Friday, January 11, 2019

Dark Shadows Beginnings -- A Review

I'm way behind in my new comic reading.  And I'm making slow progress thru some of my more recent hard cover acquisitions.  The reason?  Too much TV (as always).  How can that be when all the CW comic-related shows (including the excellent Riverdale) are on winter hiatus and the Marvel Netflix shows are all but done (sob)?  Amazon Prime.  Or rather, the free streaming shows available on that service.  It all started around Halloween when looking for something spooky to watch, I viewed the Dan Curtis Production of Frankenstein (1973).  It reminded me of Dark Shadows.  I then caught the film-quality version of Dan Curtis' Bram Stoker's Dracula (also 1973) with Jack Palance, who if you believe the internet was the inspiration for Gene Colan's depiction of the character in the Marvel Comic.

After a few more Dan Curtis classics(?) such as a werewolf in LA and a zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror (filled with plenty of jump-scares), I decided to delve back into watching Dark Shadows.  I became a fan of the show over a quarter of a century ago around the time I got married.  It was on the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) Channel (back when it contained good material) where they aired at least two episodes back-to-back, I think around 10:00 am (after the Six Million Dollar Man or Incredible Hulk).  I had seen odd episodes here and there, but this was the first time I recall making a concerted effort to watch the series regularly.  I remember seeing much of the late 1860's story line, where Barnabas' consciousness enters his entombed body during that time and meets the "real" life Quentin (I think to deal with the music-appearing spook version from 1968 [then present day]).

I even got a few books on the series back then celebrating its 25th anniversary, so I read synopses of most of the episodes.  After all, how could anyone watch them all?  Back when MPI was issuing video tape versions, each one was about $30 each and contained a week's worth of shows, meaning only five 22 minute episodes.  That's quite an expense when you understand that there were 1225 episodes!  Enter Amazon Prime.  A search will show you that they have divided the series into 26 "collections" of around 40 episodes each.  As a daily [Gothic-horror] soap-opera (did I forget to mention that?) there were no yearly seasons as we understand them, which means they just broke them up into roughly even chunks that stop whenever, not necessarily at the end of a major story arc.

Picking up roughly where I had left off in the mid-1990's (and possibly later as my older kids remember watching some of the show with me at times - maybe from the library?), I began watching Collection 17, episode 27 (#884 or sequentially #873), which originally aired on 1969 November 13.  This means I was viewing it almost exactly 49 years later!  (The episode numbers don't always add up due to interruptions and them always wanting the Friday episode with the bigger cliff-hanger to be a multiple of 5.)  It was a show that I could watch by myself, when others are watching This is Us or Call the Midwife.  But a funny thing happened.  My 10-year old son, "Manny" (Matthew Jr.) started watching it with me.  He enjoyed it enough that he got upset if I watched it without him (shades of Netflix show viewing with my beloved wife)!  So, I waited, and waited.  Our progress became too slow for my purposes.  I kept watching with him  -- we're currently thru Collection 20, episode 15 (#996 or sequentially #981), which originally aired on 1970 April 20 (nearly a month before my birth!).  We've seen the entire Leviathan story-line and have entered into 1970 Parallel Time.

I didn't like having nothing to watch when he wasn't available (or willing), so I went back to the beginning.  Specifically as it is listed on Amazon -- Dark Shadows Beginnings.  It's a six-part collection that includes the first 206 episodes (thru #209), spanning from 1966 June 27 to 1967 April 14.  All of these precede the first appearance of Barnabas Collins (at least in person).  You may question the need to view the episodes before things "got interesting".  Well, I'm here to tell you (after an extremely long-preamble/warm-up exercise), that there are plenty worth watching.  It's OUTSTANDING!!!

But where to begin...How 'bout the way each episode does:

"My name is Victoria Winters..." 
[more after the break]

Victoria Winters (20-22?) is arriving by train to Collinsport, Maine from New York City.  She has been hired out of the blue from her foundling home (i.e. orphanage) to be the governess/instructor of a 9-year old boy, David Collins.  David is the heir of the Collins name (only male child) and lives at the family ancestral estate, Collinwood.  He's a very intelligent, but troubled young man who talks about hanging out with ghosts and hates his father. The estate, which is actually Seaview Terrace in Newport, Rhode Island (and it's now on my bucket list to visit), is run by his aunt, Elizabeth Stoddard, who hasn't left the grounds in 18 years.  She has a young daughter, Carolyn (17-18?), who has a steady boyfriend, Joe Haskill, that she's stringing along.  She wants to hang out with him (have him take her on dates), but she refuses to agree to marry him and just about every male stranger in town catches her eye.  Joe's a hardworking fisherman that works for the Collins' company, but he has aspirations of going independent and buying his own boat one day. The two of them typically visit the Blue Whale, the local restaurant/pub/dance house, which often plays the same three tunes on the jukebox!  (They're good tunes and I can enjoy them for hours at work.)

Arriving on the same train with Vicky is Burke Devlin (played by the actor, Mitchell Ryan, who portrayed William Riker's father on Star Trek: The Next Generation).  He's come back with a mission - a mission of vengeance against the Collins family and warns Vicky to go back where she came from.  He has reason to be bitter, despite his vast accumulation of wealth in the last five years.  He spent the previous five before that in prison for manslaughter.  He was convicted of killing a man while driving drunk.  He says he's innocent.  He claims he was framed by Roger Collins, David's father and Liz's brother.  Roger is very snobbish and definitely has secrets, especially one with the local town drunk, the painter, Sam Evans.   Both are very disturbed when Burke comes back to town.  Sam's daughter, Maggie, works at the local coffee shop at the Collinsport  Inn, where Burke sets up his residence.  The original gossip-girl, she's one of my favorite characters with a friendly personality, bright eyes and a smile that really remind me of my wife, Pam. : )  The actress, Kathyrn Leigh Scott also used to be a Playboy Bunny!  Rounding out the cast, is the old caretaker, Matthew, who lives in the cottage on the estate and Bill Malloy, who runs the sardine cannery.  Both are very loyal to Mrs. Stoddard.

I would love to go into great detail about some of the story lines, but I really want to avoid spoilers as much as possible.  (I've got my mother hooked on the show now and I'm hoping you dear reader will give it a try as well.)  So I'll try to be a bit vague where possible and may offer up some theories that I've purposely not looked up online to verify.  There are ample of online Dark Shadows sites if you want to know more information.

These early episodes are in glorious black and white and I actually think it enhances the eerie/spooky/mysterious feel of the show. Some of the music is the same as you'll hear in later episodes.  It was composed by Robert (Bob) Cobert, a graduate of Juilliard, and is actually a series of short cues and themes.  I got the complete soundtrack for Christmas (nearly 8 hours worth).  The Collinswood interior sets with it's double doors, signature staircase, and drawing room are also the same.  So, right off the bat the show is very similar to what you may be more familiar with during the Barnabas years.  But there is also a brighter component to both the music (Oh, those poignant woodwinds!) and some of the sets (like the coffee shop and Sam's house).  The characters have some more hopeful/happy moments too as the only spooks are the ones David talks about and of course, the old legends.  There are also exterior shots, brief scenes (not just static establishment shots) of characters going outside -- the real outside, not just a set.  It helps ground the series.

The acting is extremely good and it's largely like watching a well scripted play.  In this day of CGI where special effects take up a lot of the show's length, it's interesting to see a story that is more played out with dialogue and facial expressions.  In fact, when I started watching the series, I was working on a LEGO set, enjoying it mostly by hearing only and looking up occasionally over my reading glasses.  However, I quickly realized that I wanted to view everything.  So I wouldn't recommend it as background noise -- it'll work, but it needs to be seen and heard.  The dramatic music and visuals are masterfully put together.

Now I realize that Dark Shadows is known for it's bloopers and mistakes.  Sure you'll see a boom mike in a shot, an off camera stage sound can be heard, and the actors will sometimes flub their lines and call a character by another name - I'm sure that stems from how quickly these things had to be taped.  However, I actually enjoy the dialogue snafus (humorous to be sure, but not distracting) as they are more realistic.  Who speaks perfectly?  I certainly don't.  It's not like I can reread and edit my speech multiple times like I can this post.

You get a taste of the swinging and swigging sixties in this series.  Carolyn dances like Mary Jane Watson in the Lee-Romita Amazing Spider-Man stories.  People drink...A LOT.  Another cup of coffee, another bourbon or brandy.  Poor Roger seems to take a sip regularly to deal with all his pressures.  At least you see the destructiveness of alcohol in the deteriorating, guilt-ridden life of Sam Evans - also the verbal abuse of an alcoholic.  Modern day woman may be offended by some of the comments (but don't let that deter you -- you can always tell your child that it isn't the way people should talk today.)  Once Burke Devlin told Carolyn that she should be happy knowing that we can all just admire her beauty.  The actual line was much better, but it will take too long to track down the episode.  I guess it is like a daytime, PG-version, of Mad Men (from what I've heard - never watched it).  There is romantic tension and embraces, an occasional kiss, but no sex scenes like you would have today.  But by inference, stuff has certainly happened.

Could David actually be Burke's biological son?  He used to date David's mother before she saw Roger as the richer beau.  Laura and Roger did get married immediately after Burke went to prison.  And Victoria resembles a woman that Sam once painted a few years before he married Maggie's mother, now deceased. Could she actually be Maggie's half-sister?  At this moment I think both theories are viable and likely.

Man, there is just so much ground to cover, and I want to get back to watching the show!  Let's try to wrap this up...

The writers definitely bring in the supernatural gradually.  So the viewer like the characters need to have multiple/subtle encounters before any of this can be believed.  I'm amazed at the detail plotting that went into the show and have seen most of the initial mysteries satisfactorily resolved at this point (or about to) as Barnabas makes the scenes.  However, the foundational elements are right there at the start, including just a reference to Jossette Collins, the tragic woman who leaped or was pushed to her death from Widows Hill in 1840(?).  We don't see Jossette ourselves as a ghost until around the 50th episode.  Things really start to pick up from there when we discover who killed off one of the characters, despite numerous suspicions and red herrings.  Sometimes when you think something is going to go one way, and often it eventually does, there are numerous and unexpected twists and turns along the way.  It's quite addictive and it doesn't help that Amazon starts the next episode before you can get up and turn it off -- then you say, well, let's watch one more...

After the murder mystery is solved, the Phoenix story-line was also quite good, especially with the introduction of Dr. Peter Guthrie, a paranormal/parapsychologist  investigator.  He's seems to be a precursor to Dr. Julia Hoffman.  I guess they needed a woman to counterbalance Barnabas later.  I loved the introduction to the Eagle Hill cemetery and crypt with the old caretaker.  The story just builds and builds, even though you'll have key characters absent for episodes at at time.  Villains can become friends (like Magneto).  It's fascinating how some characters weave in and out, while others move in to take center stage.  I believe Barnabas was supposed to be a temporary character, but he became too popular.  It reminds me a bit like Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men.  Kitty Pryde shows up and the focus is shifted around her for a while. Subplots are peppered throughout and take time before reaching fruition.

I've always been interested in supernatural stories, but I draw the line at fiction versus reality.  Some of my favorite comic book characters are Doctor Strange and Doctor Fate.  I've got (as yet unread) Omnibuses of Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night.  I recently purchased the first omnibus volume of House of Mystery. I've been a fan of Buffy and Angel and love to watch Constantine on Legends of Tomorrow.  Ghosts, vampires, etc. make for great stories, but I'm not going to dabble in the occult in real life. That stuff is too dangerous.  The Bible mentions the spiritual warfare that goes around unseen and demons are real. I wouldn't advise anyone to seek this stuff out, seek the truth and light about Jesus Christ instead.  It still creeps me out whenever there is a seance on the show...

Did you know that many of the story lines in Dark Shadows were inspired from classic literature?  Look it up.

Anyway, I hope you've gotten a taste of my enthusiasm for the show and check it out. I plan on continuing (maintaining a balanced life and prioritizing things properly).  I figure I've got about 900 more episodes to watch!  Willie's just opened up Barnabas' coffin hoping to steal some jewels, but he's just been grabbed by the neck...


  1. Have you ever noticed how often Victoria Winters says, "I don't know."? Keep it in mind as you view these classic episodes. It is uncanny how many times she says it.

  2. And the way she says it too! I finished the whole series in September and immediately started from the beginning, taking it slow with about one episode a day -- now on episode 189. These episodes have lost none of their appeal. I still love them!