MPI // 1969 // 840 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // February 23rd, 2005
Judith Collins: Turn off that gramophone, it's driving me mad.
Quentin Collins: Perhaps that's why I play it.
Volume 15 of MPI's collection of Dark Shadows starts about a third of the way through the 1897 storyline, and includes episodes 776-816. The original broadcasts of these shows took place from June 16 through August of 1969. They represent an era when Dark Shadows was at its peak in viewership, averaging about four and a half million viewers every time it aired. Dark Shadows: DVD Collection 15 opens with a very creepy and effective CGI shot of the Collins crypt, which then descends down a stairwell into an open tomb, where the menus are revealed. Any choice throws you right into the crypt, and the show begins. The first episode shows Judith Collins descending into the abandoned cellar with Edward not far behind. He discovers Dirk's coffin. Trask is forced to absolve Tim of guilt for Minerva's murder, and the plots kick off in new directions. In episode 778 Magda the gypsy produces the mysterious "hand of Count Petofi," which will figure prominently in the rest of the shows set in this time period. In episode 786 Charity Trask dreams of romance with Quentin Collins. In episode 793 Victor Fenn-Gibbon arrives (he is really Petofi). Jamison Collins is possessed by Petofi in episodes 801 and 802. Amanda Harris shows up along with Tim and the hand of Petofi in episode 812. And by the end of this set Barnabas is imprisoned by Petofi, and it looks like he may never make it back to 1969 to help Quentin and be rejoined with Julia.
MPI has done an outstanding job of preserving this show for future generations. In the early '90s they began releasing videos of the series, but these DVD sets are marvelously well-done packages with the episodes in as good a condition as one could ever hope. They include interviews in every set -- this time around we get to visit with four of the most popular actors from this run of shows. On Disc One we find a silver haired David Selby, who tells us about how he started off as Quentin Collins. The next disc contains a session with Michael Stroka, who played Aristede in these episodes, and who seems to have retained the trademark brown hair and sardonic wit from his stint on the show. Louis Edmonds, who played Edward Collins in this stint of shows, reminisces about his heyday of taping the show and then grabbing martinis at a health club (ah, the good old days!). On the final disc we find Donna McKechnie, who played the doomed Amanda Harris, looking like she could still play an ingenue role. She talks about doing Dark Shadows while also running a Broadway musical at night (she must have had a lot of energy).
The transfers are full screen, and look marvelous considering the show is 36 years old. MPI has included a warning/disclaimer stating that there are some imperfections in the masters, but they are committed to showing each show in its entirety no matter what the condition of the master. It's quite admirable, and you will notice that these shows are uncut (syndication airings sometimes snipped a scene here and there). Every episode is in color, save for two notable exceptions. Episodes 797 and 813 had to be transferred from a kinescope copy of the show, and they have to be shown in black and white. I actually like these presentations, because in my mind's eye Dark Shadows was always meant to look a little eerie, and these primitive video tapes -- especially the kinescopes -- do that quite well.
An interesting point is made in the Donna McKechnie interview about the melange of actors involved with Dark Shadows. Because the show was filmed in New York it attracted three different disciplines of actors. You had movie veterans like Grayson Hall (Julia Hoffman and Magda) and Joan Bennet (Judith Collins Trask in this run) mixing with television stars like Louis Edmonds and Broadway stage actors. They all brought unique methods to the show, which produced an interesting clash of styles. Some of the actors, like Johnathan Frid (Barnabas), relied heavily on the teleprompter to read lines during a scene, while others, like David Selby, preferred to learn their lines as if they were in a stage play. It all seemed to work very well to further disorient the audience, something the show excelled at throughout its run. Not only were you never sure what time period these people were going to next, but you could count on them to keep you off-kilter with a variety of performances and styles.
With the SciFi Channel's decision to stop airing the series, these episodes on DVD become more and more vital as they are released. SciFi bought the rights to the show, and has the ability to show them or not show them while nobody else can pick them up. I suspect it will only be a sabbatical for the show, because the fanbase is rabid (as you probably know already if you are reading a review of Volume 15). It has such a charm on DVD because it is preserved for all time with its quirky, often imperfect not-so-special effects and fine acting from a cast willing to commit to such Gothic drama. I don't know why another soap like this was never tried. (Does Passions really count when its so obvious they are trying way too hard to be camp?) Dark Shadows remains the ultimate inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even more directly its spin-off Angel. Not that Dark Shadows was ever TRULY original in stealing from various sources. It often cribbed a lot of its plots from famous horror legends and novels. The entire "Hand of Petofi" storyline that is introduced in this set owes more than a little to the classic tale of The Monkey's Paw by Guy de Maupassant. In episode 804 Charles Delaware Tate arrives to paint Quentin's portrait, and suddenly we find the show riffing on Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
MPI is highly commended for delivering the shows in such attractive packages, and continuing to crank out extras like the interviews found at the tail end of each of these discs. Dark Shadows: DVD Collection 15 carries on their tradition of delivering high quality nostalgia to collectors worldwide. Barnabas Collins has been rendered eternal by the digital age -- the cure for any fan of supernatural soap operas who longs for him.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 840 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interviews with Cast Members David Selby (Quentin Collins), Michael Stroka (Aristede), Louis Edmonds (Edward Collins), and Donna McKechnie (Amanda Harris)
* Fan Site