This article contains House of Dark Shadows spoilers.
In 1970 House of Dark Shadows flipped the vampire subgenre on its head. While certainly a B-horror in the Hammer mold, this chiller wasn’t satisfied with one bloodsucker, or even two. Instead Dark Shadows would turn nearly its whole cast into the ravenous undead, indiscriminately slaughtering beloved heroes and heroines, not caring for a second that they were also the stars of a daytime soap opera—one that was appointment TV for millions of kids across America.
Clearly it was a different time. And therein lies its charm.
When the television series Dark Shadows premiered in 1966, it wasn’t an instant pop culture phenomenon. Creator Dan Curtis was savvy enough to see the appeal in a daytime melodrama draped in a Gothic aesthetic, but he didn’t yet have the necessary hook for his central character as she stepped off a train in New England. Sure, mysterious Victoria Winters (Alexandria Isles) would meet the Collins family, who more or less ruled over the town of Collinsport from their ancestral home of Collinwood, but the reason to stick around only came about a year into the series’ original run.
That eureka moment turned out to be the dapper and effortlessly suave Jonathan Frid. Cast as Barnabas Collins, the Canadian theater actor was initially hired for a single storyline (a set number of episodes) as the heavy: Barnabas was an ancient and forgotten vampire, who’d been buried alive like the family’s dirty little secret after a curse condemned him to drink blood in 1795. Now he was out and wreaking havoc by feasting on the locals and obsessing over Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), whom he was convinced was the reincarnation of his lost love Josette—a fiancée who threw herself off a cliff in the 18th century rather than become Barnabas’ corpse bride.
It was morbid, obviously, but also romantic at a time when vampires were defined by the coldness of Christopher Lee or the goofiness of Scooby-Doo. Instead here was the most pitiable of creatures, one who doesn’t wish to be a vampire, and through impeccable manners and courtesies revealed a soft love for the Collins family, even when he preyed on them. Rather than create a great villain, Curtis inadvertently invented a tragic hero who audiences flocked to, both the typical daytime target demographic and also, surprisingly, kids and teenagers, who’d rush home from school to be lost in a melancholy land of eternal loves, ancient curses, and of course fangs.
Thus Dark Shadows became a blender for all things Gothic. Following in the success of Barnabas’ introduction, the series would go on to add ghosts, werewolves, séances, multiple stints of time travel, and one particularly devilish 18th century witch named Angelique (Lara Parker). It also appropriated every classic horror trope from Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, the Brontë sisters, and Edgar Allan Poe, and synthesized them for an audience that was now consuming it along with kid-friendly board games and trading cards.
So why not a movie, too? As early as 1968, Curtis began pursuing the idea of making a Dark Shadows movie, even while the series was still going. Eventually, House of Dark Shadows was the result. Released 50 years ago this week, this toothy amusement was the chance to do everything Curtis wanted with the series, but was prohibited from by Broadcast Standards and Practices censorship, budget constraints… and maybe even audiences’ good taste.
“Blood flows,” actor Roger Davis observed in The Dark Shadows Companion: The 25th Anniversary, which was edited by Scott. “It’s not like the serial. You have a few dabs of blood and the network brass have apoplexy. TV does a mock-up on life. This is in living color. And the vampires really bite.”
Whereas Dark Shadows, the television show, was appointment TV for those still in middle school, House of Dark Shadows was aimed directly at the drive-in crowd with its emphasis on blood gushing from neck wounds and stakes violently going into almost every character’s heart. As Scott’s book surmised, the film was “entirely the child of its creator,” who would at last have his evil Barnabas. And at a glance, it is an American riff on what had already become kitsch by 1970 thanks to Hammer Film Productions’ seemingly endless line of Dracula movies, plus the knockoffs.
And to be sure, House of Dark Shadows is in many ways a Dracula movie. It’s also insight into how Curtis originally viewed the Barnabas character before Frid went on a charm offensive. Playing almost like a CliffNotes version of Barnabas’ first several storylines on the show, the vampire is awakened during the film’s opening moments because of the foolishness of groundskeeper Willie Loomis (John Karlen). Barnabas then forces poor old Willie to become his living slave and creates a fictitious narrative about being a distant cousin descended from the original Barnabas Collins, whom family lore claims sailed away to London in 1795, never to be heard from again.
Bringing back the “original” Barnabas’ family jewels to ingratiate himself, the Barnabas of 1970 is free to attend family gatherings, fix up an old ruined house on the estate, and even feed on cousin Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), a dear relative who becomes a dead ringer for Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s famed novel. Even so, Carolyn cannot displace Maggie (still Scott) in Barnabas’ eyes, who he is sure is the reincarnation of Josette.
It very much has the narrative beats of a traditional vampire movie, but the charm that lingers a half-century later comes in part from seeing these actors, who are intimately familiar with their characters, going through the paces with better production values. That quality also manifests in Curtis’ sense of atmosphere, now liberated from the stage-bound quality of daytime drawing room drama. I would even argue House of Dark Shadows is one of the more satisfyingly atmospheric vampire movies to come out of the 1970s.
Curtis filmed in the upstate New York’s Tarrytown area, mostly on the actual Gothic Lyndhurst Estate, built in the 1830s, and shot much of the exteriors in the legendary Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Whereas Hammer films tended to rely increasingly on sets during this period, and most B horror movies had no budget for evocative locations, House of Dark Shadows was filming its sequences in between tours of the Lyndhurst Mansion and in the same atmospheric cemetery that helped birth the myth of a Headless Horseman.
Regarding the filming location, screenwriter Sam Hall remarked, “It’s a wild house. I’d hate like hell to live in it.”
This is only accentuated by the fact Curtis knows how to drain a spooky location dry. Images like vampire Carolyn standing in a window, draped in white, beckoning her lover to become one of the damned is a better use of Lucy iconography than any Dracula movie made before House of Dark Shadows. And the film’s ending sequence reaches an operatic opulence rarely seen, even in vampire cheapies. Barnabas, bathed in a blue light and shrouded in inexplicable fog in the interior of his decrepit home, beckons Maggie, now in a wedding dress, toward him as the famous melody of Josette’s music box twinkles, only now in a weeping minor key.
The corruption of that wistful melody is intriguing. An original part of the Dark Shadows television series, Josette’s music box, and Frid’s soliloquies about it, is what first gave Barnabas his soul, distinguishing him from the general depravity of other pop culture vampires. One could even say Barnabas is the first significantly sympathetic male vampire in fiction. In House of Dark Shadows, he has a more sinister mean streak, but the pathos remains.
Hence why the film plays at times like a gonzo delight. It may feature the original, more wicked Barnabas, but it is still derived from the genteel series, and many of those elements carry over. Take Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) spending half the movie trying to cure Barnabas, a subplot that eventually ends happily for the pair on the show, but less so here. It’s soapy pulp, yet it’s given as much stone-faced gravity as the Collinsport Police Department unquestioningly agreeing to patrol around town with standard issue police crucifixes. One might ask if they keep silver bullets in every squad car too?
The overall effect is bizarre, but endearingly so. It’s also fairly influential, as confirmed by what happened after Dan Curtis dropped Barnabas in favor of another vampire.
In 1974, following Dark Shadows’ cancellation, Curtis wrote and directed a Dracula TV movie for CBS that within its opening titles billed itself as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Far removed from Stoker’s novel, the little remembered television film nonetheless starred Jack Palance as the vampire, and introduced several significant elements to the story by overtly making Dracula an undead version of historical figure Vlad the Impaler (which he is not in the novel) and turning Lucy into the reincarnation of his great lost love.
Curtis was in essence trying to recast Dracula as Barnabas Collins. Like House of Dark Shadows, Curtis even sought to build a Gothic atmosphere by filming in real locations, albeit now Eastern Europe. The result was effective in those scenes, even if the rest of the movie failed in no small part because Palance could never wear the tragic cloak so well as Frid.
In spite of its shortcomings, many have fairly speculated on whether Curtis’ Dracula influenced James V. Hart, the screenwriter of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Hart was certainly more successful at turning Dracula into a lovelorn prince, and Coppola made that idea permanent in the pop culture imagination. Yet, at the end of the day, they were still remaking the pop culture image of Dracula so as to be closer in line with Barnabas Collins, instead of the other way around.
I would even argue that Coppola’s film is closer in tone with Dark Shadows, at least in its romantic moments, than Tim Burton’s big budget Dark Shadows movie was in 2012. Burton of course attempted to avoid some of the mistakes of House of Dark Shadows, namely by keeping Barnabas as the good guy who is trying to save his family instead of ultimately destroying them, as well as retaining the other fan favorite character, the witchy Angelique (who like all other non-vampire elements was omitted from House of Dark Shadows). But Burton also played her and the whole concept as pure camp, making the Collins’ a subject of ridicule, and their problems a punchline.
Admittedly, there is something faintly camp about the 1960s daytime series and its ‘70s drive-in remake; plots turn on ludicrous developments like Julia falling in love with Barnabas, and then intentionally sabotaging his vampire cure when she realizes he loves a younger woman. But they were sold with absolute sincerity, and in the case of Frid, a palatable conviction.
House of Dark Shadows continues that conviction, no matter how batshit things become. Thus the ending where, accepting he’ll never be cured, Barnabas transforms family patriarch Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds) and even the film’s version of Van Helsing (Thayer David) into vampires. And we get to a finale so madcap that it turns “Renfield” into the last remaining hero. Madness, indeed.
Ironically, House of Dark Shadows was blamed by some for the eventual death of the series. Every character in the film, including Barnabas, had to be written out of the show, for some weeks at a time, so the actors could go shoot a movie upstate (another reason Angelique and other significant characters were left out). This correlated with some of the series’ weaker storylines that lost audiences’ attention.
Additionally, it’s believed parents who went with their children to see the movie in October 1970 were appalled by the amount of blood and sensual subtext in the film. As a result, some may have forbidden their kids from watching the series further… with the show getting cancelled in April 1971.
“The TV ratings fell after the movie,” Scott’s The Dark Shadows Companion revealed. “It has been suggested by some that House of Dark Shadows led to the series’ eventual demise. Perhaps it was the audience’s reaction to seeing their hero Barnabas in an evil light. Perhaps it was because parents attended House of Dark Shadows with their children and, seeing the amount of blood spilled across the screen, discouraged their children’s choice of television viewing material.”
Star Frid was even more unsparing in his final analysis.
“[The film] lacked the charm and naivete of the soap opera,” Frid said. “Every once in a while the show coalesced into a Brigadoonish never-never-land. It wasn’t necessary to bring the rest of the world into Dark Shadows, which is what the film did.”
Nevertheless, both the series and movie left a few marks on the throat of pop culture. The series certainly paved the way for more multidimensional portraits of vampires to be explored, opening the door for, yes, the Coppola Dracula movie, but also Anne Rice and True Blood. In fact, even if House of Dark Shadows might’ve been considered too brutal by parents in 1970, decades of pop culture refinement would find a way to make the sympathetic vampire archetype much more tolerable when instead of drinking from his cousin, he sparkled in the daylight and told his prey they needed to wait until marriage.
Without Barnabas, his series, and his slice of bananas role is House of Dark Shadows, we may never have gotten Lestat, Edward Cullen, or Gary Oldman’s Dracula. At least not as how we know them. Fifty years on, that’s a bloody good legacy for a daytime drama and a B-movie you’ve never seen.