Dark Shadows - DVD Collection 1
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T   J R .

Collinsport, a town of simmering passions and festering secrets, could serve as a textbook model of Freudian psychology with the Collins family as its case study. The family, and almost everyone it comes in contact with, uses repression as their main operating mode for dealing with secrets and problems: "There has to be a reason she doesn't want you to know what's in that room," "you mustn't even think about it," "you shouldn't pry too much: you might find secrets about your mother that could do her great harm." Despite the repeated admonitions to let the lies and problems rest unchallenged, most of the characters pick and prod at these secrets, their thoughts obsessively circling around the contents of the locked room in the basement, the puzzle of the missing painting of Josette Collins, the whereabouts of missing waitress Maggie Evans, the uncanny lure of the painting of family ancestor Barnabas Collins, the strange marks on Willie Loomis' wrist (coupled with his mysterious fatigue during the day and his even more remarkable recovery in the evening), and the secrets of the family vault in the cemetery. Yet, in marked contrast to the vigorousness of their obsessions, the characters are hard pressed to translate thought into action. Combine this with liberal servings of alcohol to lubricate the brain, constant arguments that continually resolve in stalemates, and an almost willful inability to see the evidence in front of their faces, and you get a classic example of a dysfunctional society operating with its eyes and minds wide shut. It's the perfect environment for a vampire to return home to…

Only a handful of television shows claim cult favorite status, much less assume the mantle of cultural phenomenon. So far only one daytime soap opera has inspired a level of devotion where, despite its short run relative to the multi-decade runs of other successful soap operas, fans have kept the memory of the show alive through grassroots involvement by participating in conventions and series marathons, much in the manner of the devotees of Star Trek. Judging the series by its initial episodes where 19-year-old Victoria Winters arrives at Collinsport by train to begin a new life as a governess in the Collinwood mansion, one would be hard pressed to distinguish Dark Shadows from its contemporaries in daytime drama. Sure the feel was a little darker, more gothic than Guiding Light or As The World Turns, but the elemental ingredients were the same -- buried passions, barely concealed resentments, conversations that carried multiple levels of meaning. At the early point in the series' history, even the skeletons in the closet were metaphorical. Only after the series bombed in the ratings did series creator and producer Dan Curtis feel the license to throw in a few ghosts and a mother who turned out to be a phoenix, a mythical creature who had returned to immolate her son, David Collins. By the spring of 1967, Curtis received an ultimatum: raise the ratings in 13 weeks or else. Cancellation was imminent, providing the desperate edge Curtis needed to make a drastic commitment. If the show were to survive, it had to go all the way with the supernatural. The introduction of the Collins family vampire, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), inaugurated this new direction, hooking the viewing audience as no other daytime drama had, inspiring junior high and high school kids to rush home and university professors to cancel classes to see the latest happenings at the Collinwood manor.

Dark Shadows, "DVD Collection 1" (from MPI Home Video), covers the first eight weeks of the arrival of Barnabas Collins in Collinsport, beginning from the point when Willie Loomis liberates him from his coffin and ending at Maggie Evans' unsuccessful attempt to stake Barnabas in his coffin. One of the questions in my mind as I approached the series was how well would Dark Shadows hold up. After all, the series was the product of a different time. Audiences were used to slower pacing, and they were familiar with the conventions of the Gothic genre, which was primarily a literary mode. If approached from the demands and expectations of today's horror fan, Dark Shadows has not aged gracefully. The conventions of daytime drama, with the obligatory repetition of scenes to remind the viewer of yesterday's events and padded dialogue to fill up a half hour's worth of material, ensure passages of tedium for the DVD viewer. The ongoing arguments between Liz Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) and Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick), with her constant threats to cut off his money supply and his constant threats to expose her murder of her husband, seem to pop up every ten minutes or so. Conversations seem to wind in endless circular patterns with the interrogated person, usually Willie Loomis (John Karlen), constantly repeating the question posed by the interrogator, usually Jason McGuire, giving the impression that the inhabitants of Collinsport are half-wits. The acting is less than stellar. Initially, Joan Bennett and, surprisingly, Jonathan Frid come off the worst, constantly blowing lines and delivering wooden performances. For all the ballyhoo around the series, the first disc of the DVD set turned out to be quite disappointing.

Then, around the time Willie Loomis leaves Collinwood Manor to go to work as Barnabas Collins' manservant, a change takes place. The pace picks up. The irritating conventions of the daytime drama are still in place, but an undeniable alchemy begins to galvanize among the cast members. The actors and actresses relax into their roles, as if they finally understand the direction the show is going in. They start taking chances. Kathryn Leigh Scott, as Maggie Evans, a prototypical '60s waif who looks vaguely like the British secret agent Emma Peel, convincingly portrays her character's descent into vampire play toy. Maggie, known throughout Collinsport for her amiable nature and her hardworking, reliable character, suddenly cultivates wild mood swings ranging from being sleepy and weak to being uncharacteristically argumentative and domineering. One of her standout scenes, and the moment where the series really seems to take off, involves a hilarious coffee altercation with her boyfriend Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) in episode 227 (the episode where Barnabas first shows his fangs). As their conversation devolves from easy and playful banter into frustrated irritation, the viewer can feel the chemistry between the two actors. Their romantic relationship takes on a depth we hadn't seen before. John Karlen, who gives a standout performance as Willie Loomis throughout the entire DVD set, thoroughly explores the shades of his character's evolution from a small time thug to a reluctant secondhand man to a vampire. His ongoing torment, fueled by his terror of Barnabas and of being drawn in to a situation he wants no part of, but can't escape, provides one of the series' many delights. By the end of the last disc (week eight of the vampire run), even Joan Bennett loosens up. As Liz explains to her brother Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds) that she might consider marrying again, Bennett's performance takes on a seductive nuance that calls into question whether her earlier stilted performance was inept acting or an artistic choice in portraying a woman who has had to barricade herself from the world for eighteen years.

Longtime fans of the show will probably be disappointed with MPI's barebones packaging. The only extras on the discs -- a fifteen-minute featurette summarizing the first year of Dark Shadows (up to the point where Willie Loomis breaks into the family crypt) and interviews with cast members Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Karlen -- were previously available on MPI's VHS versions of the episodes. When you take into account the amount of scholarship that exists about the show and its considerable fan base, it is quite surprising that these resources weren't exploited to create a new documentary for the DVD set, or at least to provide an entertaining write-up on the insert. As it is, fans have to be content with just having the episodes on DVD, along with brief summaries of the episodes and their original broadcast dates.

I would also have liked to have seen a few more of the episodes developing Willie Loomis' obsession with the painting of Barnabas Collins and with the family mausoleum (episodes 205-209). After growing accustomed to the swells and ebbs of the dramatic development on the show, it became obvious that the first episode of the DVD set (episode 210), where Willie discovers a chained coffin after breaking into the mausoleum, takes place at the peak of a dramatic developmental cycle. It would have been less jarring and truer to the rhythm of the show to begin the set about five episodes back when Willie starts obsessing about the painting.

Will "DVD Collection 1" win legions of new fans for Dark Shadows? Probably not. Those familiar with the vampiric convention solely through the novels of Anne Rice and Stephen King, through contemporary movies such as Dracula 2000 or Queen Of The Damned, or through television series such as the daytime drama Passions or the admittedly excellent Buffy The Vampire Slayer, might be puzzled as to why Dark Shadows caused such a stir. Nevertheless, as long as new generations of horror fans continue to discover the joys of campy B-movies, and can see through clumsily executed surfaces to the enthusiastic spirit behind the production, Dark Shadows will continue to garner a cult following, charming its way into the hearts of its viewers. I for one can't wait to see what happens to the inhabitants of Collinwood manor in the next installment.

Dark Shadows, DVD Collection 1, is now available from MPI Home Video. This four-disc set packages together episodes 210 thru 250. These are the episodes in which Barnabas Collins makes his appearance. A 15-minute introductory featurette summarizes some of the developments in the series' 200+ previous episodes, with special attention to the arrival of Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick) and Willie Loomis (John Karlen). This introductory featurette was previously available on Volume 1 of "Dark Shadows: The Original Series" (VHS) and is included here in its entirety (although the featurette includes the scene from episode 210 where Willie Loomis opens Barnabas Collins' tomb and this same scene is repeated in the set's first complete episode). All the material in this set has been previously released by MPI, including the short interviews with Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Karlen; however, the video transfers for this DVD release are noticeably superior to the VHS versions. Suggested retail price: $59.98 each. For more information, check out the MPI Home Video Web site.


Photos courtesy of MPI Home Video.