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The Legacy of Dan Curtis (1927-2006)

“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.

About Dave Nalle

  • http://jonsobel.com Jon Sobel

    I couldn’t watch Dark Shadows when it was originally on, because the opening credits and song were too scary. (Unlike the actual show.) I’m glad it’s had a continued life. The 1991 re-working with Ben Cross was very good, I thought – I wished it had succeeded.

  • Nancy

    Another monument of my childhood gone. I just adored DS & all the goofy characters – altho when I originally watched it, they were intense (to me), and only goofy in hindsight. Definitely it was different – talk about thinking outside the box – and the 1991 prime remake starring Ben Cross was, IMO, even better & deserved a much better fate. To make the vampire into as much of a suffering victim of his curse as those he attacked was a real stroke of genius. I also hugely enjoyed (more so when I saw them again when I was much older & better to appreciate them) some of the ad lib goofing by the cast, little throwaway comments or expressions that only in later viewings I realized were NOT in the script, or witty reactions to fluffs by other cast members or even pieces of the scenery or props falling down. Elizabeth Bennett missing the teacup & obliviously pouring half a pot of cold tea into Thayer David’s lap was a classic I still remember fondly. And he never batted an eyelash – what a professional! Of the 2 movies, the first was the best, altho it was extremely bloody & violent (probably not by today’s standards); the second was far more Jamesian in nature. Both were well done, however, & still can make the viewer jump at the right moment. Maybe someday someone will remake DS the way it should have been done if it had the proper budget & no gulf war to intervene. It was a super-naturally excellent idea.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    There was actually a new Dark Shadows prime time series under development a couple of years ago. They apparently filmed the pilot and then the project got cancelled and the pilot was never released.

    I occasionally watch Passions and it reminds me of how much better Dark Shadows was even though it was much less slick and polished. The quality of the stories and characters was exceptional, and the supernatural elements were integrated in ways which made sense. In Passions the supernatural stuff just seems goofy and contrived.

    Dave

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Dave, I rushed home every day and did my homework to be done and ready for Dark Shadows. Despite its crude production values, the show made me aware of so much more and sparked my interest in literature. I loved the eerie music (and still treasure the album I have of the soundtrack including “Quentin’s Theme”) and the atmosphere of Collingwood and the more dreary Old House where Barnabas lived (or undied or whatever).

    I should probably write a post about this as well for it really affected my life, and Dan Curtis was brilliant considering his budget. The Night Stalker still rates (in my humble opinion) as one of the best vampire flicks I’ve seen.

    Oh, I devoured every second of that show and, unlike my current fav 24, I didn’t have to wait a whole week for an episode; it was on EVERY day.

    I don’t know if the DVD has the original closing credits, but if you watched the old show you know funny things happened during those credits. I can recall Barnabas (Jonathon Frid) walking across the set; others moving back and forth and shaking the camera, etc.

    What a friggin’ great experience that blew my pre-adolescent mind. Still does. I must get the DVD!!!

    RIP, Dan Curtis.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I do remember those odd closing credits. Because the show was live they just left the camera running on the set during the credits and anything could happen while it was running.

    As for the DVDs, there’s no single DVD collection with all of the episodes. If there was I think it would cost about $1000 which would make it unmarketable. I believe the complete series is only available in 40 or so separate boxed sets which run $35 to $50 each depending on where you buy them. The quality of some of the early episodes on DVD is also questionable because they’re reproduced from rather poor stock some of it damaged and some episodes missing alltogether. As I recall there are even scenes where a still picture appears with dialog for several minutes.

    There’s a kind of cheesy compilation DVD with highlights from the series, but it’s not the same thing. And, of course, the first movie is basically just a sequence of episodes condensed and refilmed with the same cast and better production values.

    Dave

  • Nancy

    Yeah, I still have the little music box that plays Josette’s Theme. Some of the ‘accidents’ on the set were hysterical, if you managed to catch them in time. There was the infamous Liz & the teapot, then there was the time the entire back wall of the set shook & fell down behind Frid & Selby, and a few seconds’ of shocked technicians, et al staring at the cameras before Selby made some wise crack & they walked off. Another time, Elizabeth, Roger, & someone else I don’t remember were in the Big House LR when one of the big portraits on the wall behind them went crashing to the floor. After a moment’s silence, “Roger” said, “well, it would seem the ancestral spirits think so, too” and they went right on with the scene, with Bennett getting up to pick up the picture & tuck it away behind a nearby chair before returning to her seat. Just like it was normal. Lots of funny stuff like that. David Selby used to roll his eyes & put all kinds of odd expressions of disbelief, etc. on his face when he was in the background. Grayson Hall had a few gems, like the time as Magda Rakosi the gypsy when she came wandering through the front hall of the Old House flicking a rag & mumbling about Barnabas insisting she use something called ‘dust wax’. Etc. etc. It was SUCH a great show. I did prefer vastly the ‘new’ Willie Loomis, however, over John Karlen (no disrepect to Karlen, I just preferred the 1991 Willie’s constant muted hysteria).

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Got to agree on that last point. The guy who played Willie in the primetime series was just outstanding. He gave the character a lot more depth. Karlen just acted scared and abused all the time. I also think Joanna Going was the best Victoria/Josette of the many who played her.

    As for the music, my favorite is still the opening theme which played over the crashing waves on the Maine coast.

    Dave

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I didn’t mention it in my article, but I have to bring up my encounter with Jonathan Frid. In the early 70s, just after the show went off the air I was in a small town on an island on the coast of Maine. I had been walking in an old graveyard and as I came out and entered the street, standing on the porch of a house on the other side of the street was Jonathan Frid. He was dressed in khaki slacks and a plaid shirt, but it was still Barnabas Collins in the flesh, right there in Dark Shadows country. I was too shy to go up and talk to him, not to mention a bit freaked out. I assume he was also there on vacation. It’s apparently a popular locale for vacationing actors – I’ve run into a number of others in the same area in the years since.

    Dave

  • Nancy

    When (what year) was this? I know he retired to Mexico shortly after the show folded. What island was this – were you anywhere near Ellsworth, ME, or were you slumming it at Biddeford Pool? Somehow, I can’t imagine Barnabas (the classic BC, that is, from #1) stooping to a plaid shirt. Khakis, perhaps, but not a plaid shirt. Yeah, Jim Fyfe was Willie #2; his bug-eyed lunacy was SO funny; he was great in that role. I loved his plans to teach the vampire to drive once he (Barnabas) got over being poisoned by Julia’s anti-light tonic or whatever.

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    I have seen a marvelous set of “action” figures based on this show in a comic shop. I don’t know what company produces them, but the likenesses of Frid & Selby are outstanding, and the Selby one changes into a werewolf. Anyone know more? I would have bought both at the time but didn’t have the cash (they were $50 a piece).

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    It was moderately near Ellsworth – at least Ellsworth was the nearest big town. It was Great Cranberry Island and I think it was in ’71, so it would have been right when the series ended. I may have hallucinated the entire thing, of course. I was a rather surreal kid.

    Dave

  • sal m

    home sick with some kind of horrid virus yesterday – and too tired to change the channel off of fox movie channel – i watched the entire “scream of the wolf” movie, produced and directed by dan curtis.

    it was the quintessential 70′s made for tv movie…i loved every minute of it.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    That’s one of the series he made for the ABC ‘Movie of the Week’ in the 73/74 season. Of those the Dracula is probably the best, but they’re all good. Some critics consider his Dracula to be the truest to the novel. The amazon link to the DVD of all of them is at the end of the article above.

    Dave

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Interesting. In looking at the collection on Amazon I see that “Scream of the Wolf” is inexplicably not included, though it was part of that series and is quite a good film. One thing I failed to mention in the article is that one of the reasons some of these films – like those ABC horror remakes – are so good is that he co-wrote the scripts with Richard Matheson. Their collaborations are generally his best movies. Thankfully Matheson is still alive and still writing novels and he’s passed the baton to his son who is also an excellent screentwriter. BTW, due out next year is a remake of “I Am Legend” AKA “Omega Man” which is supposed to be closer to the original novel.

    Dave

  • Stephen Erickson

    Hi, I just wanted to mention that “My name is Victoria Winters” was not the first line of every show. Sorry. I’m not trying to pick on you. Anyone who love Dark Shadows has my respect. Victoria wasn’t on every show and left before the show ended. It also wasn’t the first line of every show she was on either. And she wasn’t in House of Dark Shadows or Night of Dark Shadows. I hope this information helps make your site even more accurate. Nice site thanks for having it. Peace and Love to all. Stephen Erickson, Minneapolis, MN. P.S. I was born June 1961 so I was able to see Dark Shadows as a kid. My mother made me a great Barnabas Costume for Halloween 1971. I remember asking her if Dark Shadows would come back on again. She said she didn’t know but we were hoping it would. Thanks. Take Care.

  • Samantha Brower

    Oh, I believe you about the plaid shirt and the khakis on Jonathan Frid (Barnabas). I will share with you images which to this day are very vivid because, after the chance encounter, they were recorded for posterity in a journal (as fans were want to keep), in order to share with friends and compare notes. After the show folded in 1971, Mr. Frid did some dinner theater stints here in Texas. When that was over, he took a long solo driving tour of the state. We–my college friends and I,–met him at a by-pass restaurant/gas station/feed store outside of Brenham, Texas. He said he had come up from Houston (his Buick, a loner car, had huge chrome mags and had garnered attention from a rancher who was a Buick aficionado whom he had stopped to talk to before coming into the restaurant). He ordered macaroni and cheese and a glass of milk; he sat across from us at a little table–there were only he and the three of us dining at the moment. He told my friend–the bolder of us, who worked there waiting tables, and who asked him if he “was really ‘him’”– that he had to forgo the chili because of the spices. He borrowed our salt, though. We were awed that he would deign to speak to us; he said he was pleased to find someone ‘who knew of him’ this far from a large city. We were fascinated and somewhat shocked by his personal appearance, it being so different from the urbane, almost debonair gentleman from The Old House. His hair was almost to the top of his shoulders, parted in the middle much like Bramwell’s; and, he had a few days growth of beard but he appeared tanned, fit, and more youthful than his forty-seven years. He had those unforgettable eyes that crinkled whenever he smiled, and a quiet voice, much like Barnabas when he’s in a reflective mode. After eating, he went outside to fill up the car; my best friend had to help him with the gas cap which was refusing to budge; I remember him feeling of her bicep and her telling him she was strong because she always helped her daddy with the baling, LOL. He obviously had a good sense of humor. As for his dress: I remember him wearing rough-out cowboy boots, a pair of new denim jeans with creases ironed into the legs, and a flannel shirt with a khaki windbreaker–it was in the fall, and a little nippy. He said he had intended to tour other states as well and was enjoying his visit to our state immensely. After he pumped his own gas, having paid for it before hand with an American Express card (we were behind him in line at the checkout counter and got to see his name both on the card and as he signed for it because he was asking us questions on how to get from there to Fort Worth) and hear it mispronounced as “Freed”, and to hear him very politely correct the elderly lady taking his information. When another elderly couple came in, he held the door for them and the man tipped his Stetson to him; Mr. Frid acknowledged him with a nod, gentleman to gentleman. And, I remember Mr. Frid taking the lady by the elbow when she stubbed her toe on the threshold. Very respectful. Lastly, he got behind the wheel with his newly purchased map of Texas; sat there a moment, folded it, put his sunglasses on (very bright day), stuck his head out the window to say goodbye, waved, then pulled very carefully onto the highway. The last image we had of him was him gunning the sleek Riviera’s engine as he got out onto a clear stretch of the highway. My greatest regret is that none of us had a camera. I mean, what was there to see in this farming/ranching community where most of us had lived all of our lives? If we hadn’t been in college elsewhere, and able to see “DS”, would we have ever known who Jonathan Frid was?