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