The Bad Movie Report

House of Dark Shadows

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So you want Dr. Freex to show his age some more, eh? You want him to tell you how he used toHouse of Dark Shadows Poster run breathlessly home from school to watch the daily dose of Dark Shadows on TV, thanks to the local station that delayed the broadcast one hour just for little monsters like himself? How, when this movie was released, all Dr. Freex' little friends went to go see it, but Dr. Freex did not? How he begged his mother to take him when it finally showed up at the drive-in theater, and she finally relented, but parked waaaaaaaay back, next to the snack bar, so they wouldn't have to walk far to the restroom, and the young Freex' deteriorating eyesight made the murky screen even murkier?

Tough luck. I'm not gonna.

Dark Shadows was a bona fide phenomena, spawning novels, comic books, games, bubble gum cards... you name it. It was only slightly less pervasive than the Batman craze. I remember the series creeped the hell out of me at times, and I had a few sleepless nights courtesy of producer/ ubermensch Dan Curtis.

So I was kind of interested when Dark Shadows started being released on videotape. Nice to revisit the old haunts, as it were. Guess what? You can't go home again.

Dark Shadows was, first and foremost, a soap opera. My wife claims that she only has to watch an episode of her soap every three or four months to keep abreast of the storyline. This is probably true, as the soap by nature unfolds very slowly, and gives the viewer a powerful dose of recap every episode. This does not make for very compelling extended viewing. A friend (a big DS fan) says he likes to watch them one episode per day, just like God intended. All very well and good, if you bought the tape, but what if you just rented the damn thing?

So, as a compromise, let's just watch the movie. It's not that long, and unlike the soap, it ends.

Don't open that coffin, Willy!The plot (as if you needed a recap) involves the rapidly decaying Collinwood clan (now the Collins-Stoddards). Handyman Willy Loomis (John Karlen), searching for the Missing Collins Jewels, unchains a coffin and out pops Barnabas Collins (Johnathan Frid), professional vampire, who proceeds to take over "the old house" under the guise of a distant relative. He turns Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) into a vampire, but then falls in love with the governess, Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), who appears to be the reincarnation of Barnabas' old love, Josette (so you see, Bram Stoker's Dracula totally stole its plot from House of Dark Shadows!) (It sure as hell didn't steal it from Stoker's novel, but that's a rant for another time).

NOT Dustin HoffmanCarolyn doesn't take too kindly to Barnabas' affection for Maggie, but things are getting a tad dull, so Carolyn tries to put the bite on brother David (David Henesy), and gets staked for her trouble by Van Helsing manque Prof. Stokes (Thayer David). MEANWHILE, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), isolates an odd bacteria in Barnabas' body and starts a treatment that eventually allows him to venture outside during the day, and to slowly cure his vampirism. Then she get jealous of Maggie, slips Barnabas a mickey that makes him grow very old (Dick Smith Little Big Man old), causing him to kill her, attack Maggie, turn almost everyone else into vampires....

The "Wedding" of Barnabas and MaggieWell, there's not a whole lot of people left standing after the end of House of Dark Shadows, making a sequel practically impossible. So, of course, they made Night of Dark Shadows, employing a few actors they had not killed, like Kate Jackson and an un-lycanthropic David Selby. And of course, Lara Parker's famous Angelique. By this time, the Dark Shadows phenom was largely over, and after Curtis was forced to cut a disastrous 45 minutes from the director's cut, most of it involving Angelique.... the movie, and Dark Shadows itself, ungracefully expired.

So how is House of Dark Shadows? Pretty dreadful, actually. This baby was rushed, and it shows. A beautiful mansion was found to fill in as Collinswood, and this of course brought with it new problems; on the sets built for the TV series, moving a wall to allow camera movement and setups was no problem . This isn't practical in a real house (on a nothing budget), so the solution was to have practically every shot hand-held. I can tolerate Shakycam on reality-based TV shows like Law and Order or NYPD Blue, but in a gothic movie it seems terribly inelegant, jarring, and out of place. There was a lot of hand held work going round in 1970, which is probably another thing we have to blame on the French New Wave. But I digress.

The movie employs quite a bit of shorthand, relying on the fact that anyone watching this was familiar enough with the characters that they could get away with the sketchiest of development. Who the heck are the beefcake boyfriends of Maggie and Carolyn (Roger Davis and Donald Briscoe, respectively)? Daphne? Who's Daphne? And just what the hell is Professor Stokes a professor of, that he should so instantly and wholeheartedly believe in vampires?

Johnathan FridNancy BarrettPersonally, I find it hard to believe that Johnathan Frid was ever considered sexy, but many fans will loudly proclaim me wrong. There's no denying he's a capable actor, however, even though the movie Barnabas is far less sympathetic than the TV incarnation. Grayson Hall is much, much twitchier than I remember her. Nancy Barrett is a standout as the vampiric Carolyn; but frankly, of all the characters, I think John Karlen comes off best as the Renfield wannabe, Willy, who seems to be the only one showing actual human emotions in all of this.




Good as a trip down memory lane, but not much else.

- November 16, 1997