Not being a particular fan of the daytime soap opera from which it was based, I didn't expect House of Dark Shadows (1970) to be anywhere near as good as it turned out to be. It positively oozes with gothic atmosphere and is crammed with derivative but extremely well crafted and memorable set pieces. It succeeds on two fronts, first in its transition to the big screen it avoids the visual blandness of most theatrical features adapted from concurrently airing TV series (Batman, Munster, Go Home!, etc.). Secondly, it accomplishes something done by almost no one else: all but inventing a style as effective as Britain's and the European continent's best horror films yet also one distinctive from those and even singularly American. In short, it's one of the best horror movies of its era.
Impatient fans of Dark Shadows, the 1966-71 series that aired in a 30-minute timeslot weekday afternoons on ABC, had been all but demanding Warner Home Video release this (along with its mostly unrelated follow-up, Night of Dark Shadows, 1971) to DVD and/or Blu-ray for years, but the wait has been worth it. I'm glad to have seen it for the first time via Blu-ray. The subtle lighting and innumerable darkly lit scenes would suffer dearly on VHS and even standard-def DVD. The Blu-ray brings out delicate qualities in the film that otherwise would likely be lost on viewers.
The movie adapts story threads beginning about 200 episodes (one season) into Dark Shadows' original network run, namely the introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and his efforts to make Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) his immortal bride. In cramming dozens of hours of story material into a 97-minute movie, House of Dark Shadows is sometimes confusing (especially in its early reels) and scenes tend to end abruptly or without adequate explanation. Ideally House of Dark Shadows should have been a three-hour epic, but the market wouldn't have allowed that. (It was scripted to run just under two hours; the missing 20 minutes probably would have helped.)
As such, the film hits the ground running with Collins family handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) unwisely spending his day off searching for hidden treasure on the family's expansive if decaying New England estate. In the family crypt he unwittingly releases 150-year-old Barnabas Collins (Frid) from his grave, the vampire wasting no time making Willie his Renfield-like slave. (Later, an interesting idea is introduced stating Barnabas was chained, fully conscious, into his tomb, though there's no evidence of this in this opening scene.)
Masquerading as a cousin from England, Barnabas introduces himself to the Collins family: matriarch Elizabeth (Joan Bennett), sons Roger (Louis Edmonds) and David (David Henesy), and daughter Carolyn (Nancy Barrett). After securing their trust he announces his intentions to restore the dilapidated, adjacent mansion once occupied by the "original" Barnabas.
The vampire is struck by governess Maggie Evans's (Scott) resemblance to Barnabas's 18th century lover, Josette, and becomes obsessed with making her his bride. Meanwhile, his growing population of blood-drained victims, who themselves become vampires, begin terrifying the community. Professor T. Eliot Stokes (Thayer David), a Van Helsing type, and Collinsport Sheriff Patterson (Dennis Patrick) try to identify and contain the menace. Elsewhere, Stokes's colleague, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), in love with Barnabas, seeks to cure him.
The television series liberally borrowed from the best of gothic literature, particularly Charlotte Brontė's Jane Eyre, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and just about everything by Edgar Allan Poe. Much of this influence is reflected here. The basic story more or less reworks Bram Stoker's Dracula with bits of Dorian Gray, with much Poe- and Henry James-influenced atmosphere.
Yet none of it feels ripped-off because it's done so well and certainly so much better than virtually all medium-budgeted horror films of the late 1960s through mid-'70s. Reportedly the negative cost was around $750,000, which seems right. That would make it about twice as expensive as most AIP/Hammer/Amicus horror films of the period, but a fraction of the cost of bigger Hollywood movies like Rosemary's Baby (1968) or The Exorcist (1973). The budgetary limitations occasionally reveal themselves in the form of tinny location sound recording, and cost saving but shaky hand-held cinematography, but for its budget level producer-director Dan Curtis shows much imagination and care throughout.
Exteriors and most interiors were filmed at the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York and, to a lesser extent, the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in South Norwalk, Connecticut, with additional exteriors shot in and around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. These add immeasurably to the overall atmosphere and authenticity. Both the locations and (presumably) the limited soundstage sets (of the crypt, etc.) sport imaginative set decoration, emphasizing old money and faded New England aristocracy. This combined with Curtis's and cinematographer's Arthur Ornitz's (Serpico, Death Wish) stylistic choices, House of Dark Shadows has a uniquely effective look, with its claustrophobic corridors, opaquely dark large rooms, and distorted, eerie sound, punctuated with sudden bursts of kinetic horror. (A superbly done confrontation between horrified local police and a vampire Carolyn is but one example.)
This effectiveness is further aided by a dead-serious approach, studiously avoiding the varying campiness of Vincent Price's performances in Roger Corman's Poe pictures, or the flesh & blood/strip show elements of Hammer's later horror films. I haven't seen Tim Burton's 2012 remake of Dark Shadows, but its darkly humorous elements and reported general lack of conviction would seem completely at odds with exactly what makes House of Dark Shadows so effective.
The picture uses day-for-night photography extremely well, only rarely obviously so, and much of the film is so dark that it's not surprising that only now is the film being reappraised. On drive-in screens House of Dark Shadows must have looked terrible; presumably even its last previous home video release, on laserdisc, would have been inadequate.
Personifying the care and intelligence behind House of Dark Shadows and its television predecessor is the casting of Canadian Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins. For years filmmakers searched in vain for successors to Bela Lugosi and, later, Christopher Lee (e.g., Michael Raven in 1971's Lust for a Vampire) but Frid is absolutely perfect. His look and measured theatricality is exactly right yet also completely different from both Lugosi's and Lee's approaches to similar characters. Although Barnabas was unquestionably Dark Shadows' most recognizable and enduring character, Frid was unable or perhaps disinterested in building on that fame; a film and TV career playing menacing characters (like Lee) somehow eluded him. Nevertheless, in House of Dark Shadows he's fascinating to watch.
The TV Dark Shadows was a pop culture phenomenon popular especially with high school-aged girls drawn to its romanticism, and boys who enjoyed its classical horror elements. Overall though it was not a ratings success, averaging 12th place among all daytime dramas and drawing about half the viewers As the World Turns, the No. 1 soap, was pulling in. Nonetheless the movie was popular enough to warrant a sequel, even as the TV series faced cancellation.
House of Dark Shadows must have taken 1970 audiences by surprise. It's genuinely scary and far more graphic than Standards & Practices would have allowed on daytime television. Legendary makeup artist Dick Smith provided the effective bite wound makeups, and an elaborate extreme old age one similar to the Dustin Hoffman's makeup in Little Big Man (1970). (Some sources indicate the very same appliance was recycled here, but that seems unlikely. Indeed, it looks slightly refined and subtler even from that impressive accomplishment.)
Video & Audio
The high-def transfer of House of Dark Shadows is a bit curious. Though generally excellent, particularly in the way in brings out the film's subtle lighting effects while maximizing its occasionally rich primary colors (the fire engine-red blood, etc.) as a marketing adjunct to the Tim Burton movie there seems to have been an effort to make it resemble a new movie rather than a 42-year-old one, digitally tweaking the image subtly as if to minimize certain characteristically 1970 shots. Mostly though, it looks great. My Japanese PlayStation 3 defaulted to a Japanese menu with unlisted Japanese subtitle options. English SDH subtitles are also included with the solid mono DTS-HD Master Audio.
The lone extra is a full-frame trailer, a shame since this is such a cult title.
Despite hairstyles, costuming, and a cinematographic style clearly placing it in the early 1970s, in other respects House of Dark Shadows is largely timeless, and holds up extremely well even now. An unexpected surprise, this is a terrifically moody and extraordinarily effective horror film even those unfamiliar with the TV show can enjoy. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.