Posted: 06/23/2003

 

Dark Shadows DVD Collection, Volumes 1-6

(1966-1971)

by Joe Steiff




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To hear my mother tell it, she began coming home from work only to have her 9-year old son (me) talk incessantly about witches and ghosts and vampires and time travel. After some careful sleuthing, she attributed my strange dinner conversations to a little known (but rapidly becoming popular) soap opera. Without so much as an apology, I was no longer left on my own after school. I was shipped off to my grandmother’s house every afternoon where the TV was resolutely turned off. Such was the end of my days of watching Dark Shadows.

Until now. Oh, yeah, some cable networks have at various points rerun episodes of the original, but MPI has answered the plea of many a grown up 9-year old boy by releasing the entire series, Dark Shadows, on DVD. Well, not quite the entire series, but all the episodes that count.

Dark Shadows had limped along for about 200 episodes as a variation on gothic romance novels - a young woman (Victoria Winters originally played by Alexandra Moltke) arrives at a once-elegant estate to serve as governess. When cancellation seemed eminent, the creator (Dan Curtis) introduced the element that would make the series a sensation for 4 more years and a cult favorite that continues to this day: Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), a guilt-ridden, 175 year old vampire whose true love, Josette, had killed herself.

But the introduction of a sympathetic vampire wasn’t the only bold move by the series. In Episodes 365 & 366 (DVD Collection Four), Victoria Winters participates in a séance that sends her back in time where she meets the human Barnabas. Trapped but aware of the Collins family history, Victoria tries to change Barnabas’ fate.

MPI has done an outstanding job transferring the masters to DVD, and the 85 episodes shot in black & white are pristine. Even the DVD menu is beautiful and eerie in its simplicity of howling dogs and blue-black night, Collinswood in the distance, ambiguous as to whether it offers haven or hell. Beginning with DVD Collection Five, the episode titles are a bit larger and arranged slightly differently on the screen. While I miss the understated elegance of the titles along the bottom of the menu screen, I do appreciate that the new arrangement allows for better legibility. Particularly nice in all the collections is that each episode is listed with its original airdate.

Just so we don’t worry that we missed something beforehand, DVD Collection One begins with a brief summary that features highlights from Episodes 1 through 209, which focused primarily on Victoria Winters and the Lady of the house played by Joan Bennett.

Beginning with the discovery of a chained coffin in a secret room within the Collins Mausoleum (Episode 210, originally broadcast on April 17, 1967), each subsequent episode is presented in its entirety. The initial black & white episodes are gorgeous. For 1/2 hour, the late 60s television set would become a portal into another world - a world of perpetual night - appropriate to the supernatural goings on and in stark contrast to the afternoon sun blazing outside viewers’ homes.

With Episode 295 (aired in mid August, 1967, DVD Collection Three) the series began shooting in color, and the visual aesthetic suffered as a result. No longer able to create the rich blacks and dark moods, the crew had to pump the sets with more light in order to render an image in color, and the shadows were all but lost. However, by the time the series was shooting its 400th episode (in DVD Collection Five), the production crew seemed to have found a reasonable compromise between the needs for lighting 1960s video and the aesthetic demands of the material. Though video masters are notoriously short-lived, MPI has transferred to DVD the best masters and elements available, making for an uninterrupted progression of the story from episode to episode even if the quality of individual episodes may vary. MPI has done an excellent job.

Each collection contains a hefty 40 episodes (about 18 hours of viewing time) as well as several bonus interviews with various members of cast and crew. Though the interviews are short, they offer interesting insights into the series and the experience of making Dark Shadows.

DVD Collection One (1) covers Barnabas’ arrival “from England” and his settling in to Collinswood; Collection Two (2) introduces the ghost of Sarah Collins as Barnabas tries to recreate his lost love; Collection Three (3) finds Victoria Winters engaged and Barnabas jealous; Collection Four (4) subjects Barnabas to medical treatments in an effort to become human again; and Collection Five (5) has exorcisms, religious zealots and witches running amuck as Victoria adjusts to life in 1795.

DVD Collection Six (6) is available now and centers on Victoria Winters’ trial as a witch in late 18th Century Maine. This was the point where my mom interceded, and I can’t wait to see what happens!

Joe Steiff is a writer and filmmaker living in Chicago.



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