Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Come see how the vampires do it ...

A look back at the crazy marketing


As strange as it seems, there was a time when Hollywood considered a feature like HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS a gamble. These days, studios are hesitant to touch anything that doesn't already have a history of success attached to it. And by "success," I mean "brand recognition." If it's not based on a book, comic, play, television series or game, 21st century producers see it as a risky investment.

This has everything to do with marketing, and nothing to do with film making. Show business is more business than show, and if the public is already familiar with a movie's concept, the less work they have to do to sell you on it. That's how projects like the MONOPOLY movie get greenlit.

Which is why its weird to think that HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS — based on arguably the biggest television show in the United States during the late 1960s — could ever be viewed as a risk. This is a brand that had a rabid, built-in audience, but was probably viewed by Hollywood as somehow illegitimate because of its television roots.

You can practically smell the flop sweat coming out of MGM's marketing department in the promotional media created for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. But from that fear came something special. While it can reasonably be argued that film's marketing was often inappropriate, it remains one of the richest veins of taglines and poster art created for any feature film. Here's a sample of some of the ad copy generated for it:

Barnabas Collins, vampire, takes a bride in a bizarre act of ultimate lust.

Come see how the vampires do it.

A story of blood relations.

Carolyn didn't believe in vampires, either.

A couple like any other couple,
only one of them is a vampire.

Do you know where your children are tonight?

Now there's a vampire film for the two of you.

You'll note there's no reference in the marketing for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS to the television series. I imagine there was some concern about creating confusion between the film and the TV series, which is probably why MGM tacked on the "HOUSE OF ..." to the title. With DARK SHADOWS still airing daily, the studio might even have worried their target audience would be hesitant to pay for something they were already getting for free ... which makes the salacious marketing for the film seem somehow more reasonable. MGM was promising you the kind of thrills you couldn't get at home.

So, without relying on the popularity of the television series (which was not an MGM product, by the way) to promote HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, the studio decided to graft its campaign to a readily available model: Hammer Film Productions.

Hammer had been churning out inexpensive horror films since 1955 and knew how to reach a broad spectrum of filmgoers. As competition grew more fierce in theaters (Hammer saw HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS as nothing less than an American studio poaching on their hunting grounds) their marketing formula became more lurid. As is always the case with exploitation films, Hammer's marketing promised much, much more than they could deliver, and these promises grew increasingly insane at the start of the 1970s. When HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was released near the end of 1970, it was competing with Hammer's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, a film with the tagline "A whisper of warm desire becomes a shriek of chilling terror in the embrace of ... THE BLOOD NYMPHS."

In the United Kingdom, MGM's appropriation of Hammer's marketing model was even more aggressive. Hammer made it a habit of releasing their movies in two-film packages, so MGM did the same, releasing HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS as a double bill with THE TRAVELLING EXECUTIONER. Hammer was no longer the only game in town when it came to vampire movies (AIP also released COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE in 1970) and the "American Invasion" contributed to the hobbling of the U.K. studio. THE VAMPIRE LOVERS would be the last film produced by Hammer by American investors.

The Hammer marketing model was probably the reason why Nancy Barrett was used so prominently in the advertising for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. Much like Janet Leigh in PSYCHO, Barrett's role is small but significant. She's got the biggest, loudest scenes in the movie, and her willingness to run around naked (save for a thin burial gown) was probably seen as a saving grace by the MGM marketing team. Kathryn Leigh Scott's character was made of sugar, spice and everything nice (which is what you want in a "final girl"), but that doesn't provide you with the kind of visual excess needed to lure teenage boys into the theaters.

And where is Jonathan Frid in all of this? Who the hell knows? I like to believe MGM recognized the actor's inherent popularity and felt no need to push his presence in the film, but that doesn't seem to be what happened. Barrett took center stage in almost all of the marketing, both domestic and international, with Frid playing a supporting role in the promotional art ... when he was featured at all. This was an actor who appeared on more magazine covers than the sitting U.S. presidents during the run of DARK SHADOWS, but he seems curiously absent from HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS advertising.

For most countries, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was their introduction to Barnabas Collins. Even Frid's native Canada wouldn't get the series until many years after its cancellation. This meant the DARK SHADOWS brand was virtually worthless in overseas territories, leading to multiple name changes for the film. In Germany, it was called DAS SCHLOSS DER VAMPIRE ("The Mansion of the Vampire"), LA CASA DEI VAMPIRI in Italy, and LA FIANC√ČE DU VAMPIRE in France.

And then there's Japan ...

Never change, Japan.

Cultural differences aside, I have no idea what's going on in this poster. Once again, there's Nancy Barrett in full Hammer drag, but this time Barnabas Collins dominates the design. Technically, anyway. What you see here is actually Jonathan Frid buried beneath the work of the late make-up artist Dick Smith. All that remains of the actor are the whites of his eyes.

MGM and AIP weren't the only studios putting the screws to Hammer. Toho was releasing its own series of vampire films in Japan, with the second in a trilogy, THE VAMPIRE DOLL, released in 1970. The following year Toho would release LAKE OF DRACULA, a film that owes no small debt to HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. In fact, the poster art for LAKE OF DRACULA (see right) looks more like HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS than the poster actually created for that film in Japan.

Film marketing has always been a Dionysian art. By design, it's supposed to live fast, die young a leave a good looking corpse. Once HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS vacated theaters on its initial run, much of the concepts used to sell the film disappeared from the landscape. You might see it attached to local programming guides during television broadcasts, but MGM eventually opted for less sensational artwork during its life on TV and home video. The artwork for the recent DVD release has been stripped of its original lurid taglines and imagery, replaced with a painfully conservative Photoshop creation.

I might have to remedy that problem in the near future ...


Unknown said...

The voiceover on the commercial said, "Barnabas Collins, Vampire, takes a bride in a bizarre act of unnatural love! Come...and see how the vampires...DO IT!"
The writing on the movie poster says "in a bizarre act of unnatural lust!" not "ultimate" lust.

Unknown said...

There were different versions of that tagline. If you look at the newspaper ad in the post above, you'll see it reads "unnatural LOVE."

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