Dark Shadows Collection 13 Dynamite!
By Kristin Battestella
Once again, I am neck deep and in the spirit of the spooky season year round thanks to the scary paranormal suspense and 1897 time travel tribulations of Dark Shadows and the macabre soap’s DVD Collection 13.
When the Ghost of Quentin Collins (David Selby) drives the entire Collins family from Collingwood, governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and her two possessed charges (David Henesy and Denise Nickerson) flee to the Old House as Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) search for answers to rid them of the poltergeist and stop Chris Jennings’ (Don Briscoe) werewolf transformations. When Barnabas and Professor Stokes (Thayer David) discover Quentin’s I Ching wands, Barnabas uses them to will himself to the year 1897. Once in the past, he introduces himself to Judith Collins (Joan Bennett) and investigates Quentin’s secrets. Unfortunately, Barnabas harbors a secret of his own – he has been unchained from his coffin and is once again a vampire.
Despite having watched Dark Shadows’ original 1795 time travel and period piece changeover, the first time I saw the Quentin haunting storyline, I never expected the ghostly hints, Quentin’s Room, Victorian appearances, and possession infiltrations would lead to the complete 19th century domination of Dark Shadows’ next 183 episodes. Today, it takes a series a decade to get that kind of screen time! Not only does this longest and highest rated flashback storyline mean our company stock becomes all new characters, but eventually several players will end up with multiple roles thanks to the nine month duration of the 1897 plot. Collection 13 begins with Episode 696 from February 1969, just before the 19th century switch, and concludes with a wallop for Number 735. Although I never thought to write upon them before, I must say the opening narrations on Dark Shadows are great. The viewer is quickly up to speed in complete gothic keeping, and I wish more shows still did this. Of course, the reading is total hyperbole and yet there is a cryptic poetry that draws you in – be it past scandals or present wolfy.
Collection 13 does spend its first five episodes dawdling with multiple 1969 storylines and unfortunately leaves the Chris Jennings werewolf drama slightly unwrapped and easily forgotten. Don Briscoe and stunt wolf Alex Stevens are fine in their brief scenes, but good riddance to Ned Stuart and Sabrina’s blue hair! Roger Davis and Lisa Blake Richards are so over the top and the result falls flat against the cruel Quentin charisma and budding 1897 mysteries. Ned is so rough and touchy feely with his sister – it’s awkward, and Davis’ Dirk Wilkins role is also quite the jerk. When he and Jonathan Frid – perhaps the two worst dialogue flubbers – are together, look out! The eventual 1897 curse origins and future werewolf connections between these storylines are awesome, but these side players make it tough to watch. Strange as it may seem, the expanding historical plots make it easy to forget the 1969 stakes. In the first few episodes after the Episode 701 transition the narrations and some refresher dialogue repeat the same who, what, when, and where to help the audience remember how and why the 1897 switch happened. However, the more then-risqué themes and dialogue suggestion allow us to forget the time travel technicalities and simply enjoy the treats herein. The changeover will perhaps seem slow to some – Dark Shadows is in effect doing what we today would call a reboot after all. New late Victorian looks are jazzing up the same paranormal tricks and connections for Barnabas’ twists. A lookalike portrait, the cousin from England, thieves opening a chained coffin in the mausoleum. Dun dun dun!
And how about these new gothic 1897 scandals, eh? The new characters and ancestral players are introduced well amid the solid pace and soap opera trickle of the turn of the century mysteries. The viewer is like the newly arrived vampire Barnabas indeed, trapped and at the mercy of the hour as events unknown unfold. Isabelle Hoopes is a great and sassy guest as Edith Collins, suffering amid mysticism, scheming gypsies, heirs at each other’s throats, and missing wills. Edith is a sharp lady who almost can’t be fooled. Almost. Who is receiving the extra dinner upstairs if not the ailing matriarch? Why is the maid Beth still on at Collingwood if her mistress has left? Where is Edward’s wife Laura and what does she have to do with Quentin’s banishment? Why does governess Rachel Drummond see lights in the empty Tower room? These juicy questions are what makes Dark Shadows so good. The show wouldn’t have lasted in the cultural lexicon as long as it has if it had been intentionally campy or so in the moment of itself and reaching for some kind of It audience coughtimburtonsremakestinkscough.
Scary shadows, fake cobwebs, spotlights, darkness, candle effects, those candelabras – you just don’t see this kind of careful lighting and set design anymore and yet Dark Shadows is notorious for its fly by night production cheapness. There’s lovely sixties swanky, Victorian touches, and period clutter but seriously, did they use those infamous blue and green sheets to make Rachel’s dresses? From Judith’s pink bows to Angelique’s magical power to pop out of the fire in full Victorian regalia, there’s a bemusingly dated and gaudy costume mix in 1897, and it takes awhile to see the complete 19th century transition. However, recognizing reused pieces and rooms along with the early electric and gas lamps is a lot of fun. That time traveling music box! Quentin’s room has its past reveal in Episode 709, with his theme being played to great effect in Episode 719. Despite the low budget mistakes, there’s an extra sweetness to the productions designs – remember, 1897 was just over 70 years ago for the original production but now it’s over a hundred plus for us. It makes for a real Old World charm, and all the mike shadows and set bloopers just set off Collection 13.
All the players both in front and behind the camera showed up to play here. Sure, the classic literature shading is apparent with symbolism from Jane Eyre for most of Collection 13, but there’s something refreshingly familiar about these spooky tales and that iconic Dark Shadows music accentuating all the shockers. Robert Cobert’s motifs and specific music cues help to build character suspense – and there’s a repertoire of graphics to match. We know something is going to happen, but the quality storytelling keeps us just unsure enough and on the edge of our seats. As this past goes on, 1796 changes are made to match, and Edith’s timeline will eventually end up iffy for the Dark Shadows’ second to last 1840 flashback, but who cares? Lines are flubbed quite often to start 1897, but rather than distraction, the mistakes add a charming nuance to the scares and secrets twists. Episode 705 has a sweet climax, and plenty of red herrings and tower mysteries complete Disc 2. Perhaps the zombie Quentin subplot on Disc 3 is a bit of a tangent, but it makes for some great kickers and frights – especially Episode 723. Besides, these old school Martinique undead spins might surprise zombie fans who think theirs is a new genre.
Of course, resident vampire Barnabas Collins is ever perfect as our paranormal hero on the case when no one else in the family could possibly understand. Jonathan Frid brings such a noble soul to Barnabas as he risks his life to save his family. Naturally, that heart is made all the more zany when Barnabas’ return to the past rekindles those hard lost vampire hang ups and conflicts. It’s so fun to see him on the prowl again, but there’s also an agonizing desperation to the juicy dispensing of a pretty victim! Barnabas has a great, reinvigorating chess game and ongoing battle of wits with Quentin, too, and the romantic Rachel/Josette reincarnation is always pleasant. Kathryn Leigh Scott’s main character Maggie Evans, by contrast, is at the breaking point to begin Collection 13. She’s no longer just naïve – the hysterically broken governess is loosing control against the almost rapacious and certainly volatile Quentin. It makes her strong for her charges, but the defeatist battle is delightfully twisted. Scott’s incarnation as Rachel Drummond also seems one of a martyred, used, and dismissed young woman – she makes it easy to be a conquest by being so easily fascinated by the tower secrets. Not only is this governess too curious and stupid for her own good, but we hardly see her with the kids because she’s too busy asking everyone questions and telling everyone everything. Get some sense girl!
That phone, that music – at last we meet Quentin Collins, the man behind the ghost. No more a fleeting or silent ghostly specter, this violent, philandering, occult enthusiast is critical to almost every episode on Collection 13. From his wonderful past introduction and first spoken words onscreen in Episode 701 to Edith’s chastising the meddling imp as “A very naughty boy,” it’s great to see Selby’s cheeky vigor and zest. His vocal performance and playboy style are as delightful as his looming ghostly mime was foreboding. There’s still an underlying sinister to the character with genuine fears and scary moments, but there’s something humorous in seeing Quentin in the flesh as it were. When given a tarot card, Selby proclaims, “I don’t need cards!” whilst clearly looking at the teleprompter! Fun loaded dialogue such as “People expect me to be bad” also adds to the suave delivery, bemusing flubs, and prophetic talk on death, curses, and being “the big bad wolf.” Kharma-wise it’s also nice to see Quentin scared by a spirit or two with haunting heartbeats, and he has some great confrontations with the ladies at Collingswood. Although Beth’s dresses are iffy and Terry Crawford gives her an attitude that seems beyond her maid station, she’s a tall, strong presence and has great onscreen chemistry with Selby. Beth has the wit to match and gives as much as she takes even if there is an unhealthy level of danger and roughness. Quentin enters Beth’s room whenever he feels like it and doesn’t always take no for an answer. It’s not an easy role, but Crawford keeps Beth likeable and has the viewer interested in where this relationship will go next. Marie Wallace, however, can be a little over the top and even irritating once we meet crazy Jenny in Episode 716. Thankfully, it’s all in good fun with some serious twists for those who haven’t seen this segment of Dark Shadows previously, and the audience is quickly hooked into seeing this storyline’s follow thru. When Jenny and Quentin go head to head for the big reveal in Episode 720, yowza! My only trouble here is waiting for Selby’s real sideburns to grown in.
Unlike her serious counterpart Queen of the Sedative Dr. Julia Hoffman, Grayson Hall has such sarcasm and a frank attitude as Magda. Thayer David’s new incarnation as her sassy husband Sandor is also bawdy good fun. Yes, their gypsy portrayal is stereotypical and now somewhat inappropriate, and yet their send up is part of the charm. I mean, Sandor is Barnabas’ bitch! Notice how the camera cuts away on the vampire bite approach, then comes back to a bloody bite on Sandor’s neck and just a trickle upon Barnabas’ lips. Speaking of innuendo, Humbert Allen Astredo is playing the similar but different slick and diabolical Evan Handley. He’s a warlock and the Collins family lawyer! Likewise good old Lara Parker returns to her vintage Angelique complete with woeful voodoo rituals, bad supernatural effects, great costumes, jealous shade on Rachel, and superb dynamics with Quentin and Barnabas. What trouble this group will cause!
I want to call it seduction, for David and Amy are indeed willingly manipulated and enraptured by the Quentin’s ghost to begin Collection 13. These possessed kids are both scared and powerless, but nothing can be done. The result is absolute sympathy of course, and yet David Henesy and Denise Nickerson are dang creepy when under Quentin’s spell. Nickerson is particularly good as the terrifyingly misled Amy Jennings on Disc 1 before the 1897 transition adds some uncanny cherub curls, wild expressions, and motherly obsessions for her Nora Collins in Episode 716. We don’t see much of Henesy in 1969 as David lies on the brink of death, but it’s nice to see the lighthearted Jamison from 702 onward. It is eerie, however, to see Jamison’s adoring relationship with Quentin, considering we know the haunting trying to be prevented has something to do with them. Jamison is also wrongfully used in the tug and pull between Quentin and the boy’s father Edward Collins- the always stern and smashing Louis Edmunds. Quentin makes the scared boy reach inside a coffin for a hidden message, has him steal from the Old House – and worse, uses him for black magic rituals and secret games. No wonder Edward is shipping these kids off to boarding school! These risqué children’s plots can be tough to watch sometimes but the youthful manipulation is part of what makes Dark Shadows so good.
Do you need more reasons to love Collection 13? Rumblings of that feisty, fiery phoenix Laura Collins begin in Episode 729, and her presence tosses yet another wrench into the askew clockworks at Collingwood. Some of Diane Millay’s makeup seems caked on iffy, but this is again a nice reset for fans who missed Dark Shadows’ earlier phoenix events. How many shows have a phoenix as a recurring character anyway? It’s great to see Laura for each storyline, however, if she is Jamison’s mother and then the same Laura also marries Roger – who is Jamison’s grandson – then that means….ew. Star Joan Bennett doesn’t appear as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard this set, but her Judith Collins is perfectly prudish and mousy. She grows strong as fortunes change for and against her, but that doesn’t prevent her from getting roughed up by Quentin or getting the wool pulled over her eyes by Reverend Trask. Jerry Lacy is again maliciously slick and spot on to conclude Disc 3; his scenes just reek of cringe-worthy clerical corruption, and it is so dandy to watch! Trask reminds Rachel, “When I thought badly of you as I was often tempted to do…” What?! Nancy Barrett’s debut as Charity Trask late in Episode 727 is a surprisingly twisted little image of her daddy – and she gets in on the vampy action, too.
As you can probably tell, these Victorian magics are my favorite plots on Dark Shadows, and new fans interested in more than the Barnabas flavor and sixties camp vampires can begin the series fresh here. Yes, the 1796 re-route and Leviathan resolution of the 1897 storyline peeves me. Thankfully, there’s plenty of meaty to be had with the 19th century Collins family thru Collection 17. For those soured on that recent Dark Shadows movie abomination, I urge you to give the Victorian lycanthropes of Dark Shadows DVD Collection 13 a gander. New reissues of the DVD sets, complete series video editions, and Netflix possibilities mean there is no excuse for a macabre fan to not see Dark Shadows deliver.