Beyond Daytime TV
“The Madonnas rest high above. The lion’s head watches the dove. And in the tomb beneath the hill, the secret flame blows bright and still.” Clues to the secret room of the Collins mausoleum at Eagle’s Hill cemetery, House of Dark Shadows (1970).
In our last episode, the cult status of Dark Shadows was briefly mentioned. When reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced in April of 1967, the daytime drama’s ratings soared. During its run, fans eagerly awaited the stars to exit the New York studio where Dark Shadows was filmed and greeted them in throngs when they made personal appearances across the country. It was not unusual to find pin-ups of Jonathan Frid and David Selby alongside Davy Jones and Bobby Sherman in 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat.
Lest you think studio marketing is a product of the last decade or two, as early as 1966, ABC took advantage of Dark Shadows’ appeal to housewives by licensing a series of Gothic romance novels and to kids by licensing board games, trading cards, comic books and more. Some merchandising continued long after the TV show actually ended, indicating the endearing quality of its characters and stories.
Of course, I have a memory of this aspect of Dark Shadows, too. There was one year in my life when I snuck downstairs early to see what Santa left under the Christmas tree, and it was the year I asked for the Barnabas Collins board game. It contained a set of plastic vampire teeth and plastic skeleton parts that would be assembled during game play. I’d never been so happy with a gift! (I don’t know how, when or why I ever got rid of it, but earlier this year I was able to replace it with a new one for my collection.)
Some of my favorite Dark Shadows items to collect are the original trading cards released in 1968 at the height of its merchandising. The set consists of 66 different black-and-white publicity stills from the show’s storylines. A second set was released a year later as the character of Quentin Collins (and actor David Selby) rose in popularity. The two sets are often distinguished by their borders: the first set uses pink, the second set uses green.
In a similar format, Dark Shadows Giant Pin-Ups and Quentin Postcards were released. In 1993, an original set of color trading cards was issued by Imagine Inc. and in 2001, a retro-looking set by Celebrity Inc. However, none are as interesting to me, or as hard to get, as the original pink-border set issued by Philadelphia Gum Corp. I’ve never found a complete set to add to my collection and single cards can be quite pricey.
In 1970, a theatrical version of Dark Shadows was released in theaters and was quite profitable for MGM. It was called House of Dark Shadows and remains to this day a creepy, atmospheric and frightening movie. Directed by series creator Dan Curtis, it combines the story of the introduction of Barnabas Collins with the story of his obsession over long-lost love, Josette DuPres.
In order to successfully consolidate what occurred over the course of 154 TV episodes into a 97-minute movie, Curtis and screenwriters Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, also Dark Shadows veterans, had to take some liberties with the story. They did a remarkable job of honoring the original series while at the same time producing a stand-alone movie experience. In essence, they eliminated the character of Victoria Winters (actress Alexandra Moltke had left the series by then) and turned the character Maggie Evans into both the Collins family governess and the possible reincarnation of Josette DuPres.
Since the movie was filmed three years into the TV show, but was telling a story that was two years old, many current cast members got to participate as different characters. Virtually every familiar face from Dark Shadows, the series, appeared in House of Dark Shadows, the movie. And the character of Professor Elliott Stokes (whom I liken to Van Helsing from Dracula), introduced in the series long after the original Barnabas storyline, became a prominent role in the movie.
While the faces are the same, you might at times think the actors behind them are different due to the improvement in their thespian skills. They are actually acting, instead of reading (and forgetting) lines. Also, the sets are positively sturdy when compared to the series. Filmed on location in upstate New York, there’s no fear that they’re going to topple over onto the cast. And they are milked for all their Gothic worth… spider webs, fog, dust, decay and, yes, a lot of dark shadows. Finally, the brief musical cues of composer Robert Cobert, while familiar, are beefed up and extended, providing a marvelous genre soundtrack.
Even if I were not a Dark Shadows fan, I would love House of Dark Shadows! I wholeheartedly recommend it as a classic horror movie of the 70’s. It doesn’t hurt that Barnabas Collins is portrayed almost completely as sadistic and evil, with little of the romantic pining he did later in the series. He’s not really a “reluctant vampire” at all in the movie, which makes him (and it) all the more terrifying.
I’ll close by sharing my final memory (I promise) of the original Dark Shadows. When it was first released, my aunt Nancy took me to see House of Dark Shadows at the Chief Theater in Enid, Oklahoma. Going after school on a weekday, we arrived late; I realize now it was about 35 minutes into the movie. (After Carolyn’s death-by-vampire, David was playing at the deserted swimming pool on the Collins estate.) 35 minutes later, when Barnabas was transformed into an old man, I told Nancy I wanted to leave. She asked, “To the bathroom?” I replied, “No, I want to leave the movie.”
Once again, as a child, Dark Shadows had terrified me. I have no doubt it was a huge influence on my ever-growing, adult fondness for horror movies. It will always have a spot in my heart, regardless of its incarnation.
Please join me for our next episode, coming soon: “Prime Time for Dark Shadows”.