NOT Available on DVD: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS
This article originally ran here at We Are Movie Geeks in January of 2010 but with everyone gearing up for Tim Burton’s hotly-anticipated update opening May 11th, we’re re-posting and keeping our fingers crossed that this excellent 1971 feature film, based on the show, gets a long-deserved DVD release.
Dark Shadows, the gothic daytime drama that premiered on the ABC Television network in 1966, was distinguished from other soap operas by it’s presence of vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghosts. The show was a cult phenomenon and there were soon Dark Shadows board games, jigsaw puzzles, model kits, and other merchandise aimed at kids, even though it was adult women and college students who comprised it’s core audience. The breakout star of Dark Shadows was Canadian actor Jonathan Frid who played Barnabas Collins, the 200-year-old vampire and heir to the Collingswood estate (where the show took place) constantly in search of fresh blood and pining for his lost love, Josette. In 1970 Dan Curtis, the show’s creator and producer, teamed up with MGM to make a theatrical feature spun from the show, and the result was HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. It was a huge success, spawning a sequel, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, and they remain the only motion pictures ever based on a daytime soap opera, but neither is currently available on DVD (though thanks to Tim Burton, they probably will be soon).
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS opens with Barnabas Collins being released from his crypt by a caretaker (John Karlen) who’s looking for buried family treasure. Posing as a long-lost British cousin, Barnabas attempts to gain the confidence of the Stoddard family, who are the currently living on the Collinswood estate, but his mysterious reappearance after many years raises questions in the minds of family confidantes Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) and Prof. Stokes (Thayer David). The matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Stoddard (Joan Bennett) and her brother Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds) welcomeBarnabas and immediately install him in the mansion which, in fact, is his original home. Soon a series of unexplained attacks on acquaintances of the Stoddards begin to suggest a vampire is in their midst. Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) is the first victim to fall under Barnabas’s hypnotic spell but the true object of his desire is Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), a governess who is the spitting image of his long-lost love, Josette. Dr. Hoffman suspects Barnabas is a vampire but falls under his spell and tries to find a medical cure for him through a series of injections. More of the cast becomes blood-suckers, Barnabas suddenly ages 200 years (make-up courtesy of Dick Smith), and it’s soon up to one man with a crossbow to save the day.
A smart move by Dan Curtis was to give HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS an accessible vampire story that viewers unfamiliar with four years of TV plot lines could easily follow and enjoy. Its plot was sort of a condensed version of the show but, despite the same cast and music, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS could not have been more stylistically dissimilar. Where the black-and-white show (many later episodes were videotaped in color but most ABC affiliate stations did not have the capability to play video tape, so B&W Kinescope copies were aired instead) was static and stagebound, the movie was fast-paced with fluid camerawork, dynamic direction, and lavish scope. It’s a striking, entertaining film and the suspense never lags. Barnabas’ entrance, shot from his point-of-view, is artful and unsettling and, unlike the show, the vampire violence and gore flow quite freely even though it was rated GP (lots of rough stuff was given that rating in those days – I guess you had to include nudity to get an R in 1970). It’s gothic ambiance is more cinematic than the show thanks to a healthy budget and it plays like a worthy 70’s vampire and is no worse than the Blacula or Count Yorga films from that period. The show was famous for putting cobwebs in the foreground and focusing in and out of them to hide the scant trappings and the film pays playful homage to this technique at one point. Where the series was shot entirely on meager studio sets, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was handsomely photographed at a Revolutionary War-era estate in Tarrytown, New York which provides a genuinely creepy atmosphere.
The cast of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS all reprise their roles from TV, but it’s Jonathan Frid’s show all the way. Barnabas Collins had a sympathetic side on TV but in the movie he’s all evil, savagely biting and strangling his victims, some his own relatives. But Barnabas was Frid’s only well-known role. After Dark Shadows TV run ended, Frid stayed in Hollywood just long enough to star in Oliver Stone’s directorial debut SEIZURE in 1974 as a writer haunted by his demons (manifested by Martine Beswick and Herve Villachaize!). Frid’s experience with SEIZURE was so unpleasant (though the movie has aged interestingly), he went back to Canada to focus on stage work and never acted in front of the camera again. Now 86, Frid is still in good health and occasionally makes appearances at Dark Shadows conventions. Grayson Hall (who played a completely different character in the sequel), Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett (sexy in her flowing white gown), Roger Davis, and John Karlen were all from the show but none had particularly notable careers post-Dark Shadows (except Karlen who had the male lead in DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS in 1974, a fantastic European vampire movie). Joan Bennett had been a major golden age movie star acting in everything from LITTLE WOMEN in 1933 to FATHER OF THE BRIDE in 1950. She retired from show biz in the 1950’s but was lured out of retirement to co-star in the Dark Shadows TV show. Her presence as Elizabeth Stoddard gave HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS some old-school Hollywood class. Dan Curtis went on to produce and direct some of the most memorable made-for-TV horror movies of the 1970’s including DRACULA (1973 with Jack Palance), THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), SCREAM OF THE WOLF (1974) and who can forget his TRILOGY OF TERROR from 1975 with Karen Black battling the infamous Zuni Fetish doll equipped with razor sharp teeth and a spear?! Curtis also created the Night Stalker TV series in 1974 starring Darren McGavin and based on his TV movies THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1974).
Barnabas did not return for the big-screen sequel NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS in 1972. A pre-Charlie’s Angels Kate Jackson starred in the follow-up which focused on Quentin Collins, a werewolf in the show, but who never sprouts hair or fangs in the dull second film which focused on ghosts and witches and wasn’t nearly as financially successful as HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. The 30 minute Dark Shadows TV show originally aired at 3:00 pm and I can remember, as a monster-obsessed child, bolting from my grade school desk daily when the dismissal bell rang at 3:20, and dashing home to catch the show’s last five minutes. This was long before the days of videotaping shows and there was always some cool cliffhanger monster action in the final moments of Dark Shadows. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the first 25 minutes was actually talky and dull (a huge amount of the 1,225 episodes have been released on VHS and DVD over the years. Try watching one). Dark Shadows TV run ended in 1971 but Curtis briefly revived it 20 years later with British actor Ben Cross as Barnabas and cult horror icon Barbara Steele as Dr. Hoffman. Both HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS were released by MGM in the mid-80’s in full-frame VHS, but are both long out-of-print. Dark Shadows still has it’s following and those fans should be excited at the news that director Tim Burton, a lifelong fan himself, will be bringing Dark Shadows back to life on the big screen May 11th with Johnny Depp as Barnabas. This is fantastic news as Burton’s sensibilities and style are perfect for the project and I can’t see MGM resisting the opportunity to cash in and finally release HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS on DVD.