Though they had been recorded throughout the annals of human history long before anyone ever came up with a standard, universal word to refer to them by, vampires had almost always walked hand in pale hand within the confines of the moon-drenched night with the element of romance. Many a tale of Gothic romance had been spawned over the years focusing on undead bloodsuckers and mortal maidens — most notably Bram Stoker’s immortal Dracula — but in 1966, a fellow working in that grand (and still relatively new) world of television by the handle of Dan Curtis revamped (ahem) that horrifying romantic constituent into airwave material. Thus, the long-running supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows was born.
Oddly enough, the series started out sans the very paranormal spirit (ahem again) it later became famous for — eventually adopting a vampire character named Barnabas Collins into the fray, who would undoubtedly become the show’s most famous character. By the time Curtis had the chance to give an abbreviated motion picture adaptation of his brainchild to the world with the film House of Dark Shadows in 1970, Barnabas had himself become the very essence of Dark Shadows — something that continued with the poorly-received and short-lived 1991 television remake, and the comedic 2012 theatrical reboot from Tim Burton that, sadly, received more acclaim than it rightfully should have.
But we’re talking about the old movies here, kids. As I said before, House of Dark Shadows essentially offers up a condensed rehash of the Barnabas story arc from the series — only with something slightly resembling a budget this time ’round. Though contemporary Gothic romance purists might not want to put too much devotion into my usage of the word “budget” — as House of Dark Shadows looks rather cheap even on the 1970 scale of things, but of course, most of that is attributable to the fact that these were TV people making a movie. It’s still a thousand-times more lavish and professional-looking than its older television sibling.
OK, nitpicking aside, the story here finds the vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid, in a role he was indubitably born to play — so much so, that he died only a few short months before the premiere of the 2012 Tim Burton reboot, as if to avoid dying from shock and horror afterward) being resurrected on the grounds of his ancestral estate, Collinwood, by a handyman (John Karlen) with an appetite for things that are green and gold (e.g. treasure). Barnabas, on the other hand, has a craving for a substance that is red — and there are a lot of disbelieving modern-day souls to damn.
But that’s only his secondary hunger — a byproduct of being damned himself approximately 175 years ago. His primary concern is that which any good nosferatu longs for: amore.
And, from thereon in, Barnabas does his damndest (ahem once more) to enslave the charms of the present Collins family’s governess, Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). Meanwhile another lovelorn individual, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall, whose name was surely taken wholesale from a college dormitory by two very snide parents), puts two and two together as the deaths-by-blood-loss in the area begin to mount. However, instead of going all Abraham Van Helsing on Barnabas’ caped heinder, she works on curing the vampire of his unique “condition” — hopeful that he’ll take her as a bride once it’s all done and over with.
Needless to say, things don’t end very happily for most of the people in the film. Coincidentally, the very same thing can be said of House of Dark Shadows‘ 1971 follow-up, Night of Dark Shadows — a moving picture that should serve as proof to anyone that the series just didn’t click without Barnabas after the character had come in to bring some fresh blood (yeah, yeah, yeah) to the show. The Barnabas-less sequel instead takes a cue from an alternate timeline story arc briefly used in the original TV series. Series star David Selby — absent from the previous film — returned to the Dark Shadows universe as Quentin Collins, the lad who inherits Collinwood and moves in with his wife, Tracy (Kate Jackson, who has always been a crush of mine since her days on Charlie’s Angels).
Ghosts and witches haunt this particular filmic entry, though a general lack of terribly interesting things and the recasting of people who died in the previous film as different characters (something that was not uncommon in the television show, but which is generally frowned upon by today’s easily-confused generation) don’t help any. Reportedly, director/producer/co-writer Dan Curtis was instructed to edit out over half-an-hour’s worth of story from the movie’s final cut — which may have inevitably hindered the average Joe’s attempt at enjoyment even further.
My personal opinion is that the movie wouldn’t have been very good either way one sliced it: after Jonathan Frid refused to return to the role he would later sign autographs at conventions because of, the original story Curtis had to re-write the story he had in mind for a sequel. But then, maybe I was just disappointed because — once again — my crush from boyhood didn’t show me her boobs. There’s really no way of telling on that one, folks.
Videocassette and laserdisc releases notwithstanding, both Dark Shadows features were unavailable for years on the home video market (I have an amusing story of being introduced to these movies during my naïve teenage years by an overly-kind man who was later sent to prison for distributing child pornography on the then-newly-formed Information Superhighway if anyone wants to hear it!), often fetching a handsome sum on online auction and marketplace sites. Thanks mostly due to the thankless Tim Burton movie, the folks at Warner (who own the current rights to the movies, which were produced and originally distributed under the MGM banner) decided to dust off the reels to both features and give ’em the High-Def treatment. The results are surprisingly pleasant, too — especially given the films’ low budgets — though the contrast for both releases often vary between good and bad. That said, though, the colors are quite vivid, and detail — though sometimes a bit too glossy — are remarkably fine.
Audio-wise, each release boasts a DTS-HD MA Mono soundtrack. Neither will blow you away, I’ll say that, but I kind of think that the aural hollowness that you’re more than likely to note (if you’re a serious A/V person, that is) sometimes adds to the charm. It’s just like being in a theater in ’70 and ’71 — well before things like bass and Surround Sound were introduced to cinemas. Special features for both movies are limited only to the original theatrical trailer for the respective title. Neither is throat-grabbing material, I must admit, but exhibit their own (often ridiculous) magnetism nonetheless — particularly the narrator for the House of Dark Shadows trailer, who sounds eerily like Ralph Brown in Wayne’s World 2 (honestly, I kept expecting him to calmly exclaim: “I ended up beating them to death with their own shoes!”).
Yes, I fully realize I ended a write-up on the two Dark Shadows features with a reference to the sequel to Wayne’s World. I know that’s a sin in any culture and that I will surely go to Hell for it — and I’m despondently confident that I won’t see Kate Jackson’s breasts there, either (and the man who introduced me to the Dark Shadows movies will most assuredly be there to creepily and cacophonously greet me). The aforementioned Tim Butron movie, on the other hand, will probably be playing there every hour on the hour — so I’ll be sure to enjoy the Blu-ray offerings of House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows to the best of my ability until then.
As should you.