Dark Shadows: The House of Despair Review
Big Finish's first Dark Shadows audio returns us to the town of Collinsport, only to find it a shell of its former self...
Back in 2006, Big Finish decided to revive another long-running cult property with the same broad appeal as Doctor Who. This time, however, it wasn't to be a British institution that was revived: rather, it was ABC's American daytime soap opera Dark Shadows. Broadcast between 1966 and 1971, this series featured the usual mix of soap elements: family dramas, affairs, murders... only this one also included vampires, werewolves, time travel and the supernatural as well. It was phenomenally successful, and, as such, felt like a natural property for Big Finish to tackle. However, with a large number of the original cast no longer with us, it meant that producer and writer of this story Stuart Manning would have an interesting challenge in order to make the series work. In order to get around this, it was decided to only feature a small handful of the cast from the series, in contained, hour-long stories, and "The House of Despair" was the first of these. It's an ok start to Big Finish's Dark Shadows range, but it doesn't quite sell the series to new listeners quite as much as it needs to, and it doesn't quite fulfil the potential I know this series can reach on audio.
Opening much like the original series did (with a character travelling to Collinsport on a train), we open with Quentin returning home after a period away. However, when he arrives, he finds the town much changed. The Collins family have fled Collinwood, people are wandering the streets lost, and a darkness has fallen over the town. If Quentin's going to reclaim his home, he's going to need allies. Not only mad Willie Loomis, faithful servant of the Collins family, but also someone from beyond the grave... the witch Angelique... Now, right from the offset, the idea of reintroducing us to the world of Collinsport through the character of Quentin seems like an odd one. While this story plays down Quentin's past and his supernatural abilities, he is a fundamental part of the town, and, despite his sabbatical, is still a part of this world. He, therefore, doesn't really make for a great introduction for new listeners to the series, as throughout you're always conscious that he has a history with this town: later Dark Shadows audios would use the trick of bringing a new character into this world, and using them to guide the audience through this world. While Quentin does at least guide listeners though all the different parts of Collinsport, because he has a history with the town, it is hard to get a feel for what the place is like. The other major problem with this story is the format itself. Dark Shadows prided itself on its soap opera format, but this release tries to tell a whole story within an hour, and it ends up feeling compressed as a result. The plot thread of Strix infesting Collinsport could have run across the whole series, it has enough dramatic potential, but instead it is wrapped up in a single episode. It could have been a great overarching storyline, with the Collins family and the townsfolk having to come together to fight this power from the underworld. However, it is rather perfunctorily wrapped up (with Angelique as the silver bullet), so that they can bring a certain popular character back with a different actor. However, to be positive about it: there is a suitably dramatic atmosphere to the whole thing, and the tension does ratchet up surprisingly well, despite the pacing problems. It's just a shame the rest of the story couldn't have been up to the same quality.
The characters in this episode do fair better than the plot: well, some of them at least. As I mentioned above, Quentin does get a large chunk of the first half of the story to shine, and what helps sell the early scenes is David Selby's warm voice, which has the same quality as actors like Paul McGann and William Russell. Sadly, however, he fades into the background once Angelique is resurrected, and she ends up taking the lead in the battle with Mr. Strix (as I mentioned above, she's a bit of a silver bullet here, merely casting a spell to save the day). Lara Parker is great, don't get me wrong, and imbues the part with the bitterness and hatred that the character demands, but it's just a shame that we had to take the limelight away from Quentin quite so significantly to do it. As for the other two returning cast members, both John Karlen and Kathryn Leigh-Scott are great as Willie and Maggie respectively, but both suffer from not really having anything to do, other than mutter about how dreadful the situation is. Sure, across the course of the season, both will probably get the chance to shine, but I think this story needed to re-address the balance between the characters in order to be more successful at introducing them to a new audience. We do get a couple of new characters as well, who really are just there to add local colour to proceedings, and only really play a part in introducing the concept of the Lost. There is, however, one remaining cast member who I shan't disclose his character for fear of spoilers: the appropriately named Andrew Collins. What I will say is that Collins brings his character back to life with malevolent menace, and he slots into the place that has been left for him. While it remains to be seen what the rest of the series will do with this character, especially one so beloved by fans, it's a bold first step that shows Big Finish is serious about this series and what they hope to do with it. From a post-production standpoint, this is an excellent release, one that really showcases Big Finish's talent for moody, atmospheric drama. Director Gary Russell brings all the performances together with skill; an especially hard feet considering a number of actors would have been recording in the States, in different locations and time zones. All this is then brought further together by Joseph Fox, who produces some wonderful post-production work, especially with his music, which fits the tone of the show perfectly.
Overall, then, "The House of Despair" may not be the strongest start to Big Finish's range of Dark Shadows audios. While there are some good ideas here, and the foundation of a solid opening story, they get rather buried by certain aspects of the show that, perhaps, shouldn't be foregrounded quite so early, and a format that doesn't really suit Dark Shadows' form of storytelling. That being said, "The House of Despair" is not a bad story: it just could have been a lot more interesting had it taken its time over what it was setting up. However, it is a decent return to the town of Collinsport, and it certainly offers up some interesting avenues to explore in future stories. It just remains to be seen whether or not the remaining stories in this series follow up that potential...
You can purchase "The House of Despair" as a digital download from the Big Finish website (see below). Just type "Despair" into the search bar at the top of the page.
All pictures copyright to Big Finish Productions/ABC. Thank you very much for reading.