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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Shadows on the big screen

I think the following email says it all:

“Dear Scott: How come you write so much about Dark Shadows anyway? I mean, that show hasn’t even been around for hundreds of years and nobody living today has even heard of it. Can’t you find enough things to write about, without always writing about Dark Shadows? Besides, I thought this was supposed to be a MOVIE web site. What does Dark Shadows have to do with movies anyway? Frankly, the whole thing is so stupid that I shouldn’t even be wasting time on this email. In fact, I’m not even going to send this email. I will just think about it and send it to you telepathically, and you will have to type it yourself. So there.”

Weird, huh? Of course, what we have here is a thinly veiled cry for more columns about Dark Shadows, a topic I have inexplicably neglected since the beginning of August. But my telepathic correspondent (I wonder how he did that!) raises a good point. What exactly does the 1960s classic daytime television serial have to do with movies?

Well, the old Dan Curtis series did rip off, I mean, pay homage to, bunches of classic movies in the gothic, horror and supernatural genres (including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Turn of the Screw, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and many others), but it could argued that the inspiration was actually the novels and stories that these were based on rather than the films themselves. But what many people may not realize or may have forgotten is that there were actually two theatrical movies based on the Dark Shadows television series. In a strange way the first film, which came about because of the TV show’s popularity, may have actually hastened the TV show’s demise.

The idea of making a big-screen version of Dark Shadows was both wonderful and horrible. The wonderful part was that the production values were miles above what could be accomplished on daytime TV. Finally, in the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows we got to see the familiar Dark Shadows story, specifically the plot about how Willie Loomis awakened the imprisoned vampire Barnabas Collins and how Barnabas set about terrorizing the Maine town of Collinwood and became obsessed with a young woman named Maggie Evans, who bore an uncanny resemblance to his lost love Josette. Finally, the Collinwood mansion was a real house and not just flimsy sets. Finally, the actors delivered all their lines without flubbing any of them. Finally, the special effects were convincing. In short, finally we had a splendid visual illusion to go along with the wonderfully creative stories and characters.

But there was a price to be paid for this dream movie for DS fans. As with any daytime serial, the daily version of Dark Shadows continued with its five-day-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year schedule. Soap operas don’t have summer hiatuses (hiati?) that allow the entire cast to pursue other projects. So, while all the actors who played the main characters that we knew and loved and cared about were off filming a movie, the television version switched to a plot that involved the second-string players. Suddenly, there was no Barnabas or Julia Hoffmann or Maggie Evans or Elizabeth Collins Stoddard or Roger Collins. Instead, we had to endure a really strange story involving people we didn’t know very well and cared about even less. The most faithful of us were willing to wait until our favorites came back, but I suspect that a lot of people simply lost interest and changed their viewing habits. This was when the show’s ratings went into decline. One wonders if the series would have lasted longer if the movie had not been made.

Even the movie itself was double-edged sword. It was great to see, for all the reasons I listed above. But it was unsettling at the same time. For one thing, the Dark Shadows story had become lore. We fans knew all the details of how everything happened, no matter how complicated or convoluted the plot became. Star Trek fans were no competition when it came to dealing with the Dark Shadows world as if it were real and the stories as if they were factual history. And, unlike the Star Trek movies, which would complement the TV series they were based on and add to the story, House of Dark Shadows retold the TV show’s story and it necessarily made changes to it. For one thing, the action was compressed since the movie could hardly show the detail of four years’ worth of TV episodes. Other changes were made for practical reasons, like the fact that Maggie Evans became the governess from the beginning since the actor who had played Victoria Winters had long since left the DS fold. For another thing, it would have been a strange vampire movie indeed if none of the principal characters died. And lots of the characters did die. In fact, Shakespeare himself couldn’t have done as good a job in any of his tragedies of killing off all the characters by the final curtain. And it was just too weird to see all of our favorite characters die, especially since most of them were still alive on TV. So, as thrilling as it was to see Dark Shadows on the big screen, it was a disorienting experience. We just had to pretend that the whole thing was taking place in parallel time.

Even odder was the second Dark Shadows movie, which I don’t think anyone expected to be made. It came out the same year the series went off the air (1971) and was called Night of Dark Shadows. It took a different tack entirely from the first film. It was not a sequel to either House of Dark Shadows or the television series. It was a completely new story about the Collins family, although it had elements of stories from the TV series. Several familiar actors were present, but only a few played characters that bore familiar names—notably David Selby as Quentin Collins and Lara Parker as the evil witch Angelique. The story involved ghosts, possession, curses, murder and terror. For fans, the whole thing was fairly distracting because we kept trying to fit it in with the rest of Dark Shadows lore, and it just didn’t fit. Part of its problem was allegedly due to the fact that director Dan Curtis had to do a lot of cutting to trim it to 95 minutes. Rumor has it that there is a 129-minute director’s cut out there, although I don’t know if that would be a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps the greatest claim to fame of Night of Dark Shadows is that it features the film debut of the once and future Charlie’s angel Kate Jackson.

-S.L., 5 September 2002

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