Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dark Shadows - The Achievement of Getting Through it All

Where to begin?  Last year I acquired the complete 1,225 episodes series of Dark Shadows.  It took me thirteen months to watch the series from start to end.

My introduction to Dark Shadows came in 1991 with the revival.  I thought that the revival was a great show at the time and I still have a certain fondness for it.  I have also recently watched the DVD release of the series.  The presentation is sadly flawed, the picture has been cropped from 1.33:1 to a "widescreen friendly" 1.78:1 ratio.  Additionally, this show was shot on 35mm color film and several scenes were shot day for night.  It is easier to film during the daytime, and a filter could be applied to camera lens or the colors could be manipulated in post-processing to give a "nighttime" effect.  Usually the result has a tendency to emphasize the blue.  Unfortunately, the day for night processing was ignored for the DVD release, so there are incorrect scenes of vampires walking around in daylight (before Barnabas' treatments take effect) or at best in the late afternoon.    The original MPI VHS releases, each episode being released individually, did not have these problems and showed extended versions of the first and final episodes.

I also at some point saw House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, the films made in the wake of the original series' TV success.  They were released on VHS, but a DVD release did not come until 2012, where there was a simultaneous DVD/Blu-ray release.  This functioned as my only exposure to the original series for quite some time.

MPI released the series on DVD in 26 Collection volumes, beginning from episode 210, which introduces Barnabas, to the last episode.  Then they released 6 "The Beginning" DVD Collections covering episodes 1-209.  The company had previously released the series on VHS in 254 single volume tapes!  The enormous task of obtaining so many VHS or DVDs and the expense when I was too busy with Doctor Who delayed made my introduction to the original series.  Fortunately, MPI re-released the complete original series in one complete box set shaped as a coffin.  In this coffin will be found 22 boxes containing 131 DVDs!  Not only does this drastically reduce the amount of shelf space to hold the series, the Complete Series is much, much more affordable.

When one approaches the original series, there are four names that simply cannot be ignored, Frid, Hall, Parker and Selby, a.k.a. Barnabas Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman, Angelique and Quentin Collins.  Jonathan Frid was a Canadian stage actor who seemingly came out of nowhere to play Barnabas, and after the series ended quickly disappeared back into the shadows.  Before Dark Shadows, the IMDB lists no film or television credits for him, and after that only two movies made soon after the series ended.  During the four years on the show, he created a portrayal of one of the most compelling characters to appear on television.  First a villain with an unhealthy devotion to finding his long-dead love Josette, then a reluctant test-subject and test overseer, finally an outright champion of the Collins family with the occasional lapse into selfishness or to slake his thirst for blood.  Frid could portray a menacing monster, cold & calculating manipulator, a sympathetic and warm cousin or a hot-tempered romantic.  Of course, among the cast members he frequently had trouble with his lines, his delivery showing a great deal of hesitation.  In the movie he seems in greater command of his delivery, doubtless the greater time to rehearse and more lenient demands of film on an actor helped him significantly.

Frid only played two characters, Barnabas and Bramwell Collins.  Grayson Hall, who was an Oscar-nominated actress prior to joining the Dark Shadows cast, played multiple characters.  Her primary character was Dr. Julia Hoffman.  For the late 60s a female doctor or scientist was an unusual role, and Hall was not intended to become a permanent addition to the regular cast.  (The character of Dr. Hoffman was originally designed for a man).  Lucky for her that her husband, Sam Hall, was one of the series main writers.  Her Julia Hoffman had a difficult relationship with Barnabas at first, but during the Adam & Eve plot line they become firm allies and except for one temporary instance they remained so thereafter.  Much fan-fiction has been devoted to exploring the relationship between the two.  Male-female partnerships (outside of marriage) were not yet commonplace in the late 60s.  The Avengers (future article) with John Steed and Catherine Gale, Emma Peel or Tara King is the best known of these partnerships from this time.  Unlike The Avengers, where Steed usually saved his (still capable) female partners, Barnabas and Julia had a more equal relationship.  Barnabas may have saved Julia from some supernatural entity but she saved him from being staked.

Hall's performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman was really twitchy.  She often wore a terrible wardrobe, blinked twice as much as her costars, wore unflattering wigs, could be counted to be very animated and when she became emotional, it was strange.  She has been described as playing her character as though she was on the stage.  To be fair, a more subtle approach may have been lost considering the relatively-low definition video being broadcasted over the air onto a 20-inch TV screen would benefit from a broader playing.  Hall also played aristocratic Countess Natalie Du Pres in the 1795 storyline, the earthy Magda Rakowski in 1897, the Mrs. Danvers-like maid Julia Hoffman in 1970 Parallel Time and the family standard bearer Julia Collins in 1841 Parallel Time.  In these roles, she seemed to tone down her more eccentric acting traits most of the time.

In 1795, we meet Angelique  the author of Barnabas' curse and many troubles thereafter.  Angelique went by many names : Miranda DuVal, Anglique Bouchard, Valerie Collins, Cassandra Collins, Anglique Rumson and, of course, Angelique Collins.  She would never stay defeated for long and her powers seemed to give her a certain form of immortality.  Against anyone but Barnabas or some supernatural power she could seemingly afflict or kill just about anyone.  All she needed was a voodoo doll and something a person owned and she could have the ultimate weapon over that person.  Of course, it helps that the actress, Lara Parker has an insane wide-eyed stare and looked comparatively frightening when she was playing a vampire for a while.  Angelique Stokes Collins was the chief villain in 1970 Parallel Time, essentially a life-essence vampire.  Parker's final role was the 1841 Parallel Time heroine Catherine Harridge Collins.  Unlike her previous roles, her last did not have any supernatural powers but did have a rational and forceful mind.

Finally, there is Quentin Collins, who like Barnabas started out villainous but eventually became heroic, if somewhat-self centered.  (In a soap opera, everyone has their own interests at heart).  When he was first introduced in 1968, he was played by the 28 year old David Selby.  His first incarnation was the malevolent Ghost of Quentin Collins, and the mutton chops and unflattering makeup he had to wear, combined with the lack of lines for his first twenty or so episodes, must have been unusual for an actor with looks that could have landed him leading-man status on a daytime soap.  Selby played five characters named Quentin Collins : the Ghost, Quentin Collins 1897, 1969-70 & 1995, Quentin Collins in 1970 Parallel Time, Quentin Collins 1840, and Quentin Collins in 1841 Parallel Time.  His main character's power, immortality, was inspired by Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey.  He was also cursed with Lycanthropy.  Selby could not don the werewolf makeup, the process would have taken hours, so the Stunt Coordinator was pressed into service.

Dark Shadows was taped in New York at ABC's Studio 2 and later 16.  It was produced by Dan Curtis and his eponymous production company, which was previously best known for filming golf tournaments for broadcasting.  Most of the actors cast were primarily stage actors, although the series hired Joan Bennett for audience draw.  Bennett was a movie star until the mid-1950s and was hired to provide some recognizable name where the rest of the cast were mainly unknowns.

One of the more unusual elements in this show was its involved use of child actors.  David Henesy, who played David Collins and other Collins children, was only nine years old when he was first on Dark Shadows, and he was there for almost throughout the whole show.  The demands of a five-day-a-week soap opera were taxing on the seasoned adult professionals, and this kid was expected to remember his lines, act appropriately and hit his marks.  On top of that, his was a challenging role, playing a troubled young boy with serious parental issues and the supernatural happening all around him to boot.  For the first hundred episodes, he was among the most dangerous members of the main cast.  He acted alongside a succession of young female actresses, including Sharon Smyth as the ghostly and non-ghostly Sarah Collins and Denise Nickerson as Amy Jennings and others.  Smyth had a blank affect about her that was ideal for a ghost, and Denise Nickerson had an extremely natural screen presence.  A soap opera may have more to do with children than many normal dramas, but Dark Shadows employed children well.  Since Dark Shadows was broadcast at 3:30PM or 4:00PM, having younger members in the audience was no doubt calculated to appeal to younger children doing their homework after school.

Once the show went to color in episode 295, any and all location filming ceased.  The series had shot location footage, including the actors, during the first year.  The only color film ever shown seemed to be the waves in the title sequence and an establishing shot of the Blue Whale.  The opening shots of Collinwood were static day or night shots of the Seaview Terrace/Carey Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the building chosen as the image of Collinwood.  Outside scenes were always shot on sets or by blue screening the actors over a static image backdrop.

Portraiture was very important in Dark Shadows.  Portraits of Josette Du Pres, Laura Collins, Barnabas, Angelique and Quentin seemed to have powers of their own.  Josette's spirit seemed to emerge from her portrait in the old house, and unlike later portraits the face does not correspond identically with any of the main cast.  Laura Collins portraits were intended as a warning of her true nature.  Barnabas used his portrait to "will" the greedy to his chained coffin on more than one occasion.  Angelique's portraits were used to influence minds, and Quentin's held his mortality and kept his particular curse at bay.  I doubt the actors sat for most of the portraits, I would suggest the painters worked from photographs.

The music for the series was composed by Robert Colbert, who would also compose music for the 1991 revival and House and Night of Dark Shadows.  His scores were unusually moody and evocative for the time, whether for a soap opera or something else.  As the series progressed, there would be new music added.  The well-known Barnabas' theme with its low strings was not introduced with the character.  Similarly, the haunting Josette's music box theme was added some time after Barnabas gives the box to Maggie Evans.  Characters would have their own themes, Quentin's' early 20th century phonograph theme being especially prominent.  During the early episodes the jukebox in The Blue Whale plays actual music from the pop stars of the day.

Makeup is another area where Dark Shadows attempted to innovate.  When Julia's experiments to cure Barnabas' backfire and turn him to his natural age, the makeup designed by Dick Smith is fantastic.  Perhaps the makeup was a little generous considering Barnabas was intended to be almost 200 years old, but the result is extremely convincing at aging the man.  In fact, the makeup does not look too far off how Frid actually looked in his final years.  Smith topped his performance with the makeup job for the aged Barnabas in House of Dark Shadows.  Other makeup effects were usually decent.  It makes up for the terrible vampire bat effects, which were either the suspended from wires or the video shadow insert variety.

The show took itself seriously, but the production and the storylines were that of a soap opera, so the watcher has to watch this show in a certain spirit of fun.  Every time an actor flubs a line or obviously looks at the teleprompter, a boom mike, a TV camera or a grip finds his way into the scene, its always fun.  Sometimes the period costumes for the men were somewhat tight fitting to the actor and a bulge could be seen.  A drinking game could be constructed based on such oft-repeated lines "Let me go, you're hurting me" or "He is one of the living dead" and my particular favorite "I'll explain everything later."  The show frequently had to cut the credits short or eliminate them entirely to fit it and the commercials into the 30 minute time slot.

I saw the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie in the theater and thought it was a decent homage, but not the best pairing of the two.  (Personally I would say Ed Wood, but many others would point to Edward Scissorhands).  Like the 1991 revival, it focuses on the conflict between Barnabas and Angelique.  It does touch on certain other themes present in the original series, the precarious financial situation of the Collins family, the orphan status of Victoria Winters, the strained relationship between father Roger and son David, the rebellious Carolyn, the supernatural nature of David's mother and the Collins' Cannery & Fishing Fleet.  Unlike the original Barnabas, who had few difficulties blending into the late 60s (he learned to drive a car), the Barnabas of this movie is continually perplexed by modern innovations, something the movie uses for much of its humor.  The movie itself fits comfortably into the post-Ed Wood Depp/Burton series of film adaptations of famous works.  In short it is light, entertaining fare with little underneath the surface.

It is no mean feat to commit to a single massive series (and all the film spinoffs) and stick with it until the end.  While no one is likely to look at Dark Shadows fifty years in the future as a seminal piece of television, it was certainly entertaining and groundbreaking in its own small way.  It may never have broken into the top 10 of soap operas during its run, but all its episodes survive in one form or another, and 98% of them are on color or black and white videotape.  The other 2% come from kinescopes, and the quality is much poorer and the color is lost.  Only one episode is missing, and there is a fan recording of its audio.  Many other soap operas junked their episodes made before the 1980s.  To survive five years, broadcast over 1,000 shows that were seen by and entertained millions in a highly competitive environment and to have had lasting influence to this day is worth a few words.


  1. The bat which bit Barnabas in 1795 is frequently criticized. I recall an article (in Famous Monsters of Filmland?) with photos which said they hired a veteran special effects man from horror films of the '50s to suspend the bat from the fishing pole. I thought that episode was particularly exciting -- even though we can now pause the DVD and see the pole in one or two frames.

  2. Well hopefully this site gets checked once in a while. If you are an anything Dark Shadows fan, you might dig this project:

  3. Dark Shadows was never shot on film, other than the two low budget motion pictures made in tandem with the series. The show was shot first on B&W videotape, then on color Videotape. Also, the DVD's are not pan and scanned. They are presented in 4:3 as originally screened. Your player or TV needs to have it's wide/auto settings adjusted so your 4:3 stuff is shown in 4:3. It's as simple as that. Otherwise, great article. Thanks Marty Gillis

  4. My comments in the second paragraph are correct but that paragraph was only intended to discuss the 1991 Ben Cross revival series, which was shot on film and presented on TV in the 4:3 aspect ratio. That release is cropped so I have read, so activating a 4:3 mode only distorts the picture.

    Your comments are correct about the original series from 1966-71, but the opening credits and some of the location footage in the early B&W episodes was filmed.