Thursday, May 5, 2016

MONSTER SERIAL: Child of Dark Shadows, 1973


Was it just me, or did CBS used to show movies opposite Carson? Or maybe Letterman? That’s where I saw scads of vital films. THE OMEGA MAN (the second time). THE LAST OF SHEILA. And this. Before I had any idea what DARK SHADOWS was, CHILD OF DARK SHADOWS sounded like some kind of documentary about runaways or drug abuse or something similarly instructional, but Snyder was a rerun, and so during those lazy, insomniac-by-choice summers of my misspent middleschoolism, it was the only game on the three channels we called choice back in the wilds of the early Eighties.

When I ended up watching the show, the film was so different that it took two years and a fresh Fangoria to explain that, yes, Virginia, this was the third DARK SHADOWS film. Not that I was dissatisfied with it. Schoolgirls in panic! Haunted portraits. The I Ching. Occult heroes. It was all there. By Jove, I was a fool not to have put the pieces together myself. If anything, I kept waiting for the TV show to get like the movie. Where was Anton Castille when Collinsport needed him?

By 1973, Dan Curtis was in an odd position. The name DARK SHADOWS still had bankability, but you have to give the audience some, you know, DARK SHADOWS. If NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS taught what was left of Team Curtis anything, it was that. Unfortunately, with Jonathan Frid and David Selby gone, it was going to be an uphill battle. He was wise to very carefully sift through what was left to give the audience as much familiarity as he could. No, Julia Hoffman is dead, but there’s Joanna Hoffman. Sure. Just trade the tweed for a pantsuit. Check. Jerry Lacy as a failed televangelist Trask, desperately trying to start his own campus in Collinsport. The important question was, “Is he still an asshole? Yes? Then it’s DARK SHADOWS.”

Were Nancy Barrett and Alexandra Isles a bit, um, august to be playing high school girls? Yes, but who cares? We never see any classes other than those run by hottie hipster, Jason Kane (John Karlen), and that’s “figure modeling,” so maybe it’s a finishing school. I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters. The crucial thing is that Curtis and Hall were doing what they did best — reconfiguring other works of horror into their own narrative.

Left, the 1984 home video release by MGM. Right, the novelization by David Gerrold.

By doing this, they gave the audiences of 1973 everything they wanted then. It was almost as if DARK SHADOWS, the television version, worked from the literature of the past. Now, we have the literature of the present, and Curtis was in the thick of 1970’s neo-pagan-christian-mysticism with several audacious twists. (Roger’s snarling, driverless Jaguar is a personal favorite.) The smartest thing that I think Curtis pulled off was to return to the familiar turn of time travel, but with a twist he’d never done, and with a strange moral inversion that caused bad behavior for years to come in junior highs across America.

Yes, hauntings and deaths and an old portrait. Got it. There were girls dropping like flies at the school and the word “poltergeist” was invoked in cinema for the first time to my knowledge without bothering to google it. It’s clear early on that Joanna Hoffman and Isiah Trask are in cahoots in their bizarre scheme to begin the End Times. This was a dash of Hal Lindsey that needed a send-up, and by having Grayson Hall and Lacy pair up over ceremonies based on the forbidden “Third Testament,” we not only get great storytelling/satire, but we also get to see what Spielberg totally ripped off for the climax of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

Front and back cover art for Robert Cobert's soundtrack.

Smarter still was the idea that, if DARK SHADOWS were to continue as a franchise, it would need a new, continuing central character. Enter Christopher Pennock, as the Avanti-driving, kickass, good-guy Satanist (!), “Anton Castille,” cousin to the late Tracy Collins (Kate Jackson), there to investigate her death. Thanks to his own set of I Ching wands (and a helpful trance or two), we learn that the Victoria from the painting found in the Old House is not an ancestor ...  it really is Victoria. The footage of her trip back to 1738 is still missing, but the film cuts around it nicely. I would have enjoyed seeing her go back to that era to burn the Third Testament when it’s fresh off the boat, but the way they handled it was just as clever. The seance and the monologue that Isles delivers in it finally justifies the faith I had that she really could understand things. That she would (so the stunning monologue tells us) go back to 1738, die at the hands of Bishop Trask, only to come back and haunt Collinwood to stop his descendant was maybe the only ghost gag that Hall and Curtis had not tried. When the sniveling Trask begs Castille to perform the exorcism and he refuses, knowing that the Right Reverend is the ultimate target of the spectral attacks? That gave me no end of ammo in religious debates with my mother for years to come.

Italian one-sheet poster for CHILD OF DARK SHADOWS, 1974.
Is it a mess of a movie? Yeah, but it’s never dull, and you can’t say that for NIGHT. It was banned in Little Rock, and you have to love that. Of course, MGM shit its pants at the idea of a continuing series of DARK SHADOWS films with Pennock as Castille, battling black magic with even blacker magic, so CHILD truly was the end of that phase of DARK SHADOWS. A shame, because Pennock shows genuine star power in the part, finally taking on the mantle of male lead with Barnabas and Quentin written out. Would audiences have supported the film more had the advertising made Dan Curtis’ new direction more evident? Of course. (I’m not so sure about DARK SHADOWS fans getting behind someone not a Collins… yet.) Thankfully, MGM had no real power over the novelization and the four successful print sequels, all of which focused on Castille, a man we eventually learn is, of course, a Collins.

Of course, he’s a Collins. It took three books to get there, but come on. This really is DARK SHADOWS.

Melissa Snyder's 2012 DVD review of CHILD OF DARK SHADOWS, from Monster-a-Go-Go Magazine.

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