Casting 'Dark Shadows' on horror film history

Perhaps the most unusual daytime drama in the history of U.S. network television is celebrating the golden anniversary of airing its first episodes this month. While fans of soap operas have their favorites and remain loyal to the memories of those shows, few have as fierce a following as DARK SHADOWS, an unexpected hit in its original run through the late 1960s into the early '70s that brashly took the time-honored form of the broadcast serial and inhabited it with monsters, demons, ghosts and supernatural doings. Adding such concepts as time travel and alternative worlds, DARK SHADOWS became one of the most distinctive examples of the tune-in-tomorrow format yet seen.

In its day, DARK SHADOWS was the source of a number of firsts, including the casting of a major star of old Hollywood (Joan Bennett), instituting a stock company concept by utilizing the same actors in different roles, and the first soap to air on ABC-TV in color. But chief among those firsts was the introduction of a sympathetic vampire as a major character when such staples of horror fiction and movies were always presented in an evil light, and never seen in daytime dramas (no pun intended). 

It was also the first of its kind to inspire a pair of motion pictures to help whet the appetites of its fans. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) was an expert distillation of the show's essence featuring its most popular character, the undead Barnabas Collins played by Jonathan Frid, while NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971) went off in a new direction while keeping the gothic trappings that were so much a part of the serial from its earliest days.

The brainstorm of an ambitious producer named Dan Curtis, DARK SHADOWS joined ABC's weekday afternoon line-up on June 27, 1966. In its original form, the program focused on a young woman (Alexandra Moltke) raised in an orphanage who hopes to find the key to the mystery of her parentage in Collinwood, the gloomy ancestral home of the wealthy Collins family in the Maine seaside town of Collinsport. Despite the buzz generated by a new show and Bennett's starring role as the clan's matriarch, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, ratings slipped, forcing Curtis and his creative staff to introduce ghosts to a murder mystery story arc. By the following spring, with cancellation looming, Curtis chose to go out with a bang, introducing Barnabas, "a cousin from England," in reality a Collins ancestor who had been cursed as a vampire nearly two centuries prior. Accidentally set free from his resting place in the family crypt, Barnabas was to have terrorized all and sundry for 13 weeks before meeting his doom at the hands of Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), director of a nearby asylum.

Viewership shot up while the story played out, prompting Curtis to retain the characters of Barnabas and Julia. Barnabas' initially evil characterization was softened while over time he, Julia and a friend, Professor Timothy Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) coped with a Frankenstein-like artifical being, a werewolf, emissaries of Satan and assorted other unnatural creatures plaguing the Collinses. Within a year of its premiere, DARK SHADOWS had developed the beginnings of a fan base that continued to support and memorialize the New York-based show long after its last episode aired on April 2, 1971.

Always thinking big, Curtis began shopping the concept of a DARK SHADOWS movie around to Hollywood studios, and by early 1970, with the TV serial riding a continuing crest of high ratings, M-G-M committed to the production of a feature. Curtis not only produced but directed HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS from a screenplay by two of the show's writers, Sam Hall and Gordon Russell. Freed of network censorship, Curtis eschewed the more sedate horrors of the show for graphic bloodletting to make HOUSE a fierce, fast and fascinating exploration of the world of DARK SHADOWS.

A simplification of the 1967 story arc that introduced Barnabas, HOUSE begins on a familiar basis to fans with ne'er-do-well Collins employee Willie Loomis (John Karlen) raiding the Collins crypt for a rumored cache of jewels, instead liberating Barnabas (Frid), who promptly makes Willie his slave. Barnabas then introduces himself to the modern-day Collinses, discovering to his amazement that governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) is the personification of Barnabas' lost love, Josette DuPres. Barnabas reveals the secret of his undead state to inquistive Julia (Grayson Hall), who agrees to develop a chemical means of returning him to normal.

This Julia does, and Barnabas is able to walk in the sun again with Maggie, whom he's determined to win away from her beloved, Jeff Clark (Roger Davis). But Julia, enamored of Barnabas, jealously injects too much of her restorative serum into Barnabas, transforming him into a hideously aged version of himself. Julia pays with her life when Barnabas attacks her and drinks her blood, leaving behind the kinder, gentler persona he developed for Maggie for his old, malevolent self. (In the serial, Julia, whose overdose was accidental, was spared but Barnabas rejuvenates himself by fanging cousin Carolyn Stoddard, played by Nancy Barrett). His kidnapping of Maggie and arranging a bizarre wedding scene forces a messy but vigorously staged showdown with Jeff and Willie, practically the last two characters still upright.

As a first-time screen director, Curtis lent HOUSE a sense of the urgency under which the project was filmed when he promised M-G-M that principal photography would be completed in several weeks, despite the simultaneous demands of producing the show. The story moves rapidly compared to the program's at-times agonizingly slow pace, and some terrific horror set-pieces are seen. Among these are the climactic battle and an earlier sequence in which Carolyn (Barrett), Barnabas' second victim here, is desperately trapped and staked by Stokes (David) and sheriff's deputies. Also effective is the scene near the end when Jeff, arriving at the misty, dusk-set island housing Barnabas' hideout, kills Stokes after the Van Helsing-like scholar, fangs and all after being infected by Barnabas, tries to bite him. Action sequences such as these, sometimes clumsily staged on the TV show due to set restrictions, were given full range by the director and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz.

The script did not allow Frid to become the character Barnabas was on TV at the time, instead focusing on his earlier and sinister self. Yet Frid, who by then was experiencing boredom with the part, gave it his all, lending a frightening conviction to his vampire attacks and in a disturbing scene in which Barnabas uses a whip on hapless Willie. His horrific change into a 175-year-old man is also effective thanks to the work of noted makeup artist Dick Smith, who did the original transformation on Frid for the show. 

The hurried production schedule for television left Smith dissatisfied with the final results, so for HOUSE, Smith provided an even more unsettling image by making the centuries-old Barnabas bald, among other improvements. "Dan approved my suggestion that Barnabas would look more formidable without the less harsh and scary wig we had used on the TV show," Smith recalled for "The Aging of Barnabas" in Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson, eds., THE DARK SHADOWS ALMANAC (Los Angeles and London: Pomegranate Press Ltd., 1995, p. 171).

The remainder of the cast, some making their first screen appearances, display their knowledge of the roles. For Bennett, whose last feature at that point had been 1960's DESIRE IN THE DUST, her experience and professionalism shone brightly in her scenes as Elizabeth Stoddard. Grayson Hall and Thayer David also had past screen experience, Hall winning notice for her role in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964) and David, among other assignments, memorable as villainous Arne Saknusseumm in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959).

Released Sept. 9, 1970, HOUSE was hailed by critics, who compared its energetic approach to gothic horror to the best of Britain's Hammer Films, and by audiences beyond the built-in fan base for the serial. The film did brisk boxoffice, providing M-G-M with a needed infusion of revenue, doing well in what had been a good year for cinematic vampires. In June, Warner Bros. distributed the latest Hammer horror, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA starring Christopher Lee, which continued playing dates throughout the fall. Also in June, American International had a surprise hit in the low-budget COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, creating a horror icon out of Robert Quarry in the title role. Earlier, Lee was COUNT DRACULA for Spanish horror director Jess Franco in what was then considered the most faithful screen version of Bram Stoker's famous novel. COUNT DRACULA was playing in Europe during 1970-1971, but American audiences didn't see it until 1973.

Impressed with the business done by HOUSE, the studio asked Curtis for a follow-up film. Having killed off most of the notable characters from the show in HOUSE, Curtis and scenarist Sam Hall (Grayson Hall's husband) devised NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS as something unusual -- still recognizably influenced by the serial, but a more deliberate and complex tale of terror tied to possession and the past evil surrounding Collinwood. The latter concept was one of the considerations proposed by writer Art Wallace, who had developed a format for the TV show out of Curtis' basic idea.

NIGHT also gave prominent roles to some of the show's other acting talents, including David Selby, Kate Jackson, Lara Parker and James Storm, in addition to retaining Grayson Hall, Thayer David, Nancy Barrett and John Karlen in markedly different roles than they portrayed in HOUSE. Frid was reportedly uninterested in doing another film based on DARK SHADOWS.

NIGHT opens with artist Quentin Collins (Selby) and his wife Tracy (Jackson) returning to Collinwood upon inheriting the estate from the late Elizabeth Stoddard. They are greeted by an enigmatic housekeeper, Carlotta Drake (Hall). As the couple make themselves at home, strange appearances of a child (Monica Rich) and disturbing dreams of past indiscretions, a hanging and other grim events come to haunt the Collinses' days and nights. Quentin decides to set up his studio in a tower room that begins changing the easygoing Quentin into a cold tyrant.

Sarah, the child, is the younger version of Carlotta, who was present when the onetime mistress of Collinwood, Angelique Collins (Parker) was tried and hung on charges of witchcraft and adultery brought by the sinister Reverend Strack (David) and her cuckolded husband Gabriel (Christopher Pennock). Because Sarah stood by Angelique, Angelique gave her the power to be reborn as Carlotta and prepare for the return of Quentin to Collinwood. For Quentin is the exact image of the lover she had more than a century ago, Gabriel's brother Charles, who's also pretty much a rotter. Quentin begins to exhibit Charles' personality defects and mistreats Tracy, who faces danger from Carlotta's evil nephew Gerard Stiles (Storm). With the help of their neighbors, Claire and Alex Jenkins (Barrett and Karlen), Tracy manages to rout Angelique's hold on Quentin. Gerard and Carlotta are killed, and Quentin and Tracy make plans to leave Collinwood to the ghosts, setting up a grim but suitable conclusion.

Originally brought in at 129 minutes, the studio directed Curtis to cut NIGHT to around 90 minutes to make it play better for drive-ins and double features. This he did, and following NIGHT's initial release on Aug. 3, 1971 (but going into wider distribution the following month), the film did business but not on the level of HOUSE. The hasty editing is often blamed for NIGHT being less compelling, but enough of the vision Curtis had for the project remains to make it both unusual and chilling, especially in the misty dream sequences detailing the mansion's downbeat history. According to Wikipedia, some of the missing footage was recovered in 1999 but without sound, making a restoration eagerly sought by the film's supporters unlikely. "If you could find the original script, it really was something quite wonderful," Grayson Hall later remarked (quoted in Leigh Scott, ed., THE DARK SHADOWS COMPANION, Pomegranate Press Ltd., 1991, p. 161).

The script offered some interesting revisions of characters from the TV show. A witch, Angelique had been the cause of Barnabas' vampiric state when, in 1795 (the program's first experiment with time travel in 1967-1968) she cursed him after he spurned her for Josette. Angelique returned periodically to bedevil Barnabas and the Collins clan until she was finally dispatched near the show's end. In the film, Angelique possesses supernatural powers and a dark nature that made her more of a match for the dissolute  Charles, who comes to a bad end when he's buried alive by jealous sibling Gabriel. Lara Parker's intense interpretation of Angelique here is both alluring and menacing.

David Selby joined DARK SHADOWS late in 1968 as the ghost of Quentin, a Collins ancestor from the previous century who, like Barnabas, was initially seen as a villain. The lengthy 1897 storyline aired in 1969 likewise made Quentin more sympathetic as the victim of a curse, and for the remainder of the show's history Selby played different Quentins in various periods and in the latter-day experimentation with "parallel time." Selby had become as popular with viewers as Frid and he was the only choice for NIGHT's new version of Quentin, which he convincingly brought to life.

Kate Jackson, added to the show's cast in 1970 as another ghostly character, was soon an audience favorite as tragic Daphne Harridge. Jackson gives Tracy a vulnerable yet determined nature as she probes the mystery of Collinwood and its past. Barrett and Karlen are so likeable as Quentin and Tracy's writer friends it's a shame they meet (spoiler alert, sorry) a deadly fate, while Storm, whose Gerard Stiles figured as one of the serial's last great bad guys, lends effective support.

With strong acting, NIGHT is shored up by Curtis' growing directorial savvy. Working with most of the same crew from HOUSE and without the burden of the TV show -- production on NIGHT began the week the the final episodes aired -- he concentrated more on mood and nuance, the horror gradually building to a climax instead of its liberal sprinkling throughout HOUSE. Curtis expanded on this approach when he helmed his next -- and ultimately last -- theatrical feature, 1976's BURNT OFFERINGS, which also dealt with an ill-regarded mansion and its macabre background.

However, television, where Curtis started his career, proved to be his best medium. Shaking off the disappointment of NIGHT, Curtis obtained the rights to an unpublished novel by Las Vegas journalist Jeff Rice entitled THE KOLCHAK PAPERS, which became THE NIGHT STALKER when it premiered as an ABC Movie of the Week on Jan. 11, 1972. A driving narrative about an ambitious reporter (Darren McGavin) pursuing a modern-day vampire (Barry Atwater) at large in the gaming capital, the film earned the highest ratings yet for a made-for-TV feature, and for the next few years, Curtis (1927-2006) dominated the horror market on TV as much as he influenced the miniseries format of the next decade with his blockbuster entries THE WINDS OF WAR (1983) and WAR AND REMEBRANCE (1989).

Curtis' influence had actually begun with his 1968 presentation, in cooperation with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE with Jack Palance's memorable interpretation of the roles. In addition to such TV movies as THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), DRACULA (1974, also starring Palance) and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), Curtis tackled the classics of macabre literature for the late-night ABC Wide World of Mystery program in 1973-1974, offering adaptations of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, THE TURN OF THE SCREW and a two-part FRANKENSTEIN. The busy producer was already familiar with such works because DARK SHADOWS had borrowed heavily from all of them for inspiration.

As DARK SHADOWS notes 50 years of entertaining audiences -- it's one of the few soaps to have been entirely committed to home video -- the two feature films made in its stead remain impressive additions to the pantheon of American horror films. Due to the their unique source, both are quite apart from standard haunted house counterparts, and all the better for being so.


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