Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Dark Shadows Guy

Looks like I may be developing a reputation as a DARK SHADOWS specialist.

A little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a lively roundtable discussion of the history and impact of this landmark series with some other DS aficionados that was published in Video Watchdog #169.  The article was well-received by the genre film community and the issue as a whole was honored with a Rondo award for "Best Themed Issue" of a magazine.  You can find the issue, along with most other Video Watchdog issues right here.

Soon I'll have another DARK SHADOWS piece to add to my portfolio, as the upcoming Video Watchdog #175 will include my review of the current comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment.  When the issue becomes available, I'll post a link here for anyone interested.

I thought I'd use today's post to talk a bit about DARK SHADOWS and its appeal, particularly for those aren't all that familiar with the show or who perhaps retain vague memories of the days when it was a genuine pop culture phenomenon.

DARK SHADOWS was essentially a soap opera which ran on ABC in the late afternoon, Monday through Friday, beginning in 1966 and finishing up in 1971.  The afternoon time slot may have been a key to the show's success as school kids were often able to make it home in time to catch the day's episode. In fact,  "I ran home from the bus stop every day to watch DARK SHADOWS," has become a ubiquitous part of every fan discussion of the program.  It's hard to dispute that as the show began to feature more and more monsters--vampires, witches, werewolves--its appeal to younger viewers skyrocketed, to the point that its stars, including Jonathan Frid and David Selby, became regular fixtures in the teen magazines of the day.

The show began as a more or less realistic soap with a very Gothic atmosphere.  The story of young Victoria Winters, hired as a governess by the mysterious Collins family, included most of the familiar tropes.  A spooky old mansion, mysterious footsteps, characters burdened by decades-old secrets--all trappings as familiar to viewers then as they are to us now--lent the show's opening months a mood very different from the standard suburban angst soaps surrounding it on the schedule grid.  As the months went by, the writers (guided by producer Dan Curtis) took bolder steps into the unknown.  The characters began to see ghosts.  And eventually, the ghosts became pivotal characters in the series' story lines.

In April 1967, the show crossed a bold line by introducing an actual monster, the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid), as a new villain.  Originally intended to serve as the focus for an extended story arc before finally being destroyed, Barnabas quickly became popular with the show's audience and generated quite a bit of buzz.  Suddenly, instead of being that spooky soap opera, DARK SHADOWS became that show about the adventures of an actual vampire.  As the ratings rose and Barnabas gathered more and more media attention, the show's creators decided that the vampire wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Over the ensuing years, Barnabas was joined by several werewolves, witches and demons, a Frankenstein-like creation, a Jekyll and Hyde knock-off and several other supernatural creatures.  Beyond the addition of monsters, the writers hit upon the innovation of time-travel and alternate dimension story lines.  Viewers were treated to extended (months long!) trips into the past to explore the history of the Collins family in the 18th and 19th century.  While these excursions were compelling and among the series' most lauded accomplishments, all the time-travel and journeys into the lives of alternate universe versions of the family may have contributed to the show's cancellation as viewers began to lose track of exactly which version of the Collinses they were watching.  Despite some fine moments, the show's final year must have proven baffling to casual viewers as it jumped back and forth between the "real" 1970 Collinwood mansion, the 19th century Collinwood, an alternate universe 1970 Collinwood and a possible 1990s future, before finishing up in an alternate universe 19th century Collinwood with all the regular cast members playing different characters in each time period.  If that's confusing to read, imagine trying to keep track of it watching a few episodes a week or coming back to the show after missing a few weeks or months.

So what is the enduring appeal of this interesting television experiment?  Beyond the nostalgia of those who liked the show as kids and the appeal to fans of classic horror in general, the show continues to retain a fan base because, quite frankly, there has never been anything like it before or since in television.  One factor is the five-episodes-a-week format, a schedule traditionally limited to mainstream serials with broader appeal.  Having hundreds of hours to fill gave show plenty of time to stretch out its storylines and the imaginations of its writers.  Another reason it endures is probably the camp factor.  The show IS a 1960s soap opera, after all, with all that that implies.  Melodramatic dialogue and acting, cheap sets and the rough edges that come with having to put on a new production, live-to-tape (meaning no second takes) every day of the week in a tiny New York studio, all lend the show something of a quaint air at times.  Even the die-hard fans find things which make them chuckle sympathetically from time to time.  But DARK SHADOWS is in no way a so-bad-it's-good kind of deal.  It's the product of a lot of fine creators and actors doing their damndest to put together something worthwhile and original under the most demanding of circumstances.

So there you go.  If you're a fan of today's extended storyline original series and you can get into old-timey horror stories and you can hold the snarky laughter and dismissiveness at bay when the dialogue gets a little overblown or a special effect looks cheesy, then DARK SHADOWS may be for you.  The entire 1225 episodes are available in one handsome box set for a few hundred bucks but I wouldn't exactly recommend  that kind of plunge for the casual dabbler.  There seem to be quite a few numbered episodes available on Youtube if you want to patch together a viewing experience that way.  But the best bet for most folks is probably the big chunk of the series offered on Netflix streaming.  This block of shows begins with Barnabas' debut episode which is actually where most interested parties should probably start.  If you really get into the series, you can go seek out the earliest episodes later.  That's what we did.  Oh and the show was in black and white until maybe 75 or a hundred episodes after Barnabas shows up, so don't be put off by that.

At the top of this entry you'll find what I think is a pretty solid DARK SHADOWS scene.  This particular clip takes place in 1795 after young Barnabas Collins has become a vampire under the curse of the witch Angelique.  Here, freshly gorged on the blood of the innocent, he confesses his shameful secret to family servant Ben Stokes.  Other than Gloria Holden in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936), Barnabas was very likely the first reluctant, guilt-ridden vampire.  I think this scene gives a nice sense of that.  Direct link here.

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