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 fiancé 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.