By SARAH GIAVEDONI AND JIM MACKENZIE
What’s the best way to locate a 45-year-old cult film? We thought HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS might be a rare movie to find, but we had no idea it was going to catapult us back to the technologies of Hair Metal and Reaganomics.
We called both of the local movie rental places in our little town and asked for HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. The first rental store had recently sold every Dark Shadows item off its shelves. We received a more promising response from the second store, but the girl on the line said, “Yes, we have it . . . but it’s on VHS.”
“VHS?” Jimmy said. “Like, with a VCR?” He looked at Sarah. “Do we have a VCR?”
Sarah was just as taken aback by the question. A tape? Those things from the 1980s we had to rewind before returning or face a meager fine? “Well, yeah. I think it still works,” she said.
The first thing about HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS that leaps at you is the spectrum of vibrant hues of the Technicolor rainbow. Well, the images were as colorful as they could be on an old VHS tape. However, we thoroughly prefer this brand in old-fashioned black and white, which still feels like the best color scheme for the subject matter.
The plot starts right up from the first line. So quickly, we had to check if the last viewer was kind and rewound the tape. Young David is “missing” and must be located right away. The Collinses own an offensively large mansion, located in the middle of gothic Collinsport. David could be anywhere: the old swimming pool, the guest house, out rotting in the forest surrounding the estate. It really makes the tiny living lifestyle seem attractive. How much home can one family need?
The immediate plot was in direct opposition to the length of the opening credits though, which slowly took their time appearing through the movie’s initial scenes. Seriously, how many people worked on this film? While Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) madly searches the estate for David, recently-laid-off handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) solves a poem that leads to a hidden Collins crypt. He awakens the 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. But it all works out for Willie. He suddenly ends up in the employ of the mysterious night-dweller, the Renfield to Barnabas’s patriarchal vampire.
A portrait of Barnabas from hundreds of years ago hangs in the Collins house. The family thinks it’s uncanny how much Barnabas looks like his own antiquated portrait, so Barnabas says he is a long lost relative ... from England. This seems to both assuage the family’s curiosity and firmly establish the level of their gullibility.
All the while, people continue getting bitten on the neck at a rapid clip. Curious. The sheriff even remarks the enigmatic bites appear to be caused by a human.
“That’s no human bite,” comes the reply.
The plot thickens.
Once Barnabas’s false lineage is established, he begins romancing the ladies, several of whom may or may not be his direct descendants. We found this forward attitude very striking. Because Frid appears to be a man in his late 50s chasing ladies half his age. But, this movie was made in the swinging early 1970s, and these gals don’t seem to mind. Watching this movie as a stand-alone vehicle without knowledge of the soap opera, it doesn’t take any bother to establish which characters are family, which are friends, which are dating, and who are just busy-bodied villagers that can’t find their way home.
What is important to note is that Barnabas has gone blood-boiling mad for the young governess, Maggie, who’s the spitting image of his first love, Josette. It’s no matter that Maggie already has a boyfriend, Jeff. But cousin Carolyn has fallen prey to the vampire’s charms. So has Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), a family friend and amateur genealogist. It’s a love rhombus that can’t last long without collapsing in catastrophe.
Dr. Julia owns a microscope. In this film, that makes her a microbiologist and an endocrinologist and a hematologist too. After seeing the bites on the neck of Barnabas’s first victim, Dr. Julia cleverly deduces that Barnabas may be a vampire. I mean, someone is biting all these people on their necks. What else could it be? And even better, after she examines the blood from the wound, Dr. Julia thinks she can cure Barnabas.
Enter that old vampire movie trope. Dr. Julia convinces Barnabas to get scientific injections to kill all his vampire gunk.
Soon, Barnabas is walking around in the sunlight very unlike a vampire, holding hands with Maggie, and seeing the world anew. After all, he has been in darkness for a few hundred years. Maggie remarks how youthful and spirited Barnabas is, despite the fact that he could clearly be her father.
Why does this movie have 27 plot lines going at the same time? Do more plots mean a better film? Sometimes a straight-forward narrative works better, but that’s up to the individual’s preference. Then, it occurred to us, this film is based on five years’ worth of soap opera episodes, and weaving multiple story arcs over and under and through each other is precisely what that medium does.
Okay. So we get that Barnabas digs Maggie. And we see the appeal to being able to get out and about during the day again. How else would vampires enjoy the wondrous pleasure that is a Bloody Mary brunch? It’s like the beverage was invented for them.
But in the long run, why would a vampire want to be mortal again? To see the daylight? We say, just buy a sunset painting and live forever instead. Was he doing it for Maggie? Why try to become mortal for a love interest when you can make her immortal and live in hypnotic bliss forever?
As monster movie devotees, we have never bought the argument that a vampire would want to cripple itself by devolving back into a mortal. In other words, we don’t see why Barnabas would give up all the awesome vampire things just to eventually get sick and die. No way. Vampires live forever. They have super strength. They control people’s mind. And they can turn themselves into bats.
What can humans do? Catch pneumonia and expire.
In this way, Barnabas acts very illogically. He chose to give up his strengths in exchange for a possible but ill-fated attempt at romance. It’s the equivalent of a human saying, “Wow, remember the time when we swung from trees and ate grubs off each other’s hairy faces? Those were the days. I’d give anything to be back there again.”
We know if we were the vampire, and Dr. Julia offered us the cure, our response would have been, “The cure to what?” right before we bit her on the neck, laughing maniacally.
From the search for young David forward, who just ends up back in his bedroom revealing his absence was just a ruse, the whole film had a decidedly “soapy” vibe to it. Family members run around, get locked in rooms, scream, and get bitten by an unknown animal (which is naive character speak for “Vampire”). Characters stand in the foreground, then look and talk about the person sitting in the slightly-out-of-focus background. This movie even pulls the old Gal-Walking-Down-A-Long-Dark-Hallway-And-A-Cat-Leaps-At-Her gag. If HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS didn’t invent all these drinking-game tropes, then they made the most of them.
To people familiar with the Dark Shadows saga, this film brings most of the beloved characters together in one self-contained, feature-length plot. To more casual observers, it may be difficult to keep track of which characters are related to whom - especially since all the young ladies seem to look alike. But if you do decide to give HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS a try, stay until the end, right after the gothic wedding complete with a crossbow. The film hits paydirt when Barnabas flutters away as a bat.
And don’t worry. We remembered to “Be Kind, Rewind.” We don’t want an additional 50 cents charge before we can rent another movie.
JIM MACKENZIE and SARAH GIAVEDONI are the creators of StuffMonstersLike.com and two self-proclaimed movie lovers and hijinks creators extraordinaire. Stuff Monsters Like (SML) is the most comprehensive, satirical anthology of stuff monsters like on the web, highlighting the various themes common in many horror flicks. The blog is also the proud sponsor of Intergalactic Hug A Monster Day and the prestigious annual Monstey Awards. When they are not writing about monsters, Jim and Sarah are devoted to watching horror films, running a completely unrelated nonprofit, and making money at their respective full-time jobs. Connect with SML on Facebook and Twitter.