Dark Shadows Collection 15 Lends a Wild Hand
By Kristin Battestella
After nearing over 100 hundred episodes in the 1897 flashback storyline, sixties soap Dark Shadows barrels on by adding even more werewolves, ghosts, gypsy curses, and one wild, handful of a talisman to the gothic storytelling on its DVD Collection 15.
While werewolf Quentin Collins (David Selby) and the gypsy sister-in-law Magda (Grayson Hall) who cursed him seek a cure for his lycanthropy, time traveling cousin and vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) tries to keep their paranormal secrets from fellow family members Edward (Louis Edmunds) and the newly married Judith Collins Trask (Joan Bennett). Corrupt Reverend Trask (Jerry Lacey) has all but taken over the Collinwood estate and soon seeks to cleanse the family of its evils once the mysterious Count Petofi (Thayer David) and his magical cohorts come to town.
A surprisingly bloody vampire and a zany off screen shootout resolve plots remaining from Collection 14 early on Disc 1 before leading into new tales and twists in the lengthy 1897 storyline. Character shakeups and spooky develops simply have to happen after so many episodes in the past, and that means resetting several elements and gaining or losing players to keep the paranormal fresh. Everyone in the company has a wrench or contribution to the plot, helping build the complex surprises needed to carry this must see TV from one half hour to the next. Some episodes on Collection 15 also lose the repeated tag from episode to episode thanks to elaborate, one-time action sequences amid the ghosts, witches, zombies, and disembodied hands. The period song and dance scenes may seem more dated than the usual camp on Dark Shadows, but there’s a point to the tunes, steamy dream sequences, and psychics – the undead secrets come to a head thanks to great tension and suspense. 1969 names and plots are mentioned to remind the audience of this 1897 excursion’s original purpose, but the time travel troubles and vampire pursuits increase in their immediacy alongside the expanding werewolf and gypsy twists. How many more people will find out about the vampire? Who’s in on the Count Petofi action?
The wolfy pace heats up for Disc 2 with disposable policemen, jailed lycanthropes, possessions, and cliffhangers. For such a long ongoing soap opera, what the viewer needs to know is speedily recalled – not just 1969 talk but earlier 1897 refreshers of the late Edith Collins. It’s a wonder the Collins family ever made it into the 20th century with all these vengeful ghosts, supernatural causes, and selfish, disfigured lawyers interfering. Séances, blackmail, manipulated wives – some storylines are more far-fetched than others, such as when entire episodes hinge on “Who’s got the hand? Who took the hand? I don’t have the hand!” switcharoos on Disc 3. However, the unexpected, anything can happen Dark Shadows mentality is dang entertaining. The unintentional humor may detract from the scary, but too much is happening to not appreciate the camp action, intelligent twists, and 1897 hysteria to come. Werewolf resolutions don’t come easy thanks to past references to Victoria Winters, the 1795 flashback, and future 1969 dangers. While these layers may be confusing to viewers who didn’t see Dark Shadows before the 1897 stories – or to those who simply can’t remember that far back! –the usage of the infamously inaccurate Collins Family History book creates surprising nuances within the show’s chronology. Instead of growing stagnant Disc 4 adds prophecies, more Petofi angst, and The Picture of Dorian Gray delights along with 1969 revisits for a wild finale in Episode 816.
“Why do we hurt the ones we love?” Jonathan Frid mourns and waxes poetic as the reluctantly violent vampire Barnabas Collins. His toothy hang ups are a convenient plot issue, yet they create wonderful depth and man versus himself pathos. Once his secret is afoot, great cat and mouse games and begrudging alliances ensue. Barnabas sure runs out of places to hide that coffin! The poor guy is exposed left and right, and we feel for his persecution despite his disturbing preying upon Charity Trask. Barnabas is conflicted, tormented, and desperate to save the Collins family in the future, yet he’s fully aware of his timeline troubles and lack of options come sunrise. The hero of Dark Shadows goes on with the good fight even when he despises himself, and Lara Parker as the beautiful witch Angelique adds to his troubles on Disc 1. er Her Her idea of looking out for Barnabas means getting rid of her female competition, but she does seem to grow a conscious at times or change her tune to get in good at Collinwood. Though Angelique’s powers are sometimes used as a magical cure all when it comes to plotting for or against Quentin, they don’t always work, and she also serves as an important reminder of 1969 causes where other 1897 players cannot. Grayson Hall’s Magda is also reformed from her gypsy cursing ways, but now has to endure the wrath of her fellow gypsies to break Quentin’s curse. While Barnabas initially thinks the Hand of Count Petofi is some grotesque joke, Magda’s well intentioned use of it – even in combating evil – leads to insurmountable consequences. Hall’s double duty appearance as her original Julia Hoffman character late on Disc 4 is fun, however, and some of her rituals and flubs are absolutely amusing.
Of course, Magda’s husband Sandor is mentioned as off with the gypsy camp and makes only one very effective appearance in Episode 798 thanks to Thayer David’s new role as the infamous Count Petofi. Debuting in Episode 793 under an alias, Petofi is another fun role and wild character – boy can he bitch slap! From the sniffing around between him and Angelique to the contest of wits with Quentin, there’s a bemusing camp and menace in his undying ways and Jamison twists. Despite far-reaching magics and truths that affect everyone at Collinwood, intriguing possessions and rapidly approaching time limits deepen Petofi’s desperation by Disc 4 while Michael Stroka as his cohort Aristede always seems wonderfully whipped and incompetent. After a great spooky entrance in Episode 791, the ever cackling Aristede also suffers Angelique’s wrath and ends up being choked, attacked, or beaten almost every appearance. There may also be a whiff of innuendo regarding his subservience to Petofi, the way Aristede is easily subdued by Barnabas, and in how he socializes with Tim Shaw at The Blue Whale. However, his wheeling and dealing is not always what it seems – even when he’s being chastised by the pint sized and possessed Jamison.
Surprisingly, David Selby doesn’t appear on Collection 15 until midway thru Disc 1, yet each 1897 escapade ties back to him in some way and Quentin interacts with almost everyone on Dark Shadows. He’s violent with whoever gets in his way, be he drunk or wolfy, but the audience has come to understand his anger and rage even when he’s still bullying Charity on Disc 4. Due to his supernatural troubles, Quentin must make a difficult choice between Barnabas and his immediate family, but I don’t want to give everything away! The lovely Shadows in the Night theme music also makes for an ironic, soothing contrast to Quentin’s fanatical fear of the full moon – those screams and contortions almost seem to happen in monthly real time, too. He sees thru Reverend Trask’s schemes and isn’t all that surprised to find yet another monster locked up in the Old House basement but laments his unusual circumstances, “Time is my hobby.” The poor thing even has his turn at being in charge of Collinwood while everyone else is cursed and crazy! Quentin has a few hokey moments thanks to a woeful Papier-mache looking face disguise, but Selby fans will eat up his tender moments and his being bound and tortured ala The Pit and the Pendulum. Unfortunately, Terry Crawford as the lovelorn servant Beth Chavez is only mentioned early on Disc 2 and sparsely appears in Episodes 793 and 797 as a household catchall maid or babysitter. Quentin, of course, mocks her for her loyalty, but her sensitivity grounds him and they are still a bizarrely charming onscreen couple. Beth is also used by Barnabas as needed, making for some interesting love and jealously conflicts between the vampire and her werewolf boyfriend. Twilight, ha!
Though they don’t immediately appear either, Denise Nickerson as Nora Collins and David Henesy as Jamison Collins have critical moments late on Collection 15. After a whopper of a vampire encounter, we don’t see Nora until more screams, uncomfortable secrets, and violence on Disc 4. These Collins kids must have surely been traumatized! It’s truly scary to watch a little girl being influenced by a vampire predator with calm talk of how they used to be friends and that he won’t hurt her. Likewise, Petofi corrupts Jamison’s innocence and honesty after his return in Episode 801. There’s 1969 David name-dropping or glimpses naturally and Henesy is often playing a possessed or ill child of some kind, but his mature subtleties, hand and glove mannerisms, and innuendo are much more interesting than the seemingly longer Hand of Count Petofi hot potato plots. It’s downright creepy the way Petofi’s power is locked up in an outwardly unassuming child package. Jamison’s little kisses on the cheek are dangerous and deadly truth revealing hallmarks, and these ploys are a great way to create several character changes and comeuppances in quick succession to shake things up. Not that Dark Shadows needed more shake ups, but these developments spearhead the deadly intense finish on Collection 15.
Oh, that Reverend Trask is such a fire and brimstone sure of himself paragon of corruption and its simply delicious Jerry Lacy scene chewing! He wants all the evils out of the way so he can run Collinwood the way he sees fit – but he must have some great confrontations with Quentin and scary standoffs with Barnabas first. Ironically, Trask is just as violent as the monstrous folks are and thinks his doing things for so-called righteous reasons justifies his efforts. He gaslights Judith Collins and uses Petofi’s curses for his own vile overtaking yet amazingly still spins his religious fanaticism. Gloriously, Trask does have some of his ruthlessness come back on him and gets his hands dirty along with Louis Edmunds’ Edward Collins thanks to a staking or two. Edward wanted to be the family head and now he’s stuck dealing with Trask and everything paranormal. Though an odd pairing, it’s fun trying to solve Dark Shadows’ vampire mystery because the viewer knows they are always just one step behind on the case! Edward won’t believe the Petofi possessions but ends up with his own crazy turn as a gentleman’s gentlemen locked in Collinwood’s tower: “I know my place, sir.” “This is your place!” Likewise, where Edward has the family name in mind and Trask his warped righteousness, Humbert Allen Astredo’s black magic using family lawyer Evan Handley seeks to manipulate Barnabas’ vampire secret for his own gain. Of course, this being Dark Shadows, anyone can be caught, bespelled, or zombiefied at any moment – not that any of it stops Handley from using good old-fashioned soap opera blackmail.
John Karlen has some brief Dwight Frye-esque hysterics as Carl and yet he seems like the most normal person among this crazy Collins family. Once he spreads the word about the vampire, however, it will be his undoing and his now married sister Judith is too busy being under Trask’s killer influence to help. Star Joan Bennett wavers between being swept up from spinsterdom to guilt, confusion, and bitchiness amid some great zingers and slaps. Her screams may be laughable to some, but seriously spooky, fearful specters and marital mistreatments quickly follow. Nancy Barrett also mixes sin, religion, and temptation as Charity Trask but suffers from vampire lusts and manipulation by her dear Reverend father. Her complacent victim is fun and saucy yet disturbing against her frigid, fanatical righteousness. She soon sets her sights on Quentin, and the Episode 786 dream sequence provides the mesmerizing Shadows of the Night lyrics onscreen in full. Clearly, Barrett is having fun with the Pansy Faye song and dance possession, too!
The period music may seem humorous, but Roger Davis is even nuttier and clingier as the vampire handyman Dirk Wilkins. His laughable departure doesn’t last long, sadly, since Davis returns on Disc 3 as uppity, artsy fartsy painter extraordinaire Charles Delaware Tate. Thankfully, his artwork in Episode 806 sets the next phase of the tale in motion and has sweeping implications on Dark Shadows. Don Briscoe’s Tim Shaw also becomes a henchman as needed after blackmailing Reverend Trask and squeezing in on the Hand of Count Petofi action. He forgets his place and thinks he can move up the social ladder, but his 1969 character Chris Jennings is still mentioned as being locked in the mausoleum! New cast member Donna McKechnie joins Dark Shadows late on Disc 4, but her Amanda Harris adds a new element of mystery and romance. Just when one may think Dark Shadows didn’t have anywhere left to go, these new art, time travel, and immortality spins steamroll into Collection 16.
Behind the scenes interviews on Collection 15 from David Selby, Michael Stroka, the late Louis Edmunds, and Donna McKechnie will be a treat to long time Dark Shadows fans. But then again, the perilous Styrofoam, doors opening at the wrong time, trick candles that refuse to light or go out, and more special effects on Dark Shadows are downright hysterical at times and the Hand of Count Petofi designs are no except. The blue and green sheets, that frickin’ traveling afghan, that pathetic little pendulum, and the three piece suit wearing stunt wolf Alex Stevens may seem hokey, but other visuals are surprising seamless and timely. Faux coffin creaks, spooky bat tweets, and the always great Bob Cobert mood music accentuate the dream scenery, fog, and dark lighting. When the panning cameras, zooms, booming screams, slamming doors, and lights out cooperate, it’s the exclamation on all the gothic mood and fears. Of course, the Hand leads to some wildly bad make up and pasty skin effects that are somehow ghoulishly fitting, but the kinescope versions of Episodes 797 and 813 are more disturbing thanks to séances, ghostly overlays, and Hand suspense. It makes one wish Dark Shadows could have remained in black and white just for more gothic atmosphere!
Granted, the gypsy material remains stereotypical and cliché, and some plots may seem stretched out too long or confusing if you leave off watching Collection 15 for a few days and forget what has happened. I feel like these write ups are getting longer in trying to keep track of the intricate plots and multiple characters complexities! For some audiences, Dark Shadows may seem overly ambitious or comical in this rolling out of characters, twists, and the then soap opera style that is now juicy horror camp. This is an embarrassment of riches, however, and most shows today seem to easily unravel with less material over shorter amounts of time. Ironically, new films and television series are in fact returning to Victorian gothic designs and playing at period paranormal when Dark Shadows has been doing it all along. The rapid pace, perils, monster variety, and fun loving intensity on Collection 15 make it easy to marathon and get carried away in these 1897 viewing pleasures indeed.