In Defense of Kinescope

by Chrissy, from The Drawing Room, Dark Shadows podcast

Call me old-fashioned, but I actually LIKE the black-and-white episodes of Dark Shadows.  And call me just plain weird, but even more so, I totally enjoy the kinescopes.

Kinescopes, of course, are 16mm black and white film backups created in the 1960’s for the smaller TV stations that could not afford the newfangled videotape recorders.  At the time, these films served a practical purpose, but perhaps even more importantly, today, television history is preserved on kinescope for 28 episodes of Dark Shadows that would otherwise be lost forever.

It was a big moment in television history when Dark Shadows went from black and white to color on July 31, 1967.  It was also a big moment in 2012 for our Dark Shadows podcast, as we celebrated our favorite show taking this big leap into the future of television broadcasting.

At first, Russ expressed a concern that the colors of our vampire soap opera might look too harsh, or “bleed,” (no pun intended), but he had to admit he was pleasantly surprised that the color film did not look too bad.  I was also excited to see color, but at the same time, expressed a sadness for the passing of an era.

Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not saying the color episodes of Dark Shadows are without merit.  Far from it!  I’m only saying that, at least for me, Dark Shadows is, in many ways, a show best served by the cold harshness of black and white.  The subject matter of vampires, ghosts, and spooky old houses with mysterious locked basement rooms and secret passageways so lends itself to a drab and gothic presentation. There’s a certain dark quality to those earliest episodes that the later color episodes can never hope to capture.  The brightly colored episodes are extremely effective, in their own way.  They just aren’t effective in the SAME way as black and white.

And now I take this one step further:  even the ordinary black-and- white episodes lack the unintentional “something special” of the rare kinescope episodes. The key word here being “unintentional.”  So much of what appeals to us today about Dark Shadows was unintentional at the time.  The low production values of a daytime soap, multiplied by the passage of almost fifty years, has produced some of the quirkiest humor you’ll ever see in a TV show.  We laugh at the fashions, the language, the social protocol of the time.  The blue screen and the rotoscope look dated and hokey.  Flying bat on a stick, anyone?  But strangely, it works.  It all works.

In the same way, the kinescopes were produced simply as a “Plan B,” with little to no thought that decades later fans like me might serendipitously find artistic value in their presentation. I think it is this phenomenon of serendipity that manages to cast a bright shadow of viability over the whole of Dark Shadows.

In producing our Dark Shadows podcast, whenever we run into a kinescope, Russ frets (and rightly so) that the sound quality of the audio clips may be sub-standard.  The images also tend to be fuzzy and often difficult to see. It’s true that the kinescopes do not offer the best quality.  But I love them, and I’m always happy to run into one.

And why?  Well, for me it’s all about tone, and mood.  The strange quality of a kinescope makes the entire Dark Shadows world seem even more bizarre that it already is.  Whether or not the episode involves time travel, you always feel like you’re going back in time when you watch a kinescope.  Yes, of course, we are indeed going back to the 1960’s; with the fashions, hairstyles and jukebox at the Blue Whale, there’s no way you can escape the Dark Shadows Time Warp.  But with a kinescope there’s a grainy, other-worldly quality that serves as a constant reminder that not only is this a world that no longer exists, but it’s also a world that never did exist, and never could exist.

Probably my favorite kinescope so far (at least of the ones I remember) is # 260, where Maggie at last escapes from the cell in the basement of the Old House, with Barnabas hot on her trail.  That whole situation is just so insane and improbable and downright gothic, and the kinescope quality of the film makes it appear even more dreamlike than it already is.

Another favorite is #289.   During a thunderstorm that has knocked out all the electricity at Collinwood, Barnabas makes a midnight visit to Victoria’s bedroom, but cannot bring himself to bite her.  Later, scared by the storm, Carolyn and Vicki huddle together on the bed, as Vicki reveals that she believes someone is watching her.  Thunder, lightning, danger, and the mysterious tinkling from Josette’s music box…kinescope was made for nights like this.

So despite the difficulties of watching, hearing and referencing the kinescope episodes, I will continue to anticipate and enjoy each and every one, because, at least for me, these unique representations of an already unique entertainment (how many other 1960’s gothic soap operas can you name?) are the icing on the cake, the best of the best, the peak moments that always remind me why I love Dark Shadows so much in the first place.