Saturday, May 26, 2012

Less Value, Less Story, Dark Shadows Volume 2 On VHS Is Inappropriately Dreadful!

The Good: Episode 10 is actually engaging
The Bad: Soap operatic style, Frequently clunky acting, Medium issues, Technical problems, Nothing happens
The Basics: Fairly boring and without a strong sense of purpose, the episodes of Dark Shadows on "Volume 2" continue to build mystery around Barnabas Collins, without doing much else!

As I trundle through my mother's collection of Dark Shadows videos, it occurs to me that with all of the television shows in DVD, the daily soap opera remains one of the truly unexploited realms for the medium. I suppose most soap operas are written hoping the audience forgets the past and just sticks with the current storyline unconcerned with how allegiances change with characters and how there is no real overall narrative. Dark Shadows, a gothic horror soap opera from the early 1960s seemed to want to buck that trend and with the second video, "Volume 2," the show seems to be going somewhere. The fundamental problem with "Volume 2" is that it doesn't get anywhere, so it's essentially two hours of filler and at least the viewer isn't cheated out of a whole week to make the lack of story make sense.

Picking up where "Volume 1" (reviewed here!) of Dark Shadows left off, it is worth reiterating that Dark Shadows was released on VHS not at the true beginning of the story. Instead, what we refer to as episodes 6 - 10 on "Volume 2" was actually something like the two hundred and sixth episode upward. The reason for this is simple; Dark Shadows began as a gothic horror soap opera which was not building an audience or keeping the audience it had sufficiently intrigued until it brought in a character named Barnabas Collins. Introduced on "Volume 1," this became the most solid place to build a home video enterprise (from a marketing stance), so MPI Home Video started there.

But even as Barnabas Collins became a prominent figure on Dark Shadows, posing as a "cousin from England" at the Collins Estate of Collinwood, there were other plotlines which still needed resolution and part of the problem with episodes six through ten on "Volume 2" is that they allude to events not presented in any way on this video. Instead, this is a building set of episodes and, frankly, the only thing that made me care about any of them were elements in the tenth episode which seemed to be setting up the next volume. For those who know what is coming next, an unfortunate revelation which is ruined by the back of the VHS box, these episodes are still building up to the big surprise. I shall not ruin that surprise here, but anyone who has their finger on the pulse of pop culture is likely to see what the series is building to and, unfortunately, with these five episodes, it feels like it is taking the long way to get there.

The video of Dark Shadows "Volume 2" contains episodes six through ten, without any bonus features or additional programming to make the video a better value. Here is how the stories go:

The sixth episode finds Maggie waiting for Joe at the Blue Whale. Burke keeps Maggie company, until Jason (whom Burke had had a prior conflict with) arrives. Jason confesses that he has no idea where Willie is and he makes a truce with Burke. Shortly thereafter, Joe arrives for his date with Maggie in shock. He's just come from his family's farm where a calf has been exsanguinated! Still reeling from learning that, Burke and Jason are surprised when Willie shows up, completely in shock, with no recollection of where he's been since he went missing!

The seventh episode, Burke warns Willie that he never wants to see the young man again and Jason takes him back to Collinwood to apologize to Carolyn and Elizabeth. Willie does not want to return and upon seeing the portrait of Barnabas Collins, he collapses. While Jason tends to him, after extorting Elizabeth once more to allow Willie to stay longer, Jason notices a wound on Willie from which he appears to have lost a lot of blood.

In the eighth episode, Willie lies tormented in his bed as night falls and Jason becomes baffled by his blood loss from so small a wound. Tricking Jason, Willie flees in the night, back to the Collins mausoleum.

Episode nine has Jason searching for Willie at the mausoleum to no avail. Returning to the mansion, Elizabeth confronts him having learned Willie has left his room. Roger and Barnabas meet about Barnabas setting up with the local shipbuilders and he surprises his cousins by proposing he take up residence in the old house. While Elizabeth resists the idea, Roger welcomes it. Barnabas and Jason meet and Jason becomes determined to find where Barnabas is staying.

In the tenth episode, Willie returns to the mansion near death and Jason confronts him about where he has been. Determined to return to sleep, Willie gets to his room where Roger comes to evict him from Collinwood once and for all. But when Roger and Jason confront one another, a call comes from the sheriff and Roger goes into Collinsport. There, he learns that the Collins' farms are suffering as cattle are being found dead, exsanguinated apparently by a human! Roger returns to Collinwood to hear from Jason that the doctor's diagnosis for Willie is massive blood loss and Roger suspects a connection!

This black-and-white soap opera is presented as half-hour (less space for commercials) episodes and each episode tends to be shot rather sparsely with one or two cameras usually on two to three sets per episode. There is often a rather theatrical presentation of lines and while none of these episodes feature anything as tacky as a visible boom mike, the lighting department is frequently plagued by washouts as characters move from one light source to another on set. There are also clunky edits which have cameras shifting to different characters and putting the speaking character in profile.

Despite those technical problems, Dark Shadows is shot on a pretty convincing set, which features a castle-like interior of the mansion, Collinwood. The Blue Whale is a small local bar and it, like the Collinwood sets, has the feel of being a stage with one side completely open for the cameras to move around in. The problem is the cameras seldom move and as a result, the actors tend to play to the camera, most notably Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, who gives several knowing glances to the audience.

This volume of Dark Shadows is also hampered by the fact that the acting is not the greatest. To be fair to actors like Dennis Patrick, who played Jason McGuire, the scripts do appear pretty dialogue-heavy and the actors has a lot to memorize each day. Patrick stands out in this volume for making it through all of his lines, while being in each episode. Patrick plays off Joan Bennett (Elizabeth) rather well and he makes for an entirely convincing recurring villain. In these episodes, Patrick is able to soften the extortionist as Jason becomes baffled by the mysterious events surrounding Willie Loomis and the boy's illness.

In the end, these episodes are more hokey than entirely unlikable, but being on VHS does not help them out. The old medium makes it tough to justify purchasing these and as a result, they fall on the line between "below average" and "avoid it." While the soap opera may be going somewhere, it doesn't happen in these episodes and it is only a trust that there is information in these episodes that is helpful to have as one goes on that keeps this from being a complete lemon.

[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 weird, mysterious television shows, please check out my reviews of:
Veronica Mars
Twin Peaks
Fringe Season 1


For other television shows, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for a listing of all films and shows I have reviewed!

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