The other day we mentioned Dan Curtis, a hard-charging television producer who, in the early 1960s, sold ABC on a new way to broadcast televised golf, making it much more thrilling and exciting. Keep in mind, of course, that there’s no way to make golf less thrilling and exciting. But still, an accomplishment is an accomplishment. Curtis started his career at ABC selling airtime to advertisers, the hard candy center of television’s profit center. The engine room, if you will. He then graduated to sports before making the leap becoming a full-fledged “creative.” He did this via a dream. Not a goal, or aspiration. A real, “I’m asleep,” dream.
Dan dreamt of a young girl traveling on a train to a fog shrouded manor house on a cliff near the sea. It was a vivid dream. He remembered it clearly upon waking and couldn’t shake it once up, so he went to work on it and created a pitch for a Gothic drama based on the adventures of this mysterious girl. He presented it to ABC as a series. They passed, but added that, although they had no place for the show in prime time, they did think it was an interesting experiment for daytime. Daytime. As in five days a week, thirty minutes a day. A soap opera. ABC was in the ratings cellar during the day (and also at night). The upside of this is it gave them a little more license to experiment in a, “what have we got to lose,” sort of way.
The show Dan Curtis sold, based on his dream, went on the air in 1966 with the title Dark Shadows. It chugged along with rather uneventful, textbook soap opera storylines to steady, if unspectacular ratings. Over time, the ratings grew even less spectacular! Soon, the writing was on the wall that that the show was not going to get picked up. With nothing left to lose, Dan took the advice his daughters, who were always imploring him to, “make it scarier!”
And so, Dark Shadows was given a ghost. And guess what? The ratings jumped! But things were still looking dicey, so Curtis gave Dark Shadows its own vampire, Barnabas Collins. As the story goes, Barnabas was cursed as a vampire in the 1700s when he spurned the advances of a witch in order to marry his beloved Josette. The witch curses Barnabas to wander the Earth as the living dead for all eternity. When his father discovers the truth about Barnabas, he chains him inside his coffin in the Collins’ family crypt. Two hundred years later, he was freed by the Collins family's shifty handyman, Willie Loomis. Looking for the rumored Collins family jewels, Loomis instead finds the Collins family's curse, a pissed off, very thirsty vampire.
Barnabas Collins was played by Canadian Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid. The character was only supposed to stay around for a few weeks but he created such an enormous flap that he stayed and stayed. Barnabas soon became the star of Dark Shadows and Dark Shadows soon became a pop-cultural phenomenon. Like the Beatles, James Bond, Star Trek and The Monkees, Dark Shadows was a ubiquitous teen sensation in the late 1960s. If you can find somebody who went to high school back then, they will tell you, “I used to run home from school to watch Dark Shadows!” And they did. I remember my brothers doing it.
You may recall that I made the point that, when talking about Francis Ford Coppola‘s Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, that the storyline of Mina being the reincarnation of Dracula‘s long lost love was not, in fact, from Dracula, but instead from a daytime soap opera called Dark Shadows. This is true. When Barnabas was released from his coffin he laid eyes upon a local waitress named Maggie Evans, played by Katherine Leigh Scott, who, in Barnabas‘ eyes, was a dead ringer for his beloved Josette. Dark Shadows’ first Barnabas storyline revolved around his clumsy attempts to woo Miss Evans. By “woo” of course, we mean hypnotize, kidnap and imprison. The storyline quickly evolves into something of a Dracula remake, with Willie Loomis standing in for Renfield, Maggie Evans as Mina, and Barnabas as the good ol’ Count.
The big difference is, unlike Dracula, Barnabas quickly became too sympathetic a character to hate. Due largely to Jonathan Frid’s performance, Barnabas became something of a teen heartthrob. Barnabas really was a tragic romantic hero. He hated being a vampire. He was racked with guilt all the time and it showed. Frid was a skilled and well-trained actor but a very slow study, which is poison for someone who has to learn a new script every night. As a result, Barnabas seemed eternally stricken with a tortured, frightened, haunted look. It was genuine. It wasn’t Barnabas bemoaning his fate, it was Frid fearing he’d forget his next line. Whatever he was thinking, awkward teenagers all over America felt that they had a kindred spirit in awkward, clumsy, guilt-ridden Barnabas Collins and Dark Shadows became a sensation. 1968 and 1969 saw store shelves full of Dark Shadows merchandise like board games, jigsaw puzzles, bubble gum cards, Halloween costumes, lunchboxes, you name it.
Dan Curtis, who was now producing one of the hottest shows on television, wanted to branch out further still into producing and directing, and felt that Dark Shadows could be his ticket. He tried to sell movie studios on a feature film version of the show. What could go wrong? The show was a huge hit! Kids loved it. And yes, most studio presidents had teenage kids and Dark Shadows was all over the place. It was right up there with The Monkees. But there had never been a successful movie spinoff of a daytime soap opera. Eventually, Curtis convinced MGM to front the money to make a feature film version that would retell the first Barnabas Collins story arc for the big screen.
The movie was shot on location in Tarrytown, New York at Lyndhurst mansion. In Curtis words, according to Katherine Leigh Scott’s The Dark Shadows Movie Book, “It’s a small budget film with big production values.” The reason I’m talking about it here is because I think House Of Dark Shadows, as it came to be titled, is one of the best vampire films of the early 70s. It has everything that you’ve come to expect from films in the early 70s, lotsa hairspray, lotsa sideburns, lotsa lapels. It is also tremendously scary. In this regard House Of Dark Shadows joins Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the small league of movies based on television shows that don’t really feel anything like the show upon which they were based.
On TV, Barnabas Collins was a tragic, sympathetic figure. In the movie, he is much harder. More sinister, more evil, much more over the top. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where’s the blood?” John Karlen‘s Willie Loomis is outstanding as the vampire’s hapless servant, Katharine Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett and Grayson Hall repeat their TV series roles as well.
House Of Dark Shadows is a spooky, foggy, fangy, blood soaked, no punches pulled Saturday matinee scarefest and I couldn’t recommend it more. The scene where Nancy Barrett’s Carolyn Collins, having recently been turned into a vampire, is chased down and staked in the family horse stables is a classic, well directed and incredibly exciting. Rain soaked, 200-year-old cemeteries, old Gothic mansions, and fangs fangs fangs.
House of Dark Shadows arrived in theaters just before the bloom fell off the Dark Shadows rose. The show’s breakneck pace and indefatigable desire to constantly top itself finally ran out of gas, and by 1971, the seams were starting to show. As Tyrell told Roy Batty, “The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” ABC cancelled Dark Shadows in early 1971. The last episode aired in April of that year, right around the time Curtis went to work on the sequel to House of Dark Shadows which, what do you know, was a big hit. Sadly, Jonathan Frid elected to not to return for Night Of Dark Shadows for fear of getting typecast as a vampire. Regardless, House Of Dark Shadows is an excellent, spooky, gory, terrific vampire film and if you haven’t seen it, put it on your list!