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Hey everyone, Gabe here. When I first heard I might be getting a review copy of the complete Dark Shadows collection from MPI I immediately enlisted the assistance of my good friend Phil Nobile Jr. I don’t like to throw around the word ‘expert’ around without proper provocation, but I think it’s safe to refer to Phil a Dark Shadows ‘expert’. He’s been writing on the subject with relative regularity over the last year for Badass Digest, including an editorial on his predictions for Tim Burton's film version, a breakdown of the various versions of the series seen over the decades, a memoriam for actor Jonathan Frid, and a review of Burton’s film. In the end MPI only sent me the abbreviated Best of Barnabas and Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites collections, but Phil was still game, and wrote up the following review:

Guest Column: Dark Shadows on DVD

MPI Home Video is one committed video label – they've released every single episode of the original Dark Shadows – first on VHS, then on DVD, in a few variations. Buying the whole 1200+ episode series will run you about $500 - which is a serious bargain considering the previous releases added up to about $1500 retail. So last month, in anticipation of the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film adaptation, and hoping to reel in the curious, they released these "Best of" sets at a very affordable price.

The problem for me is that is the effect of the show – and as a fan, I believe the show does have an effect – is cumulative, and impossible to boil down into a sampler reel of episodes. But they get points for trying. The Best of Barnabas feels like a collection that's trying to sell you on the "sympathetic" side of Barnabas Collins, collecting many of the recently deceased Jonathan Frid's soulful, tortured soliloquies in one set. As such, the initial outright villain the character was conceived as is sidestepped, showing you instead the "reluctant vampire/protector of the Collins family" angle that made Barnabas so popular, and which was Depp's jumping off point in the new film.

The nine-episode sampler starts with episode 221, early in Barnabas' run. It's a nice example of the show's strict policy of using very few cast members in an episodes (this one has four), and features the high contrast B&W videography that marked the show's first year. Narratively it's noteworthy as the first meeting between Barnabas Collins and Maggie Evans (Katherine Leigh Scott), the local waitress who is the spitting image of Barnabas' long-lost love Josette. We get a glimpse of the spooky Old House, the run-down original Collins family mansion into which Barnabas takes up residence. It's fun to look at these early episodes, when Barnabas was a straight-up villain, and the parameters of his character were still being explored. And Frid is relishing the role more than he seemed to be in later years.

Guest Column: Dark Shadows on DVD

We move from there to months later, episode 349, to find Barnabas and Dr. Julia Hoffman assessing the disastrous results of her attempt to cure him. With considerable assistance from makeup legend Dick Smith, Barnabas transforms into his "true age" of 175 years. Bickering and scenery chewing ensues; their spiteful love/hate relationship is often my favorite thing to watch on the show. This episode shows a slight bit of tape damage, which might annoy the HD set, but this is a good place to pause and marvel at the fact that this 45-year-old bit of videotape exists at all. The production would film the show on cumbersome video cameras, which sent a signal over telephone lines to ABC's tape room several Manhattan blocks away. Factoring in tenuous technology, the habit of erasing tape libraries, and the fragile nature of magnetic tape, it's nothing short of a miracle that this series exists in its entirety (though one episode in the complete series' run has only audio, and is reconstructed with stills).

The set then jumps to episode 418. In late 1967, the show transported its leading lady back to 1795 so we could get a look at how Barnabas first became a vampire. It was a fun trip, looked back on as a favorite by fans, though it, like other subplots, tended to wear out its welcome a bit by the end. In this episode Barnabas is upset that his manservant Ben Stokes (Thayer David, an underrated gem of a character actor) didn't stake him in his sleep to end his torment. The episode also provides the set's first look at Angelique (though she's only a cackling floating head) and Barnabas' doomed love, Josette, pre-ghostification.

Guest Column: Dark Shadows on DVD

In episode 535, Angelique has followed Barnabas to 1968, where he's been cured of his vampirism. At the same time Angelique has planted a "dream curse" on the Collins family, resulting in a seemingly endless series of characters going through the same crazy dream, a dream which compels the dreamer to verbally pass it on to another person to rid themselves of it. In keeping with the set's theme, this episode again presents Barnabas as a heroic romantic, sacrificing his own safety by convincing a tortured Vicki to unburden herself by telling him the dream. It's a heartfelt speech that no doubt made teen girls swoon in 1968. And there's a great scene in which Julia Hoffman slaps the shit out of Angelique. The episode ends with Barnabas having the trippy dream which series viewers had seen about ten or eleven times before.

Episode 703 provides a taste of the show's 1897-set plot, in which Barnabas goes back in time to investigating a ghost haunting Collinwood. We get a first look at Quentin Collins (David Selby), introduced by producers to give the show's growing teen female audience a more traditional heartthrob. This one's worth watching to the end, as it contains a great blooper in which Frid accidentally wanders into the end credits carrying his shoes. Episode 718 brings back the Angelique and Barnabas rivalry before jumping ahead 200 episodes (and 72 years) to sample a new story arc, about a group of Lovecraft-inspired "ancient ones" possessing the Collins clan. In case you're not thoroughly confused by that point, the last two episodes take place in "parallel time" (the show explored alternate realities when it wasn't century hopping) and 1840, respectively. By the home stretch of this collection, you're seeing three episodes showcasing three different timelines, with actors playing three characters in as many episodes, one after the other. There's no way to really follow it, but perhaps in a fortuitous sequence of events, the act of time-hopping the series becomes an entertainment in itself, a reflection of the show's inherent craziness.

Guest Column: Dark Shadows on DVD

Perhaps too enamored of Dark Shadows' single-take production method, the DVD producers slap a long, unedited intro by Lara Parker, the show's original Angelique, onto the front of each episode, in an attempt to orient viewers to the plot, but again, this set is probably more suited to sate curiosity than full-on indoctrination.

If The Best Of Barnabas is disorienting to newcomers, Dark Shadows: Fan Favorites earns its title; newcomers need not apply. But if you just want the wild flavor and care not about following any sort of narrative, Fan Favorites gives you the great monster mash which sealed the show's legacy. Vampires, séances, ghosts, witches and werewolves are all accounted for, explained as best she can by series star Kathryn Leigh Scott in taped introductions. It's a fun ride if you know the characters, and for a fan it's a fun joyride through five years, letting you see the show's look and feel evolve at a rapid pace. But to the unfamiliar, it's nine episodes of chaos.

Guest Column: Dark Shadows on DVD

Phil Nobile Jr. is a self described movie enthusiast, writer, producer for television projects. These project include writing and directing Halloween: The Inside Story and Fatal Attraction: The Inside Story, which you should totally watch the next time they rerun them on the Biography channel.

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