Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review: Dark Shadows and Beyond: The Jonathan Frid Story


He was a quiet celebrity. After the magnesium flash of Dark Shadows’ explosive popularity waned, his work was idiosyncratic, and his life was free of scandal. Good news for Jonathan Frid, but potentially bad news for audiences. As much as we might feel heartbroken over the bad behavior of a celebrity, it makes for compelling and suspenseful viewing. Frid is one of the most challenging subjects in that regard. I’m not sure he even made a rolling stop at 3 a.m. (In fact, did he drive?) He’s not so much a study in contradictions as much as a study in measured, reasonable judgment. You know, a Canadian.

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Think of the challenges. He was a horror star who walked away from it until years later when he could produce it on his terms. He was an actor, yes, with far more hours of filmed performance than many Hollywood luminaries. But you had to be a Dark Shadows fan to see it… Or you had to be very lucky to catch him in a live show… if he went through your town… and if you heard about it in time. He was adored by his costars but never became intimate with them. He even quit smoking at a reasonable time. So how do you make a movie of that?

Jonathan Frid’s friend, collaborator, and business partner, Mary O’Leary, has produced a ringing success, neither clinical nor cloying. An authentic affection and sense of human warmth run throughout the entire film, but it never invades. Enlightens, yes. The interview segments are fresh and cheerful, but I never feel something is being withheld or whitewashed. Instead, it’s a chance to see actors share their passion for their community's best and most professional. Which is a relief for everyone. 

Especially notable is the development of the “Clunes community” of collaborators who worked with Frid throughout the 1980s and 90s. Director O’Leary was one of them, as were Will McKinley (who emerges as the movie's emotional heart) and Nancy Kersey. Each came to Frid’s attention in similar ways. Writing to and about him, they emphasized a point he may have been missing; Jonathan Frid had more talent and potential than the world was getting to see. The drive to explore and better himself compelled Frid to work, but on his terms. As a result, there is a hint of a sensible and profoundly Canadian Cyrano that unspools over a feature-length running time that feels over far too soon. 

There are surprises, yes, but those are for Mary O’Leary to deploy. She does so with graciousness and a kinetic eye. The literate and literary gent is very much alive in the film, as is his mordant wit and natural dignity. It’s very much the film that Jonathan Frid deserves.