Wednesday, February 1, 2012

39. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970)

Friends of mine who caught this Dan Curtis film at first run matinees remember it with the glee of a fever dream. For many youngsters who cut their teeth on the ABC-TV vampire soap DARK SHADOWS, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (sold with the memorable tagline "Come see how the vampires do it!") was an unforgettable first date with motion picture transgression: series fixtures were killed onscreen, makeup effects impossible to achieve on the cheap were up there on the screen (courtesy of the great Dick Smith), and it was bloody -- really bloody for a GP picture, thanks to its being distributed by a major studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Appearing in a promotional interview on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW at the time, star Jonathan Frid candidly opined that he felt the film had all the makings of a classic horror picture but went much too far in the blood and gore departments -- and undoubtedly reserved a few seats with his staid reservations. It's also important to remember that quite a few DARK SHADOWS fans in those days had yet to upgrade to color television -- indeed, the show itself ran for awhile in black-and-white and was videotaped -- so the impact of seeing these actors on the big screen, in color, on actual 35mm film, and bleeding bright red cannot be overstated.

Unfortunately, I didn't see it then; I had to wait till adulthood and VHS, then LaserDisc. I want to love this movie as so many of my friends do, and every time I sit down to revisit it, I do so prepared to love it, but I can't help it: I find it sloppy, ineptly blocked, and so badly staged and melodramatically acted for the most part, it's funny. It actually begins with the plainest red bargain basement titles superimposed, without any sense of flow or rhythm, over an ongoing suspense sequence, completely thwarting our entrance into the story. The first murder sequence contains some of the shakiest handheld camera footage ever seen in an MGM movie, and the day-for-night photography throughout is shamefully transparent. But its craziest birthmark is one of the factors that probably worked in its favor with a young crowd: the story is more synoptic than narrative; it feels like a half-hour of exposition has been cut out from between every scene. The rough cut, if they shot everything the dialogue alludes to, must have run at least six hours.

What we do get is so basic it could be deemed Vampires 101: graverobber Willie Loomis (John Karlen) unwittingly frees the vampire Barnabas Collins (Frid) from a locked casket; the vampire enslaves him and presents himself to the landowners (including "Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard") as a distant relative; he feeds on locals and meets governness Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) who is the twin of his lost love, Josette Duprey, from 200 years before. One of his female victims, Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), gets jealous and outlives -- or outdies -- her usefulness. Dr. Julia Hoffman (the incredible, nicotine-wan Grayson Hall) discovers the vampire's secret and offers to cure him but -- having fallen in love with him somewhere along the way -- sabotages his dose when he proudly announces his intention to propose. A suddenly ancient Barnabas (Frid in makeup that Smith later adapted to Dustin Hoffman for the Oscar-winning LITTLE BIG MAN) intends to proceed with the wedding, but her fiancĂ© Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) determines to interrupt the ceremony, which he does with the rallying help of Willie, himself lovesick for Maggie. And who can blame him? Kathryn Leigh Scott, one of the few actors here who acts like she knows she's onscreen rather than onstage, wore the most flattering miniskirts and had the shapeliest legs on daytime television, and they translate to the big screen admirably. She subsequently won a nice scene opposite Dirk Bogarde in Alain Resnais' PROVIDENCE (1977).

The biggest chunk of the film's narrative focuses on the Nancy Barrett subplot, which culminates in a well-shot sequence wherein a group of local police descend on Carolyn's resting place armed with crucifixes instead of guns -- it has some of the intensity of COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (which opened four months earlier) but counters its contemporary setting with enough Gothic trappings so that it melds the best of both classic Hammer and progressive independent. Carolyn is staked by liver-lipped professor Elliot Stokes (Thayer David), who later shows up vampirized without any scene present to establish his death -- one of countless hopscotched key points in the narrative, including a "before" to complement the "after of the vampire's renovated lodgings (the Carfax Abbey, if you will, of the film's Collinwood estate setting), the set-up of a costume ball, Julia's deepening affections for Barnabas, and so forth. The characters of Elizabeth and David (David Henesy), Collinwood's resident prank-playing youngster, literally disappear from the narrative without explanation or closure.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies, where the credits were letterboxed at 1.85:1 and then cut to a 1.37:1 presentation of the movie that was actually cropped on all four sides. TCM's previous airings of this film used an unmatted but much staler-looking master. See Ben Gart's frame grabs here.

6 comments:

  1. "makeup effects impossible to achieve on the cheap were up there on the screen (courtesy of the great Dick Smith)"

    Although you'd THINK that this (the old-age Barnabas make-up) was something that they hadn't been able to do on the daytime serial, you might be surprised to learn that they HAD, a few years earlier. And Dick Smith had done the make-up then as well! (Naturally enough, both make-up jobs look very similar).

    Although some effects were quite beyond the daytime serial's budget, in the make-up department they did rather well. When characters aged (like Barnabas, witch Angelique also turned ancient at one point), the results were usually pretty good. The Dark Shadows werewolf was also a creditable addition to the Hall of Famous Lycanthropes.

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  2. A very, very odd movie for viewers who were familiar with the daytime series. The characters and situations were mostly recycled and condensed from the TV show, but brought to closure in jarring ways. Relying on my admittedly hazy memory, I don't recall that Barnabas and Carolyn were so badly treated in the series. "Synoptic" is an apt description, since the script condensed at least two seasons' worth of storyline into feature-length. The closest comparison I can think of: Franju's remake of JUDEX.

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  3. There's a distinct difference between Smith's old-age Barnabas on the show and his big-screen incarnation. The daytime one looked more like Frid, and he wasn't bald. I much preferred that version.

    I was one of the lucky ones to see this in a theater, circa October 1970, and I echo Tim's comments that it was truly something to behold. By that point, the show had become anemic, with the Barnabas character completely neutralized as a threat. To see Frid as a ravaged, angry Barnabas was a revelation! I loved the gore, loved the energy of Curtis' fledgling direction, and thought there were some truly effective set pieces--especially the scene where David chances upon the resurrected Carolyn in a poolhouse. And certainly her staking scene is a high-point, done very well. The vampirism of Prof. Stokes didn't really bother me--there was enough said on screen to let us know what happened. I will say his attack on Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) was a fright, and Thayer David made a very nasty vampire!

    HODS is a departure from the series--existing in a realm all its own--and I think that came as a shock to a lot of loyal DS watchers back in the day. Keep in mind that Frid was a "heart-throb" and idolized by millions of young girls and women--and there's actually a huge cross-section of fans who honestly believe Julia was his one true love. To see him reject Julia and go for Maggie--really a replacement for Victoria Winters--well, it was just too much. I personally loved the film in 1970 and still love it today.

    If I had any real criticism, I'd say the transition between scenes is lacking. We go from a high-energy scene (David and Carolyn) to a quiet, staid set-piece (Collinwood's dining room) without any real panache. Curtis apparently didn't know how to make these scenes flow from one to another...but there's no denying he knew a little something about high-energy. And whoever lit and dressed this film was a genius!

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  4. Love this movie, and just bought the DVD. Was very dismayed to see that my original VHS has more top/botton footage than this matted version. Am I wrong to be pissed???

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  5. Yes. The movie was composed for the aspect ratio shown on the DVD and Blu-ray, so they represent the way the movie was shown in theaters and how the filmmakers wanted it to be seen. Sometimes the unmatted versions offer some additional picture information the fan collector likes to have, so I'm sure you'll want to hang on to your VHS in any case.

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  6. Just watched this film tonight for the first time ever. I had only seen a handful of episodes of the TV series, and none during the original run of the show. (It didn't play on the local stations at the time; kids in Mtn. Home, Arkansas saw the rival Canadian import STRANGE PARADISE instead.)

    I enjoyed it, and your comparison to YORGA is apt. Like YORGA, it sometimes seems to me to be a thin soup (especially in the first half), veering from roughly-written patches to more polished and engaging sequences. Ultimately, I enjoyed it and felt I could recommend to friends with a taste for old-fashioned horror.

    I'll also note that I thought Robert Cobert, talented though he was, over-relied on sudden staccatto bleats of trumpets and synthesizer glissandos for his spooky effects, as he tended to also do on THE NIGHT STALKER series.

    I enjoyed your review. Thanks for posting it!

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