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The only motion picture ever based on a daytime soap opera up to that time, House of Dark Shadows (1970) opens with the infamous Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), a 235-year-old vampire and heir to the Collinwood estate, being released from his crypt by a greedy caretaker (John Karlen) looking for treasure. It marks the beginning of a reign of terror for the current descendants living on the sprawling Maine estate. Posing as a long-lost relative, Barnabas attempts to gain the confidence of the Stoddard family but his unexplained reappearance after many years raises doubt in the minds of family confidantes, Prof. Stokes (Thayer David) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall). Meanwhile, a series of unexplained attacks on friends and relations of the Stoddards begin to suggest a vampire is in their midst. Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) is the first victim to fall under Barnabas's hypnotic spell but the true object of his desire is Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), a governess who is the spitting image of his long-lost love, Josette.
Filmed at the Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York, with additional location shooting in Scarborough, New York and Norwalk, Connecticut, House of Dark Shadows was directed by Dan Curtis and continued storylines and characters from the popular daytime TV series, Dark Shadows. It pays homage to the famous Barbara Shelley staking sequence from Dracula - Prince of Darkness (1966) in one scene and features a grotesque transformation scene, courtesy of makeup artist Dick Smith, who aged Dustin Hoffman from a young man to a 121-year-old survivor in Little Big Man (1970). The real reason to see it though is to savor the rich gothic ambiance and the fast-paced direction of Dan Curtis who is better known for his television work, particularly in the horror genre. His pilot film for one of the first supernatural series, The Night Stalker (1972) starring Darren McGavin, remains a highlight of early seventies television, The Norliss Tapes (1973) was another top-notch fantasy thriller with a vampire murderer, and who can forget the infamous Zuni warrior doll episode starring Karen Black from his Trilogy of Terror (1975)? Obviously Curtis's background in TV movies with their rushed production schedules and minimal budgets taught him how to create lean, serial-like narratives and low-cost atmospheric sets. And, in House of Dark Shadows, Curtis manages to distract most viewers from the film's innate absurdities through frenetic pacing, creepy music and well-timed shock effects (close-ups of fangs entering bare flesh).
Although marketed as a vampire film, House of Dark Shadows is actually a strange hybrid that is part soap opera, part supernatural thriller. The Harlequin novel-like dialogue is strewn with clichs - "We've just met though I feel I've known you for so long," "No human could have made those two punctures" - but delivered with the serious conviction that true soap opera demands. Only in a film like this would every female character be sexually attracted to the foppish, aristocratic Barnabas. Jonathan Frid certainly makes an unlikely sex symbol but in the context of House of Dark Shadows his appeal is actually plausible when you consider the other male characters who seem boring and lifeless in comparison. The film might not be a classic in the annals of vampire cinema but it's a lot more fun than some of the late Christopher Lee Hammer horrors such as The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974) which had fallen into the rut of boring predictability by the early seventies.
Joan Bennett, who returned to the screen after a ten year absence to appear in House of Dark Shadows, plays her role straight even though she hardly took the film seriously. "I suppose it might be said that Dark Shadows is not typical of Detergent Land Drama," Bennett stated. "Anything can happen and does, with harrowing frequency." As for her character, she noted "As Elizabeth Collins, mistress of the mansion, I seldom leave it unless I need a vacation and then the writers conveniently arrange for me to have a splendid nervous breakdown, or they keep me in a deathlike trance, until it's time to go back to work again. Most people can boast of some sort of skeleton in the family closet, but I have a cousin who's a two-hundred-and-thirty-five-year-old vampire, though somewhat more benign than Count Dracula."
Bennett had initially been coaxed out of her retirement to appear in the first thirteen episodes of the daytime TV series, Dark Shadows, but it was such a success and so much fun to work with director Dan Curtis and his ensemble cast, that she stayed with it for four years and then agreed to appear in the theatrical film version. After that, she accepted a few more film roles but chose to retire once again after her final movie, a small but top-billed part as a vengeful witch in Dario Argento's cult horror classic, Suspiria (1977).
House of Dark Shadows spawned a less successful sequel, Night of Dark Shadows (1971), which helped launch the careers of two cast members - David Selby, who went on to star in the primetime series, Falcon Crest, and Kate Jackson, who became famous as one of Charlie's Angels.
Director/Producer: Dan Curtis
Screenplay: Sam Hall, Gordon Russell
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Editor: Arline Garson
Production Designer: Trevor Williams
Music: Robert Cobert
Cast: Jonathan Frid (Barnabas Collins), Joan Bennett (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard), Grayson Hall (Dr. Julia Hoffman), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans), Roger Davis (Jeff Clark), John Karlen (Willie Loomis), Thayer David (Prof. T. Eliot Stokes).
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