REVIEW: House of Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows - House of Dark Shadows - Lobbycard

With Tim Burton’s big-budget adaptation of Dan Curtis’ classic horror-soap Dark Shadows hitting theatres, much debate has been made regarding whether the new film will pay enough homage to the original series. Would the beloved franchise be bastardized? Before that question can be answered fairly, however, a look to the first film adaptation of Dark Shadows may be necessary. While the quality of Burton’s film, and its adherence to the original material, is in question, it should be a no-brainer that the film put forth by the creator of the property himself, and which featured the original cast of the series, should be a smash success, right? Well…


Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) & Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid)

House of Dark Shadows, the first film based on the cult series (the second being Night of Dark Shadows), presents the Barnabas storyline of the series, including his return to Collinwood, his quest to end his vampirism, and his unending love for Josette DuPres… and manages to work in bits and pieces of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to boot. While many may cry “foul” at this accusation, I’ll make this allowance: Dark Shadows – the series – took much inspiration from Gothic tales, and every good vampire has a bit of the old Count about them. On the other hand… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

House of Dark Shadows begins with the Collins’ handyman, Willie Loomis (John Karlen) freeing vampire Barnabas (the late, great Jonathan Frid) from his coffin. Barnabas returns to his family’s ancestral house, Collinwood, claiming to be a “cousin from overseas.” In a celebration to gain his new family’s acceptance, he throws a costume ball, where he becomes enamored with the family governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), whom he believes is the reincarnation of his original love, Josette DuPres.  During his quest to win Maggie’s affections, Barnabas turns Carolyn, his new cousin, into a vampire. Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), the family’s live-in doctor/therapist, discovers his secret, and tries to cure him of his vampirism by administering blood transfusions. Can Barnabas contain his monstrous side long enough for Dr. Hoffman to cure his curse, or will the vampire consume all of the residents of Collinwood?

Carolyn, All Vamped Up

Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), All Vamped Up

It’s safe to say that the first attempt to condense one of the major plotlines from Dark Shadows’ 1,255-episode canon is a little flawed. The obvious misstep, its WTF moment, is the replacement of the character of Victoria Winters, one of the central focuses of the original series, with the character of Maggie Evans. Presumably this was done to condense the storyline – Maggie, a barmaid in the original series, does become the reincarnation of Josette, and by putting her in place of Victoria Winters, the drama is brought right into the Collins’ home. Still, it’s awkward, and definitely not as loyal to the show as one might expect from a film directed by the series creator. Also, while the show’s sex appeal and bloody content was amped up for the big screen, the story falls a little flat – I put blame for this on the film’s reliance on plot beats cribbed from Dracula. Carolyn is a definite substitute for Stoker’s Lucy, a wild-child-turned harlot of the damned, and the black wedding and final showdown are lifted directly from the end of Stoker’s novel. So, yeah, what are you supposed to do with a vampire at the end of the film but stake him? I don’t know – but apparently, neither did series writers Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, who uncharacteristically dropped the ball a bit on the ending.

House of Dark Shadows

House of Dark Shadows

It may sound like I’m being extraordinarily harsh, but in truth, I’m a fan of House of Dark Shadows. There’s definitely much more to like than dislike about the film, and most of that is due to its lush, Hammer Studios-esque settings, and the familiar performances of the series’ regular cast. Joan Bennett is in fine form as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the family’s matriarch, and she actually seems much more comfortable in the film than she ever did in the original series (Bennett, as well as Frid, were used to film and theatre roles, and both had a bit of trouble with the daily scripts of the original show).  John Karlen’s Willie is more of a Renfield-type in the film than he ever was on the original show, but his performance is an enjoyable one. Kathryn Leigh Scott is effective as Maggie Evans, as are both Nancy Barrett (Carolyn) and Roger David (Jeff Clark). The star of the film is, of course, Jonathan Frid, whose Barnabas seems much more dynamic in the film than the series, due to the faster pacing of a 97 minute storyline, as opposed to a multi-week story arc. Displaying both dapper charm and monstrous ferocity, Frid’s Barnabas is always a joy to watch.

Old Barnabas

Dick Smith's amazing "Old Barnabas" make-up design

House of Dark Shadows is an enjoyable, but sometimes ponderous, film that highlights some of the more adult thrills of Dark Shadows, sacrificing a bit of the show’s involuntary charm for an atmosphere of somberness and dread. The film is effective, but its adherence to the original property isn’t consistent – and this may be more to the film’s benefit than it is harmful. To try to condense only the show’s major plotlines would still be a monumental headache, and to adapt a television soap opera, however beloved, beat-by-beat would mostly likely be folly. The original creators of the show recognized this to be the truth of the matter, and even considering some questionable studio cuts, House of Dark Shadows is still a pretty good encapsulation of the small screen’s favorite vampire. The feeling is grandiose, and the story, while a bit unoriginal, moves at a brisk pace; additionally, the freedom to traffic in a bit more of the show’s darker subject matter is always a plus (also of note is one of make-up legend Dick Smith’s most iconic creations – the old age make-up for Barnabas Collins). Come back to Collinwood… and see how the vampires do it!


(PS – As cheesy/awesome as that last sentence was, I didn’t write it. It was the film’s original tagline. That’s pretty damn awesome.)

Rating: 3/5 ★★★☆☆ 


About Nathan_E

Nathan Erdel is a screenwriter. He wrote Headless and some other stuff. He likes beer, metal, pizza, and horror. He has three cats and one wife.

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