Having to do with all things supernatural and macabre, ABC’s daytime soap “Dark Shadows” had been a smash in its afternoon time slot, due in large to the irresistible cloaked vampire character Barnabas Collins, played by the late Jonathan Frid. By 1970, when the series had been running daily since 1966, creator Dan Curtis had already been pitching the idea for a feature film which would would eventually greenlighted by MGM, and the resulting HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS became an all-around triumph. The following year, MGM backed a much-different follow-up made after the series had ended its run: NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. With a recent Tim Burton big-screen reinvention of the “Dark Shadows” franchise in the public's mind, both classic films have now been released by Warner Bros on Blu-Ray disc (as well as standard DVD for the first time).
In the Collins family estate in the fictional town of Collinsport in New England, seedy handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) searches the family crypt for some hidden jewels, only to release centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) from his chained-up coffin. Easily making Willie his servant, Barnabas enters the Collins home, having no trouble introducing himself as a relative from England since his likeness is represented on a hanging painting. The modern day Collins family is made up Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett), her brother Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds), her daughter Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) and Roger’s young son David (David Henesy). Barnabas’ lure attracts Carolyn, and her persistence prompts him to put the bite on her, as she eventually becomes a vampire who returns to prey on her loved ones after she’s believed to be dead and buried.
But it is David’s lovely governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) that Barnabas is infatuated with, largely because of her resemblance to his long-lost and tragic love, Josette. In the meantime, family doctor Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) is conducting experiments on the blood from Barnabas’ victims, and after revealing to him that she knows his secret, she attempts to cure him through serum treatments: they end up being successful, but Julia double-crosses him out of jealousy for his love for Maggie. An overdose of serum caused Barnabas to age rapidly, but he is soon able to restore his youth through further blood slurping. Another family cohort, Professor Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) has no problems being the aggressive vampire hunter (having to destroy the ghostly bloodsucker Carolyn), but it will be up to Maggie’s boyfriend Jeff (Roger Davis) to save her from the sacrificial blood wedding that Barnabas has in store for her.
Shot on a reported budget of $750,000, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS avoided Hollywood studies by being filmed entirely on location on the East Coast, with the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York richly doubling as the gothic Collins estate (additional footage was shot, appropriately, at the nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, as well as an inn in Connecticut). What the film does is take the basic Barnabas storyline from the soap, and embellish it (with more characters dropping dead) into a tight, well paced, colorful and sometimes very violent horror film that further cemented the cultdom of star attraction Frid and the bags of fan mail he received from his admiring male and female audience.
The pacing of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is so swift that the story unfolds under the lengthy opening credits, and it’s assumed that theatergoers in 1970 had already been familiar with the series and its characters, as well as seen every previous vampire movie. The capable soap stars do an excellent job of bringing their characters to the big screen, but some, like Bennett, have very little to do (not that it matters, since the film is a success nonetheless). The perfect locations give it a gothic look, and its well shot overall, as even the day-for-night scenes are pretty convincing. Dan Curtis, in his feature directorial debut, proved to be the right man for the job and was likely inspired by the Hammer Dracula pictures of the previous decade (Curtis’ name would be synonymous with TV terror throughout the 1970s and beyond, but he would continue to direct theatrical features including the underappreciated BURNT OFFERINGS in 1976). Like many of the kitsch early 1970s modern vampire movies of the period, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS has hardly dated at all, and still holds up favorably in comparison to the likes of BLACULA and DRACULA A.D. 1972.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is full of memorable scenes, including the chase and eventual staking of vampire lady Carolyn (dressed in a Hammer-esque white shroud) by Stokes and a bunch of cross-carrying policeman, and Barnabas’ turning into a very, very old man through remarkable make-up appliances by the great Dick Smith (some of the appliances where previously used on Dustin Hoffman in LITTLE BIG MAN). Even the climax, a slow-mo, multi-leveled vampire demise which upstages the last few Hammer Draculas at that time, is quite impressive. This scene, along with the majority of the vampire attacks (some fairly graphic bite mutilations are in display) lets the on-screen blood letting lose, given the theatrical freedom the filmmakers had as opposed to what they could do on television (the film got by with a “GP” rating, but would surely get a PG-13 or even an R rating today). Robert Cobert’s familiar music cues for the series (actually originating back to the Curtis telefilm THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE) are well placed throughout the film and definitely complete the dark mood of the film, including the activities of Frid’s decadent vampire who can change from hopelessly romantic to savagely sadistic in an instant.
Although the final shot of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS surely set up a sequel of vampiric proportions, the follow-up, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, has absolutely nothing to do with Barnabas or the characters surrounding him. Unfortunately, Frid did not want to reprise his role due mainly to the usual typecasting concerns, and about half of the series’ central players (including Bennett, Scott, Davis and Edmonds) are also no-shows. Instead, Curtis went into a totally different direction, inventing a story around popular series character Quentin Collins (David Selby) and his new wife Tracy (Kate Jackson, who became a cast member during the show’s later episodes). But for anyone who was a fan of the series who went to see this in theaters, they were likely confused not only by the storyline, but also by the fact that a number of cast members are portraying totally different, new characters. This applies especially in the case of John Karlen, now playing a straight, normal character rather than the loony Willie Loomis.
Quentin Collins (Selby) is an artist who arrives with his young, beautiful wife Tracy (Jackson) to the cursed estate of Collinwood, the family home that he has just inherited. He paints portraits in the manor’s tower room but soon becomes haunted by strange dreams featuring his look-alike ancestor, Charles Collins (also Selby). This allows for some nice period flashbacks, which provide some of the film’s highlights. The flashbacks have sexy Lara Parker (who wasn’t in HOUSE) reprising her series role as Angelique, here an adulterating harlot accused as a witch by a fanatical reverend (Thayer David). Angelique is hung from a tall tree in front of the manor, swearing to seek revenge. Because of the curse, Quentin starts to manifest the personality of the evil Charles, Angelique’s 19th century lover. She returns as an apparition to haunt the manor and scare the living crap out of everyone.
The powers that be at MGM forced Curtis to remove over 35 minutes from his cut of the film, and the outcome is an overly incoherent but very watchable film. It seems that Curtis was trying to create something that was different than the first film with a large amount of spooky ingredients included (loosely based on the "parallel time" episodes of the series) and its his sturdy direction that salvaged the project as it was released at 94 minutes. Sometimes an editor’s scissors helps make a film tighter and better enjoyed, but most have no doubt believing NIGHT would be far more rewarding in its longer, director-appropriated cut, something the public never got to see to this day.
Some of the confusion on hand: Quentin behaves cruelly, attempting to kill his wife several times with no explanation relating this behavior to the ancestor that possesses him. Also, a demented, stuttering handyman (James Storm, who bloodily appeared on the cover of Famous Monsters after the film’s release) tries to kill most of the cast including Quentin, Tracy, and their friends, the writing couple of Alex and Claire Jenkins (Karlen and Nancy Barrett). No real explanation is given for his motivation. Next, Carlotta (Grayson Hall) the housekeeper tells Quentin that she is the reincarnation of a little girl who lived in the manor when Angelique was hanged. She claims to be carrying out Angelique’s will, thus initiating Quentin into the frightful shenanigans. At the end of the film she commits suicide by jumping off the manor’s roof after a mysterious voice calls to her; again, there is barely an explanation! The scene is effective, but what’s the meaning of it?
All of the components that make a gothic horror film work (period costumes, ghosts, skeletons, candelabras, period flashbacks involving witch-hunting, etc.) are here, but the resulting substance is debatable due to the cuts. The film indeed makes great use of Tarrytown’s Lyndhurst Estate, where it was entirely filmed in and around, and had everything going for it; cast, director, production values and a terrifically haunting score again by Cobert (including “Joanna’s Theme” and “Quentin’s Theme” from the series). The outcome is never boring, but fans can’t help but wonder what the big differences would be in seeing Curtis’ intended cut (could it have been the masterpiece that HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is?).
Most of the removed footage from NIGHT was found over a decade ago, albeit without sound. There was talk of a full restoration of the film in the works with the missing audio being re-dubbed, but this never saw the light of day. Those hoping that NIGHT be finally released in such a cut will be disappointed, as it would have been nice to have at least had the silent, excised scenes thrown on as an extra (even HOUSE had several bits removed from the final cut after a test screening), but the presentation is of the film in its theatrical cut only. If it wasn’t for Tim Burton’s recent DARK SHADOWS feature starring Johnny Depp, these two originals would have probably been released through the Warner Archive Collection only, with no Blu-Ray offering in site. Thankfully, we’re not only getting them on standard DVD, but on stunning Blu-Ray, as reviewed here.
Anyone who owned the VHS releases of HOUSE and NIGHT, or even the laserdisc double feature set, will be blown away by these new Blu-Rays (even the standard DVDs that we saw looked quite impressive). Both films are presented in full 1080p High Definition, in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios with anamorphic enhancement. From the opening bold red-colored titles, to the closing credits, the films look absolutely spectacular. Not only is there excellent detail, vivid colors and the deepest of black levels, but facial close-ups showcase features such as pores and skin lines that you haven't seen until now. Grain is never an issue, and even the day-for-night scenes in both shows come off well. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mix on both titles are pretty flawless, and there’s additional German, Italian and Spanish audio tracks. Subtitles are available in English (for the hearing impaired), French, German, Italian, Spanish (Castellano) and Spanish (Latino). The only extras (on both discs) are the original theatrical trailers, both presented full frame and in standard definition. (George R. Reis)
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