Although it's commonplace for classic TV programs to appear on DVD, it's unusual for this to happen with a soap opera. But DARK SHADOWS is an unusual soap opera -- the first to revolve around supernatural horror. In fact, the soap opera format gave DS time to present its tales of the supernatural with a depth and plausibility often lacking in TV speculative fiction. Furthermore, it was played by a group of topnotch actors who took it quite seriously and played it with as much sincerity as any reality-based soap opera.
The DVD release just might make it feasible to own the entire run. I don't know how I'd have stored the original VHS edition's 300+ cassettes (Liz, is the West Wing still empty?), but the DVD edition should total just over 30 of these boxed sets, which should fit nicely on one bookshelf.
DS is best known for the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, although he entered the story only after the show had been running for about a year. This installment begins with a 15-minute summary of that pre-Barnabas year, revealing that it was primarily non-supernatural, with periodic supernatural interludes.
The complete episodes begin with #210, wherein grifter Willie Loomis gets an unpleasant surprise during an attempted grave robbery. Willie disappears, and the mysterious Barnabas Collins appears, claiming to be a cousin from England. Willie reappears, suffering from an unidentifiable illness, and Barnabas asks permission to move into the abandoned "Old House" on the Collins estate. With Willie as an unwilling but powerless accomplice, Barnabas secretly kidnaps waitress Maggie Evans, intending to transform her into an undead reincarnation of his long lost love, Josette. In a moment of lucidity, Maggie attempts to kill Barnabas, but her timing isn't so hot, and you'll have to buy set #2 to find out what fate awaits her.
There's also a pre-Barnabas, non-supernatural storyline to finish up, which involves Willie's friend Jason McGuire blackmailing Collinwood's matriarch, Elizabeth Stoddard. Unlike the original VHS release of DS, this DVD edition has not been edited to de-emphasize this storyline.
Although Barnabas is pure villain at this point, he contrasts sharply with his literary inspiration, Count Dracula. Instead of reveling in his condition, Barnabas is, according to who played the role, an "angry everyman." Embittered over the fate that's been forced on him, he's determined to take what he believes is due him and had been unfairly denied him. It's a motive plenty of unhappy viewers can and did relate to relate to.
One also can't help feeling a bit sad for Barnabas because of the utter futility if what he's trying to do. Even if he's able to rob Maggie of her free will and sense of identity, the inescapable reality is that she never will really be his lost love Josette. A scene (in episode #239) I find particularly tragic in this respect has Barnabas arranging a romantic dinner with the half-dazed Maggie, and acting as if this really is Josette -- in fact insisting as much when Willie tries to tell him it's Maggie.
It also seems to me that the vampire myth is being used, to some extent, as a metaphor the various components of addiction -- the substance itself, the addict who rejects loved ones for the sake of the addiction, and the loved ones who are powerless to help, and only get abused and rejected for their trouble. This metaphor is evident in the escalating hostility between Maggie and her father Sam, boyfriend Joe, and friend Vicky as they fight to save her and she rejects them, even resorting to deception and trickery.
Oh yes -- note the dialog in episode #242, in which Dr. Hoffman is referred to as a man. The idea of a female Dr. Hoffman hadn't been thought of as yet.
Barnabas is played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who brings class and sophistication to the role. Alas, Frid also flubs more lines than anybody else in the cast. The problem was that, being a stage actor, he was unused to the rigors of daytime television drama. He reportedly has a bad habit of anguishing over specific lines and speeches, at the expense of memorizing an entire script. There appears to be an example of this in episodes 212 and 214. At the end op #212, Frid delivers a chilling yet moving soliloquy to the portrait of Josette. Then, in #214, he completely mangles a line about the Collins family in England.
One noteworthy detail of that speech in #212 is that Barnabas doesn't use the word "vampire" in a situation where it would have been appropriate. In fact, it has been noted the DS deliberately did not use that word for quite a long time. Apparently, Dan Curtis wanted to break new ground, but to do it gingerly. Actually, I think it added to the plausibility. In later episodes, the word would get bounced around in an offhand way that came dangerously close to camp.
Another distinctive feature of these earlier episodes is the use of film sequences for exteriors. I'm struck especially by one (in episode #238) that features Carolyn and Vicky outside of the old house. This is one of the few times we get an appreciation for how BIG the Old House is.
The DVD edition features a spooky surround sound introduction to the main menu. It's cool, but I wish you could skip directly to the menu. I also wish each individual act of each episode was an individual chapter. Instead, each episode is one chapter, so there's no way to skip to the middle of one except to fast-forward to the desired point.
On the other hand, this set includes bonus interviews with Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and John Karlen. I especially enjoyed Karlen's comments on the problems of keeping the show credible.
All in all, this DVD edition is definitely what DS fans have been waiting for.