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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Shadow Master (1927-2006)

Well, this is embarrassing.

The email was terse and to the point: “I can’t believe you haven’t written about Dan Curtis!” Say what? I immediately went to Google to see what I had missed. Sure enough, it was true. Producer/director Curtis passed away weeks ago, somehow without my having noticed. Specifically, he died on March 27, three weeks after the death of his wife of 54 years.

And why should the universe be completely out of balance because this one death slipped by me? In the ranks of TV and movie talent he wasn’t exactly a superstar of spielbergian proportions. Yes, but he was the creator/producer/impresario of a certain old daytime serial called Dark Shadows and, as weary readers of this page know all too well, Dark Shadows has figured in these weekly musings at least once, maybe twice. (Okay, it’s been no fewer than 28 times, including this one.) For me to miss the passing of Dan Curtis is comparable to a die-hard Trekker not noticing when Gene Roddenberry expired. What’s my excuse? Coincidentally, it is the same one I always had when I forgot to turn in a paper in college: I was drunk. As fate would have it, word of his death would have been coming out at exactly the moment I was shutting down my computer in advance of departing on not one, but two, journeys to France. The first of these was to Bordeaux which, I have to confess, involved more than a small amount of Médoc and Armagnac. Back home, I barely had a chance to log on until we were off to Brittany and Normandy. By the time I was home again, the news of Curtis’s death was buried under so many mountains of subsequent data that it had become the proverbial needle in the haystack. Not surprisingly, the sad event had not made any of the British newspapers or International Herald Tribune, which had been my sole sources of news during my travels. But enough with the excuses. Better late than never and all that.

From a purely objective point of view, Curtis’s four-decade show business career peaked in the 1980s when he produced two TV miniseries, totaling 45 hours in length, based on novels by Herman Wouk: The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. He received Emmy nominations for both and won the statuette for War and Remembrance. (In his acceptance speech, he proclaimed, “I’d like to thank ABC for ponying up the dough to pay for this.”) Both miniseries starred Robert Mitchum and featured sprawling casts that seemed to include every actor in the world who was breathing at the time.

While Curtis’s oeuvre as a producer and director covered several genres, the World War II epics were a departure for him, as he always seemed to be drawn back to tales of the supernatural. There was the original daytime version of Dark Shadows, which ran from 1966-1971, two spin-off feature films, a 1991 prime time revival and a proposed second prime time revival for the WB network, which never made it on the air. Dark Shadows was famous for ripping off plots from classic horror literature, but Curtis was not content to merely borrow from the public domain. He also made his own adaptations of several of those classics. These included made-for-TV movies of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula (both starring Jack Palance), Frankenstein (with Robert Foxworth), The Picture of Dorian Gray (with Shane Briant) and The Turn of the Screw (with Lynn Redgrave). Obviously, none of those erased the memory of the original film versions—or even the better remakes.

Curtis also produced two TV movies about a wise-guy reporter, played by the late Darren McGavin, who keeps stumbling onto supernatural menaces. This spawned the TV series The Night Stalker. Curtis wasn’t involved in the series, but he did make his own TV movie pilot (not picked up) on a similar theme, called The Norliss Tapes, with Roy Thinnes as a writer who investigates the supernatural. And Curtis also made plenty of other horror-type movies (frequently collaborating with writer Richard Matheson), like Scream of the Wolf, Trilogy of Terror, Dead of Night, Curse of the Black Widow and Express to Terror. Probably his best regarded stand-alone horror flick, however, was 1977’s Burnt Offerings, which starred Karen Black and Oliver Reed (with their auntie, Bette Davis, in tow) as summer caretakers of a sinister house.

Curtis also directed light-hearted crime flicks (Melvin Purvis G-Man, The Kansas City Massacre, The Great Ice Rip-Off) and at least one light-hearted western (The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang). He also made a few sentimental movies, including a pair of quasi-autobiographical ones (When Every Day Was the Fourth of July and The Long Days of Summer) and last year’s Saving Milly, based on political pundit Mort Kondracke’s memoir about his late wife’s struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

But the fact remains: virtually everyone who knows the name Dan Curtis thinks of one thing when they think of him: Dark Shadows. Other than a couple of golfing programs, it was the first thing on his c.v. And its impact has been widespread and long-lasting. Even in the south of Chile in the late 1970s, I heard unprompted references from the locals to the vampire Barnabas Collins. In her memoir My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, Kathryn Leigh Scott (whose numerous roles on the series included waitress-turned-governess Maggie Evans and Barnabas’s doomed 18th-century love, Josette) told of how Curtis got the idea for the show from a dream he had while a guest at an old country house. It involved a girl on a train, and that is how the first episode of Dark Shadows began. The foundling Victoria Winters arrives in a small Maine town to become the governess for an aristocratic family in a mysterious old house on Widow’s Hill. Scott describes the behind-the-scenes production of Dark Shadows as something of a seat-of-the-pants operation, turning out five episodes a week, shooting “live to tape” (meaning no stopping the camera except in the most extreme of emergencies) and trying to keep costs down any way possible. After the show’s narrative traveled backward to an earlier century, she heard Curtis vow “never again to plot a story line that took place before telephones were invented; I think because it meant hiring more actors to serve as messengers.” Not surprisingly, a 1970 New York Times profile described Curtis as “a husky, compressed, 6-foot bundle of overcompensation.”

In her book, Scott notes that the terror that the actors frequently emoted on screen came not purely from acting technique but also sometimes from having forgotten their lines and not being able to locate them on the teleprompter. “Yes,” she writes, “dead bodies sometimes got up and walked away.” And “a weary prop man was seen ‘on air’ relaxing in one of the comfy armchairs in the Collinwood living room. During the end credits, Barnabas was seen gathering up his wardrobe and ambling off the set.” Strangely, this low-budget, no-time-to-fix-mistakes quality of the show made it all the more enjoyable. And yet, the inevitable goofs and flubs made us stop suspending our belief only momentarily. We wanted the world of Dark Shadows to be real, and in our minds it was. It was a world where love could survive the grave, where anything was possible, where magic was real and where men could stand around a drawing room, brandy snifters in hand, tossing verbal barbs at each other.

At the end of the day, we have to ask the question. What kind of person gets the idea to produce a five-day-a-week TV soap opera with a plot and characters taken from gothic novels? And what leads that person to evolve this series into a pastiche of every old horror movie ever made—on a daytime TV budget? And yet keeps a sense of magic and romance that makes students run home from school everyday to experience it? And, more importantly, are there any more like him?

I fervently hope there are. And I also hope that, as in numerous instances from episodes of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis’s ghost appears somewhere, sometime in the dead of night to someone to tell us that love does indeed survive the grave.

-S.L., 1 June 2006

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