Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Cinefantastique loves House of Dark Shadows, 1971

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was treated upon its release in 1970 as if it was pornography. The marketing campaign, with its sleazy double entendres, didn't do a hell of a lot of it's credibility, either. A motion picture based on one of the biggest television shows  of the generation (and one that was providing the move with promotion every afternoon on ABC) should have landed with a splash. Instead, the few critics that took the time to write about HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS did so from a condescending point of view. There's little in Roger Ebert's superficial review, for example, to suggest he'd actually seen the movie.

Luckily, the late Frederick S. Clarke was on the case. The creator, owner, editor and publisher of Cinefantastique gave HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS the cover of the magazine's second issue in 1971. Clarke attacks the film from every angle and leaves no stone unturned. (Even set decorator Ken Fitzpatrick gets a mention.) He also smartly positions HODS against the tide of contemporary vampire films, many of which were playing against the Hammer tradition or the work Jonathan Frid had been doing on television with DARK SHADOWS. The writing here isn't going to win any awards; Clarke was still a young man in 1971, and was only 20 years old when he launched the magazine a year earlier. His writing style in these days was still a hybrid of scholarly journals and the kinds of purple summaries found in Famous Monsters of Filmland. Regardless, this review might be the single best thing written about HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS upon its original release Enjoy!

Review: "House of Dark Shadows"
By Frederick S. Clarke
Cinefantastique, Winter 1971

The seventies have begun with an inordinate number of vampire films, chief among which are COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, from AIP in June, MGM's HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and Hammer Films' TASTE THE  BLOOD OF DRACULA, both in September. This is not to mention THE VAMPIRE LOVERS in October, Hammer's latest entry, THE SCARS OF DRACULA, in December, and the indie-exploitation release GUESS WHAT HAPPENED TO COUNT DRACULA in August, as well as several titles which were in production in 1970 but will not appear until this year.

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is the superior film of the new crop, and less modestly deserves credit as the best vampire film since HORROR OF DRACULA, which began this modern trend back in 1958. These two films are, in technique, at opposite cinematic poles. HORROR OF DRACULA is slow and brooding, wonderfully suggestive of horror, and in that respect, remarkable as much for what it leaves out as what it shows. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, on the other hand, is a fast paced, harrowing thriller, which shocks on the purely graphic level. These are, of course, grossly oversimplified generalizations, for both films utilize both techniques in some measure. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is, in fact, the culmination of the graphic trend begun in that earlier film. Although HORROR OF DRACULA is, in the main, of the suggestive school, it was remarked on, when it first appeared, more for its graphic scenes of horror; Dracula's fierce encounter with Harker in the library; the branding of Mina with the holy crucifix; and Dracula's destruction at the hands of Dr. Van Helsing. The success of the film Sharpened the already existing debate that fantasy and horror of the suggestive school was the most potent form; opponents of this thesis now had, in the graphic scenes of HORROR OF DRACULA, some evidence to the contrary. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS marks the pinnacle in the ascendancy of the graphic school and should remove any doubts concerning the power and effect that can be achieved by the graphic method in the horror and fantasy genre.

The film's opening minutes are a fine showcase of the suggestive method, and go far in establishing a complicated array of interesting characters as well as setting a tone of violence and horror, which the film relentlessly maintains throughout most of its 97 minutes. Collinwood and its bizarre inhabitants seem to be a serious embodiment of a Charles Adams night mare in which fantasy belongs as part of the natural order. Young David is a warped little boy who delights in hiding and lurking about in the gothic ruins at Collinwood; he locks his friend Maggie, come to find him, in an abandoned building and leaves her. Willie Loomis is a shiftless hired hand looking for lost Colonial treasure amid the ruins of the old estate. Elizabeth Stoddard is the matriarch of Collinwood, who rules over the estate and her weak willed husband, Roger. Into this scene of decaying opulence, the entrance of their vampiric ancestor, Barnabas Collins, is appropriate.

The first shots of Barnabas show us his hand and ornate finger ring. He lurks in the shadowy woods surrounding Collinwood, stalking his first victim, the Stoddards' private secretary, as she leaves the estate late at night. The camera focuses on the feet of the dark figure, moving up to examine the shiny black walking stick and his hand, protruding from the ruffled cuffs, grasping firmly its grotesque head. In this manner, the anticipation in the audience of seeing the expected features of Jonathan Frid as Barnabas is well played upon, until they are revealed upon his first visit to Collinwood, where he looks upon his own portrait hanging there and the Stoddards remark how like this English cousin is to their ancestor.

Aside from the opening moments, the film is unparalleled for its type in presenting scene after scene of chilling horror. This fast-paced treatment of the subject matter is a welcome change from the usual vampire film, which, spending most of its time in the suggestive mode to carefully build mood and atmosphere, becomes, frankly, boring. A case in point is the recent THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, which contains some of the finest mood and atmosphere seen in any horror film, quite reminiscent, really, of the eerie imagery of Roger Corman's heyday at AIP. The eye soon leadens to all this wonderfully suggestive imagery, however, after 90 minutes of it and little else.

The first scene of graphic horror, tame in view of what is to come, has tremendous impact following, as it does, the slow and studied opening sequences. Barnabas, frothing with rage over the jealousy of his first conquest at Collinwood, Carolyn, impulsively attacks her before the horrified eyes of his lackey, Willie Loomis. The camera provides a truly chilling view of Barnabas gnashing voraciously at the bleeding neck of his hysterical and screaming victim and then tracks up to Willie, shaking with indecisiveness and screaming "No, Barnabas, no!" With an impulsive burst of energy, Willie knocks Barnabas free of the girl and the camera gives us a view of his evil protruding fangs, his blood spattered face contorted with rage as he yells "Get her out of here, Willieeee!" The audience is struck dumb.

As Barnabas, Jonathan Frid does excellently with one of the most difficult parts imaginable, for his Barnabas is at different times, gentle and sympathetic, then the ranting incarnation of supernatural evil. It is no mean talent that manages to pull it off. In excellent support are members of the television cast, particularly Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman, who cures his vampirism temporarily, and Thayer David as Professor T. Eliot Stokes, the Van Helsing figure. The latter will be fondly remembered as the deliciously sinister Count Saknussemm from JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH in 1959.

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is particularly successful in mixing the modern world with the world of superstition and fantasy, which aids greatly in suspending our sense of disbelief. Somehow, the standing philosophy of these films, that the establishment must pooh pooh any supernatural manifestation, using reverse psychology on the viewer to force him to accept the supernatural element, has never worked. It is oddly reinforcing to the supernatural motif to see the Collinsport police accept the existence of vampirism when faced with the evidence; to see them each brandishing a large metallic crucifix, to see them loading their guns with silver bullets. One of the most effective scenes in the film has a cadre of uniformed officers, equipped with gleaming crosses, ringed about Carolyn, who is languishing fearfully before the dreaded symbols. The officious, neatly uniformed police are such commonplace figures, that within the context of vampirism, they lend the scene an almost surreal quality.

The screenplay by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell is highly inventive, while borrowing selectively from the past. They invest the vampiric lust of Barnabas with some quite human motivations, making him all the more comprehensible for it. They wisely steeped the tale with an elegant sense of lore
and history, which provides Barnabas a solid base in Colonial New England's past, full, as it is, of wonderfully macabre associations with witchcraft and the supernatural.

However, credit for the film's unqualified success must go to director Dan Curtis, who previously had exhibited his skill in the genre by producing, incomparably, the finest version of Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND HYDE on television several seasons ago. Curtis provides HOUSE
OF DARK SHADOWS with a stylistic flair indelibly his own, a restless, roving visual sense, never content in projecting a static image. Curtis directs Arthur Ornitz's excellent camerawork not at a scene, but into it, through it, and around it with a hypnotically fluid ebb and flow of nightmarish montage. As little David walks toward the cold embrace of his vampiric sister, the deft editing hand of Arline Garson intercuts between a sweeping master shot in which the camera pans slowly with him as he walks, with various closeups carefully matched with the motive sense of the master shot; the close-ups dissolve into and out of the long master shot, creating an exquisite sense of his be-
ing inexorably drawn toward her by some unseen power. Curtis is, however, at his peak with scenes of graphic violence. This is precisely where most films of the genre break down into laughable burlesque. It is one thing to suggest horror, the venerable technique of the classic cinema, yet quite
another, and more difficult thing, to actually show it. Yet show it Curtis does, and with such conviction and unerring sense of composition that the result has an unnatural fidelity that thoroughly shocks; shocks in the finest Hitchcockian sense, as PSYCHO. On re-viewing HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, one becomes aware of the great tension within the audience during these scenes of
graphic horror; the usual audience clatter of coughing, rustling candy wrappers and idle chatter is gone; this unusual silence lasts just beyond the scene, at which time the audience figuratively exhales, and their usual animation and noisiness returns.

The end-all of graphic horror is the climactic death scene of Barnabas, coming, as it does, after a series of gruesome encounters which leave nearly every major character in the film dead. The camera presents an eerie point of view shot as Jeff slowly descends a staircase, mistily enshrouded by creeping fog, slowly bringing into view the beckoning Barnabas, standing beside Maggie, lying unconscious on the sepulcher, dead Willie lying at his feet. But Willie, his degraded and weak willed slave, is not quite dead, and as Barnabas inches forward, smiling grimly and about to dispatch his last living antagonist, Willie gropes painfully to his feet and removes the large wooden shaft on which he is impaled. The camera presents us with a close shot of Barnabas baring his fangs, about to sink them into the yielding throat of Jeff, when Willie lunges and with his dying hand plunges the shaft deep into the vampire's back. Still in close shot, the head of Barnabas rears up in agony and confusion, blood and spittle gushing forth from his gaping mouth. Curtis wisely does these agonizing scenes of violence in slow motion to obtain the full impact from their fleeting existence. Broken from the vampire 's spell, Jeff maneuvers behind Barnabas who is groping and thrashing wildly, and pounds the stake through his body until it protrudes bloodily from his chest, and Barnabas drops limply to the floor. In slow motion, the grisly effect of the scene is unforgettable. The superb gothic flavor of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is the result of ideally selected filming locations which are, far and away, more convincing than any set could ever be, yet as strikingly grotesque and haunting as anything imaginable. The credit for dressing up the location shooting and carefully matching it to interiors goes to production designer Trevor Williams and set decorator Ken Fitzpatrick, who have taken meticulous pains in detailing the musty abandoned buildings as well as the decorous drawing rooms of the old mansion, replete with a crackling fireplace, overstuffed chairs and other trappings of sumptuous living.

The music of Robert Cobert is familiar, and becoming, perhaps, a bit overworked by now, after appearing in both the DR. JEKYLL AND HYDE television special as wen as continually on the DARK SHADOWS daytime serial, however, it does not suffer from familiarity, being so well suited and put to use here.

The viewer leaves HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS with the affirmative sense that the horror film can also be a work of art, and that Dan Curtis is certainly one of the finest talents working in the genre. Once and for all, the film should stifle the argument that the suggestion of horror is per se always more effective and believable than its graphic depiction, a fallacy which quite naturally arose from everyone's failure in the graphic mode, until recently. To actually show horror and the supernatural in graphic terms with any conviction and believability demands considerable creative genius; there is no wonder it has been so long in coming.

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