“My name is Victoria Winters…” These simple words still send a thrill up the spines of a generation of Americans. It was the opening line of every one of 1225 episodes of Dark Shadows from 1966 to 1971, and in two movies and a short-lived primetime series in 1991. Late last month Dan Curtis, the man who brought us those words and the amazing stories that went with them, died in his Brentwood home at the age of 78.
Curtis was primarily a television producer and director who started out with a successful golf program and used it as a launching point for a television production company that hit its first big success with the off-beat supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows in 1966. Every day Dark Shadows presented an installment in the story of the Collins family of Collinsport, Maine. In some ways they were your typical wealthy, troubled and scandalous soap opera family, except that their troubles were with werewolves, vampires, mad scientists, vengeful witches and time-travellers.[ADBLOCKHERE]Curtis created memorable characters and had a real knack for inspired casting, including the chilling Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, aging silent movie ingénue Joan Bennett as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, former Playboy bunny Kathryn Leigh Scott as heroine Maggie Evans, beautiful European aristocrat Alexandra Moltke as Victoria Winters, the creepily sexy Lara Parker as Angelique and New England natives David Selby and Thayer David in major roles. Dark Shadows was all about atmosphere, and Curtis did a remarkable job of bringing the story of a decadent family in coastal New England to life on a very limited budget.
When I was a kid in the 1960s both of my parents worked, so after a long bus ride home after school I got to spend a couple of hours in the care of a maid who had very little interest in entertaining children. I ended up seated at the TV starting at 4 o’clock, just in time for Dark Shadows, and it became an important formative influence in my youth. It was through the imagination of Dan Curtis that I was introduced to the world of horror and the supernatural, which encouraged me to seek out the sources of the ideas he was drawing on, which in those days meant becoming a very active reader, discovering Stoker, Le Fanu, de Maupassant, Poe, Dunsany, Lovecraft, Machen and the other classics of paranormal literature. Dark Shadows was the starting point for a voyage of imagination which was immensely rewarding.
By modern standards Dark Shadows was crudely produced, even for a soap opera. If you watch it on DVD today it moves incredibly slowly, with contrived cliffhanger endings and choppy narrative caused by the shortness of 30-minute episodes. The acting is uneven and often hammy, under-rehearsed and filmed live with all the glitches that that entails. Nonetheless, the stories are strong and the major characters, especially the cursed vampire Barnabas, are engaging and well-portrayed.
After the five-year run of Dark Shadows Curtis moved on to other projects. He produced a critically acclaimed series of TV movies based on classic gothic literature, including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Turn of the Screw. He produced and directs several impressive low-budget theatrical horror films, including Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings. He also created the original TV movies which were developed into the series The Night Stalker. His biggest commercial success on television was the groundbreaking miniseries The Winds of War, which was followed by his production of War and Remembrance.
His greatest critical success may have been one of his last TV productions, the theatrical-quality movie The Love Letter starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Scott Campbell. Also of note was his 1991 re-imagining of Dark Shadows as a primetime series, which was quite good and more watchable for a modern audience than the original soap opera. It suffered an undeserved cancellation because of scheduling problems caused by news coverage of the first Iraq War, but is now available on DVD. Interestingly, after a seven-year retirement, Curtis reappeared as a TV director last year with two successful primetime films, Our Fathers and Saving Milly.
Dan Curtis probably deserves a lot more fame than he ever achieved during his lifetime. He was a very inventive producer and writer, and a consistently good director, and no one has ever been better at depicting the stylized world of gothic horror. Curtis’ influence on a generation of viewers is manifest in the enduring fan base for Dark Shadows – there are conventions all over the world and the actors still make a living by touring and signing autographs. Probably more significant is his influence on other writers, producers and directors.
The most obvious tribute to Curtis on the air today is the soap opera Passions which is a watered-down attempt to recreate the success of Dark Shadows. Even more interesting is the work of Shaun Cassidy, the child star turned producer/director who is responsible for Roar, American Gothic and this season’s Invasion all of which seem to show the influence of Dan Curtis. Cassidy is almost exactly my age, and I bet that while his mom Shirley Jones was off filming The Partridge Family he was home like me in the afternoons watching Dark Shadows.
Dan Curtis is gone, but I doubt that he will ever be forgotten. He was more than just a cult TV and movie maker. If you’re too young to have experienced his best work, it’s all available on DVD. Go out and rent one of the two Dark Shadows movies or the 1991 series, or spend an evening with Trilogy of Terror or The Love Letter if you prefer romance to horror. You won’t regret it.