‘Dark Shadows’ (The Beginning, Vol. 1): What was it like before vampires & werewolves?

Spinning the dial the other day (which is a neat trick with a remote…), I noticed not for the first time that the daily soap opera pickins is mighty slim, shall we say: just four left on the Not So Big Anymore Three (five if you count reruns of the sublime The Doctors on Retro TV, which I never miss). Why, back in my day…(cue nursie: Gramps is at it again). Anyway, if you grew up when your Grammy’s “stories” were still the queens of daytime, you may have heard of—or been lucky enough to catch it yourself—TV’s strangest daily serial: ABC’s supernatural gothic horror romance, Dark Shadows.

By Paul Mavis

I was fortunate enough to watch the last flickings of Dark Shadows when it originally aired. It premiered in June, 1966, and was unceremoniously canceled in April, 1971. During its final season, I was a morning kindergartner who never failed to have his afternoon snack (grilled Velveeta® on rye, strawberry Kool-Aid®—and easy on the ice, will ya? I don’t want it watered down) on my Lost in Space lap tray, watching the absolutely bizarre goings-on at Collinwood, the rambling, mysterious 40-room mansion that was the nexus of the supernatural happenings in Collinsport, Maine.

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With vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, and parallel universes (which confused the hell out of me), all presented on a day-in, day-out basis, there just wasn’t anything else like Dark Shadows on television at the that time…or at least certainly not during those afternoon hours of pre-cable TV, where game shows and traditional “talking heads” soap operas ruled the airwaves. Often, Dark Shadows scared the hell out of me (so, um…why was I plopped down in front of it in the first place?), particularly that charismatic vampire lead, Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins. Depending on night terror reaction levels, I was frequently banned from watching it for days and weeks at a time.

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I think it’s safe to say Barnabas is Dark Shadows to fans, then and now, but I was utterly fascinated to discover the pre-Barnabas episodes when, a few years back, MPI started releasing its Beginnings DVD sets, starting at Episode 1, that chronicled the series’ origins long before the gothic soap opera ever thought of bringing in a horny vampire to save its weak ratings (the entire series is also available on Amazon Prime…as are all of your wedding videos, private photos, grocery lists, every cell phone call you’ve ever made, and the sum total of your K-12 homework assignments).

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Originally conceived by producer/director Dan Curtis (The Night Stalker, The Winds of War) and writer Art Wallace after Curtis experienced an evocative dream about a young girl riding a train to a mysterious mansion, Dark Shadows—sans vampire—was still quite unusual for its day: a gothic suspense soap opera, set amidst the deep, mysterious woods and rocky cliffs of Maine, where a young orphaned woman, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), comes to the forbidding Collinwood Mansion to find herself. Designed specifically for the women TV viewers watching at home (when a still-significant number of American women put “housewife” down as their sole occupation), Dark Shadows came with all the requisite gothic romance conventions: a young, lovely, innocent heroine; a wind-swept, picturesque, romantic locale, a selection of male fantasy figures to dream about (the dark, brooding Burke Devlin, the patrician, wasp-tongued Roger Collins); a massive, spooky Victorian mansion with creaky doors, darkened hallways—where someone was always creeping or lurking—and generations of forbidden secrets and ghostly legends; and an eccentric extended family of characters, all jumbled together in a maze of interconnected past histories and treacheries, with (perhaps slightly mad) Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) at the center, as the matriarch and keeper of all the secrets of the powerful Collins family.

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As fans of the series well know, Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins, an emotionally tortured, floridly romantic vampire that became a surprise sex symbol for millions of women viewers, was brought on to Dark Shadows when ratings started to stall 10 months into the run. Conceived only as a supporting character intended for a limited run, Frid’s Barnabas Collins provided an immediate spike in ratings, and put Dark Shadows on the road to an increasingly complex supernatural construction…none of which, to be fair, is in these beginning episodes (some die-hard Barnabas fans detest these early “straight” Beginnings episodes, finding them a bit creaky and slow, but I disagree).

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Importantly, to more fully enjoy the Barnabas-era Dark Shadows, these early episodes are necessary for setting the stage for the later, better-known goings-on. We get a sense of the history and past of the Collins family, their place in the town (they own the biggest cannery and the largest fishing fleet), as well as crucial introductions to the central Victoria Winters and Elizabeth Collins Stoddard characters.

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Joan Bennett, who admittedly was sometimes shaky with her lines in later years, is solid in these early episodes (although some recalcitrant props, including doors that won’t open and wobbly walls that appear ready to fall down, battle for her concentration). With her brooding, sad beauty, she’s quite effective as the doomed matriarch of Collinwood, spending eighteen years wandering the halls of her estate, never once venturing outside, waiting for her long-lost husband to return. Alexandra Moltke, as the beautiful, threaten Victoria, is letter-perfect as the naive yet searching orphan, Victoria. I can imagine more than a few viewers wishing they were her (how appealingly romantic her plight must have seemed, particularly to some housewife in a one-story, 3-bedroom ranch in the middle of a former potato field, faced with a day’s laundry and ironing…and some rotten kid screaming for another grilled Velveeta®).

ABC's "Dark Shadows" - File Photos

It helps, too, that these early storylines, although stock gothic romance conventions, are quite nicely brought over by the talented supporting cast. In particular, I enjoyed Louis Edmonds’ just-this-side-of-camp portrayal of the patrician, waspish (and WASPish) Roger Collins. Relishing every line he’s given, Edmonds snaps out his delivery with a droll stuffiness that I found perfect for his character (and quite hilarious). Mitchell Ryan, as the mysterious, dangerous Burke Devlin, is nicely cast, bringing a gruff physicality in sharp (and humorous) contrast to Edmonds’ effete reticence (unfortunately, Ryan was later fired from the show and his character recast).

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Kathryn Leigh Scott immediately connects with the audience as earthy “commoner” waitress Maggie Evans (she would soon become one the series’ most popular actors). Nancy Barrett captures the spoiled, willful, lonely Carolyn to a T (she’s also a real looker; watch her sexy dance at the local tavern, The Blue Whale—“Oh, Mary, don’t ask,”— where I think she frugs).

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Lovers of early television will get a kick out of these early Dark Shadows episodes precisely because of their sometimes rough construction and execution. Dark Shadows is a rarity among daytime serials from this era, in that the entire series (save for one lost episode where only an audio track remains) has been preserved. Shot on then-prohibitively expensive videotape (with a budget that usually demanded single takes), the video feeds for some early Dark Shadows episodes were backed up by a black and white kinescope (a 16mm film camera, aimed at a monitor, recording the video feed) for stations that couldn’t yet receive ABC’s “live” feed.

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These early Dark Shadows episodes are an invaluable look into the production of live soaps from that period, and as such, are quite informative as well as entertaining. Those technical rough spots—relatively dark lighting, cheap sets, actors missing cues—are all part of the show’s charm (television today—even local programming—has become so technically proficient, it looks soullessly sterile).

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Certainly Dark Shadows’s later episodes focusing on fantasy and horror elements were responsible for the show’s continued popularity to this day. However, these earlier gothic romance outings are still valuable to those who appreciate the genre, particularly when presented in such a classic, traditional framework. As with any soap or serial, the two main purposes of a show like Dark Shadows is to sell “soap,” and to keep audiences coming back day after day…to see more commercials that sell more “soap.” And these early episodes of Dark Shadows do just that. For lovers of vintage TV, they’re a (super)natural.

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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