Must-see TV for ‘Monster Kids’ in the late 60s meant watching DARK SHADOWS every weekday at 4:00 on ABC. The Gothic soap opera gave us daily doses of vampires, werewolves, witches, and man-made monsters courtesy of producer/director Dan Curtis and a talented cast of mainly New York based stage actors, led by Hollywood veteran Joan Bennett. Capitalizing on the show’s popularity, MGM greenlighted a feature version titled HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS.
The movie is a condensed and revised telling of the Barnabas Collins story arc that began in 1967. The film takes us to Collinwood, where governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) is assaulted by drunken caretaker Willy Loomis (John Karlen). Loomis is fired by Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds), but sneaks back onto the property to search for the hidden family jewels. Using an old map as a guide, he breaks into the family mausoleum and, opening an ancient coffin, is startled when a hand reaches out and grabs him by the throat.
Sometime later, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) arrives, announcing himself as a “cousin from England”. Barnabas bears a striking resemblance to his namesake ancestor, whose portrait hangs on a wall. Giving matriarch Elizabeth (Bennett) a bejeweled necklace, its decided Barnabas will fix up “the old house” to live in. Cousin Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) becomes a little too fond of Barnabas, much to her regret, as she soon falls victim to the vampire’s bite.
A party is given in Barnabas’s honor, and it’s there he first sets eyes on Maggie. She tells him, “We just met, yet I feel like I’ve known you for so long”. How right she is, for Maggie is a dead ringer for Barnabas’s long-dead love Josette. Carolyn becomes jealous, so Barnabas puts the finishing touch on her. Professor Stokes (Thayer David) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) investigate the death. Carolyn (and a previous victim) both had strange marks on their necks, and suffered an inordinate loss of blood. Stokes believes it’s the mark of “vampirism”. Julia isolates an unknown cell in the victim’s blood, and thinks she can cure the vampire’s curse.
When Roger’s son David (David Henesy) tells the family he’s seen Carolyn, Stokes brings up his vampirism theory. No one belives it, but when Julia fixes her makeup in a compact mirror, she discovers Barnabas casts no reflection. Carolyn rises from the grave and attacks her boyfriend Todd (Don Briscoe) but is stopped by Stokes and the local police, all armed with crosses. Stokes then drives a stake through her heart, putting an end to Carolyn.
Julia confronts Barnabas and tells him she can cure him. She begins giving him daily injections, and the vampire can now walk in the sunlight. Barnabas now pursues Maggie more ardently, going as far as to send her beau Jeff (Roger Davis) out of town on a job. But Julia is in love with Barnabas, and her next injection causes him to age rapidly. He strangles the doctor just as Maggie walks in. Sinking his fangs into Maggie’s neck, the vampire is rejuvenated, going on a killing rampage, as he plans to make Maggie his undead bride. Jeff returns and, discovering the carnage, engages in a desperate battle with Barnabas to save his love before she meets a fate worse than death.
Jonathan Frid became an unlikely teen idol when he took the role of Barnabas at age 43. His soulful eyes and romantic escapades on the soap opera caused teenyboppers across the country to swoon. Soon Frid found himself plastered on the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat magazines. The Canadian-born, Shakesperian trained actor became typecast, unable to find decent parts. He returned to the stage, starring in the 1986 Broadway revival of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in the role of Jonathan Brewster, made famous by Boris Karloff. Jonathan Frid, forever Barnabas, taught acting and appeared onstage until his death in 2012.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is much more bloodier than the TV soap, causing parents to forbid their children from seeing it (I went anyway!). Dan Curtis followed up with a sequel, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, then branched out into TV movies like THE NORLISS TAPES, DRACULA (starring Jack Palance), and the anthology TRILOGY OF TERROR. Curtis then made the mega-hit miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and its sequel WAR AND REMEMBERENCE. Dick Smith’s aging makeup was grotesque, turning Barnabas into a 175 year old man. Smith was a top makeup effects man, also responsible for films like LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GODFATHER, and THE EXORCIST, winning an Oscar for AMADEUS. Robert Colbert’s familiar haunting music from the show can be heard throughout the film. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is an homage to the old-time monster movies of the 30s and 40s, and it’s well worth seeing for both old fans of the show and latecomers. Two fangs up!