Friday, July 31, 2015

DARK SHADOWS 2012: It actually could have been worse


There's a little more subtlety on display in the shooting script for DARK SHADOWS. Which isn't saying much, considering the blunt-force trauma that was the final cut of Tim Burton's 2012 "adaption" of the ABC daytime drama. It's a film that is constantly at odds with itself, never finding time to settle on a tone, theme or even a central character. Yeah, you could reasonably argue that these problems were present in the original television series, but Burton simply failed to make turn these flaws into strengths.

Since then, the film's principles have dealt with the negative response in some ... interesting ways. Burton has shrugged off its relative failure by blaming its lack of appeal on the original television series. Johnny Depp will happily extend a middle finger to the film's haters, while the movie’s original screenwriter, John August, has politely disowned it. (Trivia: these  guys are also the world's easiest choices for FUCK/MARRY/KILL.)

August has reason to be quiet. The draft dated Nov. 20, 2010, has his name at the top of the script's cover, but it represents a massive overhaul by Seth Grahame-Smith at the request of Warner Bros. It was decided late in development that DARK SHADOWS would need to distinguish itself from the likes of TWILIGHT, TRUE BLOOD and THE VAMPIRES DIARIES by taking a comedic approach. (Note: August confirmed via Twitter last night that this draft of the script does not represent his work.)

August's original draft of DARK SHADOWS continues to elude me, but a copy of Grahame-Smith's "revision" recently landed on my desk. It's a fascinating read and represents a story that goes to some dark places that the movie otherwise avoids. But it also fails to understand its source material, a genetic flaw that continued to bloom as DARK SHADOWS went into production.

Still, this draft gets a few things right. It also gets so, so many things wrong. So let’s take a look at some of the ways this draft differs from the finished product.

"My Name is Victoria Winters"
As in the film, the script begins with a flashback to 1752. The Collins family is leaving Liverpool, fleeing an unidentified "curse." These problems follow them to the New World, taking the shape of ghosts, witches and even a werewolf ... all backed by a voice over from Victoria Winters. This narration was almost entirely re-written for the film and the dialogue given to Johnny Depp. I can only speculate as to the reasons why this change was made, but anyone who’s seen the deleted scenes included on the home video release already knows that Victoria was marginalized during the film’s editing. I don’t know if this was because of concerns over Heathcote’s performance or just an effort to push Depp further toward the front of the story.

There are a few other minor changes, but the most glaring (and interesting!) omission was the absence of Angelique from the prologue. And there's a reason for this:

Angelique has been busy
There’s a little more to the character of Angelique Bouchard in this draft of the script, and all of those differences point to a lack of understanding by Grahame-Smith of the definitions of “story,” “character” and “plot.” Angelique has always been evil, it’s revealed, and her actions have nothing to do with Barnabas Collins, rejection or anything else.

As in the final film (and the original television series), Angelique dooms Barnabas after she’s spurned, cursing him and Josette to their doom. BUT: we learn later on that Angelique has been plaguing the Collins family for many, many years. She’s even the reason that family fled England.

Why? Who the fuck knows.

Not long before Barnabas decapitates her during the script's climax (more on that later), she confesses to sleeping with Barnabas’s father, breeding the werewolf that bit Carolyn when she was an infant, casting a spell on the weather to guide the Collins family from Liverpool to the land that would become Collinsport, killing Roger's wife, killing Barnabas' parents, etc. It reads like a less-funny version of Nick Cave's "The Curse of Millhaven" and opens up trunk full of plot holes. For an almost-omnipotent being, Angelique is less a pestilence than a nuisance.

Speaking of decapitations…

The movie was intended to be Rated R. Maybe.
You’ve got a better chance of understanding the Kabbalah than you do the methods used by the MPAA to determine film ratings. A powerful enough director can essentially ram home any rating they want, while others require a measure of strategy to make sure their work reaches the widest possible audience.

There’s enough violence, profanity and nudity in this draft of DARK SHADOWS to suggest the studio was willing to accept an R rating. But there’s also an ambiguity to the script that makes me think the studio wasn’t fully sold on the idea. As I mentioned before, Angelique is decapitated in the film’s climax when Barnabas rips a silver chain from her neck. ATTACK OF THE CLONES is evidence, though, that you can decapitate half the film’s cast and still skate with a PG-13 rating.

Still, that leaves a nude scene (when Angelique flashes Barnabas in the script, there’s a lot more skin), graphic violence and a special appearance by the word “fuck.”

Politics is the new witchcraft
There’s a not-that-interesting subplot in script involving Collinsport Town Council. Unnamed and undistinguished, these roles have quite a bit of dialogue, though the script never takes the time to describe them.

During one of their many pointless confrontations, Angelique tells Barnabas that witchcraft is less useful than it once was, saying “Politics is the new witchcraft.” She tries to poison the council against the Collins family and their renewed business interests, eventually turning to magic to win their support. These characters make up the “mob” that storms Collinwood in the final act, forcing the family to pull their punches in the struggle.

The faceless nature of the council members makes me think they were meant as conveyance for cameos by cast members from the original television show.

The Cooper Woman
Believe it or not, Alice Cooper was always intended to appear in DARK SHADOWS. The film’s more elaborate set pieces are essentially blank in the script (the bizarro sex scene between Barnabas and Angelique, for example, happens between edits) but Cooper’s presence is actually woven into many of the film’s “jokes.” It’s an odd choice, given that Cooper might not have been available to participate when the film began production the following year. Had he been busy, I have a feeling we’d have had to endure jokes about Iggy Pop’s name, instead.

The script goes so far as picking out a song for the former Vincent Furnier to sing: “Under My Wheels,” from the 1971 album KILLER. Cooper would go on to perform the more appropriate “Ballad of Dwight Frye” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” in the actual movie. Curiously, the latter wouldn’t be released until 1973 … a year after the movie takes place. Shrugs.

Several of Grahame-Smith’s proposed musical cues managed to find their way into the final film, though. It’s worth mentioning that the Moody Blues’ “Knights in White Satin” (which plays over the opening credits) was intended to be “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. This is a kind of Sophie’s Choice of musical cues, in my opinion.

Here’s a list of the songs suggested for use in the screenplay:

You have to have  huge balls to think you can get away with ever using "Blue Velvet" in a movie again. And if you think jokes about "balls" are funny, then you're in luck ...

DARK SHADOWS was supposed to be a comedy
In the months leading up to the release of the film’s first trailer, Tim Burton had pretty much surrendered any pretense that he ever had control of the film. Left with nothing more than a vague (if gorgeously constructed) riff on AUSTIN POWERS, he decided, instead, to promote the movie he wanted to make. He's an example of his one-man marketing campaign:
“It’s a funny film for me, because I never considered it a comedy. I was always trying to capture the weird vibe of ’Dark Shadows,’ which is a weird thing to try to capture. It was a weird daytime soap opera.”
Here’s the thing: Barnabas Collins is pretty much a joke factory in the screenplay. He rarely speaks a word that not designed to remind the audience that he’s a clueless dimwit confounded by waffles, television, popular music and pretty much everything else he comes into contact with in 1972. It wouldn’t be so excruciating if a.) these jokes didn’t fall flat, and b.) he ever had anything else to say for himself. As a character, his goals are, shall we say, “modest.” The film pays lip service to finding a cure for his murderous disposition, but that idea goes by the wayside almost immediately. He doesn't want anything more in life than to bump uglies with Victoria, which brings me to my next point ...

Barnabas Collins was always an asshole
There’s a telling bit of dialogue during the film’s prologue, one that’s repeated (as with everything else that passes here for “theme”) constantly throughout the script. As Barnabas is giving Angelique the cold shoulder, he tells her that he believes himself to be better than her.

There are a few other glimpses of Barnabas’ bad behavior during the prologue, all of which presents him as lazy and shallow. We get an idea that he’s spent his youth nailing anything in a skirt before deciding to settle down with Josette (a relationship that lasts exactly one script page). The “I’m Better Than You” idea is bandied about quite often, almost always by Angelique, whose entire character is fully defined by the flaws of her love interest.

But none of this amounts to anything beyond the trading of a few verbal barbs. In fact, nothing happens in the script to humble Barnabas Collins, which is probably why it was so easy to "search" and "delete" these sections from the screenplay.

Speaking of getting deleted ...

RIP Victoria Winters
During the script’s climax, Barnabas races to Widows Hill in hopes of stopping Victoria (still under Angelique’s spell) from leaping to her death. Just as he arrives, she leaps … and dies.


Thinking I’d overlooked something, I read this section of the script several times before realizing that Victoria Winters does indeed die in this draft. Barnabas’ vampire curse was lifted with Angelique’s demise, leaving him human ... and powerless to change the course of events. Smash cut to the corpse of Julia Hoffman at the bottom of the ocean, her eyes opening with the promise that a sequel is in the works.

It’s a bold choice to kill off Victoria, but also an empty one. I admire the script’s willingness to juggle jokes about SCOOBY DOO with a nihilistic ’70s-style ending, but none of it adds up to anything. Grahame-Smith doesn’t know the difference between plot, character and theme, which is why these concepts are used interchangeably throughout. Having characters constantly talk about a theme is not a proper substitute for either “character” or “theme.” The same can be said for the story’s misuse of “plot” and “story,” which Grahame-Smith seems to think mean the same thing. The characters in the script just wander from scene to scene, waiting for the next set piece to happen.

While there are a few neat things about this draft of the scrip, I’d say that Burton’s dedication to style over substance was actually the movie’s only source of charm. Like Grahame-Smith, Burton is not much of a storyteller, but he has a keen eye for production design. The screenplay was DOA, but Burton still managed to produce some tasty eye candy from the project.

Which, ultimately, means that DARK SHADOWS is the same kind of plastic “Me Generation” experience that its supposed to be lampooning.

Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Monster Serial: DRACULA (1979)


I like a good horror movie. I even like them when they’re not so good, and make no mistake: John Badham’s 1979 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA is not a good movie.

Every generation gets the DRACULA it deserves, for better or worse. Created during the sexually staid Victorian era, the character is resurrected every few years to represent the sexual hangups of the day. Despite its efforts to create a realistic period piece, the 1979 movie is, in every way, a product of its time. And I don’t just mean actor Frank Langella’s disco pompadour.

Hot off the heels of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, Badham was a hot property for about 15 minutes at the end of the 1970s. Given his choice of movies, the director opted to film a contemporary revival of the “Dracula” stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The movie carried over its leading man but abandoned the Edward Gorey production design, opting for a "realistic" tone that tried to jettison anything resembling artistic commentary.

As Hermann Rorschach would have told you, it’s almost impossible to create anything without making some kind of statement, intentional or otherwise. Langella’s Dracula represents the sexual hangover that was beginning to seep into America’s consciousness at the start of the 1980s. While Bela Lugosi’s Dracula symbolized the threat of the foreign mystique (and whatever unspeakable diseases “they” might carry) there’s no effort to make Langella seem anything more than American. He adopts no accent, speaks Romanian in one scene for no other reason than to impress a lady, and generally dresses like he’s on the way to Studio 54. Langella’s character just wants to get laid, regardless of the consequences.

Pitted against Dracula’s raw sexuality are a collection of father figures, as well as Jonathan Harker, who is as impotent a figure here as in the novel. The characters and their relationships are shuffled around in this movie to stress this battle of generational ideals. Here, Van Helsing is Mina’s father, with Mina being the first of Dracula’s victims. Lucy is the daughter of Dr. Seward and the MacGuffin that drives the rest of the film, with Harker cast as cuckold.

As characters, the women of this movie are almost beside the point. They’re something to be fought over and are never to be trusted. The film seems oblivious to this attitude, and even ends on a shockingly bleak, stupid and misogynistic moment where we’re supposed to believe Dracula has survived based on nothing more than a wry smile from Lucy.

There’s really no reason to get into much detail about the story because it doesn’t venture far from the beaten path in regard to the novel's major plot points. It makes does make a few interesting changes, though, and these changes ultimately subvert Stoker's original subtext. In the novel, Van Helsing leads Lucy’s suitors to destroy her, with her fiancee driving the stake through her heart on their wedding night. It’s pretty clear what the scene in the novel is about, but changing these characters from potential lovers to parents creates a much different effect. Rather than a perverse mockery of a wedding, we get a scene symbolic of parents trying to save a child from a dangerous lifestyle. Sure, the scene ends with the parents killing her, but at least she’s not acting like a slut anymore. Or something.

Men rarely fall under Dracula’s sway, and it’s telling that most of the movie’s action involves saving women from their own decisions. I hope you weren’t too attached to those feminist values because the dawn of the 1980s are breathing down your neck in this film. And it’s breath is kinda stank.

As for the actual production, it’s rather staid. If Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA (1992) went over the top, the 1979 film is cinematic somnambulism. For the DVD, Badham sapped much of the color from the original film to create a print that’s almost black and white. While it makes the movie look a little more timeless, there’s no way to color correct your way around the hairstyles and other vestiges of 1970s fashion on display. Retrofitting your movie to hide its age is about as effective as wearing a toupee to your class reunion: it just looks silly and doesn’t fool anybody.

DRACULA is a hodgepodge of great and terrible moments. Langella is terrific as Dracula, playing him as a sexual predator who knowingly uses his charm to get over on the world. It’s pretty funny that he never tries to hide its rampant douchebaggery from the men in the movie, even taunting them occasionally. Laurence Olivier, who had taken to making a lot of bullshit later in his career (THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE JAZZ SINGER) brings a lot of genuine emotion to the role and doesn’t phone it in. Even though Badham was committed to making “entertainment” (i.e. “junk food”) Olivier took his job seriously. The scene where he’s forced to kill his own daughter is heartbreaking, but it’s a shame the character’s sadness is mostly forgotten by the time the next scene rolls around.

The special effects run the gamut, with the smaller camera tricks being the most effective. Dracula escapes his captors in one scene by leaping through a window, emerging on the other side as a wolf. This is accomplished through careful editing, works like gangbusters and will make you hate CGI werewolves even more than you already do. The makeup effects are subtle and work more often than not, but also point to the movie’s habit of failing to clear the really tall hurdles. The makeup for Dracula’s death in the movie’s climax is awful and looks as though someone plastered Langella’s face with Elmer’s Glue and let it dry. His entire death is ridiculously contrived, with a dying Van Helsing impaling Dracula on a cargo hook and hanging him out to dry in the sunlight. It’s the worst vampire death scene until DRACULA 2000 came along.

And then there’s that sex scene. If you’ve never seen this movie, chances are you’ve still heard about the ridiculous sex scene between Langella and Kate Nelligan, which looks like a deleted scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. If a Blue Oyster Cult laser light show wasn’t enough, Badham sprinkles in a few bats during the snogging to remind us we’re watching a vampire movie. It’s a show stopper in the worst possible way. Badham should be grateful to Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS, thanks to its bar-lowering terrible sex scene.

Speaking of Nelligan, I quite liked her in the otherwise thankless role of Lucy. She’s a lot scarier than Dracula and essentially plays two different characters. It’s a credit to her that you can easily tell these two personalities apart, and she should have been given a lot more to do if the film wasn’t intent on painting women as backstabbing whores.

The makers of this film seemed especially proud of their work, even though they were mostly just making a Hammer film with a lot less cleavage. They also seemed to think their interpretation of Dracula as a character was unique.

“I don’t play him as a hair-raising ghoul. He is a nobleman, an elegant man with a very difficult problem... a man with a unique and distinctive social problem: he has to have blood to live and he is immortal.” 

This essay is one of dozens featured in our new
book, "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial."
That’s a quote from Frank Langella, but it was the kind of sentiment that Jonathan Frid grew tired of explaining long before the 1960s came to an end. Langella’s version of Dracula is much closer in conception to guys like Ted Bundy, in that he’s acutely aware that he’s using his charm to get over on people. Barnabas Collins was a fractured, delusional man, which made him a lot easier to relate to. Langella is the high school quarterback who always gets the girl, so those of us who lack that kind of charisma will instinctively hate the guy. About the only character in the movie that will be relatable to younger audience members will be Jonathan Harker, who’s very function is to be useless.

I’ve seen this movie a few times over the years. As a child, it was marketed pretty heavily, with that image of Langella leering over a woman’s throat plastered all over every bookstore, theater and bus terminal on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a dud, though, taking in about $20 million (about 1/4 of ALIEN’s box office take that same year.) DRACULA found a second life on video, mostly because it was released on VHS/Betamax about the same time the format gained a toehold on the market. Until BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA more than a decade later, it was the only big budget Dracula

adaptation to be released by Hollywood during this era. It’s about time for the novel to be revisited, and I’m curious to see what kind of social problem the character will come to represent as he is resurrected in his third century of existence. My prediction: porn addiction.

Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The incredible DARK SHADOWS art of George Wilson

Gold Key was a comicbook publisher that never made much sense to me as a child. Even as a child it was obvious to me that the company was letting its licensed properties do all the heavy lifting. The publisher seemed to believe kids would buy anything as long as it had their favorite characters on the cover and, looking back at how long they made this business strategy work, they might not have been wrong. They managed to keep a STAR TREK comic in print for almost a decade, a feat that even Marvel and DC haven't been able to pull off.

In a sense, Gold Key was simply a company ahead of its time. By the 1990s, the major comics publishers had adopted a similar business model when they began to put a disproportionate amount of labor into the covers of their books, consequently neglecting the stories and art inside. Today, most independent comics publishers operate very much like Gold Key did in its prime, by staking a claim to any licensed property it can (whether it's VOLTRON, GHOSTBUSTERS or even DARK SHADOWS) to help support their original properties.

But damn, there's no denying that Gold Key knew how to package a book. While modern comics publishers sometimes fall back on die-cut covers, glow-in-the-dark ink and other gimmicks, Gold Key regularly smoked their competition with nothing more than a little watercolor and acrylic paint. Their books might have sucked, but they created some of the best (if under-appreciated) comics covers ever produced by the medium.

GEORGE WILSON was the artist who created most of the painted covers for Gold Key's DARK SHADOWS series, as well as for the company's FLASH GORDON, THE PHANTOM and TARZAN books. Not much is known about the guy, though. The EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS site has this to say about the guy:
George Wilson
"I found only fragmented information on this artist who painted Gold Key’s covers. I have no birth date or place. He was in Normandy in the European theater in WWII. This suggests that he was born in the 1920s. He passed away on December 7, 1999. He was a prolific artist who did painted acrylic covers for paperback companies like Harlequin and Avon. His painted comic cover work was done for Classic Illustrated, Dell and then Gold Key. He did the covers for Turok, The Twilight Zone, The Phantom, Boris Karloff, The Outer Limits, The Jungle Twins, Brothers of the Spear, Star Trek, etc. His work on the 15 Avon Phantom paperbacks is a favorite series in my collection."
Part of Wilson's low profile comes from working for Gold Key, which relied almost heavily on licensed properties. He was also part of a generation of comic creators who saw their profession as a job, and rarely gave much thought to the dubious celebrity it brought with it. While the relative merits of Gold Key's books are debatable, it's hard to dispute that Wilson was an incredible talent whose work improved whatever book that accompanied it.

At the top of the page is Wilson's original comic art for issue #30 DARK SHADOWS, which was recently used as the cover for Vol. 5 of the Hermes Press reprints of this series. The next two images show the cover with the "paste up" lettering, and the final cover as it appeared in print.

If you want to see more of Wilson's work, check out this terrific gallery of his comic art.

Friday, July 17, 2015

MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE coming to Blu-ray in October

MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE is coming to Blu-ray later this year, further proof that God is real (and that he really, really hates us).

Synapse Films shared the the cover art on Facebook yesterday for the upcoming restoration of the 1966 camp favorite. Targeted for an October release, the HD edition features cover art by Joel Robinson. The disc's extras are expected to be announced sometime next week. UPDATE: Here are dic's specs:

• New 2K restoration
• Audio commentary featuring Tom “The Master” Neyman and Jackey Raye “Debbie” Neyman-Jones
• HANDS: THE FATE OF “MANOS” featurette
• MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE: “Grindhouse Unrestored Version” (BLU-RAY ONLY BONUS)

Release date: Oct. 13, 2015

MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE entered the public consciousness thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, which skewered the previously forgotten film back in 1993. It was the worst kind of revelation, a movie so grotesquely incompetent that it almost defies description. It's also one of the most beloved episodes of MST3K ever, and some of that television show's cult status gradually rubbed off on MANOS.

The production of the film is probably more interesting than its actual plot. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE is the work of quadruple threat Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film. To give you an idea of how incompetent this movie is, Warren shot is using a 16 mm Bell & Howell camera capable of capturing only 32 seconds of film at the time. It's a lurching, unwatchable mess that's also irresistible to fans of "disasterpiece cinema." I happen to be one of those people and look forward to seeing what Synapse delivers.

In 2011, an original 16 mm workprint of the film was discovered by Ben Solovey, a Florida State film school grad, who quickly launched a Kickstarter campaign to restore the film in HD. He managed to raise $48,000 for the project ... almost five times the amount of the campaign's goal.

According to the distributor's Facebook page, Synapse is "fast-tracking" MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE for an October release, and promises that crowdfunding backers will receive copies sometime ahead of the street date.

Over at Solovey's official MANOS IN HD website, though, the tone is a little less uncertain about that release date. While it's mentioned that the disc will include audio commentary and a pair of documentaries, there's also a reminder that the production process for this kind of project is more involved that it might appear. "The retail release of the disc is determined not only by the length of this quality control process, but by when the company’s resources will best support the mass duplication and distribution of the final product," someone (presumably Solovey) explains at MANOS IN HD.

At the moment, the most fun (and painless) way to watch MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE is the "live" Rifftrax version from 2013. Not coincidentally, the Rifftrax crew is made up of actors and writers from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, who are still atoning for the sin of releasing this movie back into the wild.

It's currently streaming on Hulu and you can watch it below. If this is your first time with MANOS, you can thank me for the introduction in the comments section.



Believe it or not, Lara Parker knows she’s not in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS.

In early 2014, I hosted a screening of the film at ConCarolinas, an annual convention in Charlotte, N.C. ConCarolinas is one of those hybrid events still in search of an identity. The guest of honor was George RR Martin, best known as the author of the novels that inspired HBO’s GAME OF THRONES series. Also present were Anthony Montgomery of STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, comic book artist Tommy Lee Edwards, and Lara Parker and Kathryn Leigh Scott of DARK SHADOWS. Generally speaking, the fans of these properties have little to say to each other.

I was hosting a screening of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, as well as a Q&A with Scott and Parker afterward. Scott appears in the film; Parker in the sequel, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. It’s not every day that either actress is in North Carolina. I assumed people would have questions for both actresses. So, they were both invited to attend the screening. That didn’t stop some knuckleheads online from snarkily pointing out that Parker does not, in fact, appear in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS.

No fucking shit, Sherlock.

Both actresses have seen the film as much as they have cared to since its release in 1970, so the plan was to fetch them for the Q&A when the end credits for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS began to roll. I started the film and took a seat near the back of the room, and watched the movie for the first time with an audience.

There’s something to be said for the shared experience of drama. Without sounding too pretentious, there’s an energy from watching a film with others that you don’t get alone. In 1994, I attended a midnight screening of BATMAN FOREVER. It’s a film I have no particular fondness for, but that early screening was a blast. There was an electricity in the air as the film started, and it was several years before I learned the reason why: The annual HeroesCon was taking place in Charlotte that night and the audience was filled with comic book professionals.

Seeing HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS with an audience ratcheted up my response to the film’s biggest scenes. Everything felt more severe, from the intentionally shrill editing to the outrageous violence. It just felt like … more.

I’ve have both loved and hated HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS since I first caught it on television back in the early 1980s. Until the Sci-Fi Channel began airing the television show in the 1990s, the 1970 feature film was the most accessible path to DARK SHADOWS. It’s difficult to make a commitment to a 1,225-episode serial scattered over hundreds of video cassettes, but a two-hour film is easily digestible.

And there’s a lot to like about HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. It merges realism with the atmosphere of a Universal monster movie. It has a funky grindhouse vibe but doesn’t feel especially sleazy, despite its lurid advertising campaign that urged audiences to “Come see how the vampires do it.” HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS also features some of the most violent vampire attacks ever put on film, swapping the usually neat wounds for something that looks like the work of an animal. It might even be one of the first films to treat vampirism as a disease, and turns into a gothic “plague movie” during its nihilistic final reel.

But the movie also has a handful of problems. Part of this is the baggage fans of the series brought with them to the film. Introduced as a villain in 1967, Barnabas Collins eventually sought redemption and became the show’s anti-heroic lead, frequently tripping through time to protect his troubled family. DARK SHADOWS was still on the air when HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS began filming, so the driving need was to create a product that that didn’t impair the show’s daily grind. The actors appearing in the film were temporarily dispatched on the show in order to free up time in their schedules for a film shoot in Tarrytown, N.Y. But, that left the question of how the film’s story connected with the series’ on-going narrative.

Director Dan Curtis rightfully decided to make a movie that stood on its own, and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is so fanatically dedicated to the concept of winning new viewers that it’s willing to bump off characters that were still active on the television show. I think that’s actually pretty cool and makes for the kind of spontaneous viewing experience you don’t get in movies very often.

But, if you’re unfamiliar with the television show, you might find yourself asking “Who the hell are these people?” The Collins family is introduced using a kind of shorthand that will baffle casual viewers, and some of the supporting cast (such as Dr. Hoffman and Prof. Stokes) are just hanging around Collinwood for no real reason. Impairing the narrative from the start is the decision to delete a sequence in which a child pretends to hang himself in a closet to frighten his governess. (Read more about that scene HERE.) Curtis decided to leave the scene on the cutting room floor for fear of inspiring children to fatal misadventure (something that hadn’t occurred to him in the television show, which featured no fewer than two subplots involving patricide). Once the scene was lost, it created an unintentional void: In addition to the suicide prank, the scene also established the relationship of many of the film’s adult characters. In the final cut, they just kind of appear and random in the first act with no real explanation of who they are.

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I don’t need a horror film to have fully realized characters. ALIEN, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and even THE EXORCIST make do with minimalist players, but HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS makes one mistake that I can’t completely forgive: it paves over all the small details that made Barnabas Collins interesting.

Jonathan Frid helped create something very special on DARK SHADOWS when the idea of a “sympathetic vampire” was introduced. While he was a one-dimensional badguy during the show’s first arc, the writers were forced to find some kind of depth and resonance to the character when it was decided to make him a permanent resident of Collinwood. Prior to DARK SHADOWS, vampires were purely predatory, but Barnabas Collins was as much a victim as villain. He’s the grandfather of characters like Lestat, Angel, Blade and … ugh … Edward Cullen.

All of this nuance was tossed out for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, which eventually reduces Barnabas Collins to a movie monster. When he made the jump to the big screen the writers forgot his tragic qualities, which is why a lot of critics have to come to think of the movie as a fairly routine “hearse opera.” I don’t think this analysis is entirely fair, but it might not be possible to evaluate the movie without considering its (often superior) source material.

If you’re confused by the above sentiments, let me summarize: I love HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, except when I hate it, and even then I don’t really hate it. I take no responsibility for any tumors that might result from trying to make sense of this essay.

Wallace McBride is the editor of THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dan Curtis' BURNT OFFERINGS coming to Blu-ray on Oct. 6

Dan Curtis' 1976 haunted house thriller BURNT OFFERINGS is getting a Blu-ray release from our friends at Kino Lorber on Oct. 6. The film features a new HD master and includes the following special features:
  • New interview with screenwriter William F. Nolan
  • New interview with actor Lee Montgomery
  • New audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith 
  • Audio commentary with director/co-writer/producer Dan Curtis, actress Karen Black, and co-screenwriter William F. Nolan
  • "Trailers From Hell" with Steve Senski
  • Animated Montage of Stills
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

BURNT OFFERINGS was the last of Curtis' theatrical efforts as a director, following 1970's HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and the following year's NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS. The film sports an amazing cast that includes Bette Davis, Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Burgess Meredith. It's an odd little film based on a Robert Marasco novel that Stephen King called "Brilliant."

King also included the film on a list of the best horror films ever made in his book "Danse Macabre."

FYI: BURNT OFFERINGS is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies at 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 2, a few days before its Blu-ray release. It will be followed by HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS at 3:30 a.m.

In perpetual defense of H.P. Lovecraft

It's once again time to defend H.P. Lovecraft's literary significance.

This discussion has a way of feeling relevant no matter how many times it's taken place, which is a lot more often than you might think. Lovecraft's legacy has been one of perpetual ebb and flow, with each generation embracing and rejecting his work at an almost industrial rhythm. Our cultural relationship with Lovecraft is like that of a child to a parent: we adore him in our youth, reject him during the painful onset of "maturity," and return to him in later years with a measured sense of respect.

Writer Alan Moore appears to have reached the twilight phase of his relationship with Lovecraft. His new comic series PROVIDENCE functions as a treatise on Lovecraft's strengths. It's a follow-up to his controversial NECRONOMICON, which insisted on discussion of the bigotry, misanthropy and sexual undertones of Lovecraft's golden age stories. Both series are meta-pastiches that involve variations of his characters and situations, though PROVIDENCE (so far) has been a lot more restrained than its predecessor.

In the video above, Moore speaks briefly about our newfound "cuddly" relationship with the elder gods, one that has transformed Cthulhu into a kind of "Mickey Mouse" mascot of horror. Cthulhu was a concept that once invoked fear in readers. Today, he's fodder for stuffed animals, action figures and sardonic bumper stickers.

The reevaluation of Lovecraft's work is a popular meme, one that began almost immediately after his death in 1937. Below is a review of "The Outsider and Others," the first collection of Lovecraft's stories from Arkham House. Even though Lovecraft had been dead for just three years when this piece was published, the review has that faintly apologetic air seen so often today in discussions about the author.

By H. P. Lovecraft.
Arkham House, Sauk City. Wis. 

The late H. P. Lovecraft occupies a peculiar position in American letters.  It seems safe to wager that, in the minds of more than a few critics, he occupies almost no position in the American literary hierarchy. This is not because Lovecraft was not a good writer. On the contrary, he could write plain and fancy rings around all but a handful of his contemporaries. In his chosen field he had no equal.

Lovecraft's undoubted abilities have remained more or less hidden for two reasons. The first is that his field is the supernatural and the weird, traditionally a limited one. The second reason, closely aligned with the first, is that almost all of Lovecraft's writing has appeared in a comparatively obscure publication, Weird Tales. This magazine, besides being one of the abhorred "pulps" has a highly specialized circulation and is rarely to be found in the ivory towers of widely known critics.

Lovecraft died in 1937. “The Outsider and Others" is a posthumous collection of his stories, edited by Donald Wandrei and August Derleth, themselves writers as well as fanciers of weird stories. Not all the stories included are truly weird, but all have an element of strangeness, an element which in some cages is utilized to attain a pitch of horror not far short of Poe's level.

Lovecraft possessed a freshness of imagination and a prolificity of invention scarcely surpassed by any other writer of the weird. In the course of his career he developed at least the outer symbols of a peculiarly horrible mythology,  from which other writers have since borrowed. More than one of his stories approaches close to the borders of madness: It would be difficult, reading them, to believe that Lovecraft was quite sane, just as some of Poe's conceptions make one doubt his entire sanity.

A flowing, 18th century style contributes markedly to the effect of Lovecraft's tales. At times, this style burgeons a bit too consciously, and reading several stories at one sitting is likely to surfeit the reader’s appetite: but on the whole the writing holes up remarkable well.

Not the least interesting thing in this volume is Lovecraft's essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature," a capable and scholarly piece which deals with the origin of the weird tradition in literature and its various ramifications to the present day. It fittingly rounds out one of the most significant books of the weird to appear in many years.

(Originally published in the March 24, 1940, edition of the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star.)

Monday, July 13, 2015

ON A COUNTRY ROAD now available online

ON A COUNTRY ROAD, a short thriller featuring one of the original cast members of DARK SHADOWS, is now available for rent and purchase online.

The movie premiered at last year's Damnationland film festival, an annual showcase of Maine-made short horror films. Since then, I've been waiting patiently for my chance to see the 17 minute feature, which stars Kip Weeks (from 2008's THE STRANGERS) and Sharon Smyth Lentz ("Sarah Collins" on the original DARK SHADOWS television series.)

"We wrote the part specifically for (Sharon) and it's a big role, as well," director Barry Dodd told the Collinsport Historial Society in 2014. "This is not a cameo, she's a major character in this piece. I'll do my best to make DARK SHADOWS fans proud!"

ON A COUNTRY ROAD is available for rent and purchase as a DRM-free video from VHX at 720p and 1080p. You can watch a preview of the film below. Get it HERE.

The film is an adaption of an episode of the SUSPENSE radio show, first broadcast Nov. 16, 1950. and starred Cary Grant, Cathy Lewis, and Jeannette Nolan.

The Collinsport Historical Society is brewing some additional content related to ON A COUNTRY ROAD, so stay tuned!

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