Weekend Review: House of Dark Shadows

The reviews thus far of Tim Burton’s spoofy Dark Shadows remake have been less than sunny, so for weekend review, we’re looking back to the first Dark Shadows film. House of Dark Shadows, cast into theatres in 1970 when the original Gothic soap opera was still running, takes the show’s most memorable storyline, and retells it without having to worry about the next season.

The fans of the show loved it. Does it hold up now?

For those of you unfamiliar with the show’s history, it goes something like this:

Dan Curtis and Art Wallace created a Gothic soap opera that ran in the after-school slot and concerned the wealthy, eccentric Collins family and the mystery-filled town of Collinsport, Maine. Poor ratings in the first season made the show a likely candidate for cancellation. With nothing to lose, the creators began adding supernatural elements. The vampire, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) might have been just one more supernatural storyline, but he became so popular that they couldn’t let him go. In much the same way that non-Trekkers viewed TOS as the show about that guy with the pointy ears, people identified Dark Shadows as the soap opera about that vampire, Barnabas Collins. Frid became one of the first vamp heartthrobs, appearing regularly on teen magazine covers. Gold Key launched a comic that ran long after the series (which broadened to include time-travel, alternate realities, and Lovecraftian horrors) ended. Reruns brought newer viewers, and, in 1991, the show was unsuccessfully remade for television.

A couple of feature films appeared in the early 70s; this was the first, and the closest to the source.

Title: House of Dark Shadows

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Dan Curtis
Written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell
Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins
Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie Evans
Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman
Roger Davis as Jeff Clark
Nancy Barrett as Carolyn Stoddard
John Karlen as Willie Loomis
Thayer David as Professor T. Eliot Stokes
Louis Edmonds as Roger Collins
Don Briscoe as Todd Blake
David Henesy as David Collins
Dennis Patrick as Sheriff George Patterson
Barbara Cason as Mrs. Johnson
Humbert Allen Astredo as Dr. Forbes
Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard

Additional cast and crew may be found here.


Lowlife and handyman Willie Loomis accidentally releases a two-hundred-year-old vampire, Barnabas Collins, who promptly rejoins his eccentric family and their acquaintances. When Barnabas meets a woman who is the image of his long-dead love, he seeks a cure for his curse so he can marry her.

Things do not entirely go as planned.

High Point:

Fans of the sometimes creaky TV series get to see a lot more blood and violence than television of the era permitted, and the show uses this to good effect, without becoming a Hammer Picture. By today’s standards, of course, it’s quite tame.

The movie features some effective filming that was beyond the scope of the daily series, and creates drama from its ability to stray from the necessities of a continuing storyline. Freed from show’s continuity, Barnabas’s story could come to a climax and conclude—well, sort of.

Low Point:

The producers toyed with the idea of simply splicing the original Barnabas Collins plot into a movie, but they abandoned the idea in favour of reshooting variations, with key alterations, and without worrying about whether everyone survives. Those original events, however, unfolded over weeks of daily shows comprised of plot fragments. Compressed, they have a curious choppiness. Characters appear without introduction; scenes shift without effective transitions. Interactions suggest weeks or even months of development, but the film has compressed those into a shorter timeframe. Barnabas has some past with Jeff which lacks explanation. And characters overcome their skepticism about the undead with ludicrous ease.

The Scores:

Originality: 1/6 We have a revision of episodes of a series that was still running, focusing on a vampire very much derived from Dracula.

Effects: 3/6

Story: 3/6

Acting: 4/6 The performances vary in quality, but most of the cast were doing double duty and, experienced actors though they are, what works on a soap opera does not always hold in a supposedly serious film.

Production: 5/6 The film made effective use of a low budget, though one rather larger than the series could afford. Filming took place on several historic properties.

Emotional Response: 3/6

Overall: 4/6 It’s a period piece now, but it’s possible it may provide more entertainment than the latest incarnation of Dark Shadows. Certainly, those interested in the more recent vampire craze and its origins should take a look at this—or perhaps they should just watch a few hundred episodes of the old soap opera.

In total, House of Dark Shadowsreceives 23/42.