Tuesday, May 2, 2017

House of Dark Shadows: American Giallo


Historically, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS has proven to be an easy movie to dismiss. Roger Ebert's 1970 review suggests he paid little attention to the film, giving it two stars in a piece that seems weirdly obsessed with the dietary restrictions of vampires. Other critics (if they noted the film at all) wrote it off as as a run-of-the-mill "hearse opera," the kind of formulaic film that Hammer had been cranking out since the late '50s. In his 1981 book "Danse Macabre," Stephen King praises DARK SHADOWS the television series, but damns the two spinoff films with faint praise, calling them merely competent.

Decades later, even fans of the television series tolerate HOUSE for no other reason than the presence of actor Jonathan Frid, who gives one of his his most confident and assured performances in the film. This dissonance isn't without merit. The tone of the film calls back to the the early days of the series, retelling a story arc that had been resolved when Lyndon Johnson was still president. The violent melancholy of TV's Barnabas Collins had been replaced in the film with operatic sturm and drang that inverted audience expectations in some occasionally unpleasant ways. Where DARK SHADOWS was masochistic, wallowing indefinitely in the individual sufferings of its many characters, HOUSE has a decidedly sadistic streak. With just two hours to tell the tale, Barnabas Collins doesn't waste time with kidnapping and torture. His cinematic victims are dispatched urgently, violently and indiscriminately. Horror had always shared a cultural zip code with pornography, and both HOUSE and its marketing campaign, which urged audiences to "Come see how the vampires do it," intentionally blurred those lines. Frid thought the final product was grotesque and refused to appear in a sequel unless certain financial demands were met. (They were not.)

Today, the critical legacy of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS stands on rather spindly legs. Ebert's archived 1970 review, as disappointing as it might be, represents the apex of professional commentary attached to the film. And that's a shame, because there are some really interesting things going on in HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS for anyone willing to take the time to look. And the movie becomes all the more interesting when stacked against the other horror movies released during the same year.

In fact, HOUSE has hardly anything in common with its American contemporaries in 1970, which were limited to such trash as THE DUNWICH HORROR, THE WIZARD OF GORE and EQUINOX. The closest counterparts you'll find are Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, both released in 1970 but bearing only superficial resemblance to HOUSE. You have to travel further east to find another movie that looks and feels like HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS ... in fact, you have to leap to another genre altogether.


Genres are difficult to define and giallo is among the most slippery. The term is shorthand for "yellow" pulp fiction, lurid stories that mixed crime, horror and various exploitation tropes. Mario Bava's 1963 film THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is generally considered to be the first true giallo. The genre gradually grew meaner and uglier, cresting in 1970 with Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE before evolving into full-bore horror movies by the end of the decade. In a way, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS predicted the path giallo films would take.

Stylistically, the only thing that really separates HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS from Argento's early work is its particular brand of American sexual repression. Europe does not fear the nipple in quite the same way as Americans. And it's telling that director Dan Curtis had to keep his actresses fully clothed in order to secure a PG rating, but a "gang staking," arterial evisceration and multiple body penetrations were totally OK with the ratings board. (Welcome to America! We're fucking nuts!)

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS also differs slightly from traditional giallo tropes in that there's no mystery at its core. But that doesn't stop Curtis from shooting the film as if there is one. The killers in gialli are often phantom limbs reaching into frame during acts of violence, their faces obscured to hide their identities for as long as possible. Anyone with a television set in 1970 already knew about Barnabas Collins, though, so there was no reason to keep his identity a secret. Still, for the first 19 minutes (!) of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, Barnabas is little more than a pair of hands and feet stalking people in the dark.  (Had the notorious deleted scene involving a child faking his own suicide remained in the film, Frid's face might have been seen even later than that.)

The role of Barnabas Collins will be played by Jonathan Frid's right hand.
Some of the film's giallo tendencies might have been unavoidable. The genre shared many of the same obsessions with American soap operas, particularly their joint fascinations with sex, booze, leisure, independent wealth and all of the consequences that accompany such lifestyles. DARK SHADOWS was also a horror tale, and the framework of a feature film gave Curtis the chance to fully thumb his nose at television censors. While he wasn't willing to make an R-rated movie (the television series had a huge following among children) he pushed every boundary in his path. Buckets of "Kensington Gore" were used in quantities never seen on TV, and Nancy Barrett's vampire shroud didn't qualify as nudity only because of careful editing. Also exaggerating the film's giallo tendencies were HOUSE's streaks of sadism, misogyny, paranoia and xenophobia (though the latter is likely a remnant of Bram Stoker's "Dracula," the inspiration for Barnabas Collins.)

Having been forced to push the "Now in COLOR!" aspect of American television for a few years, Curtis chose a more restrained color palette for his first feature. DARK SHADOWS the series often loved the rich reds, blues and sapphires seen in gialli, but Curtis wanted the cinematic counterpart to look more sophisticated. Pallid VHS and television broadcasts would present a coarse, drained (and cheap looking) movie to audiences since the mid 1970s, but this was not the picture seen by audiences upon its first theatrical release. In 2012, Warner Bros. released a restored version of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, showing that cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz (SERPICO, DEATH WISH)  shot a movie of rich blues, blacks and crimsons. It's a gorgeous film, given its subject matter. While not the candy coated nightmare of films like SUSPIRIA, its still arguably falls somewhere on the giallo spectrum.

None of this is to suggest that Curtis was aping gialli, or that he was even aware of these movies. His first directing credit was an episode of DARK SHADOWS in 1968 at the age of 40, and there's nothing about his career prior to DARK SHADOWS that suggests Curtis was much of a film buff. He started in television as a salesman of syndicated shows before bringing golf to the airwaves in the early 1960s. By 1966, he'd had enough success to sell ABC on the idea of a gothic soap that was equal parts "Jane Eyre" and PEYTON PLACE. I doubt even he would have predicted seeing his name in the credits of a movie as violent as HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS a few years later. (His final directing credit on a feature film was in 1976's BURNT OFFERINGS, after which he'd return to work exclusively on television.)

So no, I don't believe Curtis set out to make an American giallo. It's more likely that HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was the product of Curtis arriving at a similar conclusion by taking a different path. After all, the guiding light of gialli, Alfred Hitchcock, was hardly an obscure filmmaker. (Heck, he wasn't even Italian.) Curtis was tasked with the challenge of compressing DARK SHADOWS into a two-hour digest, using the vocabulary of cinema to not only prop up what he saw as shortcomings in the television version, while also evading some of the cliches that have haunted horror movies since Carl Laemmle brought THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to theaters in 1925. What he created was a bit of an existential crisis: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is a mystery film without a mystery, a horror film that never fully sides with either its heroine or villain, and whose plot is eventually pushed forward by nothing more than a staccato of betrayal. Life sucks, and then you die. Maybe.

(Note: This is a very belated entry into the First Appearance(s) of Barnabas Collins series, this time dealing with his introduction to the silver screen. It's running so far behind the other entries in the series that I didn't feel the need to brand it in any serious fashion.)

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