Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Dark Shadows - The Complete Original Series Review

Dark Shadows is a landmark of classic television, introducing the concept of a supernatural, gothic horror soap opera to daytime television.  The series ran for 1,225 22-minute episodes from 1966-1971.  While I could wax on all day about the history of Dark Shadows and its significance, and have in the past, there are other sites on the internet which can do that in a more knowledgeable manner.  Today I am hear to talk about the epitome of Dark Shadows, the Complete Original Series boxset (DS:COS) and offer my review of it.  

Background to the DS:COS

The original Dark Shadows series had rarely been out of circulation.  From the end of its broadcast in 1971 and the two feature films made toward the end (House & Night of Dark Shadows), it could generally be found playing somewhere in syndication or reruns.  I remember the Sci-Fi channel running it in the late 1990s and they ran it twice a day.  

MPI Home Video has always held the rights to distribute the series on home video.  It released the complete series on VHS in 254 volumes, with approximately 5 episodes per tape.  Once a month it would release four volumes, (one VHS cassette per volume) just about every month. They began in 1989 with episode 210 and released the episodes through 1245*.  Then MPI released episodes 1-209, which were the episodes before the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins, who would become the most popular character of the show.  It re-released the first 8 VHS volumes at the end of the range because MPI skipped over episodes in which Barnabas did not appear.  This is why there are more volumes than needed for the episode count.  With the re-releases, the VHS range was complete in 1995.

Then in 2002 MPI began releasing the show on DVD.  This time the episodes were released in "Collections" featuring 4 discs per Collection.  The complete series was released in 32 Collections, the last being released in 2008.  These DVDs included many extra features, multi-part cast and crew interviews, retrospectives, alternate versions, promos, convention footage and more.  Similar to the VHS releases, MPI started with episode 210 in Volume 1 and went through to 1245 with Volume 26, but included all episodes in order this time.  Then MPI went back for 1-209 released as Volumes 1-6 of "Dark Shadows: The Beginning".  

Dark Shadows was riding pretty high back in 2012 due to the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie adaptation of the series being released that year.  Seeing no reason not to jump on the hype train and noting that the current manner of acquiring the complete series was a little cumbersome and rather expensive, MPI decided to release the complete run of the series, all 1245 episodes, in one boxset of DVDs in April (Limited Edition) and then July of 2012 (Deluxe (Unlimited) Edition).  They also 3 DVDs worth of special features above and beyond the separate Collection releases (some of which had been released as separate DVDs earlier).  Almost 10 years later, DS:COS is still in print and readily available.  

Tips on Buying DS:COS Today

If you buy DS:COS, be aware of a few things.  The set is huge and expensive to produce, so it is not cheap.  There are listings for DS:COS new on eBay, but do NOT buy them.  They are not legitimate copies but pirate goods.  You may save $100-150, but you will be buying worse problems.  The discs will be single sided so the picture quality will be poorer than the legitimate set, they will use DVD-Rs (which have lower longevity) instead of pressed discs, the coffin box and booklet will be made of cheaper materials and there will likely be playback problems.  MPI's page on counterfeit videos and the YouTube video linked therein is pretty comprehensive on what to look out for and what to expect if you go down this route.  A used set may be legitimate.

When the DS:COS, the unlimited edition retailed at $349.99 if my memory serves me correctly.   The best place to buy DS:COS is not Amazon.com as you might think.  You can, at this time of writing, buy it directly from MPI Home Video's site for $409.99.  Sometimes there are coupons for the site which allow you to save even more money.  The purchase of DS:COS qualifies for free shipping and MPI did not charge me sales tax (it only collects tax for Illinois residents).  Amazon retails the set for $449.99 and while it offers free shipping, it also charges sales tax to addresses of all states which have sales tax.  

There are a few other sources that sell DS:COS for slightly less than MPI's website, but either they typically charge for shipping or collect sales tax, or both.  I decided that even if I could get a slightly better price from a seemingly legitimate seller, there was a good reason to go directly to the source.  Because there are so many DVDs in this set, the odds are higher than with other products that one or more DVDs may be defective.  It may take months for me to get to Disc 85 to find it defective.  At that point, what should I do?  Should I try to initiate a return with the seller or with the manufacturer?  I decided to skip the middleman and deal directly with the manufacturer.  I asked MPI's customer support what would happen in a situation like I described and was supplied this answer within a day: "We will guarantee any product we sell directly from MPI.  We would try and just replace the disc if it was bad."  I completed my purchase later that day.  

The discs are encoded as Region 1 discs, so if you're not in Region 1 (USA/Canada) you will need a way to play them.  I do not know if MPI ships overseas, but if it does you will probably have to pay for shipping.  

The Physical Qualities of DS:COS

DS:COS comes as 22 Amray-style DVD cases containing 131 DVDs. These cases are contained in a cardboard "coffin box" with a hinged lid which opens on its side.  The lid has a ribbon for keeping the top cover from falling out.  The spines of the DVD cases form an image of Barnabas Collins resting in his coffin.  Tucked into the extra space before the DVD cases is a 48 page booklet giving an Episode Guide with quick plot summaries of every episode and identifying the bonus content on each disc.  

Everything about DS:COS is imposing, just like the show in its full state.  The Coffin Box measures at 13.5"L x 11.25"W x 5.75"H.  It weighs 15 pounds.  It comes in its own shipping box with cardboard cut to fill the gaps between the coffin and the shipping box.  The coffin box is in a bag but the bag is not sealed, only the shipping box is sealed.  While the shipping box is a normal beige/brown box, it has the contents of the box clearly marked on the side.  I chide MPI for this, the box might as well say "steal me" on it by listing the contents ("Dark Shadows Coffin" "DVD", let me see what a Google search comes up with...)

DS:COS was first released as a "Limited Edition" of 2500 numbered boxsets.  These boxsets included a signed postcard from Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins).  The postcard is not included in the unlimited Deluxe Edition, which is not numbered.  Anyone claiming to sell an unopened Limited Edition either has a mistaken listing, is a counterfeiter or a scalper.  

As the coffin box is made out of cardboard, it may not wear well over time.  If you plan on frequent access, you may wish to remove the DVD cases and store them separately on a shelf or on a bookcase to limit the wear and tear on the rather sharp looking coffin box.  And when you open up the Amray cases, be careful about the discs held in the middle.  The tray has holes in it to cut down on plastic usage, but you can touch exposed areas of the data side of the disc, causing fingerprints and playback issues.  As up to six discs can be in a case, the holder for the bottom discs has less to grab onto than the other holders, so those may rattle around.

In DS:COS, Disc 1 starts with episode 1 and goes in order until episode 1245 is reached on Disc 126.  Discs 127-131 consist of bonus features, but there are interviews and a few other bonuses sprinkled across Discs 1-126.  One slight annoyance of the set is that the episode numbers are not printed on the spine of the Amray cases, so if you need to find a particular episode you may have to guess where it might be and pull out a case or two, or look in the booklet, to find the correct case and disc.  The episode contents are printed on the back of the cases, in the booklet and on the discs themselves.  

Menu Sample

The Technical and Layout Qualities of DS:COS

Dark Shadows was originally shot as a live television production, even though it was never broadcast live.  Editing video tape was prohibitively expensive in the 1960s and because an episode was being shot every weekday, there was little time to correct mistakes.  Many errors were left in the show because to fix them would require them to start an episode over again from the beginning.  

The show would be captured by large video cameras on studio sets with the occasional piece of location filming being mixed into the video segments.  The show was shot in black and white for episodes 1-294 and color for episodes 295-1245.  The video format was NTSC 525-line video at 59.94 interlaced fields per second.  Episodes would be recorded on 2" Ampex Quad Reel-to-Reel Tape, the professional broadcast standard of its time.  

As I have stated before, true interlaced video, whether in SD or HD, is high frame rate video because interlaced odd video fields are not paired even video fields to construct a "perfect" single frame.  Instead, each field captures an image at a unique point in time 16.67 milliseconds after the previous field (in NTSC).  More fluid movement than a film or a film-like capture results because more images are captured with the same space of time.  

High frame rate material is often loathed by people who prefer a more cinematic look to film and television.  Sometimes interlaced video is called the "soap opera effect", and soap operas have sort-of maintained this look in the US to the present day because it looks closer to real life or watching a staged play.  SD CRT TVs were made for interlaced video and show it as intended, if you can watch DS:COS on one I would highly recommend it. DVD was made during the days when the SD CRT TV was the dominant form of television display technology and is an inherently interlaced format.  As it is a digital format, does not lose quality with repeated viewings like a VHS cassette and has a better sampling resolution than any video shot for the NTSC broadcast standard like Dark Shadows, it is the best medium to transmit Dark Shadows currently available.  

When examining the discs themselves, they have one unusual quality to them.  While every other TV series I have ever bought with more than one episode per disc stores each episode in separate VOB files, DS:COS discs store all episodes in one VOB file.  Each disc has between 9-10 episodes on it.  So you cannot rip each individual episode off a disc, you have to rip the whole chunk of episodes and then use a video editor program to chop them up into individual episode files if you wish.  Special features are usually stored in separate files and can be ripped separately, but not always.  As these discs are reissues of the individual Collection DVD releases, the menus and the content of virtually all the discs other than the last three bonus discs will be the same as the earlier releases.

Not all episodes of Dark Shadows survive on videotape.  26 episodes (plus 1/4 of another) survive only as kinescopes, which were produced by pointing a film camera at a TV screen and recording the broadcast onto 16mm (occasionally 35mm) film.  The resulting video, always in black and white, and audio was good enough for an affiliate which did not have a tape recording machine or its planning did not put the show in its intended time slot.  The result is that 7** episodes in B&W will originally look poorer than they did when broadcast and 19 episodes that were originally broadcast in color will be seen in B&W on DS:COS.  When you encounter a kinescope, the DVD should warn you prior to the episode's beginning.  One episode, 1219, does not survive at all in video form, so it has been reconstructed using narration, still images and a fan-based recording of the audio track.  

Barnabas in B&W

One thing that will seem weird is that episodes 1-209 will have a shot of a slate and an announcer announcing the taping/air dates and episode number and take number.  From episodes 210 onward there is no announcer/slate shot.  This is because of the way in which the show was released.  When MPI first released Dark Shadows, it started with episode 210, which introduces Barnabas Collins.  Then it released the series in order until it got to the end, episode 1245.  Throughout these releases the announcer and slate were edited out of the masters used for the video releases.  Then MPI went back and released episodes 1-209 ("The Beginning") which were before Barnabas' introduction.  For these episodes MPI decided not to edit out the announcer/slate shot and that is the way they have been presented ever since.  The announcer/slate would not have been part of the original broadcasts and MPI should have edited them out of "The Beginning" presentations long ago, but they did not so we are stuck with them.

If you are looking for stellar video quality, by modern standards it does not exist in Dark Shadows. (If you want a quality epitome of the Barnabas storyline, go buy the House of Dark Shadows Blu-ray.) These reflect the inherent limitations of the original source material, which is based on video standards devised in 1941 and 1953.  Moreover, these master tapes were likely stored in some indifferent circumstances given that many original tapes were lost.  While the tapes probably looked better when broadcast in the 1960s, the broadcast and viewing technology back was far inferior to DVD output and even consumer CRTs of the 1990s were far better than those of the 1960s.

The episodes which survive on videotape are, in my opinion, very watchable despite the occasional video issue.  The sound quality is unremarkable.  The episodes which only survive on kinescope are a bit of an ordeal, especially with sound on some of them, but they are only temporary issues.  I do not know when the master tapes were last digitized, so while there could be some small improvements here and there with a more recent transfer.  I wonder what the Doctor Who Restoration Team could have done, but given the mammoth nature of the show, the sheer amount of work that would be required to improve the video quality significantly would be soul-crushing.  Maybe the kinescopes could be improved but that would require a significant investment for 2% of the episodes.

Barnabas in Color

The Benefits of Discs vs. Streaming and Downloads

I need not speak generally of the advantages of discs over streaming but I will confine myself to specific issues with a set like DS:COS.  Dark Shadows is currently available from Amazon.com on Amazon Prime.  While Amazon Prime is much cheaper than buying DS:COS, the boxset has certain advantages over Prime.  You do not need an internet connection to watch a DVD and your viewing experience will not suffer due to bandwidth limitations.  You can watch the DVDs for as long as they last whereas Amazon must be renewed every year.  It could very well take over a year to get through the series, even if you religiously watched 5 episodes a night it will take you 245 days to watch the whole series.  Show availability comes and goes on streaming platforms, and if Amazon loses the rights to stream, you may be stuck without a legitimate solution to watch the episodes.

I have watched all episodes of Dark Shadows before, and the method by which I did this is, shall we say, not without its moral questionability.  The show is available for P2P downloading if you know where to look and is not hard to find.  However the publicly-available torrent has lower quality video than the official discs. Finally, it should be noted that the download is based off the 32 separate DVD Volumes released prior to DS:COS.  Errors in two episodes were corrected since that time.

Moreover, both streaming and downloading options may impact the fluidity of interlaced video by deinterlacing which does not completely respect the high frame rate look of a videotaped show.  While the effect is not generally completely removed, it still may not be an ideal representation of how the series is supposed to look.  

Final Words

Is DS:COS worth buying given its high price tag?  If you are a fan and wish to own the whole you do not need me to persuade you to buy.  If you are just starting out, you may want to try the streaming option first to make sure you know that you will like this show enough to spend over $400 to get it.  Although the price tag seems high, you are getting 449 hours of narrative plus hours and hours of bonus features.  There are more expensive shows out there (Classic Doctor Who) and buying all those releases is a much more inconvenient process.  If you want to see how TV was produced in the second half of the 1960s to the early 1970s, with 97% of its visual material still available, you should definitely consider buying Dark Shadows: The Complete Original Series.


(* - Dark Shadows' episode numbering skipped a few numbers and later combined two or three numbers due to preemption for other shows, the result is that Episode 1245 was the 1225th episode produced.)

(** - Two additional episodes (211 & 289) appear as kinescope copies with the other episodes on their respective discs, but the videotape is located on versions of those episodes stored as special features.  289's videotape version comes with a Spanish dub track, 211 was not found when the episode was originally released on DVD, it was released later with its original commercials.)

1 comment:

  1. This really is a great set. I bought it in March 2021 directly from MPI. Honestly, I think at $400, it's a steal. Hundreds of hours of content that will keep you entertained for months. It's really the ultimate Dark Shadows collectible.

    My dad was a huge sci-fi/horror fan and collector, but Dark Shadows especially, held a special place for him. Probably because he was one of those many kids who used to "run home from school" to watch in the late 60s/early 70s. So I became a fan through him. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of drawing pictures of Barnabas, Collinwood, and the logo, making sure to get the D and the S just right. I watched bits and pieces of the series throughout my childhood between what my dad got via tape trading, and catching it when I could when it was on the Sci-Fi Channel.

    Now I'm watching it beginning to end for the very first time, alongside my wife who is watching for the first time ever. Just got to episode 308 last night and slowly chugging along.