Saturday, November 5, 2011

House of Dark Shadows (1970) & Night of Dark Shadows (1971)


          Although the name of producer-director Dan Curtis looms large over small-screen ’70s horror—his projects from the era include the series The Night Stalker and the TV movie Trilogy of Terror—Curtis’ brand of melodramatic horror didn’t connect as strongly on the big screen, as evidenced by the fact that he only made one proper theatrical feature in his career, the 1976 Bette Davis shocker Burnt Offerings. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that the two big-screen spin-offs Curtis made from his cult-favorite supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows are unimpressive: The gimmicks that seemed bold and exciting in America’s living rooms weren’t enough to sustain interest in darkened theaters.
          Running from 1966 to 1971, Dark Shadows was an oddity in the milquetoast realm of daytime TV, mixing ghosts and werewolves and vampires into the usual soap tropes of domestic drama and doomed romance. Additionally, the show’s cheesy production values were part of its charm—so the fact that House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows are competently made actually works against their efficacy. Whereas the series had a quasi-intentional tongue-in-cheek quality thanks to actors flubbing lines and stagehands walking through shots, the features are presented without irony, so they feel dull and humorless.
          The narratives also move at a glacial pace, as long stretches of screen time are filled with characters wandering through forests or hallways while spooky music plays in the background. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that the both movies awkwardly rehash plot threads from the TV show. House of Dark Shadows is a sort of “origin story” adventure featuring the series’ beloved vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), and Night of Dark Shadows is a Gothic romance about Quentin Collins (David Selby), an artist haunted by the demons of his past lives; both main characters were regulars on the series. In the first picture, anguished bloodsucker Barnabas explores a possible cure for vampirism until a romantic triangle involving a reincarnated lover ruins his plans for a plasma-free future. In the second picture, Quentin moves into the haunted family estate in Collinsworth, Maine, where he’s seduced by the angry spirit of a witch he loved in a previous life, a turn of events that understandably creates tension in Quentin’s marriage to spunky Tracy Collins (Kate Jackson, pre-Charlie’s Angels).
          Both pictures deliver the familiar visual style of the series, which means lots of deep-focus camerawork juxtaposing background and foreground actors; super-low angles accentuating ornate castle walls; and waves upon waves of ominous music. The acting is enthusiastic but mediocre, with actors hamstrung by florid dialogue and turgid pacing. Another reason neither movie is particularly satisfying is that each has something the other lacks—House of Dark Shadows has a steady flow of action leading to an overwrought Grand Guignol finale, while Night of Dark Shadows boasts a more vivid love story. In fact, had these movies been the world’s first exposure to the Dark Shadows franchise, it’s unlikely anyone would remember Barnabas and his extended clan today.

House of Dark Shadows: FUNKY
Night of Dark Shadows: FUNKY

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