House of Dark Shadows | Film Review by Todd Barty
Before Tim Burton created his current horror-comedy blockbuster, Dark Shadows, based on the gothic-soap opera of the same name, the series had been transferred to the big screen twice – in 1970’s House of Dark Shadows and 1971’s Night of Dark Shadows. Both films were directed by series creator Dan Curtis and featured members of the television cast in stand-alone horror films inspired by events in the television show.
As in the new film, the tale focuses on the vampire – Barnabas Collins (Jonathon Frid) – freed from a coffin after nearly two hundred years by thecurrent Collins family handyman, Willie (John Karlen), who has been treasure hunting in the family crypt.
Barnabas passes himself off as a relative from England to his descendants – the regal matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (veteran actress Joan Bennett), her attractive daughter Carolyn (Nancy Barrett – an adult, rather than the petulant teenager in the new film), her brother Roger Collins (Jeff Clark) and his son David (David Hennesy).
The comedy of the new film is not to be found here, however, as Barnabas feasts on the blood of his family and their associates – turning Carolyn and others into vampires and wooing David’s young governess, Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh-Scott), who is the spitting image of his lost love Josette – with the intention of making her his bride throughout eternity.
Standing in his way is the Van-Helsing-esque Dr. T. Eliot Stokes (Thayer David) and Maggie’s heroic boyfriend Jeff (Roger Davis). Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), discovers Barnabas’s vampirism and tries to cure him – following a path that will lead her to heartbreak and tragedy.
House of Dark Shadows takes a key plotline from the soap-opera, which ran from 1966-1971, and creates a tight and terrifying narrative. Director Curtis is not bound by the conventions and story developments of his television series and creates a claustrophobic and visceral experience that ramps up the horror much more than the daytime serial ever could.
In style, the film harkens to the technicolour magnificence of the venerable horror films of England’s Hammer Studios. The locations and settings are wonderfully spooky, with their cavernous interiors, prolific candelabras and gothic architecture contributing to the iconography of the genre – an eerie, haunted world captured in our collective subconscious. Even if the film is less well known to today’s audiences, its imagery is instantly recognisable.
The actors meet the style in their melodramatic renditions of the characters – overtly well-rehearsed from playing the characters in the television series, but enjoying the chance to breathe fresh life into them in a revised and intensified narrative. Jonathon Frid’s Barnabas is certainly one of the screen’s most terrifying and sympathetic vampires – chilling in his vampiric rages but tragic in his palpable yearning for Josette/Maggie. Kathryn Leigh-Scott is makes a lovely Maggie, all the sweeter for the tenderness the believable tenderness that she shows to the troubled Barnabas. Grayson Hall is an exciting presence – her tremulous delivery revealing the hidden passions that bubble beneath the character’s intellect and rationalism.
With the original series not well known in Australia, House of Dark Shadows is something of a hidden gem. For audiences interested in the vampire genre, however, seeing it is a must. It is one of the last great vampire films of its era, before gothic horror become campy or satirical and less supernatural ‘monsters’ came to dominate the genre. It is one of the greatest horror films of the 1970’s and a thrilling, chilling popcorn classic!
House of Dark Shadows
Directed by Dan Curtis, 1970
Review by Todd Barty