House of Dark Shadows (1970) *½
I’m much too young to have watched “Dark Shadows,” widely regarded as the world’s weirdest soap opera, when it was on the air. When its six-year run ground to a halt in 1971, I was not yet born, and “Dark Shadows” has never (at least in my TV market) been one of those shows that succeeds in crossing over into the eternal unlife of syndication— although it certainly would have been most appropriate if it had. The closest I ever came to a brush with the original “Dark Shadows” was at the turn of the 1990’s, when the show was briefly resurrected with a new cast and a new creative team. The girl I was dating at the time was one of the few people who actually watched the revived “Dark Shadows,” and she was interested in checking out its earlier incarnation by way of comparison. Thus it was that we headed over to the Blockbuster Video on Ritchie Highway, and discovered to our horror that there were literally hundreds and hundreds of episodes from the original run available on videotape. How would we even know where to begin? Then we noticed House of Dark Shadows, the cinematic adaptation producer Dan Curtis trotted out in 1970 as a gambit to invigorate the show’s flagging popularity, on the next shelf over, and decided that would suit us just as well. We found out differently when we got back to my house, though, let me tell you. So leaden and confusing did we find this movie that we hit the rewind button after scarcely half an hour, and went upstairs to have sex instead. And you may rest assured that my recent rematch with House of Dark Shadows would have ended the same way, had that been an option at the time.
Somebody named David has gone missing at Collinwood, the estate of the Collins-Stoddard clan— we will eventually figure out that David (David Henesy) is the emotionally disturbed son of current clan patriarch, Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds). The Collins-Stoddards are an old family, having stood in the ranks of America’s gentry since colonial times, but we won’t be learning that for a good, long while, either. In fact, just about all we can be sure of at this early stage of the game is that David is being sought all over the manor grounds by his nanny, Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott, from The Turn of the Screw and Children of the Full Moon), and another young woman named Daphne (Silent Night, Bloody Night’s Lisa Blake Richards), who apparently works as secretary to Roger’s sister, Elizabeth Stoddard (Joan Bennett, of Suspiria). When Maggie takes her search to the dilapidated mansion that inexplicably stands just a few minutes’ walk from Collinwood, she runs into Willie Loomis, the handyman (John Karlen, from Trilogy of Terror and Daughters of Darkness), who immediately starts babbling to her about how he knows where “the lost jewels” are hidden. Ignoring Willie, Maggie continues her sweep of the derelict manse, while the workman himself sneaks off to the big mausoleum dominating the graveyard which is also within convenient walking distance of home. Inside, Willie finds one of the coffins sealed with rusty iron chains, but when he forces it open, he finds not the jewels he expected, but a vampire. Said creature of the night subsequently catches up with Daphne, and leaves her to be discovered, half-dead, by the family some hours later, after David has tired of his vanishing act and come home.
So is there even one among you who would not know immediately that the vampire had come to visit when, on the following evening, a “cousin from England” calling himself Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid, also of Seizure and The Devil’s Daughter) arrives at Collinwood— even without the tip-off that he’s wearing the enormously tacky (and tackily enormous) onyx ring that has been all we’ve seen of the bloodsucker thus far? Barnabas pours on the charm at his first appearance, presenting Elizabeth with a necklace at least three or four times as gauche as his ring (naturally the jewels Willie was so hot and bothered about), and doing his best to seduce both Maggie and Cousin Carolyn (Nancy Barrett, who would turn up a year later in Night of Dark Shadows playing a different character) without really seeming to. As you might expect, the vampire’s charisma is rather less effective on the two young ladies’ fiances, Jeff Clark (Roger Davis, from Ruby and Conquest of Earth) and Todd Blake (Don Briscoe, who seems not to be playing any of the several characters he portrayed on TV). And as you might also expect, Barnabas announces that he plans to move into “the Old House” (you can positively hear those capital letters), that semi-ruined mansion next door.
The plot is conventional enough for the next hour or so. Willie, who has been fired by Roger, soon turns up at the Old House, playing Renfield to Barnabas’s Count Dracula. Carolyn, meanwhile, gets the Lucy Westenra role, as the first of the vampire’s victims to die from his attentions; hell, she even mimics Lucy’s pedophiliac tendencies, in that the first person she goes after upon rising from the dead is young David. And, of course, we have an ersatz Van Helsing in the person of Professor Eliot Stokes (Thayer David, from Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Werewolf of Washington), a character whose connection to the Collins-Stoddard family never does get explained. The difference here is that our Lucy lasts long enough as a vampire to grow jealous of our Mina— Maggie Evans, who (oh, shit…) looks exactly like the French noblewoman Barnabas loved as a mortal.
But then, right about the time that Professor Stokes convinces Sheriff George Patterson (Dennis Patrick, from The Time Travelers and Dear Dead Delilah, who is also appearing here in a different role from what he played on TV) that there are vampires afoot, House of Dark Shadows suddenly acquires a personality of its own. While Stokes, Patterson, and a squad of cross-wielding policemen run Carolyn to ground and stake her (I can’t begin to convey the true absurdity of this scene), another science-type with a poorly explained tie to the Collins-Stoddard family is hard at work on a vampire-related project of her own. When Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall, of Gargoyles and Satan in High Heels) began looking at blood samples from the various vampire victims, she discovered that they were all tainted with an odd sort of predatory cell of no known type. Hoffman, after hearing that Stokes blamed a vampire for the recent attacks, got it into her head that the strange cells might be the mechanism whereby vampirism is transmitted. And if that’s so, then Hoffman might also have it in her power to cure a vampire of his or her condition. It doesn’t take the doctor long to sniff out Barnabas Collins as the top vampire in town, and she comes to him offering to restore his humanity. Barnabas jumps at the idea, and Hoffman soon has him able to go outdoors during daylight and lasting weeks at a time without drinking the blood of the living. Unfortunately, she also falls in love with him, while he still has eyes for Maggie alone, and things turn seriously ugly when Hoffman finally gets hit with the clue club. She attempts to poison Barnabas with an overdose of her anti-vampirism drug, but succeeds only in aging him to approximately the degree that a mortal would exhibit if he had somehow managed to live to be almost 250 years old. Frantic to regain his relative youth, the vampire goes on a veritable blood-drinking binge, and we slip back into something like the standard vampire movie plot structure.
The trouble with movies based on TV shows is that their creators generally make the reasonable assumption that most of their audience is already familiar with both the characters and the basic story from what they’ve seen on television. That’s all well and good as long as the show is still on the air, or if the filmmakers have no real interest in attracting any audience broader than the original television fan base, but it raises all sorts of hurdles for the uninitiated. And when the TV series, like “Dark Shadows,” is 30 years and more in its grave, the ranks of the uninitiated swell to include about three fifths of practically everybody. House of Dark Shadows has a particularly severe case of Presumed Familiarity Syndrome— from what I’ve seen, only Transformers: The Movie is more blatant in its disregard for those who might come to it unfamiliar with the televised back-story. This is all the more puzzling because House of Dark Shadows— in contrast to Transformers: The Movie— does not appear to fit into the TV continuity at any specified point, but seems rather to stand as a sort of edited highlights reel for the first five years of the series. Or at any rate, I find it difficult to imagine such a disjointed, rambling story as this one taking shape any other way. The cast is far too large for the story being told, and several of the characters have practically nothing to do. And of course, not a one of them (with the curious, solitary exception of Willie Loomis) is developed beyond what you could encapsulate in a five- or six-word gloss. It seems to me that such compression of character makes House of Dark Shadows something close to completely pointless. “Dark Shadows,” after all, was a soap opera, and soap operas by their very nature are character-driven above all else— often to the near-total exclusion of conventional plot or narrative. Without the sort of baroque tangle of character interaction that serves as the soul of any soap, House of Dark Shadows turns the setup from its TV model into just another pedestrian Dracula rip-off, enlivened solely by the odd digression concerning Dr. Hoffman’s efforts to cure Barnabas of his vampirism.