Dark Shadows (1966) TV Review

By: Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl, @wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

Dark Shadows was a strange, gothic, melodramatic soap opera that drops you right in the middle of several mysteries.  The most intriguing of which is that of Barnabas Collins.

This week's television or movie review takes a bizarre detour into the strange and macabre.  Hello, my name is Victoria Winters and a strange mist hangs over Collinwood like an eerie blanket and a mystery unfolds which leaves everyone bewildered and confused... OK, my name is not Victoria Collins and oddly enough the narrator to each opening moment of the Dark Shadows television show which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971 isn't even close to being the most major character.

Dark Shadows was before my time. Dark Shadows ended it's run four months before I was born which, I guess, adds even more mystery about the series to me.  I've heard those older than me talk about the series my whole life and when I was younger I saw a couple of episodes somewhere and thought it was the most ridiculous, overacted nonsense I had ever seen.  It just goes to show that sometimes things need a second look because I've just finished watching a run of about twenty-five episodes of Dark Shadows and I think I love it... I think.  

I don't know half these people but that's Barnabas Collins just right of center, he's the one to keep your eye on.

Make no mistake, Dark Shadows is still extremely over acted, the story moves exceedingly slow, people often fumble through their lines, and several of the characters are as shallow as a murderer's grave but there is something oddly hypnotic about it.  The excruciatingly slow build has a charm to it.  Likewise, I watched this series on Amazon Prime and they include 25 episodes which seem to be the main arch of the Barnabas Collins storyline but, apparently, this show ran for many more episodes before and many more afterward.  This creates the effect of dropping you right in the middle of an ongoing story so, right off the bat, the viewer has several mysteries to solve.

The show is set at the fictional Collinwood estate in Collinsport, Maine.  The Collins family have apparently been rich captains of industry in the area for over two hundred years.  It's not really clear how exactly they came to be so wealthy but I inferred they own a business, possibly several, including a cannery (I have no idea) and maybe interest in a shipping port.  We meet the matriarch and overseer of Collinwood early on- Elizabeth Collins, an older woman who apparently is being blackmailed by a "friend" and his lackey.  The mystery surrounding that drags on forever.  Here is a wonderfully accurate description from Wikipedia - "Dark Shadows had a rocky beginning. Critics were quick to deem the series rather boring for its heavy use of unknown actress Isles and the slow pace. The earliest episodes concerned menacing but unfulfilled conflicts, threatened revenge, then an attempted murder, and, finally, a murder. The supernatural elements that later made the show a hit, were slow to appear and only hinted at until episodes 52 and 70 in which the audience finally sees compelling evidence of a ghost."

But business finally picks up when the henchman Willie Loomis breaks into the mausoleum of wealthy members of the Collins family in an effort to steal jewelry rumored to be buried with the dead Collins family.  Willie accidentally stumbles upon a hidden chamber inside the mausoleum which hides a coffin wrapped in a locked chain.  Ok, now you have my attention.  Willie breaks the lock off and opens the coffin and a hand from inside throttles him.

Sometime afterward, a man named Barnabas Collins arrives at Collinwood claiming to be a member of the Collins family from Europe.  He looks exactly like his "great-grandfather" Barnabas Collins whose portrait hangs beside the front door of Collinwood.  Of course, (spoiler) it turns out that this Barnabas Collins is one and the same as his two-hundred year old ancestor because (and it takes forever to tell you this) he is a vampire who is unwittingly allowed to live in the old house portion of the Collinwood estate.

This is the clearest photo of Collinwood I could find. That is the "old house" to the left.

The thing that annoyed me early on became part of it's charm the farther into the series I got.  The story moves at a snails pace.  Sometimes it would take two entire episodes just to move the plot forward by the very smallest of margins.  Originally I thought, "Get on with it!" but the farther into Dark Shadows I got, the more I enjoyed the mystery and the time it took to really let the revelations settle in.  In this era of crash television where you are hit with so many twists and turns in an episode it is easy to lose interest and forget major plot points.  This is not the case with Dark Shadows.  If there is a major plot twist you get two or three episodes to let it sink in.  I think it really adds to the ambiance of the show.

The gothic settings and atmosphere adds to the charm of Dark Shadows.

Finally, Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid, is a fantastic character.  He is charming, captivating, and elegant.  He's also apparently a two-hundred year old vampire.  But Jonathan Frid's performance is so captivating that it simply pulls you in and won't let you go (like, presumably a vampire) and when he isn't in an episode it is very noticeable.

I hadn't thought about Dark Shadows in years until I saw it pop up on Amazon Prime and decided to give it another chance.  I'm glad I did.  It is really unlike anything else I've seen in years, maybe ever.  It is totally different from any television show, soap opera, vampire movie, or mini-series I've ever seen.  It has an atmosphere and a charm I have never seen anywhere else.  Consider me a fan of Barnabas Collins.

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