Monday, October 26, 2009


The editor of Screem devoted the most recent issue to "Films That Scarred Us for Life." Contributors' examples included the usual suspects (The Exorcist [1973], Jaws [1975]), as well as several surprises (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [1968], The Day of the Locust [1974]). The first movie I remember that frightened me half out of my wits was Dan Curtis' House of Dark Shadows, the producer/director's 1970 revision of his cult soap opera (1966-1971). I was so unhinged, to be perfectly frank, that my mother and grandmother had to remove my screeching five-year-old self from the theatre screening the picture. I still vividly recall trying to settle down in the lobby, and it was not until the summer of 1976 that I saw the full film--minus the usual television edits and interruptions--on the CBS Late Movie. The scene that most traumatized me was the moment in House when Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) ages a century-and-a-half after being overdosed with the anti-vampirism vaccine the lovelorn Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) inflicts upon him in a jealous fit. (The undead one's fallen hard for Collinwood governess Maggie Evans [Kathryn Leigh Scott], whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love Josette.) The image of this alarmingly ancient creature--like lots of children, I thought the elderly were ugly enough to raise haints in a graveyard--strangling the spiteful doctor, then biting his beloved Maggie, was too much for my nerves, which were becoming progressively raw as the film unfolded. I had never found the ABC series to be so intense, and, of course, it wasn't. MGM's feature release upped the violence ante considerably and emphasized Barnabas' romantically ruthless villainy, while writers Sam Hall and Gordon Russell drastically compressed several months' worth of their original storyline. Events, in truth, hurtle past at breakneck speed, occasionally to the point of incomprehension, but, quite happily, the picture never fails to thrill me, even if it no longer provokes a screaming spell.

Cretinous handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen), convinced that the legendary Collins jewels are hidden in the family mausoleum, unwittingly liberates the slumbering vampire from his hundred-and-fifty year confinement. Barnabas, posing as an obscure English cousin in those pre-googling Seventies, spends his time restoring the "Old House" on the Collins estate and courting Maggie, when he's not vampirizing the rest of the cast. Dr. Hoffman, who's researching the Collins family, realizes that Barnabas is undead when he casts no reflection in her compact mirror, and struggles to reverse his curse before giving him the business after learning the object of his affections. His handsome visage rejuvenated by a sanguinary feast, Barnabas plans to wed the entranced Maggie in the family's abandoned chapel, but her artist boyfriend Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) intervenes with a crossbow at the altar, accidentally shooting Loomis in the back. Loomis, who also adores Maggie, manages to stake Barnabas before he expires, and Clark finishes the job. You can't keep a good vampire down, however, and Barnabas turns into a bat after the credits.

Test audiences complained of the film's pacing, so Curtis removed approximately twelve minutes of footage--material which, unfortunately, appears to be forever lost. (The 1971 sequel, Night of Dark Shadows, suffered a similar fate, losing an astonishing thirty-seven minutes.) The opening sequence, in which the titles distractingly appear over a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing, excised a scene in which Maggie's charge, the bratty David Collins (David Henesey), pretends to have hanged himself in order to shock his governess. This action, coupled with the unwillingness of the boy's father Roger (Louis Edmonds) to locate the little monster, motivates Maggie to leave Collinwood for good. The studio feared that impressionable youngsters would either be distressed by, or attempt to duplicate, the child's prank, but the scene's removal obscures Maggie's reason for packing. (Barnabas, of course, convinces her to stay.) A conversation between Maggie and Jeff in the Collinwood greenhouse was also eliminated, causing further confusion. In the theatrical release, Barnabas tells Loomis that he's "done something for" Jeff, but the audience has no idea that Barnabas has recommended his rival to a local gallery so that the artist won't interfere with his plans for the governess. Finally, a sequence of Dr. Hoffman's associate, Professor Stokes (Thayer David), learning from Loomis that Barnabas is indeed undead was deleted, blunting the impact of the Van Helsing stand-in's later confrontation with the vampire at the Old House. (Stokes abruptly, almost randomly, sprouts fangs near the picture's climax, as does Roger Collins, while Roger's sister Elizabeth [Joan Bennett] retreats into a fugue state and disappears; ideally, House should have been two hours, not ninety-six minutes, long.)

MGM released this film and its sequel on videocassette in 1990, following with a double feature laserdisc three years later (all are out-of-print), but the pictures have yet to debut on DVD. The original series is available on disc, as is its 1991 NBC resurrection. Fullscreen transfers of both 1.85:1 features, sporting the same ludicrously unconvincing day-for-night shots found in theatrical prints, appear from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. Warner Brothers has announced plans to revamp Dark Shadows for the big screen with director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, so perhaps House and Night will eventually return, like Barnabas, from their home video limbo.

I hereby apologize to all those patrons, including my family, whose enjoyment of House of Dark Shadows I spoiled nearly four decades ago.


Gross, Darren. "Closed Rooms in the House of Dark Shadows" and "Illuminating Night of Dark Shadows," Video Watchdog No. 40 (1997).