I love ghost stories, Gothic fiction, and supernatural thrillers. I am the proud owner of all the black-and-white episodes of the old DARK SHADOWS serial. In fact, while reading the novel EMILY OF NEW MOON recently, I couldn't help thinking how well it would adapt to a similar serialized treatment. So, seeing this DVD set going for a nice low price, and hearing that it emphasized the Gothic/supernatural angle, I decided to ignore the negative reviews and give it a shot.
Well, I didn't like it either. In fact, it took me forever to get through it. (The first two episodes are particularly unwatchable). Though the show improves once the heroine arrives at New Moon and the writers start following the book a LITTLE, it still falls far short of the book's standard and its own potential.
In the novel, Emily is a sensitive and artistic child who cannot help but clash with her Puritanical relatives, but who also has a strong sense of family honor and loyalty. In the show, she is more often written as deliberately insolent or even nasty. Her Aunt Elizabeth, in the novels, was upright and honest, trying to do her best with a child she simply didn't understand. But this Elizabeth is an unprincipled hypocrite ruled by spite, who continually violates her own moral standards. She steals mail, burns books that don't belong to her, abandons pets to die in the woods, and generally behaves like a witch in a fairy tale. Attempts to "humanize" her are thus unconvincing, and more often involve knocking her down than portraying her strengths and virtues.
And this is the general trend of the series -- turning complex characters like Elizabeth into ludicrous Victorian caricatures, then shooting them down. Our modern writers clearly feel plenty superior to these benighted 19th Century folks, and cannot stop rubbing it in for an instant. But rather than being progressive, the ironic result of this approach is to turn once-strong female characters into sexist stereotypes. "Kindly" Aunt Laura has become a cliche "neurotic spinster", with an unhealthy emotional dependency on Emily. The "good" male characters (such as Jimmy and Mr. Carpenter) handle disagreements with women through bullying and intimidation, and we are meant to approve. Jimmy actually seems about to get violent with a child at one point, till Emily stops him. And Emily's perfectly nice friend Teddy has been turned into a junior masher of the dreamy-yet-dangerous variety.
Social issues of the time are addressed by showing some pathetic victim of prejudice ground under the boot of moustache-twirling WASP cliches. A First Nations boy is introduced solely to be beaten and ridiculed, and then quickly written out. The Murray's Catholic neighbor Lofty John Sullivan of the "stately baring and fine manners" is now a deranged semi-idiot, similarly treated. Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Laura are raving bigots who imply that Catholics have horns and tails, with Laura reduced to ABJECT TERROR if the mild-mannered French priest stops by to chat. And hired-boy Perry is now a complete illiterate from a criminal and abusive family: This was not true of Perry in the book (who if memory serves had been educated by his father while at sea), but it fits into a general tendency of this show to portray lower-class people as near-animals.
As you might have figured out already, this show places high value on hysterical melodrama. Every time a child is criticized in school, she throws a fit and runs from the room. One two-parter has Emily running hysterically out into the snow to Nearly Perish twice in as many DAYS. Her father's death from consumption wasn't exiting enough. So here, he dies after falling off a roof, a tragedy attended by so much screaming and wailing and so many ghostly apparitions that I couldn't feel the slightest emotional connection.
Other problems include 1) blatant plot stupidity (a major shipwreck occurs, and nobody but the shipping company knows about it till a decade later), 2) strained PClectures that get in the way of the story ("sex education good", "death penalty bad"), 3) lack of continuity between episodes (don't get me started), 4) drab and boring scenery, and 5) ghosts that just aren't spooky (we can tell they are "ghosts" because the actors wear weird colors, like turquoise).
It is a shame, because this could have been good quite easily. On the rare occassions when it isn't trying too hard to be "dramatic", it can cast a lovely mood that draws you in. The atmosphere and integrity of the source material is sometimes allowed to leak through, and several of the adult actors give honest, authentic performances. The episode "The Enchanted Doll" is quite charming. Even fast-forwarding my way through a "second viewing" of the atrocious Maida Flynn episode, I'd find myself stopping to enjoy little scenes: Emily with Laura in the attic, or walking with the French priest by the strand. Little simple scenes that engage and enchant without even trying. These good moments encouraged me to borrow later seasons from the library, in the hope that the show would grow to realize its potential. Unfortunately, it is all downhill from here.