Master of Dark Shadows Review: TV Horror Had to Start Somewhere

Documentary Master of Dark Shadows lovingly tells how Dan Curtis's cult hit changed TV horror.

Dark Shadows was an original. The first of its kind, there was nothing on TV like it when it first aired, and nothing on TV like it for a long time after the final stake pierced its ABC network heart. This is because the man at its center, Dan Curtis, was a madman, in the best possible way. Called the “King of TV Horror,” he also made Trilogy of Terror, Burnt Offerings, television adaptations of Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the series Kolchack: The Night Stalker. Curtis defined TV horror for a generation.

Narrated by Ian McShane (Deadwood), the new documentary Master of Dark Shadows is more a tribute to the man who went on to make his mark with the ultra-expensive but super-successful Winds of War than the series itself. Dark Shadows is presented as ground-breaking and Gothic. The Addams Family and The Munsters, which both began in 1964, played monster characters for laughs. Darks Shadows’ laughs were unintentional. The documentary was directed by David Gregory (Lost Soul, Godfathers of Mondo) who brings a breathless enthusiasm into the piece.

further reading: Original Vampirella / Dark Shadows Crossover Comic Uncovered

Cast, crew, and viewers have nothing but fond memories of even the worst gaffes. Yes, there were tons of bloopers, flubbed lines, problematic sets, and lost cues. Of course Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas Collins, the vampire at the center of the series, stood on the train of Angelique’s flowing white dress as actress Lara Parker prepared to make a dramatic exit. The documentary doesn’t specifically mention this one, but I saw it happen once, so by the laws of dark physics it must have happened half a dozen times over the series run. Dressers fall for no reason, doors don’t open, and every now and then an actor speaks in tongues trying to sound out the next line. The mistakes are part of the charm, for players and fans alike, and every one of them was Okayed by Curtis.

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The cast, some of them veterans when the show was broadcast, say they were basically doing an entire production in a day then turning around and doing a new one the next day. “You need ice water in your veins” to keep up that pace, the cast remembers. The documentary makes it look like the basic rule of making Dark Shadows was whatever got the crew through the day. Every scene was shot once because it was only going to be seen once. Anything that happened the actors played off as nothing would hardly be noticed at home.

The origin of the series is fairly well covered. Curtis initially saw Dark Shadows as a night time series and wanted to push the envelope. When it was on the brink of being pulled, an offhand suggestion from Curtis’ daughter inspired him to bring ghosts and ghouls home to people in the daytime. Once you go supernatural you never go back. He had nothing to lose, there were only 13 weeks left on the run. Curtis’ daughter remembers her father was always like that, recallng memories of her parents going back their meeting at Syracuse University. Her father didn’t want to work for a network because he didn’t like people telling him what to do. Short on his mortgage payment and saddled with $10,000 in unpaid bills, he was offered $50,000 for CBS Golf Classic and said he wouldn’t do it for anything less than $150,000. It was a hole in one.

Victoria Winters, played by Alexandre Moltke who doesn’t appear in the documentary, entered the Collinwood Estate in Collinsport, Maine, on June 27, 1966. She arrived in the afternoon, disguised as a maid in a daytime drama. The series evolved into a magical love story. It was very Jane Eyre, something actress Joan Bennett knew about and took with her in her role as the matriarch of the family.

further reading: Dark Shadows 50th Anniversary: Lara Parker Interview

The actors say they didn’t see Dark Shadows as a soap opera, but as an Anthology series, much like American Horror Story. They got to mine dozens of horrific narratives from all over the literary and classic horror movie spectrum. The documentary includes new and vintage interviews with main players Frid; Parker; David Selby, who played Quentin Collins; Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans; John Karlen, who played Barnabas’s Renfield, Willie Loomis and Nancy Barrett who played Carolyn Collins. They also speak with Jerry Lacy, the Humphrey Bogart lookalike in Woody Allen’s Play it Again Sam who played Reverend Trask, who twice was walled up to die. Roger Davis, Marie Wallace, Chris Pennock and James Storm and other actors talk about how happy they were just to keep their jobs. Barbara Steele, who starred in Mario Bava’s gore classic Black Sunday, reveals dark scenarios that came up long after the series ended.

The documentary also speaks with fans like Ghost‘s Whoopi Goldberg, who like many kids her age, ran home from school to catch Dark Shadows when it was first was on the air. The cast fondly remembers the mid to late ’60s as a fun time, even if they did have to brave crowds of fans who stood on the streets outside the New York City studios where the show was shot. Barnabas Collins got on Seventeen magazine, along with David Cassidy and the Partridge Bunch. Dark Shadows characters’ theme songs became hits.

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The original Dark Shadows daytime series ran 1,225 episodes when it ended in 1971. Master of Dark Shadows treats the legacy of the show and Curtis in glowing terms. The series was very influential artistically, as True Blood writer Alan Ball recounts for the filmmakers. William F. Nolan, who wrote Trilogy of Terror, shows how the first cracks in Curtis’ love of horror came as he was making some of its best. Herman Wouk, the author of The Winds of War, talks about Curtis commitment. He and Ben Cross agree nothing like Winds of War will ever be made again. The filmmakers are as glowing to this miniseries and its sequel as Dark Shadows.

Master of Dark Shadows is not an exhaustive film. It doesn’t spend much time on the feature films that came out of the series in the 70s, it only gives lip service to the Dark Shadows’ 1991 revival, and Tim Burton’s adaptation, which was Jonathan Frid’s final film. It also gives a little too much air time to the vampire of the series over the witch who made him: Angelique, who along with Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched, are the best known TV witches of the sixties, a subject we discussed with tantric mystic and interdisciplinary artist Zeena. It is a fun film, which moves quickly and has new information some fans might not even know. But it makes its point: Dan Curtis did a lot more than horror, even if he was instrumental in shaping it on TV.

Master of Dark Shadows is available across digital platforms and on DVD.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.


3.5 out of 5