Studio:MPI Year: 1967-1970 Cast: Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Grayson Hall, Alexandra Moltke, Lara Parker, David Selby, Joan Bennett, Thayer David, John Karlen
Director: Lela Swift, John Sedgwick Release Date: April 10, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence, thematic material)
Run Time: 3h:24m:21s Genre(s): television, horror, suspense
"I'm from the...English branch of the family." - Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid)
If you're looking for something to clear your palate after having been exposed to the Depp/Burton reimagining of the classic series Dark Shadows as a brainless sex comedy, you can hardly do better than this collection of nine of the episodes of that original series featuring the late great Jonathan Frid. Barnabas Collins, as portrayed by Frid, was the original tormented vampire, making possible the empires of Anne Rice and Twilight, and this selection points up some of what made him so irresistible all those years ago.
Movie Grade: A-
DVD Grade: B-
The nine episodes presented here range from the early days of Barnabas' introduction in mid-1967, before the series began being shot in color, where he first meets waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). He's sinister here, and not yet the sympathetic vampire. Producer Dan Curtis quickly decided that Barnabas would not just be a one-shot monster villain, and made him, much to Frid's chagrin, the centerpiece of the show. Right from the start in this episode, his nature is just barely covered by a suave Continental manner. That's exemplified in his treatment of Willie Loomis (John Karlen), once Maggie departs from the scene, with his animal fury hardly contained.
If you were one of the many of a certain age who ran home from school in the late 1960s in order not to miss a minute of this classic and campy gothic soap opera, you'll find quite a number of classic moments that you'll fondly remember. One of the greatest is in the second episode here, where after a series of experiments by Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) to cure Barnabas' vampirism, all those years catch up with him at once. It was such a great sequence that it was also the centerpiece of the feature film House of Dark Shadows, which it is to be hoped will emerge onto DVD at last in cross-promotion with the Depp/Burton picture.
Another of those classic moments, captured here in the fourth episode, is the revelation of the Dream Curse placed by the witch Angelique (Lara Parker), as Barnabas must face his doom. This program, more than any other, screams late 1960s, as trippy op art and cheesy visual effects surround the dream. Frid is at his most intense here, though the impact is spoiled a little by the terrible bat effects, which the show never was able to master in any convincing way. You can also get a good sense of the slightly distracted and distant air that Frid gave to Barnabas, which as it turns out was in substantial part his vain attempts to find a cue card.
The show's run in its second half involved a good deal of time travel, and we get a sampling of just about every one of those trips, from 1795 to 1897 to 1840 and even a parallel present time episode. The Parallel Time sequence and the episodes featuring the Leviathans (a thinly disguised version of Lovecraft's Old Gods) were where the series started to lose steam and viewers; continuity got so confusing that it was difficult to tell who the actors were playing this time. One can see that the Parallel Time series was an effort to get the highly popular Quentin Collins (David Selby) into modern times from the 1897 sequence where he belonged. While a laudable goal, since Selby is nearly as magnetic as Frid and a good deal more handsome, it also started to make the storylines seem forced and even arbitrary. That's not a good thing for a show that wants to keep the viewers glued to the set every day. When you get such stories in a package like this, it can almost feel like whiplash, such as in the Parallel Time episode, where Willie Loomis is a successful writer instead of a drug-addled handyman looking for jewels in all the wrong places.
One thing that was always enjoyable in the various times and places was the introduction of Barnabas, and there's a healthy sampling of these episodes here. While his classic first intro from 1967 isn't present, knowledge of that conversation is assumed here. It's quite entertaining to watch Barnabas try his standard explanation of being "from the English branch of the Collins family" in different situations, with wildly varying results. I hadn't really been conscious of that gag's direct repetition over the course of the series, so it's nice to get all of these variants in one handy place.
The Parker intros are the only serious extras, though if you like you can get six minutes of Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker hawking their books. Oddly, the intro for episode 535 is repeated for episode 703, though all of the others seem to be correct. There is a handy "Play All" button, which is always appreciated in this kind of set. Picture quality is about as good as you can expect for a show shot on cheap videotape in the 1960s, which is to say not great. But at least there doesn't seem to be a lot of artificial edge enhancement slapped onto it to make it something it's not. The picture is clear enough to see that some of the cast had nasty complexions, and that Quentin's mutton chops were rather crudely glued on. The mono audio is serviceable, and again what you'd expect to be played through the three-inch speaker of your Zenith; don't expecting any major subwoofer action. Robert Cobert's classic score sounds reasonably good, though, and is fairly free of distortion.
There are many things that modern viewers will find laughable in this set, I expect. This was a daily soap, produced on the cheap and with an overwhelming sense of the melodramatic. But it always took itself seriously, and its heart is definitely in the right place. Even when it doesn't always make sense, or when there's obvious padding going on, it's nevertheless compulsively watchable. Since it was almost always performed with a single take, there's almost a sense of live television here. What always made the show work best though was when Barnabas was at center stage. There was usually one day per week that Frid had off, and it was always disappointing to run home and find out that this was one of those days. But in this collection, you don't have to deal with those non-Frid programs.
I'm not sure that this is, as the packaging suggests, an ideal place for new viewers to get acquainted. As always in a soap, it's hard to just drop into the story and not feel like you're missing a lot of background. However, the intros to each episode, presented by Lara Parker, do a creditable job of setting things up. But for those who are familiar with Barnabas and that marvelously resonant Shakespearean vocalization of Frid and those pointy bangs, it makes a wonderful way to get reacquainted with the real thing. Who knows? You may want to catch up with all 1225 episodes....