MPI // 1968 // 660 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // June 22nd, 2004
Mr. Juggins met Miss Evans, on a darkened night...
The soap opera is a strange entertainment format. It requires a long-term investment of time and attention. It constantly laps and repeats itself, remembering to stop and restart its exposition every now and then to allow new fans to catch up. But perhaps most miraculously, it trades on tired old formulas and hackneyed clichés about love, loss, and life to make its supposedly serious and always melodramatic points. The reasons for the soaps' success are salesmanship simple: daytime shows just drip with the sleazy sexuality necessary to vend these familiar bubbly suds to the masses. Nighttime versions of the housewives' home companion just substitute a softcore sensibility for all plot pointing, and be done with it.
So it must have been the hardest pitch in the history of pilot positing when Dan Curtis, at the time a small-time producer of off-brand fare for the networks, offered his idea about a governess and a creepy old house to ABC. Surprisingly, the broadcasters bought the idea, hook, line, and spook show, and Dark Shadows was born -- the first daytime drama based in the exclusive elements of horror. The series initially focused on Victoria Winters, hired au pair for young master David Collins and the Collins family. As Victoria went about her business -- and learned the secrets -- of the old New England family, she searched for unknown family lineages, exposed reasons for revenge (both financial and personal), and experienced a wealth of interpersonal contradictions. It was typical soap stuff. Ratings matched the meandering plots. But a suggestion from Curtis' young daughter to up the terror temperament (with the introduction of a ghost) found the right chord of commercial appeal. Shadows was suddenly a success, and when the family vampire Barnabas Collins entered the overripe realm, the cult was cemented. Curtis' vision of a glorious Gothic drama was finally realized.
Over the decades, Dark Shadows would be fondly remembered by millions of fans and replayed in syndication on stations like the Sci-Fi Channel. Now, thanks to MPI, you too can relive the weird, wonderful world of vampires, witches, warlocks, werewolves, and evil little children.
Volume 12, released in May 2004 by MPI finds us about halfway through the show's run (1966-71, 1225 episodes). This collection features 40 installments, #656 through #696. If you'd like specific information about the actual events that transpire in each segment, you can find all the information you need at the Dark Shadows fan site [http://www.darkshadows.com/main.html] under its Episode Guide. However, for the sake of discussing the storylines inherent in this set, we must look at some of the previous events that have transpired:
Victoria Winters, governess for young David Collins, has traveled back to 1796 to be with her ethereal love, Peter Bradford. Vickie was accidentally sent back before, during a séance, and it was then that she met her true soulmate. Peter was her jailer. Vickie is declared a witch in the 18th century and hung for her crimes. Peter was falsely accused of murder by Nathan Forbes while looking for evidence to clear Vickie's name. In Volume 12, Barnabas Collins will go back in time to try and save Victoria Winters's life once and for all.
Chris Jennings, who placed his young sister Amy to live with the Collins family several months before, is now himself living on the Collinswood estate. Caroline Stoddard, daughter of family matriarch Elizabeth, has intense feelings for him. But it turns out that Chris carries a dark secret, one he has been hiding from everyone. He is a werewolf, destined to shape-shift under the phases of the full moon. In Volume 12, Barnabas and "family" physician Dr. Julia Hoffman will try to find a cure for his affliction.
In the closed-off, run-down West Wing of the Collins estate, young David Collins and Amy Jennings have been playing something they call "the game." In actuality, they are being possessed and driven to evil acts by the ghost of Quentin Collins, an ancient ancestor of the family. He wants to drive everyone from the estate, and will stop at nothing to get his way. But the combatant spirit of Quentin's mistress, Beth Chavez, tries to thwart his wicked plans. In Volume 12, Quentin will further torment the family, with the children playing an instrumental part in the ghost finally getting what he wants.
When most people think about Dark Shadows, they recall it in campy, cheesy terms. They remember the overacting, the desire to make even the most mundane special effect seem spooky, and the continuing serial sentiment buried at the heart of its horror darkness. There are a few diehard fans who remember the overripe storylines, plots revolving around the man-made monster called Adam, Angelique the incredibly wicked witch and her weird, people-hopping Dream Curse, or the all-powerful, severed Hand of Count Petofi, stolen by gypsies. Just listening to those descriptions makes the mass mockery understandable. Dan Curtis raided every potential plot from the canon of creature features and shockfests to formulate his mad maniac and monster party, and the results -- for the most part -- were effective, if incredibly diluted. This was late '60s daytime television mind you, not an era known for the most daring of broadcast philosophies. The fact that Shadows even made it to air, and lasted for as long as it did, is testament to its internal drive and audience pulling power. It's hard to ignore the fact that, once you remove the archetypal façade and legendary leanings, the characters and situations offered are very engaging and always interesting. It is easy to lose oneself in the sense of family ancestry in decay, supernatural sentimentality, and melodramatic macabre mischief. None of it is very real, but what soap opera is? At least Shadows shies away from the sex and sin offered by most continuing serials to focus on stories that, while draped in typical kitchen-sink concepts, tries to explore more non-traditional fiction forms.
The 40 episodes offered on Dark Shadows: Volume 12 represent a holding pattern in the show's Gothic gobbledygook, a breather between major monster machinations and baneful bloodsucking. Most of the plotlines here don't have the overreaching arc of other, more memorable moments in the show's history, but there's plenty of fun and faux fright to be had if you drop your jaded 21st century mindset and simply go with the Gothic flow.
When it comes to terror, nothing beats evil tots, and the two twisted children with the seeming run of the Collins estate (David and Amy) sure make for hissable villainy. David Henesy, the young actor essaying Master Collins's craven convolutions, is a bad taste treat, an uncomfortable mix of prepubescent boy simultaneously acting like an infant and a man. Denise Nickerson, who would cement her cult status playing the blueberry ball Violet Beauregarde in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, can occasionally be frustrating as the far more ephemeral Amy. Maybe it's her piercing voice, or constant questioning, but she is stuck playing the effect to David's cause, so her shrill suffering can be a chore. When they work together, though, these two underage thespians put their adult counterparts to shame. They always remember their lines (something that can't be said for the older performers) and find a way to make even the most muddled mischief sound scary. Indeed, the haunted house material here is the best. By the 30th episode, we have suffered through so much convolution and prohibitive posturing that we simply can't wait until the situation goes nuclear. And when it does, the effect is both cathartic and creepy. Throughout Volume 12, the entire Quentin possession storyline has a nice, foreboding quality that keeps you wondering what will happen next, hoping the producers will simply hurry up and kill off the horrible werewolf creature, allowing more shudder time for the bratling spook show.
Indeed, the Chris Jennings plot would probably be better had the melancholy lycanthrope not been played by one of the worst actors in the history of television. Don Briscoe may have made the creators of The Guiding Light and Days of Our Life happy with his stutter-start, under-his-breath, clench-jawed line belching, but his disgruntled growl is completely distracting here. He seems possessed by several multiple personalities and none of them can act. Within the span of one scene, Briscoe can go from confused to certain, steady to unstable, sometimes within a single sentence, sometimes within a single syllable in a word within a sentence. Somewhere along the line, he must have gotten his motivational signals mixed up. He must have thought that when he was hired to play a man who transforms into a creature every full moon, he had to also mutate between awful acting styles every scene, as well. And it's this annoying, uncomfortable approach that kills the werewolf plot. Oh sure, the makeup looks less realistic than the cool dude wolf DJ from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, and the actual onscreen transformation is nothing more than a fade between Briscoe and some stuntman in a callous cat suit, but a better performer could have sold the shame, defeat, and depression Chris supposedly feels for his fate. All we get in Volume 12 is a guy who looks like he's imitating Jerry Lewis with a stomachache every time the lunar cycle shines his way. If this is meant to be the stuff of dark and stormy night terrors, Dark Shadows misses the mark with its choice of changeling.
Thankfully, Jennings/Briscoe is just a complimentary, not core personality in the series, and with the brilliance of those around him, many of the more miserable machinations can be excused. Jonathan Frid is always celebrated for bringing the show out of the ratings cellar, and it's easy to see why. Even through all the forgotten lines, misread cues, and technical stumbles, Frid's Barnabas is a wonderful ambiguity, perhaps the best combination of bravado and bumbling in the history of the Dracula hierarchy. Barnabas (a mere mortal as Volume 12 begins) has a very strong presence and an equally strange air about him. But he can also seem lost, forever frightful that "the thirst" will return and his nightmare as a member of the living dead will once again shield him from the daylight. Frid is a marvelous actor, especially when working on non-exposition scenes. He creates a real connection with everyone in the cast and tries to temper some of the more outrageous aspects of the show with his solid seriousness. Never once winking at the audience or acknowledging how hooky this all is, Frid keeps Shadows grounded, allowing the others the chance to chew at the scenery.
One such plasterboard muncher is Grayson Hall, as the lovelorn doctor Julie Hoffman who worked with Barnabas to cure his "condition." Nominated for an Oscar for her work in Night of the Iguana, Hall is a classic ham, a skeletal face slathered with severe makeup and a couture sense of style that seems to exist as the chaos to Barnabas's cool. Known to exploitation fans for her turn as the lesbian-leaning Pepe in Satan in High Heels (she was also the hostage in the original That Darn Cat), Hall makes every line reading an adventure, and her occasional coughing jags (she was quite the smoker) bring a sly smile to the face of any Shadows fan.
Other exceptional actors, for reasons both pro and camp, are seen only sporadically in Volume 12. John Karlen gives one of the most definitive turns as a Renfield wannabe, with his portrayal of Barnabas's "helper," Willy Loomis. Mixing a slight homoerotic undertone with fear and fundamental loyalty, Willy is a sycophant without an idealistic edge in his body. He is all action and passion, completely cowering when afraid, while acting without thought to consequence. In many ways, Willy is the everyman, the human being who finds himself in and among the elements of the paranormal. Knowing there is no escape, he simply tries to cope and comply. As young David's father and Elizabeth's brother, Louis Edmonds is the Jonathan Harris of Dark Shadows: the mincing drag Daddy in a burly, broad business suit. Finding the more erudite way to approach every exchange of dialogue, Edmunds personifies the pomp and poof of fey fabulousness vividly. Too bad he's not shown more in this Volume. Thayer David, playing Professor Stokes as a combination of blowhard and ghostbuster, always leaves a lasting impression on a scene. As for the stalwarts, the performers who laid the foundation for the entire show (around long before Barnabas returned from the grave), Joan Bennett, Katherine Leigh Scott, and Nancy Barrett make the most of their usually underwritten roles. Indeed, in Volume 12, Nancy gets the better storyline (in love with a werewolf, convinced her recently deceased mother is the victim of a premature burial), but even with all the dynamics surrounding these stories, she seems stunted with uninvolving lines. Bennett, exuding old Hollywood charm and class, brings a sense of elegance to all the proceedings. And though she was featured more prominently in past shows, Scott is stuck playing nursemaid to David and Amy's antics. She's good, but never really given much to do except scold, shudder, and cower.
For every element in Dark Shadows that works beautifully (Clarice Blackburn, playing the ever put-upon housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson, never gives a bad performance), there are some that fall flat on their dated faces. The swirl psychedelic effect used to suggest the ethereal plane is unintentionally hilarious, and the use of chroma-key and partial dissolves is only effective some of the time. These tricks are often counteracted by the overall narrative; a good example being the buildup to the end of the Quentin/Collinswood haunting episode. Luckily, creator Curtis and his primary writer, Sam Hall, manage to find ways to make the inexplicable believable. Many of the sets have the prerequisite look and feel of New England Gothic, although they hardly ever match the scope of the still photos used as establishing shots. Indeed, the Collinswood Estate (really a girls' boarding school) is one of the most iconic images from the show.
Dark Shadows is not perfect. Certainly, the outdoor scenes are horribly claustrophobic sets, and the mansion's massive size seems centered on four or five basic rooms. Occasionally effects can fail and actors can flub their lines. And obvious shortcomings -- like a certain monster man's inability to act -- can stop the show dead in its tracks. But it's the storylines that kept Shadows from sinking completely; interesting events in the lives of larger than life (or death) individuals. Volume 12 of Dark Shadows may find the show realigning its sights and switching gears toward a future filled with more ghosts, ghouls, and graves, but this doesn't mean you can't enjoy its own inner wonders. The only bad part about getting hooked on this supernatural soap is wanting to own the entire series. And with 1200-plus episodes out there (and at 40 installments per set) you're going to have to plunk down big bucks for all 30 volumes.
Visually, Dark Shadows has always had issues. Even in its recent syndication cycle, fans complained of video variations, tape tremors, awkward black and white kinescopes, and other less than solid visual representations. All of these lovely artifacts are preserved and presented in MPI's transfer of the series. They even offer a word of warning as to the print problems before each DVD begins. Overall, Volume 12 looks surprisingly good, with rich vibrant colors and a lot of nice lighting atmosphere. The 1.33:1 full screen images do have their issues, but they really don't take away from the enjoyment of the show. On the audio side, there are a couple of circumstances that can create problems with understanding. Grayson Hall has a tendency to swallow her lines, whispering when a little more volume is needed. Also, when the over the top traumatics happen, the sound engineers tend to pull back on the levels, meaning that whatever occurs afterwards is almost indecipherable. But for a show filled with music, sound effects, dialogue, aural cues, and underlying atmosphere, Dark Shadows's Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is fine.
The sole extras here (except for a pamphlet outlining the episodes offered) are four separate interviews (one on each disc in the set) featuring a different member of the cast and/or crew. In Volume 12, Barnabas Collins -- AKA Jonathan Frid, Denise "Amy Jennings" Nickerson, cameraman Stuart Goodman, and ABC publicist Les Schecter are presented. Frid, fidgeting in his chair like he's got a wicked itch, tends to overexplain how he took every aspect of Shadows like it was Shakespeare. He even exclaims that he played his vaunted vampire like he was "Hamlet." Denise Nickerson has about two cogent things to say (filming Shadows was "good fun," and Dan Curtis was an "attractive, strong" man) and that's about it. She seems rehearsed and eager to plunk down her prepared party line and leave. Stuart Goodman offers an occasionally technical look at the way Shadows achieved many of its visual goals. From the small size of the sets (which caused some of the technical gaffes and bloopers fans love so much) to the various issues with lighting and rehearsal, Goodman's insights are very enjoyable. After a long discussion about the history of the show coming to ABC, ex-publicist Les Schecter offers a great anecdote about Frid and his personal appearances. Seems the actor had one idea of who should arrive at an interview or a show (namely, himself) while all anyone in the media wanted was Barnabas. The ultimate resolution of this conflict highlights the meteoric rise of both Frid and Shadows and explains why the show still resonates today.
Since many of the cast members are still alive and the episodes are effortlessly short (21 minutes each), a few choice commentaries would have been nice. The actors would not have to talk over every installment, just the few where the most celebrated or sensational events occur. Hearing them address certain storylines and performances would be priceless, and if it required a few more weeks of DVD prep, the sets would only be the better for it.
Also, there is tons of interesting Dark Shadows material out there, documentaries and fan findings that would have made for exceptional bonuses as well. Dan Curtis has placed some of this material on DVD separately, and its lack of inclusion here smacks of obvious marketing savvy. Why give the faithful something for free (or, at least as part of a larger set) when they will cough up the cash for an individual release? While it may seem callous, one cannot argue with the capitalistic sense of the scheme. Still, it would have been nice to see some of the bloopers, outtakes, and other available material on this and other Volumes of Dark Shadows on disc.
Finally, there are thousands of fans who loved this series from its very beginning, long before Barnabas took his first neck bite. The Burke Devlin / Sam Evans / Roger Collins car crash convolutions and the entire old house haunting are essential to understanding the full story of the Collins family. Here's hoping (and telling MPI) that those episodes must also be released on DVD once the AB (for "After Barnabas") phase sequence is complete.
Whenever a modern soap opera dabbles in the occult, it usually results in ribtickling ridiculousness. There was Diedre Hall of Days of Our Lives, a far more mature version of Regan McNeal, possessed by evil and spouting sinister silliness. Her hilarious story arc was The Exorcist all over again, except this time, the multi-part demonology resided on the decidedly dopey side. Before it went off the air, Port Charles tossed aside most of its cast to try and capture supernatural sensation in a bottle. The series was cancelled soon afterwards. Even the latest upstart in the daytime drama world, Passions, is a completely paranormal playlet featuring witches, spells and -- up until the death of actor Josh Ryan Evans -- a talking doll named Timmy. And if people want to toss Dark Shadows in along with the other examples of ersatz eeriness that passes for horror on broadcast (and now cable) television, so be it. After all, a reputation of cheerful cheesiness and tacky appeal has followed this show since it went off the air.
But unlike other examples of specter and monster madness, Dark Shadows succeeds. Thanks to carefully crafted scripts, stellar (and sometimes stunningly silly) acting, and an attention to the detail founded in classic literature and the stories inherent within, it managed to make the unimaginable pragmatic and the strange seem sensible. Dark Shadows is not a great show. It's not even the best supernatural drama Dan Curtis would be involved in (that would be The Night Stalker). But it does show that, sometimes, going against the grain of network normalcy can result in something really special. And Dark Shadows is that almost great thing.
Dark Shadows is found not guilty and is free to go. MPI is also acquitted on all charges, but the Court applies the following reprimand: Make all the fans happy and get the first few hundred shows, sans ghosts and ghouls, ready for DVD as well.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 660 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interviews with Actors Jonathan Frid and Denise Nickerson, Cameraman Stuart Goodman, and Former Network Publicist Les Schecter
* Dark Shadows Fan Site