Dark Shadows Collection 17 Struggles with Storyline Changes
by Kristin Battestella
After spending the summer re-watching Dark Shadows from the beginning, I'm back to Collection 17 and this last leg in the 1897 storyline – an entertaining but fumbling exit perhaps overwhelmed with Victorian horror, vampires, and Lovecraft spells as Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) travels back to 1796 with Kitty Soames, the reincarnation of his beloved Josette DuPres (Kathryn Leigh Scott), after seemingly defeating the vile Count Petofi (Thayer David) – who has switched bodies with the werewolf Quentin Collins (David Selby) in order to travel from 1897 to 1969. Unfortunately, ancient leviathan interference upsets numerous events past and present for Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall).
The body swaps, mistaken identity, and abused I Ching hexagrams open Episode 858 amid gypsy threats, bitter marriage alliances, magical but stolen portraits, and good old fashioned blackmail. Enemies become allies as characters must prove who they are despite witches, seances, skeleton keys, chained coffins, and hooded figures. Cursed people are packing, gold diggers are making plans – there's a sense that 1897 is a wrap and 1969 is imminent thanks to psychedelic sounds, astral bodies, time travel technicalities, and echoes from another century. There are many threads to resolve with the Hand of Count Petofi and buried alive threats coming back to haunt deserving parties. Psychic visions see thru the mystical ruses alongside fiery witches versus warlocks confrontations and kidnappings. Inner monologues matching the real person in the wrong body curb confusion as well as garner sympathy during the body swindles, however Collection 17 takes a few episodes to catch up on who cast what spells with some round about half hours and straggling characters loosing steam before ghostly apparitions, dubious lawyers, chloroform, and failed rituals. Lookalike vampire encounters ramp up the scares in Episode 868, but the 1795/96 chronology is shoehorned in with fudged dates and Collins Family History books. New characters read Ben Stokes' diary and suddenly everybody's an expert! Answers are dismissed as madness amid suspicious relatives, antagonizing ministers, crosses, and women in cahoots. Pulsing heartbeats, ill conceived marriage proposals, and love triangles repeat themselves as Dark Shadows strays from the high quality previously seen in 1897 thanks to flashback explanations with witches excited a doppelganger ruse worked when the same thing was accomplished against The Phoenix on Collection 14. Lengthy reprises cut into the next episode, and in the days of VHS, I would fast forward through the dull back and forth partnerships telling each other what they don't know but the audience already does. Fortunately, buried suitcases and risky I Ching hexagrams make ready for the future as romantic duets and dancing dreams turn into terror. Dark Shadows picks up the intensity with will power over evil, cliff side desperation, and deadly shockers in Episode 876 before 879 adds double crosses, stranglers, poison, and fresh cement. Nobody's surprised by the supernatural anymore, much less betrayals, home invasions, and decoy burglaries even as people leap out Collinwood's windows or pass brandy to the fainting women. Climatic scandals keep the paranoia, graveyard chases, and taunting phone calls on track as forgiveness comes to some, but not all.
Bitter deaths and fast resolutions tie up each loose end, however, the main characters are largely absent without one key storyline, and it's as if Dark Shadows doesn't know how to resolve yet more body switches as the nonsensical fantastics unravel. Targets must stay awake lest spells over take them, and fiery finales rush to a unbelievably easy end, leaving a sense of confusion on whether 1897 is really finished as shocking twists and suicides are glossed over before three odd episodes in 1796 with admittedly atmospheric vampire brides, meddling witches, and prophecies. This revisit to the further past, however, is also left hanging in the balance for torches, snake altars, and a big WTF that today would have audiences immediately tuning out and complaining on Twitter. Actors who played two characters in 1897 also don their 1795 wigs before returning to their original 1969 roles in Episode 888, and it's a lot to digest. If Dark Shadows had simply taken the I Ching back to 1969 and immediately shown how some of our 1897 immortals show up in the present and then revealed the unusual Lovecraft inspired leviathan abstracts, the intriguing rituals, ancient motifs, and cult incantations wouldn't be off on the wrong foot and may have garnered an entirely different reception. Although their stilted speech and faux ritualistic moves may be bemusing, those hooded leviathan minions are also terribly creepy folks! Instead, characters meander over what has happened, bringing up the forgotten werewolf plots before new players, pentagrams, locked boxes, and one ominous antique store that led kid me to believe every junk shop was evil. There's a moon landing reference, too – an outside rarity on Dark Shadows alongside the Naga lockets, necronomicons, and freaky dream sequence overlays as paranoid friends become enemies. Chosen ones, enchanting evil gifts, traumatized patients – one by one players old and new become part of some kind of telepathic cult, and it hurts the series further when more time is spent on compromised strangers rather than the regulars. How does that antique shop do business when it's always closed while the proprietors grow monsters in the dark upstairs room? Foreboding zooms can't compensate as everyone speaks in riddles, “It's the time of the leviathan people, and that time is now!” Such sweet nothings make the mind control and fake baby bundles laughable, and by Episode 898 Dark Shadows appears even cheaper than usual with less cast, weaker effects, and thin writing. The creepy doesn't capitalize on the surprising violence much less talk of how only people in leviathan tune can see their altar or mentions of an unseen village apothecary. Ultimately, this leviathan yarn really should have been a shorter secondary plot like The Phoenix rather than keeping other stories standing still for scary rituals, shopkeeper frights, and seances that come too few and far between.
Jonathan Frid's Barnabas Collins is supposedly dead to start Collection 17 but we know better! Barnabas reinserts himself at Collinwood yet seems one step behind without much to do in the 1897 finale except effectively kill Kitty with his disturbing insistence that she is the reincarnated Josette. When he gets to 1796, however, he forgets all about her to join a cult. Dark Shadows shoots itself in the foot by making its hero a minion of a pretty box – he's not honest with Julia and flaky when acting like a jerk does nothing to endear this leviathan plot. Barnabas actually claims the brainwashing weirdness going on is due to his electricity experiments when the Old House still goes by candlelight! Grayson Hall's Madga also disappears for no reason when the gypsy aspects would have been quite useful with the doppelgangers and body switches, and her voiceover dropping some 1897 gossip is a cop out after the fact as Julia Hoffman plays catch up, carrying several episodes while Barnabas calls her nosy. He blows her off by saying she sees the paranormal in everything (Hello!) and Julia stumbles alone in pursuing what happened to Tate and his paintings. This uneven division between Dark Shadows' go-to team adds to the off balance storytelling, and Kathryn Leigh Scott's gold digger Kitty Soames isn't exactly sympathetic even if she is losing control to this Josette possession. Transitioning the entire storyline through this dragging back and forth when Barnabas doesn't even want her just Josette is anti-climatic – especially when the appearance of the Ghost of Jeremiah Collins will only resonate with audiences who've seen the original 1795 storyline. Surprisingly, Lara Parker's witch Angelique doesn't seem to care about Barnabas marrying Kitty and initially doesn't notice the Quentin/Petofi switch despite still trying to trap Quentin for herself. As portrayed by Thayer David, Quentin Collins is sympathetic, desperate and innocent against his handsome, dangerous self. Once he's back in his own body, David Selby's Picture of Dorian Gray Quentin loses his portrait and again fears his werewolf curse, remaining guilty over the part he's played in all that has happened to the people he supposedly loved – thus completing his journey from evil ghost to tormented immortal. Donna McKechnie's Amanda has bittersweet plans to meet Quentin in New York, and her late appearance as the suspicious actress Olivia Corey sets up one of my favorite later series moments on Collection 18.
Likewise, Terry Crawford as Beth Chavez is packed and ready to whisk away with Quentin – however she's largely forgotten until it's important, used and abused by Petofi as Quentin until it's too late. As inhabited by David Selby, Count Andreas Petofi is angry and sparing no expense in traveling to the future. Any life is expendable, and he uses his devious charms to string along all the ladies and cover his tracks when he slips up – like playing Mozart on the gramophone instead of Quentin's Theme! Thayer David's Petofi almost succeeds in his plans, but his magic both works or doesn't work just because the writing says so. While Michael Stroka's Aristede can't be seen at Collinwood with Petofi as Quentin, he foolishly expects the Count to take him to the future. He runs away several times, gets laughed at or tricked, but Aristede isn't a significant enough character to draw out his end over five episodes of prison history and rent boy winks. It might have been neat if the Garth Blackwood vengeance actually orchestrated by Petofi had been chasing Aristede all along but such chills are wasted this late and detract from more important happenings. Dark Shadows grande dame Joan Bennett has a dramatic entrance as fresh from the sanitarium Judith Collins Trask, tricking Jerry Lacy's Reverend Gregory Trask out of her money and placing Collinwood back under her rule. Trask is caught red handed in his lies, but claims the devil is at work in Collinwood as he plots more ill gotten deals. Fortunately, Judith masterfully orchestrates his punishment, going from the stuffy old maid at the beginning of the 1897 storyline to fully embracing the Collins twistedness. He's gravely underestimated her, and Trask finds himself trapped with one dwindling candle while regretting all the times he locked his fearful students in a closet when they were so afraid of the dark. Although often used for psychic convenience that does prove critical to the plot, Nancy Barrett also provides a multi-faceted performance as the once demure Charity Trask who's now permanently second sight singer Pansy Faye. Naturally there are obligatory “I'm Gonna Dance for You “ cues, but Barrett plays piano and sings in Pansy's cockney accent. She doesn't like to be lied to so tries being as honest as possible – one of the few sympathetic characters trapped in all this supernatural crazy. She won't take bribes but will except gifts for her insights and when Quentin leaves, she gives him a “racy” photo so he'll never forget Pansy Faye. Barrett spends a minute as ditsy Millicent Collins as well before returning to Carolyn Stoddard who has a bad feeling about the new antique shop yet works there nonetheless.
Don Briscoe's Tim Shaw is mostly useless in the 1897 end, however Chris Jennings is still an angry werewolf, and Carolyn wonders what his secrets are while Barnabas tries to break them up for his own leviathan motives. Whiny, drinking, and arguing with customers, Roger Davis as Charles Delaware Tate is likewise as obnoxious as ever on Collection 17. At once he complains about his terrible and mystical talent yet begs Petofi to give it back to him before stealing Quentin's portrait and making full moon jokes. He's said to be near 100 years old in 1969, and his plot will still provide one last annoyance on Collection 18 where some of the dangling 1897 threads are finally resolved. Unfortunately Louis Edmunds' Edward Collins gets ditched off screen, disappearing early on Collection 17 after asking Kitty to marry him with no resolution about how he feels regarding his ex-vampire cousin stealing his lady. Denise Nickerson's Nora also appears once to dislike her would be stepmother before Amy is also suspicious late on Disc Four. As important as they were to the haunting and the reasons for going to 1897, David Henesy's Jamison is also only mentioned before young David is sucked into underground snake lairs with only a few throwaway lines about what he may remember of their ghostly possessions. Dennis Patrick's Paul Stoddard also has some explaining to do as he snoops about the Old House. He hangs around the leviathan altar and makes prank calls, generally creeping around for several episodes before telling where he's been for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, Dark Shadows audiences who haven't seen the pre-Barnabas episodes of the series won't really appreciate the leftover murder, blackmail, and conspiracy much less recall Patrick as the ne'er do well Jason McGuire. Marcia Wallace also returns briefly as the Ghost of Jenny Collins before coming back to Collinsport with Christopher Bernau as antique store entrepreneurs Megan and Phillip Todd. Megan's the more vocal and pushy of the yuppie pair, over eager while Philip is reluctant to accept the Naga box. They talk in abstracts about the leviathan intangibles but it doesn't help the audience care. In fact, it would have been more interesting if Barnabas had comeback to 1969 straightaway and then be corrupted into the cult by this new couple in town and their suspicious baby.
The colorful Victorian gowns peak on Collection 17 with satin, lace, and ruffles alongside curly wigs and fancy jewelry. Although Judith wears the same earrings Julia had on when she disappeared into the future and there must have been a fire sale on purple satin because every woman is wearing it. Dark Shadows juggles three different time periods as well as creepy leviathan snake motifs, and while I can feel that bright orange velvet colonial dress, that belted purple sweater and plaid pants menswear is a no, and I swear everyone is wearing some damn heavy eyeliner! Thankfully, tolling grandfather clocks, shadow schemes, and gaslight ambiance set off the abandoned rectory hideout's stained glass, red velvet, and vintage décor – and I think I've subconsciously decorated my house in Dark Shadows' faux Victorian gothic revival style. Great antique storefronts, old fashioned knick knacks, clutter, and cradles add to the telegrams and phone books of the 1969 present while keeping the past spirit. Of course, the special effects are often obvious with green screen mistakes and out of sync voiceovers. Jumpy prints and innate camera flaws also make the magentas look garish and reds turn pink. However, those distorted hues are terribly effective amid ghostly greens, candlelight, and gauze around the lens for some wild psychedelic dreams. Rattling chains, ominous knocks at the door, storm sounds, and those familiar Bob Cobert music crescendos are likewise chilling – except when they aren't right on cue. From the 1969 couch in the 1897 living room and rumpled carpeting substituting for grass to prop guns that don't go off and a canvas portrait that's rolled up like a poster, there are always fun bloopers on Dark Shadows. The traveling afghan! That intrusive music box! A gramophone that's in the living room after it's been walled up in the sealed off west wing! Fortunately, artistic camera shots through windows or reflections and quick cuts to match pulsing sounds make up any difference along with foreground and background photography where the audience sees the hidden attacker but the victim doesn't. The Dark Shadows DVDs, however, can get confusing, as Collection 17's forty episodes are also on Discs 89 thru 92 on the Dark Shadows: Complete Original Series Sets 15 and 16. At least David Selby's bonus interview wonderfully recalls the unique glint in Jonathan Frid's eye, Grayson Hall's maternal style, Louis Edmunds' outspokenness, and how Dark Shadows knew how to use their talent in an industry that otherwise maybe didn't know what to do with such special personalities. Lara Parker, however, Selby simply calls “moon eyes.” While the DVDs may have such touching features, there is one thing the streaming options have that video doesn't: subtitles!
Dark Shadows still has a lot of good to come, however much happens on Collection 17's four discs and this is where the series begins taking on more than it can chew. Up until the 1970 Parallel Time switch late in Collection 19, one can even view this entire leviathan smoke and mirrors as suspect. Did we really go back to 1796 or is this an alternate time created by the heroics in 1897? When watching with a critical eye such technicalities can hurt the gothic immersion Dark Shadows does so well. Fortunately, while the first half of the set is not an introduction piece, fans looking for a fresh Lovecraft inspired piece without any preconceived notion of what came before can join the fray here. Collection 17 isn't totally terrible, and the supernatural time traveling escapades remain perfect for a spooky marathon.
(It's Count Chocula!)