Producer Dan Curtis’ first big screen spin-off from his hit horror soap opera (a second film, Night of Dark Shadows, followed a year later) makes few concessions to viewers who are unfamiliar with the TV series, which had racked up almost a thousand episodes by the time the film went into production in March 1970. The film attempts to pick out and expand upon one of the very many plot strands that made up the increasingly complex and interlocking complex of storylines but without some sort of working knowledge of who all these people are, it’s very easy t get a bit lost.
House of Dark Shadows revolves around the show’s most enduring character, the vampire Barnabas Collins, played as ever by Jonathan Frid, reducing his storyline from seasons two and three into a compact 90-odd minutes. At the Collins family’s ancestral home in Collinsport, Maine handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) accidentally frees the 175-year-old vampire while searching for treasure and, posing as cousin from England, is soon stalking governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) who resembles his lost love Josette Du Prez. He’s offered a chance at redemption by Dr Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) who may be able to make him human again through a series of injections.
House of Dark Shadows is a rather hokey affair, bringing little new to the party either for Dark Shadows fans (who inevitably flocked to cinemas in 1970 making the film a sizeable hit) or horror fans in general. Curtis’ direction is perfunctory at best and he never really escapes his television roots, nor seems to want to, and many of the supporting performances are stiff and unconvincing. Conspicuously more graphic than the rather tame late-afternoon daytime soap opera it’s based on, there’s little atmosphere except in a couple of the scenes involving Barnabas’ victim Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) who drifts around the estate in a diaphanous white gown before being cornered by crucifix wielding cops in one of the film’s best scenes.
The bulk of the rest of the film is a rather drippy love triangle between Barnabas, Maggie and Dr Hoffman, a blood specialist who has come up with a way to cure him of his vampirism. None of it is terribly involving and the film eventually winds its weary way to a dull climax – the scene mentioned above with the cops cornering the undead Carolyn is a much more convincing finale but happens less than an hour into the film, leaving us over half an hour of Barnabas mooning over Maggie and warding off the advances of a love-struck Julia.
One suspects that one’s enjoyment of the film is tied to a familiarity with and love of the original series. Here in the UK it wasn’t seen until the Sci-Fi Channel began showing it some time in the 1990s so it had little of the cultural impact it seems to have had on a generation of American fans. As such House of Dark Shadows is, for many of us, just another horror film – and sadly it’s not a particularly impressive one. Certainly it does little to encourage one to seek out episodes of the the original series – which given the commitment required to sit through its extraordinary number of episodes is a rather daunting viewing prospect.
It was too much to ask for Curtis to condense many half-hours of drama into a 90 minute feature without many compromises being made and House of Dark Shadows, despite its box office success, ended up pleasing no-one. The storyline is much reduced, leaving fans unsatisfied but still managing to mystify the uninitiated, the notable increase in the amount of blood flowing did little to please the faithful making the transition from the small screen and the turgid pacing was enough to turn anyone off. Any yet it was a hit and a second film, the even less exciting Night of Dark Shadows, was inevitable. It fared less well and the series was already over by the time it was released in August 1971, having been put to the stake on 2 April 1971 after a staggering 1,225 episodes. The show’s popularity endures however and it was revived for television twice, once in 1991 as a short-lived series of twelve episodes and again in 2004 as a pilot that wasn’t picked up. A series of audio adventures by Big Finish continued the story in a rather more respectful fashion than Tim Burton’s jokey big screen flop, Dark Shadows (2012).