The Plot: As Christmas draws near, Quentin issues an arcane invitation into the unknown. Meanwhile, as children are reported missing across Collinsport, the festive season brings Collinwood new terrors, when a persuasive spirit seeks to divide and conquer.
“Why are you so evil?”
Christmas does seem to come earlier and earlier every year but … in the run up to Halloween at the end of this month I thought it would be fun to sample some of the spooky Dark Shadows releases available on CD from Big Finish, especially as I am such a big fan of their Sapphire and Steel range. Although there are carols and a blanket of snow, this is a predictably dark and otherworldly Yuletide tale, one where even the stuffed turkey may not be quite what it seems!
“Where have you been hiding yourself all this time?” – Quentin
“Hiding.” – Professor Stokes
This is the third of the initial quartet of full-cast audio drama releases from Big Finish reviving the US TV series, Dark Shadows. Originally broadcast between 1966 and 1971, it became (courtesy of producer Dan Curtis) a truly radical soap, turning a daytime melodrama about the rich Collins family and their ancient mansion into a Gothic horror extravaganza, renowned for its mixture of contemporary-set stories with excursions into the past and parallel realities, with ghosts, vampires and other supernatural creatures becoming part of the regular cast. Two of the mainstays of the series, the spirit creature Angelique (Lara Parker) and the vampire Barnabas (now played by Andrew Collins) are featured heavily here, together with the more down-to-earth Quentin (David Selby), the current head of the Collins household, friend of the family Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) who works in the village and has a bit of a pash for Barnabas (who is not quite himself having recently been reincarnated into a new body) and Willie (John Karlen), the sad and weak-willed groundsman who has several different kinds of demons fighting over him. With the exception of Barnabas these are all played by the original actors from the TV show and prove to be highly impressive in their roles, with Parker and Scott being particular standouts in a top-notch cast.
“Simple answers are the ones to be wary of, my friend.”
This release originally came out in 2007 and was written by Scott Hancock and is perfectly entertaining even if you don’t know much about the show. Children have been going missing from the town in the lead up to the Christmas festivities, just as Quentin decides to get a family gathering underway for the season, sending out some unorthodox invitations across time and space. Barnabas is trying to get to grips with the man he now is as supposed to who he was and is still putting off the advances of bothersome and treacherous ghost Angelique. But an evil spirit has been raised from an HP Lovecraft style nether world and it too congregates on the Collins home just as the family starts to gather. This is all couched, slightly confusingly, as a bedtime story, but has bags of atmosphere and plenty of good dialogue to keep things going, though it has to be said that the story never really seems to click into place – the baddie sort of arrives for unspecified reasons, sort of needs children who for some reason like to sing as they work and the Collins family are invited to participate – and then just one stabbing ends it all, seemingly … It is made up of three 25-minute episodes on one disc incorporating cliff-hangers and episode recaps, a structure that works extremely well here in keeping with soap style of the original TV show and which could very usefully be applied on the Jago and Litefoot releases which sometimes feel very constricted at only 45 minutes in length.
While splendidly acted and produced – the music score by Joseph Fox is particularly noteworthy – these releases so far have not particularly been to my taste, the mixture of horror and soap never seeming to really gel while the rather thin and ethereal plots always feel a bit insubstantial. As a fan of Sapphire & Steel I have no problem with unexplained events remaining, well, unexplained, in the service of creating atmosphere but I found the characters to be rather too withdrawn and lacking in dynamism to carry this production, though as I say the acting was truly first-rate.
This audio series has since been revamped as a of dramatic readings rather than audio plays, albeit fairly ambitious ones, and I may well try some of the latest offerings to see if my opinion will change or if this is just too niche for me – there is a podcast on the new series available at the Big Finish website here.