DVD Review: Dark Shadows: The Beginning (first episodes)

Dark Shadows: Collinwood at nigtAs a little girl in the early ’70s, I would come home from school every day and turn on the TV to watch reruns of what we called “Barnabas Collins,” the show about the vampire.

I don’t recall very much about the show itself, however, except that one featured character named Maggie was played by an actress named Kathryn Leigh Scott–a name I am unlikely ever to forget or misspell. Nor can I say that I gave the show much thought in the last 40 years, until the first 200 episodes of Dark Shadows from 1966 and ’67, before the appearance of Barnabas Collins, became available on DVD in the wake of that very silly film remake.

The original concept for the show sounded like the sort of Old Dark House movies I’ve taken an interest in lately, atmospherically spooky and not so overtly supernatural as it later became. I thought I’d rent the first two sets of disks from Netflix and give it a look.

The first episode begins promisingly with a night-time view of a neo-Gothic house on a hill and a woman speaking in voice-over, at once evoking both The Haunting and Rebecca.

When the young woman speaking is introduced, her story also seems vaguely Jane-Eyrish.

Victoria WintersHer name is Victoria Winters (as she will announce at the beginning of nearly every subsequent episode). She was abandoned as an infant and has grown up in a New York orphanage. The only clues she has to her background are a note that was left with her as a baby, bearing her first name, and anonymous envelopes containing money for her care which have been sent regularly from Bangor, Maine, over the past eighteen years.

Vicky has just received a job offer from a woman named Elizabeth Collins Stoddard of Collinsport to be a governess to her nine-year-old nephew.

Vicky has never heard of the Collinses or Collinsport and has no idea how Mrs. Collins Stoddard has come to know about her, but Collinsport is only 50 miles from Bangor. Vicky has accepted the job in hopes of solving the mystery of her own past. We meet her on a train headed for the little coastal town.

On the train with Vicky is another passenger, the massively square-jawed Burke Devlin. The two do not meet each other until they’ve arrived at the Collinsport station and Burke offers Vicky a lift to the hotel in town.

Vicky and BurkeHe tries to present an air of mystery about himself and his relationship to Collinsport, but soon abandons that pose after the first people he meets at the Collinsport Inn recognize him and remark on how long it’s been since they’ve seen him.

Also at the inn coffee shop, Vicky meets the waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott–yeah!), who warns her against going to Collinwood, the neo-Gothic house on the hill we saw at the beginning of the show and home of the Collins family. But Vicky is determined. Her taxi arrives and she’s off to her new home.

Vicky’s first evening at Collinwood takes up several episodes, during which we get acquainted with the Collinses:

  • Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, head of the family and owner of Collinwood as well as the local fishing cannery. Mrs. Collins Stoddard’s husband disappeared 18 years ago and she hasn’t set foot off the grounds of Collinwood since. Carolyn gets down; Joe disapproves
  • Elizabeth’s daughter, 18-year-old Carolyn. Carolyn is a vivacious and self-centered girl, engaged to a boy named Joe who works at the cannery–although she doesn’t seem very keen on marrying him once she gets a look at Burke’s manly jaw. She and Vicky quickly become friends.
  • Elizabeth’s snitty younger brother Roger. Carolyn calls him charming and “a dreamboat,” but I don’t see it. Roger’s wife Laura is apparently mentally ill and living in a sanitarium somewhere.
  • Roger’s creepy son David, whom Vicky has been hired to teach. David’s first words to Vicky are “I hate you!” David also claims to see dead people–specifically, the ghosts of The Widows who haunt the house. The cliff near the house is named Widows Hill, and it’s a famous place for suicides.

We actually saw a little of Elizabeth and Roger back at the very beginning, while Vicky was still on the train. Elizabeth was looking forward to the new governess’s arrival, while Roger was against her coming.

While Elizabeth is very kind and welcoming to Vicky from her arrival, Roger remains hostile and suspicious toward the newcomer. Both, curiously, give vague and contradictory answers to Vicky’s question Elizabeth and Rogeras to how they knew about her.

During these first episodes, we also pick up a little family history. The Collinses have been prominent in the area since the late 1600s. They founded the town and built Collinwood in the 1830s. There are some family portraits in the parlor and we get a few names; Barnabas is not among them. Since the 1800s, the family has fallen into decay, like most of the house. They live in only a few rooms and keep no servants except for a cranky caretaker named Matthew who is fiercely loyal to Elizabeth.

After this promising beginning, a great deal of the next 20 or so episodes is taken up with Burke’s subplot, which I find rather tedious. Since it plays a major part in the initial storyline and other plots are built up out of it, however, I might as well go into it now.

Ten years ago, Burke Devlin was convicted of manslaughter for a drunken hit-and-run accident; he spent five years in prison and then wandered the world and made a fortune for himself. Although his memories of the accident are vague, he maintains that he wasn’t driving the car and that Roger was responsible not only for the accident, but perjured himself to ensure that Burke was convicted for a crime he committed himself. Laura, who later married Roger, was Burke’s girlfriend at the time. Burke has returned to his old home town in quest of revenge against Roger specifically and the Collins family in general.

Roger certainly gets into one of his snits when he hears that Burke is back in town and behaves like a man threatened. So does Maggie’s father Sam, a drunken artist who seems to know more about the accident than is good for him.

After Burke pays a call at Collinwood at Carolyn’s behest, Roger has another car accident–his brakes have been tampered with. The family immediately suspects Burke, but it soon becomes obvious to the viewer that little David has not only tried to kill his father, but is trying to frame Vicky for it. This story line plays out like a grisly and over-long After School Special. Will David tell the truth before an innocent person (Burke, not Vicky) is accused?

A dark figure is glimpsed one night in the front hall.If this storyline were all there was to watch, I would’ve given up early on. But interspersed with the story are some intriguing fragments of the sort of thing I chose to watch Dark Shadows for.

One wing of the house is shut up, but sometimes the locked door swings creakily open. So do other doors around the house. A dark figure is glimpsed one night in the front hall. Unexplained thumps and bangs are sometimes heard, and a cup left on the front hall table is mysteriously smashed.

Most of this might be attributed to David up to mischief, but what about the sound of a woman sobbing that awakens Vicky at night and sends her exploring the darkened house? And what’s behind that locked door in the cellar that both Mrs. Collins Stoddard and Matthew are adamant that Vicky keep away from?

More to come…

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.