Monday, May 21, 2012

A Hokey Gothic Soap Opera Gets Its Lift With Dark Shadows Volume 1!

The Good: Moments of intrigue, Featurette that recaps beginning, Direction
The Bad: Frequently poor acting, Repetitive storytelling, Poor lighting (frequent burn spots), Medium issues
The Basics: With cringeworthy acting, a meandering soap opera feel and some terrible technical problems, the first Barnabas episodes of Dark Shadows get off to a rocky start!

As I looked around the database and my house for both holes that needed to be filled and materials I had around to fill them with, I stumbled upon a troubling fact: there appear to be no reviews of Dark Shadows and my mother has a pretty amazing library of the series. So, given her interest, I decided to see what all of the fuss was about and I began watching the series with "Volume 1" on VHS.

Dark Shadows on VHS does not begin, as one might suspect, with the first episodes. Instead, Volume 1 begins with the arc of episodes that resurrected Barnabas Collins, a mysterious man who would come to dominate the gothic soap opera. On video, then, Dark Shadows Volume 1 features a recap of the prior two hundred episodes, with an emphasis on important characters and occurrences, before presenting the five episodes which would start to change the direction of the mid-1960s horror-soap opera. And for those who have never heard of or seen Dark Shadows, these episodes are all in black and white and feature soap opera conceits.

As a result, each episode begins with a voice-over from the series' protagonist, Victoria Winters. From there, the episodes continue a serialized storyline, in this case dealing with the disappearance of grave robber Willie Loomis from the Collinwood estate. It seems Loomis has unearthed something in Collinwood and what it is remains a mystery through this first volume. To understand it better, here is what is on this first video:

The recap illustrates how Victoria Winters arrives at Collinwood - in Collinsport, Maine - where she intends to take a job as governess to young David Collins. Warned by the locals that the Collins family is weird and not to be trusted, she is advised to leave. Ignoring that, she encounters the Collins family, including the boy she is supposed to take care of, who tries to kill one of the locals. Through a series of comings and goings, a grave robber takes up residence in Collinwood and in the process, he unearths a secret in the Collins mausoleum!

In the first episode, grave robber Willie Loomis returns from his trip to the Collins crypt and is confronted by Jason McGuire, who is getting a blackmail payoff from Elizabeth Collins-Standford. Once Jason is paid, Elizabeth gives him an ultimatum; he must get rid of Willie. But Willie has returned to the Collins family crypt and in his attempt to recover the jewels of Barnabas Collins, he breaks locks and unseals a coffin, all the while feeling something tugging at him.

In the second episode, Willie has disappeared while attempting to rob the Collins family crypt and Jason is clued into his direction, going after him. He encounters the caretaker, who insists a young man posing as a Collins broke into the mausoleum the night before. Jason inspects the crypt, denying Willie was there, but he finds the young man's cigarette butt. As the housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson and Elizabeth commiserate over the disappearance of Willie, there comes a knocking on the door and a mysterious stranger is invited in by Mrs. Johnson!

In the third episode, the arrival of Barnabas Collins, a mysterious "cousin from England," is met with warmth by Elizabeth. Despite Barnabas slipping up several times and alluding to having been to Collinwood before, he claims this is his first visit. After a flirtatious visit with Victoria, Barnabas meets young David at the family's old house. When David returns to the mansion, Barnabas has a heart-to-heart with one of the portraits on the wall.

In the fourth episode, Jason and Elizabeth argue over the disappearance of Willie, which Carolyn (Elizabeth's adult daughter) overhears. She goes down to the Blue Whale tavern where Burke Devlin and Joe Haskell are hanging out. After giving Devlin the cold shoulder, Joe - on his way for a date with Maggie - convinces Carolyn to give Devlin a chance to start over and they do. Back at Collinwood, Jason and Elizabeth debate what might have happened to Willie and their disagreement becomes menacing.

In the fifth episode, Carolyn's uncle Roger Stoddard returns to Collinwood where Carolyn fills him on Willie's disappearance and the arrival of Barnabas Collins. Barnabas, in the meantime, is skulking around the old house, when Victoria comes looking for David and finds him instead. Talking to Victoria about the Collins family, Barnabas displays an amazing knowledge of the family and Victoria brings him back to the main house. Barnabas and Roger meet and Barnabas reveals a desire to set up shop in Collinsport, while Roger becomes obsessed with the fact that Barnabas's ring matches the one in the portrait of Barnabas on the mantle!

Dark Shadows is a soap opera completely. The show often looks like it was completed in a single take each time and there are very few cuts. This, no doubt, made it difficult for actors as there are long scenes where characters talk to one another - melodramatically - before they get a chance to cut. In addition to acting problems where actors flub lines and have to work around them, this leads to serious problems with the lighting. Frequently, there will be washouts and as actors move, they become washed out from the overhead lights which are lighting the set.

Beyond the technical problems and the apparent lack of cuts, the show is hampered by dialogue which is so busy trying to be intriguing that it comes across as melodramatic. When Barnabas Collins enters, the viewer knows there is something not quite right about him because he talks like a ghoul and actor Jonathan Frid makes knowing glances to the camera which are campy at the very least. The characters are forced to use a lot of their dialogue to present exposition and this is unfortunate. As well, there is an annoying repetitive tendency in the show as characters repeat lines after breaks where commercials would have come.

That said, some of the elements in these episodes actually work. The tone is intriguing and there is a good gothic creepyness about everyone and everything. This is enhanced by the cheesy mood music, but the writing of the concept of Barnabas and who he might be is sufficiently intriguing. As well, actor Jonathan Frid, when not coming dangerously close to breaking the fourth wall, seems to have a real command of his lines and the ability to emote. The other actors, save the child actor who plays David and looks more and more frustrated when he keeps flubbing a line in an exchange with Frid, tend to hold their own and while they are all generally Hollywood good looking (in an early-1960s sort of way), the actors manages to present their characters in an interesting way.

On VHS, the only "bonus feature" is the recap which establishes a lot of characters and situations which have no real bearing on the episodes on this tape. There are no other commentary tracks or incentives with this. Given the disposable and degrading nature of VHS tapes, it's impossible for me to recommend this; the entire series is now on DVD. The only reason I rate this so highly is it seems it is the beginning of the most prominent arc on the show, so if any of it is "essential," it seems like these episodes are the start of it.

[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 supernatural television shows, please check out my reviews of:
The Walking Dead - Season 1
Millennium - Season 1
True Blood - Season 1


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the shows, seasons and DVD sets I have reviewed!

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