Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dark Shadows Collection 1 Starts At The Turning Point Of The Supernatural Soap Opera!

The Good: Concept and mood, Decent cleaning for DVD
The Bad: Campy, Acting problems, Light on DVD bonus features, Soap opera conceits, Bulky packaging.
The Basics: Conceptually interesting, Dark Shadows Collection 1 is a gothic horror soap opera that appears to be going somewhere, but is hampered by technical problems.

Long before there was Twin Peaks, there was Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera that aired in the mid 1960s to the early 1970s that was so popular and influential on young people of the time that Johnny Depp has actively pursued a Dark Shadows film revival with him playing the lead character, Barnabas Collins. But the show was essentially a soap opera and as influential as it may have become, it was not incredibly well-received and it remained on-the-bubble until the introduction of Barnabas Collins. This is why when Dark Shadows was put on DVD, the series did not start at the beginning, but rather with the introduction of Barnabas Collins.

Dark Shadows Collection 1 is the first DVD set and it includes what is commonly known as Episodes one through forty, despite the fact that there were a hundred episodes which preceded these forty episodes. The DVD set, which is a four-disc set which is arguably the most bulky packaging that could be found for so few discs, has the Barnabas introduction episodes and the first major plotline involving Barnabas Collins. It is also worth noting that the revelation of the true nature of Barnabas Collins only happens in the last frames of the final episode on these discs. So, despite all of the clues which point to exactly what type of supernatural creature Barnabas is, I shall not reveal it here so those who bother to sit through these fifteen hours of story may appreciate the revelation that comes in the final moments of episode forty.

Fortunately, on DVD, Dark Shadows Collection 1 comes with a "story so far" featurette on the first disc, which opens the set by establishing the main characters, what came before and who the primaries are and what they have been through already.

"Collection 1" starts with Jason McGuire blackmailing Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard and the young graverobber, Willie Loomis breaking into the Collins family crypt. What he discovers there torments him and leaves him with excessive bloodloss and a medical condition which leaves him drained and crazed during the day. But, when night falls, he seems better and he disappears for long stretches.

It is also around this time that Barnabas Collins, a relative of the Collinsport Collins' who claims to be from the English branch of the family, arrives at Collinwood. He has an intimate knowledge of the mansion and the old house and he is courteous to all of the people he meets there. In fact, he is so charming that Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard allows him to move into the old house to renovate it and he begins to establish a business in Collinsport. But while Barnabas takes up residence, local farms begin being plagued by cattle murders and soon, one of the locals, a young woman named Maggie Evans, goes missing!

Dark Shadows is a soap opera and despite being original in that it is a gothic horror soap opera, it is terribly formulaic and works with the conceits of the soap opera. As a result, each episode opens with a voice-over from Victoria Winters about the current standings or mysteries surrounding Collinwood and the episodes play to the commercials (which are not, obviously, on the discs). What this means is that virtually every act break features a revelation which was designed to surprise or intrigue the audience and then the revelation was repeated after the break, which replays especially poorly. It's almost enough to suggest this is probably why the soap opera has not been part of the DVD boxed set revolution that has occurred over the last few years.

In addition to plots which follow two to three threads which alternate episodes (giving actors enough time to learn their lines by rotating which actors are in play any given day), this first collection of Dark Shadows episodes is hampered by production problems which make it seem beyond campy. This show is frequently hokey, poorly acted and directed with serious problems. In fact, there are so many acting flubs and moments when the camera follows a character beyond where they are lit that one suspects Dark Shadows was filmed in one take. On DVD, Dark Shadows is cleaned up as much as possible and in many scenes this means that the film grain is entirely eliminated and the show looks good enough to appear on HD screens without looking as primitive as it actually is. It is presented in black and white and the only time the film grain becomes excessive is when the angles or lighting left the digital restoration artists nothing to work with. This only happens a few times per episode.

Far more common are lighting problems which even restoration artists could not fix. So, for example, candles which are lit and frequently seen around Collinwood and the old house cause burnout on the film and when cameras change angles abruptly, they often encounter lighting problems where the character they become focused on is no longer lit properly.

But more problematic than the technical aspects of how the show was poorly made in order to accommodate daily filming schedules is the acting. Dark Shadows required a lot of work for actors like Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins), Mitchell Ryan (Burke Devlin), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans) and John Karlen (Willie Loomis) and as a result, there are moments when each one clearly forgets their lines. While the women hold up fairly well, the child actor who played David Collins butchers one of his key scenes and it is only the professionalism of Jonathan Frid that makes the scene work at all. But even apparent professionals like Mitchell Ryan have moments where they clearly draw a complete blank and they look terrified or flub through their lines.

Still, this first collection of Dark Shadows establishes the fundamental characters for this section of the soap opera. In this season, the main characters are:

Barnabas Collins - A mysterious visitor who claims to be from the English branch of the Collins family tree, he arrives at Collinwood and soon takes up residence at the Old House. But while he seems kind and patient to most, he has a sinister control over Willie Loomis and his true nature does not seem benevolent,

Burke Devlin - A very white bread, strong-jawed dashingly handsome man who lives in Collinsport. He is a good friend (maybe boyfriend) of Victoria Winters. He becomes engrossed in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Maggie Evans as a friend of Sam Evans,

Willie Loomis - A grave robber, he unearths something sinister in the graveyard in Collinsport and is tormented by it afterward. After a brief illness, Willie becomes the faithful servant of Barnabas,

Dr. David Woodard - A local doctor who becomes perplexed by blood samples he takes from Maggie, shortly before those samples disappear and his lab is ransacked,

Roger Collins - Brother to Elizabeth, father to David, he befriends Barnabas and sets him up with work on the harbor. He is instantly distrustful of Jason McGuire and he works hard to figure out what secret he is lording over her to free her of his influence,

Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard - The matriarch of Collinswood, she is mother to Carolyn. Her husband has been "missing" for eighteen years, whatwith her having killed him in self defense. She is blackmailed by Jason McGuire and sees Barnabas living nearby as potentially beneficial for the family,

Sam Evans - An artist and father of Maggie, he begins painting a portrait of Barnabas Collins when his daughter is abducted. Worried first about her illness, then her absence, he becomes obsessed with finding her,

David Collins - The young charge of Victoria Winters, he is the son of Roger and he is intrigued by Barnabas. Distraught when Barnabas moves a portrait of Josette Collins in the Old House out of the living room, he gets into trouble searching the Old House for the portrait and the ghost of Josette,

Joe - The white bread boyfriend of Maggie,

Victoria Winters - The governess of David, she has recently moved to Collinsport and befriended Burke Devlin, Carolyn and Maggie. She observes everything going on about her and is suspicious of Barnabas, loathes Willie and Jason and works with Carolyn and Roger to figure out what is going on with Elizabeth and Jason,

Jason McGuire - A slimy businessman, he is blackmailing Elizabeth, as he witnessed Elizabeth killing her long-gone husband. He tries to get rid of Willie and is shocked when Willie stands up to him after becoming Barnabas's lapdog. When the family business becomes suspicious of him at work, he fears his mealticket is about to dry up and he comes up with a bold proposal to insure he can keep living in Collinwood,

and Maggie Evans - An apparently ordinary young woman, she is attacked, then disappears. Found wandering at night in a graveyard, she is rescued, but soon escapes only to be captured by a dark force whose true nature is not yet revealed!

Over the course of these forty episodes, Dark Shadows presents a creative premise, but it is hardly good or even great television. Instead, the problematic soap opera conceits trump the underlying creativity of the show and leave the viewer ultimately disappointed. This may be the beginning of the essential story of Dark Shadows, but it is presented in a terribly hokey way.

On DVD, this four-disc set comes in an annoyingly bulky case (halfway through the series, the Collections started to come in slimmer cases) which makes it seem more substantial than it actually is. Disc 1 features the featurette on what came before these episodes in the series. The other three discs end with an individual actor (Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Karlen) briefly (about three minutes each) talking about their experiences on the show. This is nowhere near as satisfying to fans as commentary tracks or more extensive featurettes might be, but it is not bad for a start.

Still, it is not enough to justify picking up this otherwise hokey show on DVD. At least, not this collection.

For a more thorough understanding of the plotline, please check out my reviews of the individual episodes at:
Episodes 210 – 214
Episodes 215 – 219
Episodes 220 – 224
Episodes 225 – 229
Episodes 230 – 234
Episodes 235 – 239
Episodes 240 – 244
Episodes 245 – 249

For other television series' that made their debut on ABC, please check out my reviews of:
V - Season 1
Boston Legal
Once & Again - Season 2
Once & Again - Season 1
Sports Night
Twin Peaks


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the shows, seasons and collections I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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