The intended audience for MGM’s House of Dark Shadows (1970) was undoubtedly fans of the popular 1966-71 ABC gothic daytime drama. If you watched the TV series dutifully (like me), you will enjoy this faithful big screen adaptation. For other viewers, though, House of Dark Shadows is a routine ’70s vampire film with modest production values and a low-wattage, though perfectly capable, cast.
The film opens with unemployed handyman Willie Loomis, a modern-day Renfield, inadvertently unleashing vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid). Freed from decades of captivity in his coffin, Barnabas makes a house call on the wealthy Collins clan, introducing himself as a cousin from England. The family welcomes the charming Barnabas, who presents matriarch Elizabeth (Joan Bennett) with a thought-to-be-lost, emerald-encrusted heirloom. Yet, while everyone else is enamored with the newly-discovered, gift-giving cousin, Professor Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) becomes immediately suspicious when the vampire avoids some pointed questions.
At a costume party, Barnabas meets Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the apparent reincarnation of his lover Josette. While he woos Maggie, he has to deal with two jealous rivals for his affection: Carolyn Collins–who has become a vampire courtesy of a casual Barnabas biting–and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), who has fallen in love with the vampire while developing a cure for his affliction. Not unexpectedly, things go badly for Barnabas, especially when Julia substitutes the anti-vampire serum with a drug with some unpleasant side effects.
Fans of the TV series will quickly recognize that the first 75 minutes of House of Dark Shadows condenses the show’s familiar plot. However, to create an acceptable climax (and perhaps reward fans with some new material), producer-director Dan Curtis opts for a dramatic–and surprisingly bloody–ending. The truncated storyline also means that several popular characters only get a few minutes of screen time. Still, the focus on Barnabas works to the film’s advantage, since Frid’s nuanced performance is what made the show a hit in the first place.
House of Dark Shadows also rewards fans by incorporating many of the TV series’ familiar elements, from Robert Cobert’s haunting music to the shadowy photography and atmospheric settings. Personally, I wish the film had been shot in black-and-white like the first year on the small screen (which looks much better than the later color years). However, mainstream black-and-white films were no longer in vogue by 1970, so that wasn’t a realistic option.
For non-fans, House of Dark Shadows is a straightforward horror film released in the same year as another contemporary vampire outing, Count Yorga, Vampire. The Dark Shadows script has some bite (sorry!), such as when Carolyn (soon to be a vampire) tells Barnabas: “There’s so much about you that I’m dying to know.” One must also admire how the film avoids the whole “there are no such thing as vampires” discussion. Once Professor Stokes proclaims a vampire is to blame, everyone seems to accept that theory. (Of course, the townsfolk–except for Stokes–are slow to connect Barnabas’s arrival with the sudden appearance of the bloodsucker).
After House of Dark Shadows turned into a solid box office hit, Curtis set out to make a sequel. However, the TV series had ended by then and Jonathan Frid had moved on to other roles. Therefore, Night of Dark Shadows focused on other characters played by David Selby, Kate Jackson, and Lara Parker. It was a modest hit, but no further sequels appeared.
That was not the end of Dark Shadows, of course, which has been released on video, revived in 1991 as a one-season nighttime soap, and earlier this year turned into a campy motion picture by Tim Burton. The simple fact is that you can’t keep a great vampire like Barnabas Collins down for long.
Prolific guest blogger Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!