The spring of 1971 was a difficult time for fans of the hit television show, “Dark Shadows”. The popular afternoon soap opera, which had developed a rabid following and become an integral part of early 1970s popular culture, was cancelled in April of that year, with little advance notice or fanfare. That left diehard fans of the show devastated, wondering how they would now spend their late afternoons without their favorite tormented vampire, Barnabas Collins, and the remaining cast of characters from the imaginary place known as Collinsport.
Yet, all was not lost. The summer of 1971, some 50 years ago, brought the release of a feature film, the second such theatrical release involving the “Dark Shadows” franchise. On August 4, director and series creator Dan Curtis delivered his follow-up to the TV show, and a sequel to the first film, House of Dark Shadows, with a creative venture titled Night of Dark Shadows.
Sadly, Night of Dark Shadows did little at the box office. It also received mostly poor reviews. Critics and fans bemoaned the absence of Jonathan Frid, who had turned down the opportunity to play Barnabas one final time. With Barnabas out of the equation – and there was no way that Curtis would have dared to ask another actor to attempt to replace Frid as the iconic character – the project lost much of its steam. It also didn’t help matters that the TV show had already been canceled several months earlier. Without the hope of future “Dark Shadows” episodes, the proper timing for a feature film had come and gone.
For many years now, Night of Dark Shadows has continued to be derided as a subpar film. I believed most of those reviews, at least until I had a chance to watch the movie for the first time during a late-night airing on Turner Classic Movies. Having now seen it start to finish, I believe the film has been denigrated unfairly. While it is not a great film or anything close to being a classic, it is actually a very decent production that is entertaining, suspenseful, and well-acted. It is worth the watch, particularly for fans of everything “Dark Shadows”. And it is a film that could have reached much higher critical acclaim if only Curtis had been allowed to leave the original cut of the film as he intended.
In putting together Night of Dark Shadows, there is little doubt that Curtis faced a few major obstacles. Let’s start with Frid. Curtis wanted him to be the star of the film, but Frid opted out, mostly because he was unhappy with the degree of violence in the first film, House of Dark Shadows. Frid did not like that the conflicted nature of Barnabas had been replaced with a more sinister vampire, who essentially became a killing machine in the first film. I suppose it’s also fair to speculate that Frid felt typecast by the role and probably wanted to move on to other projects having nothing to do with Barnabas or “Dark Shadows”. At that point, there was little for Curtis to do in terms of convincing Frid to agree for one last turn as Barnabas.
The absence of Frid and Barnabas Collins clearly hurt the film’s chance of having the same kind of impact as House of Dark Shadows. The “Dark Shadows” franchise could not prosper without Frid and his brilliant portrayal of Barnabas. More than any of the other actors, Frid made the television show a pop culture sensation—and had a similar impact on the first of the two feature films.
Forced to eliminate all references to Barnabas, Curtis opted for what he considered the best available backup plan: a film having nothing to do with Barnabas or vampires in general. He decided to fall back on the TV show’s second most popular actor, David Selby, who had portrayed the werewolf, Quentin Collins, beginning in 1968.
Rather than have Selby reprise his role as Quentin, Curtis devised a completely new theme: that of witchcraft. Curtis retained the character’s name of Quentin Collins, but in the movie he is neither a werewolf nor any kind of supernatural figure. Quentin is an artist who has just inherited the Collinwood estate. He and his new wife, played by a young Kate Jackson, move into the mansion, where they meet the housekeeper, the bizarre Carlotta Drake, played wonderfully by Grayson Hall (who had portrayed Dr. Julia Hoffman during the original series). Quentin is soon haunted by the ghost of a woman named Angelique, who had an affair with Charles Collins, one of Quentin’s ancestors. Eventually hanged for witchcraft, Angelique has returned to Collinwood to seduce Quentin, as she once did with Charles. The haunting results in strange visions experienced by Quentin, who begins to behave oddly, as he is seemingly in danger of possession by Angelique.
Over the first half of the film, Night of Dark Shadows is somewhat slow, as it builds tension and sets the scene for the takeover by Angelique. But Hall’s Carlotta Drake carries the film early on; she is rude, even obnoxious in her interactions with the young Collins couple, while conducting herself in an odd and sinister manner.
After the slow build-up, Night of Dark Shadows becomes frenzied over the final 20 minutes, with a flurry of activity. Unfortunately, those final scenes are disjointed. That problem, which includes some unexplained jumps in the story, had to do with the studio’s mishandling of the film. An MGM executive named James Aubrey, forced Curtis to cut 35 minutes (or roughly 25 percent of the film) and made the director do so under a ridiculous 24-hour deadline. The rushed edits resulted in the elimination of several excellent scenes, including a compelling séance, and also left major plot holes, ruining the continuity of the film.
Faced with an impossible task of making major changes at the last minute, Curtis did his best, but had to settle for a film that was a shell of its original vision. If only Curtis, a very capable director and creative force, had been left alone to do his job, Night of Dark Shadows would have turned out much differently.
The excised footage, consisting of 16 sequences, became lost for a number of years before being recovered in 1999. Sadly, the footage is lacking sound, making it mostly unusable. “Dark Shadows” historian and standout author Jeff Thompson has seen the removed footage and believes that if it had been allowed to remain part of the original print, the film would have become more of an artistic success. “The missing footage makes Night of Dark Shadows richer and deeper,” says Thompson. “I hope that the footage can be restored [completely] some day.”
Even with the forced edits, Night of Dark Shadows has several strengths. With its wonderful outdoor views and indoor backgrounds, provided by Tarrytown’s Lyndhurst Mansion on the Hudson River, the film features beautiful cinematography and atmosphere. Famed paranormal investigator Hans Holzer served as a technical advisor, offering advice on how to create scenes featuring the ghost of Angelique. Curtis also coaxed excellent performances from Selby and Hall, the latter particularly effective as the creepy Carlotta. Jackson, who was making her feature film debut and would later star in Satan’s School for Girls, is also credible as Selby’s wife, though her screen time is somewhat limited. And the always capable Lara Parker, another mainstay from the TV series, is very good as Angelique. A number of other “Dark Shadows” regulars, like John Karlen, Nancy Barrett, Christopher Pennock, and Thayer David also make appearances.
As with many Curtis productions, the conclusion of the film is effective and unexpected, foreshadowing a similar ending that the director would use a few years later in his excellent 1976 movie, Burnt Offerings.
In retrospect, Night of Dark Shadows is not what it should have been. For that, we can blame the meddling of James Aubrey. But the film’s atmosphere, mood, and strong acting all make it worthwhile and enjoyable. If the sound to the once-lost footage from the original Dan Curtis print could ever be restored, fans of 1970s horror would have something else to enjoy from the sensation that was the “Dark Shadows” franchise.
Consider picking up Bruce’s new book Hosted Horror on Television, which is currently available through the McfarlandBooks website.
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