actor Conrad Fowkes. 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 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 Secret Storm, 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.