Thursday, September 06, 2007

"My Name is Victoria Winters..."

As those of you familiar with my recent routine will understand, I've lately found myself sorely in need of a nightcap come bedtime. MPI Home Video's newly issued DARK SHADOWS THE BEGINNING - DVD COLLECTION 1 has been just the ticket. This set collects the first 35 B&W episodes of the long-running ABC-TV program, the first "suspense soap opera," which originally aired roughly a year before the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced to the storyline. What we have here is like a contemporary version of an Ann Radcliffe novel: the gothic story of an orphaned adult, Victoria Winters, and her search for identity at a forbidding mansion in Maine, where she discovers her paternity to be only one of many mysteries and by no means the darkest.

Like many other kids of my generation, I used to run home from school to catch DARK SHADOWS in its heyday, but I didn't stick with it through its entire run. I started when the show started, drifted away when I discovered greater attractions than the mild mysteries it proferred that first year, and came back when I heard that vampires were stalking the stately halls of Collinwood. I was about 11 or 12 at the time and found the miniskirts and shapely legs of Kathryn Leigh Scott compelling viewing, even when Jonathan Frid wasn't baring his fangs. I've since seen individual episodes of later episodes and not gotten hooked all over again, and have been generally mystified by the whole phenomenon of DARK SHADOWS fandom. Nevertheless, I've always been curious to revisit these earliest episodes to see if they were really dull or just over my 10 year old head at the time.

To my amazement, I'm getting hooked. I went through periods of addiction to the CBS-TV soaps GUIDING LIGHT and AS THE WORLD TURNS back in the 1970s, and I have to say that DARK SHADOWS works much like other soaps have worked in my experience. The storyline is not particularly captivating, however, over time, one begins to see through the characters to the people underneath; consequently, one becomes extraordinarily sympathetic to the actors, working under obvious stress (live on videotape), and it is the company of their struggle, the hope we share with them for their occasional triumph, that becomes irresistable. There is also a good deal of cleverness to how the show stretches the most minor of plot points over several episodes, if not several weeks, introducing new bait just before it grudgingly allows the old bait to slide off the hook.

Alexandra Moltke, who plays Victoria Winters, has an interesting dark Irish face poised between blandness and classical beauty, and the scrappy pluck she brings to her performance is winning. David Henesy, who plays a troubled nine-year-old in her charge, is a talented child actor who also has an often-uncorrected tendency to glower into the cameras until his good work becomes risible. Joan Bennett, the star of the show, is properly imperious and cold but, nearly 30 episodes in, I'm still looking for chinks in her armor that might make her at least moderately interesting. Her character is said to have never left Collinwood in over 18 years, but one episode opens with her entering the house from a trip outside. Bennett also has an amusing tendency, in her telephone scenes, to leave no ellipses in her lines to allow for what the person calling might have to say. Louis Edmonds, as the schizo arrogant/avuncular Roger Collins, is a hoot; he's probably the best actor in these early shows and, while it's usually easy to tell when he wanders off-script, he engineers the most graceful rescues for himself and his co-stars you can imagine. It's interesting for me, too, as a longtime admirer, to be reminded of how Kathryn Leigh Scott's Maggie Evans character was first introduced as a blonde-wigged, working class waitress at the hotel greasy spoon; she becomes a warmer, more interesting presence when she loses the wig in Episode 19. And, unapologetic fanboy that I can sometimes be, every time I see Mitchell Ryan, I find myself thinking what a great Nick Fury he might have been. Now-familiar faces I don't normally associate with the series have also been turning up in bit parts: Conrad Bain, Elizabeth Wilson, Barnard Hughes.

Each episode begins with a chalkboard shot that gives the dates of recording and broadcast (generally two weeks apart). In one of these, Nancy Barrett (who plays the cute, blonde, adventure-seeking daughter of Bennett's character) can be seen walking to her mark for the opening scene and vigorously scrubbing at her front teeth with a finger. It's moments such as this that distill the joy of watching DARK SHADOWS and keep me watching. It's really theater rather than television drama, a kind of rough sketch that gives us just enough material to complete in our heads, to fantasize about, to dream on. Perhaps that's why they keep remaking it. Word is going around that Johnny Depp is going to play Barnabas Collins in a blockbuster feature remake; if he gets it wrong, you can bet your sharpened dentures it won't be the last attempt.

In the meantime, DARK SHADOWS THE BEGINNING makes for compulsive, fun, and (I would argue) multi-layered viewing; I can go through three or four in a sitting and wonder where the time went. Full review forthcoming in a future VIDEO WATCHDOG.

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