When I worked at Blockbuster Video in the VHS heyday of the early 1990s, MPI Home Video made a mint by releasing every episode “ all 1,225 of them “ of the 1966-1971 soap opera “Dark Shadows.” At least I assume as much, because I had customers not only rent them, but more often shelling out $20 a tape for just a handful of episodes. You do the math.
Having been born just as it went off the air, I wondered what made the show so great, but never checked it out, until now. MPI just made the daunting task much easier with two new DVD compilations of particular storylines: “Dark Shadows: The Haunting of Collinwood” and “Dark Shadows: The Curse of the Vampire.”
To the newbie, director/producer Dan Curtis’ cult classic is a “dark and stormy night” soap drenched in the Gothic tradition, full of melodrama and a touch of the supernatural. At 30 minutes each, the shows are easily digestible, helping overcome their age limitations of being shot live in single takes. “Dark Shadows” wouldn’t be “Dark Shadows” without its core character of Barnabas the vampire (Jonathan Frid), and his origins are explored in “The Curse of the Vampire,” heavy on the romance as these afternoon serials were (and still are).
But for me, more fun was had in “The Haunting of Collinwood,” in which two kids who are really bad actors go exploring in the Collins’ family’s seemingly mansion, find a chintzy skeleton and become possessed by the ghost of Quentin Collins (David Selby), a mutton-chopped man who’s a werewolf and never speaks. An old-school record player plays a spooky song so often, it will burrow into your brain.
Despite its obvious horror elements, I won’t go as far to call “Dark Shadows” scary, but it does its best to unnerve with inventive “ for their time “ effects. That they fail by today’s standards ups the series’ camp factor. It will give no one the willies, but will give viewers a time-capsule kick, even winning over new fans and priming them for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s planned big-screen adaptation.
Some of the surviving actors plug their books and Web sites in brief commercials following the main attraction, which struck me as kind of sad. Both discs run more than three hours each, with an extra episode tucked within the bonus features.