“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning – a journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me, and link my past with my future. A journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place – to the edge of the sea high atop Widow’s Hill – a house called Collinwood. A world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met. People who tonight are still only shadows in my mind, and who will soon fill the days and nights of my tomorrows.”
And thus, Dan Curtis’ sprawling, Gothic, cult horror-soap opera Dark Shadows began, detailing the story of Victoria Winters, newly hired as a governess by the mysterious Collins Family, a powerful Maine fishing-family, made wealthy by business, but weakened by years of tragedy and scandal. The daily, half-hour soap introduced bored housewives and young children to a world of macabre mysteries, ghosts, witches, and of course, vampires. Dark Shadows was a struggling soap whose programming days were almost always numbered until, 200 episodes into the show, the writers introduced vampire Barnabas Collins (the late, great Jonathan Frid) to the viewing audience, and a cult powerhouse was born.
To try to explain the many, many plots of Dark Shadows in the space I have here would be a fool’s errand. A simple, but unsatisfactory, main plot overview will have to do: Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) has been hired, quite mysteriously, by the Collins Family, headed by matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Joan Bennett), a widow who hasn’t left the estate of Collinwood for eighteen years. Victoria has been hired as a governess to look after David (David Henesy), the troubled son of Elizabeth’s brother Roger (Louis Edmond) – both of whom live in the decaying mansion. Also in the house is Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), Elizabeth’s 18-year-old daughter – a girl torn between her family and her freedom. Once a foundling at an orphanage, Victoria comes to Collinsport to search for clues to her past, and gets caught up in the Collins Family’s drama, which, at first, comes mostly from their past dealings with another newcomer to the town – Burke Devlin (Mitch Ryan).
What starts as a Jane Eyre-ish mystery soon becomes a supernatural thriller with the introduction of ghosts into the plot when it is revealed that Collinwood is haunted. This phantasmagoric bent, aided by the rich, dark mythology of Collinsport itself – the tragic history of the Collins clan and the legend of Widows Hill – gave viewers a fantastical and chilling story that defied normal soap-opera fodder (although there was plenty of soap opera romance and melodrama, to be sure).
When the novelty of the show’s normal ghoulies and ghosties started to die off, creator Dan Curtis hired Jonathan Frid to play a vampire to “heat things up”; the character was intended to span a thirteen week arc, spice things up, and be staked. Instead, Barnabas Collins, tortured vampire, became the breakout character, and the show became a smash hit. Turned into a vampire by the witch Angelique (Lara Parker), after spurning her for his love, Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott, who also played Josette’s reincarnation, waitress Maggie Evans), Barnabas was locked in a coffin and hidden in the family crypt. When accidentally freed by Collins Family handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen), Barnabas was ready to feed again and return to his rightful place in the Collins Family.
That doesn’t even cover a fraction of the whole span of Dark Shadows. The shows story arcs included time-traveling, parallel times, werewolves, manmade monsters, and various other supernatural elements. The show borrowed many elements from literature, including a Dorian Grey-like character who never aged (Quentin Collins, also a part-time werewolf, played by David Selby), and elements of Dracula, including Willie’s Renfield-esque relationship to Barnabas and Dr. Julia Hoffman’s (Grayson Hall) attempts to cure vampirism via blood transfusion. With these numerous plotlines, and the obligatory romances and betrayals of any good soap opera, Dark Shadows lives on as one of the most original programs in television history.
Much has been made of the show’s campy quality, but, while it is overhyped, it is important to mention. Yes, Dark Shadows is the show that is infamous for countless boom-mic shadows, intrusive crew members seen on-screen, wobbly sets, many flies in actors faces, and some really awkward line flubs… but this is only one (unfair) side to the story. Critics are quick to forget that Dark Shadows encompasses 1,255 live-to-tape daily episodes. That is to say that every weekday, the cast and crew of Dark Shadows had to learn a new script, with new blocking, and perform it perfectly in one take – or every mistake would be permanent. The demands of a daily, one-take show that switched scripts every day would be enough to make the most competent of actors quake; it would be amazingly narrow-minded to write these flubs off as a product of amateur work – indeed, it is a testament to the ambition and talent of the show’s brilliant cast and crew.
With a big-budget film adaptation of Dark Shadows – directed by Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Ed Wood), written by Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and starring Johnny Depp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) as Barnabas Collins – MPI Home Video has released the complete 1,255-episode run of Dark Shadows as a DVD box set. MPI had originally released the show in 32 separate 4-DVD sets (first releasing the Barnabas episodes, then returning to the pre-Barnabas beginning episodes), but those collections were priced at 59.99 (or above), and are now out of print.
Now MPI offers Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series as a solution to the woes of collectorship. This amazingly thorough set is shaped like a coffin, and includes every episode of Dark Shadows on 121 DVDs (in 22 cases) that, when housed in the box, appear as Barnabas, lying in his coffin. The coffin box itself is sturdy, taking up a large amount of space (the whole set weights 17 pounds). The show is spread out across 116 of the discs, with the last five DVDs dedicated to special features, detailed here:
Disc 127 – Special Programs & Compilations
Dark Shadows Tribute
Scariest Moments From Dark Shadows
The Best of Barnabas
Dark Shadows: 25th Anniversary Special
Disc 128 – Featurettes & More
The Making of Return to Collinwood
Dan Curtis – Before the Shadows
The Mistress of Collinwood – Joan Bennett
A Fan Remembers
1970 Dark Shadows Rehearsals & Pre-tape Segments w/ Lara Parker
1984 Dark Shadows PBS Promos w/ Jonathan Frid
1969 ABC-TV Promotional Announcements
The Beginning (an overview of the pre-Barnabas episodes)
Dark Shadows: Vampires & Ghosts
Disc 129 – Bloopers & Treasures
Bloopers & Outtakes
Dark Shadows Music Videos
Dark Shadows in Salem
Game Shows (two full game shows from the 60s/70s with cast appearances)
Dark Shadows Pillow Commercial
Disc 130 – Special Edition
Dark Shadows – Behind the Scenes
Dark Shadows: Nightmares & Dreams
Dark Shadows: On Location
Inside The Shadows
Spanish Episode #289
Rare TV Commercials & Promo Spots
Photo Gallery & Music Montage
Disc 131 – Dark Shadows Reunion
Reunion Backstage Reception
1969 Jonathan Frid interview on the Merv Griffin Show
1970 Joan Bennett interview on the Mike Douglas Show
Original 1969 Promos w/ Kathryn Leigh Scott
In addition to those discs, other special features and interviews are interspersed through the set, including:
Series introduction with Alexandra Moltke
1966 ABC-TV Dark Shadows Promo
Episode I with Original Commercials
Collinsport History with Kathryn Leigh Scott
Episode 191 – Extra Footage
Restored Episode 211 (Barnabas’ Arrival) w/ Original 1967 Commercials
Syndication Sales Reel & Promos
Dark Shadows Sci-Fi Channel Commercials
Joan Bennett Newsreel Footage
Beyond The Shadows featurette
And interviews with Alexandra Moltke, Michael Brockman, Mitchell Ryan, Conard Fowkes, Diana Milay, Malcolm Marmorstein, Robert Costello, Ron Sproat, Leonard Wolfe, Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, John Karlen, Dan Curtis, Nancy Barrett, Dennis Patrick, Sharon Smyth, Louis Edmonds, Lela Swift, Dick Smith, Sam Hall, Lara Parker, Jerry Lacy, Robert Cobert, Roger Davis, Sy Tomashoff, Ben Martin, Leonard Goldberg, Jim Pierson, Robert Rodan, Matthew Hall, Marie Wallace, Denise Nickerson, Stuart Goodman, Les Schecter, David Selby, Michael Stroka, Donna McKechnie, James Butlet, Leonard Edmonds, George DiCenzo, J. J. Lupatkin, Christopher Pennock, Geoffrey Scott, Michael Logan, Paula Laurence, Joe Caldwell, Donna Wandrey, Mark Dawidziak, James Storm, Kate Jackson, Nick Besink, Mary McKinley.
On top of all this, the set includes a glossy, deluxe episode guide, giving one-to-two line synopses of all 1,255 episodes, pictures from the series, and an overview of the differing video quality (re: which episodes rely on kinescope copies, and details on the reconstructed episodes).
It is worth noting here that this set is a bit pricy; indeed, many people will think twice about plunking down the retail of 599.98 for the complete series. (available cheaper on various online sites — and the limited version is going for over 1,000, as a result it being out of print). It is also worth noting, however, than the complete run of the separate collections would cost you at least 1,200. This difference in price doesn’t include the extra content — most of the “extras” on the last discs in the collection have been issued separately (and are also out of print), so this collection is your best way to go if you are intent on owning the complete series.
Additionally, the Limited Edition set (now sold out) contains a decal indicating a limited number out of 2,500, as well as a postcard of Barnabas Collins, hand-signed by Jonathan Frid. Sadly, Frid passed away on April 13, 2012 (three days after the release of the limited edition of this set) – making those signed postcards a very limited, but ultimately bittersweet, bonus to an already amazing set. Though the Limited Edition version of this set sold out during its pre-order, MPI is releasing the Deluxe Edition of the set on July 10th – the content of which is identical to the Limited Edition, sans the limited number decal and, sadly, the Jonathan Frid autograph. (For those who don’t want to spend the money on the complete set, MPI is re-releasing the separate 34-volume collections, as well as two compilation discs – Fan Favorites & The Best of Barnabas.)
Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series may well be the best horror home-video release of the year, if not the flat out best home-video release of the year. This is truly an excellent set – the definitive Dark Shadows collection. While the show itself may not be for everyone, for fans (new and old), this set is really an outstanding tribute to a wonderful show – a show that blended Gothic imagery with horror, romance, and imagination, and ended up being the precursor to many fantastical show. Without Dark Shadows, one has to ask if there would have ever been television programs like Twin Peaks or Carnivale? However you weigh the importance of the show, one thing is clear: Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series has been put together with the utmost love for the show, its cast and crew, and its fans, and I easily, heartily recommend investing in this astonishing collection. The legend of Collinwood, and Barnabas Collins, lives on… within this set. Will you unlock its secrets?
Nathan Erdel is a screenwriter. He wrote Headless and some other stuff. He likes beer, metal, pizza, and horror. He has three cats and one wife.
Other posts in this series:
- MUSIC REVIEW: The Original Music from ABC-TV's Dark Shadows (May 9, 2012)
- REVIEW: Dark Shadows - The Revival (May 8, 2012)
- Review: Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series (May 7, 2012)