‘Come see how the vampires do it.’
House of Dark ShadowsÂ is a 1970 American horror feature film produced and directed byÂ Dan CurtisÂ (Dead of Night; Bram Stoker’s Dracula;Â The Norliss Tapes;Â Trilogy of Terror; et al),Â based on hisÂ Dark ShadowsÂ television series. The movie starsÂ Jonathan Frid,Â Grayson Hall,Â Kathryn Leigh Scott,Â David HenesyÂ andÂ Roger Davis.
The MGM productionÂ had a budget of a mere $750,000 and was a box office success, spawning a sequel,Â Night of Dark Shadows. Meanwhile, Tim Burton’s supercilious, albeit fun reboot, Dark Shadows, apparently cost aÂ staggeringÂ $150 million…
Thereâs a lot that you can say about this vampire film from 1970 but I think it can all be summed up with one word: relentless.
A lot of this is becauseÂ House of Dark ShadowsÂ is a film adaptation of a daytime drama. Over the course of six seasons,Â Dark ShadowsÂ ran for a total of 1,220 episodes. Thatâs a lot of story to cram into a 97-minute film yet director Dan Curtis does just that. The end result is an incredibly busy film and I mean that in the best way possible.
Seriously, there are so many twists and turns in this filmâs plot that itâs difficult to even know where to begin. This is one of the most incident-filled horror films that Iâve ever seen. No sooner does one plot-line resolve itself than another begins. Meanwhile, a surprisingly large cast wanders through the shadows and tries not to get transformed into a vampire. Most of them do not succeed.
See if you can keep all of this straight:
In Maine, a lowlife handyman named Willie (John Karlen, giving the filmâs best performance) breaks into a mausoleum and approaches a coffin thatâs covered with chains. Willie thinks that thereâs a treasure hidden in the coffin but, after he removes the chains, he instead discovers that heâs stumbled across the home of a vampire! Barnabas Collin (Jonathan Frid, who perfectly combines old world manners with thinly-veiled menace) has spent 175 years trapped in that coffin and now that heâs been released, heâs not in a very good mood.
Soon, Barnabas has introduced himself to his descendants (including Joan Bennett, as Elizabeth, the family matriarch) as a cousin from England. Everyone is impressed with Barnabasâs charm and courtly style.Â Of course, some people are a little bit skeptical. Professor Stokes (Thayer David) notices that Barnabas doesnât seem to know much about London while Dr. Hoffman (Grayson Hall) flat out accuses Barnabas of being a vampire.Â Barnabas admits that this is true but fear not!Â Dr. Hoffmanâs fallen in love with him and wants to help cure him.
Meanwhile, everyone in town is growing concerned about all of the bloodless bodies that are showing up. They especially get worried after Elizabethâs daughter, Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), dies and then promptly comes back to life, complete with her own set of fangsâ¦
While the town concerns itself with what to do about Carolyn, Barnabas has fallen in love with a nanny named Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott), who he thinks is the reincarnation of his former lover. Unfortunately, Maggie already has a boyfriend named Jeff (Roger Davis) but when has the ever been a problem for a vampire? Far more of a problem than Jeff is the fact that Willie is also in love with Maggie and Dr. Hoffman is so jealous of Barnabasâs love for Maggie that sheâs willing to inject him with a formula that causes him to transform into an elderly manâ¦.
And all thatâs just in the first hour!
Needless to say, it all leads to one final, gore-filled confrontation. When I say that this film is gory, I mean just that. Blood isnât just spilled in House of Dark Shadows. Instead, it flows like water busting out of a cracked dam. When Barnabas bites a victim, he doesnât just leave two neat little puncture marks. Instead, he literally rips their neck to shreds. Just how savage Barnabas and Carolyn get in this film is one of the things that setsÂ House of Dark ShadowsÂ apart from other vampire films. As opposed to the type of tragic figure who shows up in so many vampire films, Barnabas is ruthless, cruel, and unforgiving. Heâs a genuinely frightening creation.
House of Dark ShadowsÂ is a chaotic movie yet itâs also a lot of fun. This is one of those films that you watch in amazement as it just keeps going and going, piling on one incident after another. Does the film always make sense?Â No, but it doesnât have to. Quickly paced and featuring nonstop gore and fog, the film has a dream-like feel to it. Curtis and the cast attack the material with such unbridled enthusiasm that it doesnât matter if the plot occasionally doesnât always add up or if the dialogue is occasionally a bit clumsy. Itâs impossible not to get swept along with the filmâs insanity.
Probably because of its television roots,Â House of Dark ShadowsÂ is often dismissed by critics. (Iâve never seen any old episodes of the show so I canât say how the movie compares to it.) Well, those dismissive critics are wrong.Â House of Dark ShadowsÂ is now one of my favourite vampire films and itâs definitely one that deserves to be rediscovered. And yes, itâs a helluva lot better than the movie that Tim Burton made with Johnny Deppâ¦
Lisa Marie Bowman, MOVIES & MANIA – guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens
“Director Curtis makes the transition from the small screen with considerable vigour and adds the touch of unusual touch of trying to have a vampire killed of his ‘affliction’ by modern medicine. The film benefits from lavish MGM production value and some genuinely terrifying make-up.” Alan Frank, The Horror Film Handbook
“Playing, design and photography all achieve consistently high standards, and Curtis gives the conventions new force and resonance through a simple trust in their original power. The climax is particularly effective.” The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror
“It positively oozes with gothic atmosphere and is crammed with derivative but extremely well crafted and memorable set pieces …Â all but inventing a style as effective as Britain’s and the European continent’s best horror films yet also one distinctive from those and even singularly American. In short, it’s one of the best horror movies of its era.” Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk
“Itâs also better than Burtonâs film. The tone isnât as erratic, the finale is more exciting (and less prone to out of nowhere idiocy), and Barnabas is much more interesting here. Deppâs version didnât manage to be scary, so when he had to be a vampire it didnât work, but Jonathan Frid really sells his characterâs conflict of a guy who doesnât want to be the monster he has to be in order to live.” Horror Movie a Day
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