Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hokey Gothic Soap Opera Continues, Dark Shadows Volume 3 Continues The Story Of Barnabas Collins!

The Good: Moments of intrigue and mood
The Bad: Very clunky acting, Repetition, Soap operatic nature, Medium issues
The Basics: Fun, campy and very much a soap opera, the third volume of Dark Shadows finds Barnabas Collins exerting more influence over Collinsport!

It seems, whether I want to or not, I am finding myself more and more immersed in the series Dark Shadows, a 1960s gothic horror soap opera which my mother was a big fan of. The series was released on VHS in five episode (essentially a week's worth of episodes) installments and with "Volume 3," the show continues to be a strange oscillation between creepy and original and formulaic and blase. The originality comes from the fact that the daily soap opera had a unique setting and was going for a serialized gothic horror story as opposed to most soap operas about common relationships being made larger than life through affairs, treachery and lust. Sadly, the negative aspects of the show resound; the stories are often clumsy, the acting is clunky and frequently painfully awkward, and the nature of the medium requires that the stories be told around commercial breaks for which there are frequently melodramatic moments preceding said breaks and the repetition of information when one returns. This holds up poorly on video.

Volume 3 of Dark Shadows picks up where Volume 2 (reviewed here!) left off. At this point in the story, Collinwood has been visited by Barnabas Collins, a mysterious figure who seems to know his way around. Willie Loomis, a grave robber, has fallen severely ill and Jason McGuire continues to try to exploit Willie and their mutual hostess, Elizabeth. Victoria Winters has, for the most part, been an observer.

The video of Dark Shadows "Volume 3" contains episodes eleven through fifteen, without any bonus features or additional programming to make the video a better value. Here is how the stories go:

Episode eleven, Willie Loomis awakens at night, feeling better, where he is confronted by an incredulous Jason McGuire. After insisting to Jason that he is well-enough to leave, Willie says his good-byes, even apologizing to Elizabeth for all of the problems he has caused. Barnabas drops in on Elizabeth and Victoria where Elizabeth decides she will let Barnabas take up residence in the old house. Barnabas lets Victoria know that he will be renovating the old house and she is actually excited by the prospect. Barnabas wanders over to his new residence where he finds Willie and he orders Willie out on a mysterious new task, clearly in control of the young man.

While cleaning up the local diner she works at, Maggie Evans is startled by the appearance of Barnabas, which opens the twelfth episode. During a conversation while Barnabas has a cup of coffee, Maggie learns about the staff he carries and the value it holds both to him and because of its composition. When Barnabas leaves, a protective Joe - her boyfriend - arrives and then Maggie notices Barnabas left his cane behind. Finding Barnabas in his new residence, the overly polite Barnabas begins spying on Maggie and possibly preparing to do something worse, which is what Willie - still under the thrall of Barnabas - fears.

The thirteenth episode has Victoria visiting the old house and discovering Willie there, with Willie begging her to get out as quick as she can. Willie manages to get Victoria out before Barnabas arrives and insists that Willie go out and fulfill his task. Maggie, at her apartment, is visited by Barnabas. Terrified that she might have been followed home, Maggie lets Barnabas in and shows him some paintings by her father. Her father arrives and accepts a commission from Barnabas to paint a portrait of him. Sam Evans goes with Barnabas to the old house at Collinwood where they begin the portrait. Sam is shocked, though, when Barnabas disappears as dawn breaks through the windows at the old house.

In episode fourteen, Victoria reveals to Elizabeth that she saw Willie at the old house with Barnabas. Elizabeth goes to speak with Barnabas and has to console David, who comes along and dislikes what Barnabas is doing with the old house. Upon returning to the main mansion of Collinwood, Elizabeth is met by Burke Devlin, who is offended that Elizabeth sold off some property he wanted without giving him a chance to buy it. After their meeting, Burke talks with David, who wants the portrait of Josette that Barnabas had moved, which sense David back to the old house.

Episode fifteen opens with young David Collins trapped by dogs within the old house, when he is rescued by Barnabas. Jason McGuire returns to encourage Elizabeth to deal with Willie once and for all and he visits Willie, meeting Barnabas there. As Maggie falls into a nightmarish sleep, Willie goes on his "errand" and Sam Evans arrives in the parlor of Barnabas Collins where he continues work on the portrait.

The black and white episodes are filled with painfully awkward acting, most of it centered around the child actor who plays David Collins. The boy forgets his lines and when he remembers them, he delivers them without any real emotion. On the flip side, Jonathan Frid, who plays Barnabas, continues to come into his own in these episodes. He does spooky exceptionally well and there's not a moment where he is hammy in these episodes, though he does have a tendency to play to the camera in the worst tradition of soap operas.

In this set of five episodes, the repetition of information before and after the commercials seems excessive (especially given as there are no commercials on the video!). One has the sense that the writers had created a situation, knew where they wanted to be at the end of the week, but then did not know quite how to get to there.

What saves this volume from the scrap pile entirely? That's easy; even in these episodes, the moments Barnabas Collins is on screen, he is electric and engaging. He draws the eye and, even though I know where the series is going with the character, the way his character's backstory is unfolding is interesting and surprisingly well done. And in this set of episodes, the viewer actually comes to care some for Willie Loomis, who is clearly under Barnabas's control, but is fighting for his own humanity.

Sadly, on VHS, there are no bonus features and while MPI transferred the film to video, they did not clean it up. As a result, Dark Shadows looks as terrible on video as anything from the 1960s would unretouched. Dark Shadows is similarly plagued by the fact that it was frequently cursed with technical problems. Candles in the crypts and people lighting matches for their cigarettes (characters are frequently seen smoking on the show) cause burn out and when characters move across the sets, frequently the actors get washed out by the lights. So, even if the images weren't fairly grainy, the quality of what was on the film was frequently problematic. There's no reason I can think of for anyone still tied to VHS to settle with collecting these episodes on that medium.

[For a much better value, check out Dark Shadows Volume 1 on DVD, reviewed here, as it has over forty episodes on the currently dominant medium!]

For other shows with soap opera qualities, please check out my reviews of:
Gilmore Girls
Dawson's Creek - Season 1


For other television reviews, be sure to check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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