The Best of Barnabas DVD Review: A Perfect Primer for "Dark Shadows" Vampire Virgins

The late, lamented Jonathan Frid lives forever in this delightful new collection of nine classic episodes
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Dark Shadows is the show that will not die. Like its lead character, vampire Barnabas Collins, the so called “supernatural soap opera” keeps rising from the grave in various incarnations, from the original 1966-1971 daytime drama to a syndicated revival of the classic episodes in the 1980s, to an NBC primetime reboot in the early '90s, to VHS and then DVD releases of every one of the 1,225 TV episodes over the last two decades, and finally, to a feature film from director Tim Burton, coming to U.S. theaters May 11.

Sadly, original series star Jonathan Frid left us for good this week at age 87, passing away from natural causes after a very brief illness. But the man who became a teen heartthrob at the age of 43 lives on, both in a cameo appearance in the new film and in a series of “Best Of” compilations of classic episodes, now available from MPI Home Video.

Dark Shadows is a show with a passionate, fiercely loyal fan following, which has included me since April 12, 1982, when I saw my first episode in syndicated reruns. We are extremely protective of our favorite show, mostly because we’ve been taking care of it for the better part of our lives. We’ve kept the show vibrant through the quiet times with conventions, cast reunions, fanzines, blogs, websites, message boards, Tumblrs, etc. And many of us are worried about the tone of the new film, and Johnny Depp’s seemingly comic take on the romantic hero who just happened to murder women on occasion with his teeth. 

Here’s what I tell the freaked out fans (many of whom have been my friends since I attended my first Dark Shadows convention in 1983): the original episodes aren’t going anywhere. If the movie is terrible, people will quickly forget it, and move on. But if the movie is good, perhaps some of the people who like it will seek out the original and join us in our tireless devotion to this addictive classic. 

Dark_Shadows_Best_BarnabasThese DVDs, marketed under the umbrella Dark Shadows: The Greatest Episodes Collection, are for them, the "new blood." True diehards understand that a DVD with nine episodes of a daily series that ran for five years is a mere blip on the narrative radar. There’s no way you can get a sense for a nearly-600-hour story by watching 198 minutes of it. Nor did Dark Shadows even really have “greatest episodes.” Certain storylines are preferred by fans, but selecting a 22-minute installment to demonstrate anything is next to impossible.

But you can get a taste or, as actor Lara Parker (who played the witch Angelique) says in her newly-shot wrap-arounds for The Best of Barnabas DVD, “an introduction” to the show’s uniquely quirky charms. And as any vampire knows, once you get a taste, you will likely be back for more. 

Dark Shadows: The Greatest Episodes Collection - The Best of Barnabas

1) Episode 221 (Original Airdate: May 2, 1967)

In this black & white episode from the early days of Frid’s tenure (he debuted in episode 210), new-in-town “cousin from England” Barnabas macks on Collinsport waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), who bears a striking resemblance to his doomed bride, Josette DuPres.

This episode is fun because Frid had not yet figured out his character and is saddled with hokey, double-meaning dialogue, like, “One gets used to loneliness…it is part of existence.” Episode 221 is the origin of the main narrative throughline of every iteration of Dark Shadows: Barnabas’s attempt to reunite with his lost love through a woman who looks like her.

Note: I love this period of the show, because the black & white gives the mid-1960s videotape the character of a classic Universal horror film. While the show became more “fun” when it switched to color a few months later, it lost a certain timelessness.

2) Episode 349 (October 26, 1967)

Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) attempts to cure Barnabas with injections (of anti-vampire serum?), which advance his aging process, turning him into a wrinkled, feeble old man (with memorable help from makeup artist Dick Smith). This is Barnabas at his most dickish, sarcastically teasing Julia about her feelings for him, while he plots to attack one of the female residents of Collinwood in order to regain his youth. Further proof that Barnabas Collins was a total pimp.

3) Episode 418 (January 31, 1968)

In the year 1795, newly-vampiric Barnabas struggles with his conscience and his new affliction, courtesy of a curse by jilted, blonde paramour (and witch) Angelique (Lara Parker).

This storyline is when Dark Shadows hit its stride and became what entranced the housewives of America: a Gothic romance with a murderous, conflicted anti-hero.

4) Episode 535 (July 12, 1968)

Back in the present-day, Barnabas is menaced yet-again by the witch Angelique, now in the guise of a brunette named Cassandra. This episode is part of the brilliant, “Dream Curse” storyline, wherein Barnabas travels into the world of his slumber in an effort to defeat the witch. Once there, they face off in a silent battle which ends with a mortal Barnabas attacked once again by the bat, and re-cursed to a life of bloodsucking. And you thought your exes were vengeful.

Note: To say that Wes Craven was influenced by this storyline in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies is, um, an understatement.

5) Episode 703 (March 5, 1969)

Barnabas uses the I Ching wands to travel back to the year 1897, in an effort to save the future. Once there he introduces himself to the family as a “cousin from England” (are you sensing a pattern?).

The 1897 storyline was the series’ best-rated period, with young romantic lead David Selby joining the cast as the Rhett Butler-esque rogue Quentin Collins. The vampire Barnabas and the werewolf Quentin were truly the Edward and Jacob of your parents’  generation.

Note: Stick around until the credits of this episode, where Frid, in full makeup, walks through the shot carrying his laundry. This is the kind of thing that we fans live for.

6) Episode 718 (March 26, 1969)

Still in 1897, Barnabas is menaced once again by Angelique, the proverbial bad penny of ex-girlfriends, while Quentin uses a voodoo doll in an attempt to defeat his “cousin.”

So much was great about Dark Shadows in this period, from Selby to Grayson Hall and Thayer David as a pair of gypsies to Crazy Jenny (Marie Wallace) locked in the tower.

Note: Sadly, the highpoint was the also the beginning of the end. Once back in the present day, the series would never again reach the narrative heights of 1897.

7) Episode 915 (December 29, 1969)

Back in the present day, Collinsport is menaced by a demon child who will grow up to be the leader of a demonic, hoodie-wearing, Lovecraftian cult called the Leviathans. And Barnabas is once again turned into a vampire. Can you hear that sound? It’s all the 12-year-old girls switching over to As the World Turns.

The Leviathan story is perhaps the least favorite amongst fans, rivaled only by the final arc, wherein Frid plays an entirely different character, Barnabas’s son Bramwell Collins (don’t ask).

Note: Future four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason plays a streetwalker whom Barnabas bites and turns into a vampire. 

8) Episode 982 (March 31, 1970)

Barnabas climbs a staircase into “another time band running concurrently with ours." In Parallel Time, the present-day cast members play alternate versions of themselves, often to hilarious results. (Dr. Hoffman is now a maid! The hoodlum Willie is now a writer!)

9) Episode 1133 (October 29, 1970)

In the year 1840, the disembodied head of warlock Judah Zachary and Angelique (again) wreck havoc on poor Barnabas’ love life, this time with the pixieish Roxanne Drew (Donna Wandrey) who, by the way, looks absolutely nothing like Josette. And I say bully for Barnabas, for getting out of his romantic rut.

Note: This episode features one of Dark Shadows most beloved villains, Trask, played in various storylines by the excellent Jerry Lacy, who went on to portray Humphrey Bogart opposite Woody Allen in Play It Again Sam (1972)

While this compilation is called The Best of Barnabas, it could just as easily been called The Best of Angelique. Lara Parker (still sexy and seductive at 74!) proves that she truly was the first lady of Dark Shadows, holding her own against the commanding presence of Jonathan Frid.

As for Frid, we will all surely miss him. But the nuanced brilliance of his work on Dark Shadows will be with us, always. And for that, I am grateful. Eternally.

Next up: Dark Shadows: The Greatest Episodes Collection - Fan Favorites.

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