Friday, September 18, 2009

Movie Review: House of Dark Shadows (1970)

Perhaps one of the greatest joys for a genre fan like me is coming across an unexpected treasure, particularly one that’s been under my nose for a while. Recently at the library we’ve been getting in classic Dark Shadows sets, and I’ve been plowing through them at a ridiculous pace. Keeping in tune with horror and sci-fi television, Dark Shadows has always been in my peripheral field of awareness but never quite grabbed me enough to seek it out. I would see stills, or occasionally run across reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel, but it seemed a little too soap opera to me. Several folks have tried to sell it to me over the years unsuccessfully, but due to the ready access here at the library I finally took the plunge. I popped in the first DVD armed with the knowledge that it was a 1200+ episode commitment, and initially I did have some reservations about that. Well I’m about 500 or so episodes in now, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. Right up there with classic Star Trek, The Prisoner, etc. Jonathan Frid totally holds his own as a genre icon along with the likes of Shatner and McGoohan (and he doesn’t even show up until around episode 200). His portrayal of the tortured Barnabas Collins manages to be simultaneously heroic and villainous, making for one of the most complex vampires ever committed to film. It’s easy to see why this show was such a phenomenon in its time, and the strong performances contribute to it being just as interesting today.

Due to the mega success of the series, creator Dan Curtis was able to launch to launch two Dark Shadows theatrical films in the early 70’s, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Unfortunately I was disappointed to discover that neither has made their way to DVD. Imagine my surprise a month or so back when browsing through Itunes, and discovering that the first film was available in widescreen! That discovery led to my search for similar treasures, including The Island and several others. Being a newly converted fan I couldn’t help but take the plunge, and for any Dark Shadows devotee worth their salt it’s time well spent. Most of the major characters are on hand, including Frid front and center as Barnabas, and the film loosely follows plot points from the series. I can’t confirm the similarity of all outcomes as I haven’t finished the Barnabas cycle of the show, but it’s clear that the film diverts from series canon on several points. So you won’t completely spoil all surprises that await if you later decide to watch the small screen version.

In a nutshell the film kicks off with the arrival of Barnabas at the Collins estate, and his subsequent pursuit of Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). The changes start right here, as Maggie is the governess of David Collins on the big screen instead of Victoria Winters (who is the show’s anchor . . . at least throughout the first 500+ episodes : ) Barnabus is intent on claiming her as a doppelganger of his lost love Josette Collins, and proceeds to wreak havoc on just about everyone else in the family/community toward that end. He is aided (as he is in the show) by Grayson Hall’s Dr. Julia Hoffman, who has discovered a way to reverse the effects of his vampirism. Unfortunately she also has a crush on Barnabas which leads to disastrous results. Everything culminates in a final battle between Barnabas and series hero Jeff Clark (Roger Davis), the two eternal rivals for Maggie’s heart (although actually Victoria’s in the show). In many ways it’s a riff on the Dracula tale, but the characters and Curtis’s fine storytelling ability breathe new life into the myth.

What I find so appealing about the series and the film is that they are reminiscent of the best work from Hammer Studios. As a big Hammer fan I love tales dripping in Gothic atmosphere, and Dark Shadows is about as good as it gets . . . in some respects even better than Hammer. The chief reason for this is that Dark Shadows has the luxury of 1200 episodes to tell its story, whereas your average Hammer film has about 90 minutes. Imagine if Horror of Dracula or Curse of Frankenstein ran 1200 episodes how interesting that might be! Not surprisingly when condensed to 90 minutes Dark Shadows suffers from that same need to squeeze a large amount of information in too brief of a space. We get plenty of time with Barnabas and Maggie, but folks like Liz Stoddard or Roger Collins are reduced basically to cameos. With this in mind series fans will benefit in that they have deeper understanding of the characters that parade through, but may be frustrated that their favorites don’t always receive ample screen time. What will impress most is just how polished the film is compared to the series. No flubbed lines or flies buzzing around people’s heads here (although those things are certainly part of the show’s charm)! Seeing these characters writ large in widescreen is a pretty satisfying experience, and provides the cinematic grandeur the tale deserves.

More than anything else what the film drives home to me personally is what a missed opportunity Jonathan Frid was. From what I gather, following the Dark Shadows experience he returned to stage work, barring a few appearances in minor films. The man had a real presence and I would have loved to see him do more films. It always mystifies me a bit when situations like this occur, in which an actor is at the top of the world and then gets stymied by typecasting or lack of good offers (e.g. Mark Hamill, Michael Beck, etc.). Frid in particular is most frustrating in this regard as he’s got significant acting chops, in addition to being a charismatic fellow. Apparently he still does conventions (now in his 80’s!), and by all accounts is a great fellow in real life as well. Would love to see him do a cameo in the rumored reboot!

The good news about the film is that it is accessible to both fans and newcomers. I suspect that was part of the design, although it’s hard to imagine in the 70’s many people not having a passing familiarity with the Collins saga. To the layperson House of Dark Shadows will play like a top notch Hammer film, and to fans it will be a treat to see the characters in a big-budget adaptation. Either way House of Dark Shadows is a lost gem that warrants attention. I’m blown away that Itunes has done such a great job with the transfer to the digital format, and can’t recommend seeking this out highly enough. If you’re a fan of the show it’s a no brainer, but I would highly encourage Gothic horror films to give this one a chance. Next on my Itunes lost films series I’ll be discussing Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World. It’s a weird sci-fi/road movie hybrid with perhaps the best soundtrack of the 90’s. Until then . . .

2 comments:

John Kenneth Muir said...

Jim:

My hat is off to you, sir. And I envy you the journey back to (and immersion in...) Dark Shadows. I want to go too!

I'm a big admirer of Jonathan Frid as Barnabas, and have always enjoyed the episodes I watched on the Sci-Fi Channel. But I've never taken the time to go back, in order, and really evaluate the show in proper format.

One of these days, I intend to do so, and you've inspired me again.

But wow - 1,200 episodes. Now there's a commitment to a show.

best,
John Kenneth Muir

Jim Blanton said...

Hey John!
I can't say enough good about the show, and the investment of time has truly been worth it. My advice is to get a running start and don't look back : ) I guarantee you will become a lifelong Barnabus fan!

Best, Jim