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Bruce Markusen Remembers ‘House of Dark Shadows’ 50 Years Later

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Bruce Markusen Remembers 'House of Dark Shadows' 50 Years Later

The recent passing of Ben Cross, the underrated star of the “Dark Shadows” remake of 1991, has prompted me to do some thinking about the television show that became a national phenomenon. Cross delivered an excellent performance during the show’s one-season run, making the remake an important piece, if one that was all too brief, of the “Dark Shadows” franchise.

Twenty one years before Cross starred on the new “Dark Shadows”, the most famous vampire in America was not Dracula, as played by either Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. It certainly wasn’t Count Yorga, as portrayed by Robert Quarry. Nor was it the Vampire Lestat, who hadn’t even been invented yet. No, it was Barnabas Collins, the character that Cross would eventually play. The original Barnabas had somehow succeeded the Lugosi and Lee incarnations as the most recognizable revenant in America. First introduced on the struggling TV soap opera, “Dark Shadows”, back in 1967, the character not only saved the daily serial from cancellation, but it produced a cultural sensation. As portrayed by the late Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, the original Barnabas possessed a complicated and conflicted personality that made him popular with viewers, critics, and plain old-fashioned fans of vampires.

By 1970, the “Dark Shadows” television show was not only being seen on ABC every weekday afternoon, but it was also making its transition to the theater that summer. On August 24th, a little more than 50 years ago, the first “Dark Shadows” film made its theatrical premiere. Called House of Dark Shadows, the movie essentially reimagined the early storylines of the TV show, before coming to a less nebulous and more violent conclusion. In so doing, director and producer Dan Curtis employed a much larger budget for the film, while eliminating the comical flubbed lines and technical gaffes that often plagued his hurried television productions.

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Given more money ($750,000) and time (a six-week filming schedule) with his first film adaptation of “Dark Shadows”, Curtis employed a cast and crew of 55 members and produced one of the better horror movies of the early 1970s. Full of atmosphere and Gothic imagery, House of Dark Shadows featured an array of wonderful indoor and outdoor sets, including the stunning Lyndhurst Estate located in Tarrytown, NY. (At the time, Lyndhurst featured house tours, forcing Curtis and company to work around the public schedule.) Curtis also employed the nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, another location that supplied the appropriate atmosphere for a story about vampires. And without the censorship restrictions that Curtis faced with a daytime television series, he delivered enough blood and violence to make things interesting for his growing teenaged audience, along with older adult viewers.

Even more critically than the violence and atmosphere, the key to the success of House of Dark Shadows was the presence of Jonathan Frid as the original Barnabas. Unleashed from his coffin after centuries of dormancy, Barnabas becomes desperate in his search for a cure that will end his vampiric fate. With a cure, he will be free to marry Maggie Evans, the beautiful and charming young resident of Collinsport who seems to be the reincarnation of Barnabas’ long-dead fiancée, Josette.

As he did with the TV series, Frid plays Barnabas with dignity and gravitas. A Canadian-born actor who was trained in Shakespearean productions, Frid was experienced in theater and very capable of more diverse roles than he was given on the big screen. Though not as well-known as the late Lugosi or the still-active Lee, Frid succeeded in making the televised version of Barnabas a vampire icon of similar proportions, not through sheer terror, but by alternating Barnabas’ sympathetic side with his more nefarious tendencies.

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In House of Dark Shadows, Barnabas is less conflicted—and far more violent. As pointed out by the excellent “Dark Shadows” historian Jeff Thompson, Barnabas treats Willie, his so-called manservant, as if he were Renfield, Dracula’s despicable fly-eating servant. Barnabas also takes the opportunity to attack the characters of Professor Stokes, Roger Collins, and Carolyn Stoddard, the daughter of Collins matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and turn them all into vampires.

In addition, Barnabas becomes entangled in a complicated relationship with Dr. Julia Hoffman, who at first attempts to help him find a cure. The treatments allow Barnabas to walk in the daytime, giving him more time to spend with Maggie. But Dr. Hoffman becomes jealous of Barnabas’ growing interest in Maggie and pulls a double-cross, injecting the vampire with a serum that turns him into an old and grotesque creature. Thanks to the wonderful makeup applied by artist Dick Smith, Barnabas looks something like the grandfather cannibal in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Predictably, the betrayal enrages Barnabas, who not only seeks revenge against Julia but embarks on a reign of terror against the residents of Collinwood and their friends. Barnabas’ path of destruction will ultimately lead him to a final conflict with a previously minor character named Jeff Clark, now presented with the chance to do battle with Barnabas and emerge as the hero of Collinwood.

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One of the real strengths of House of Dark Shadows is its reliance on the same key actors who starred during the first five years of the TV program. In addition to Frid, a number of important “Dark Shadows” players reprised their roles, including Grayson Hall as Dr. Hoffman, Kathryn Leigh Scott as Maggie, John Karlen as the always frazzled Willie Loomis, Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Stoddard, and Thayer David as Professor Stokes. For the viewers this eliminated the jarring sensation of having to acclimate to new actors as their favorite characters. Now given more time to rehearse and refine their roles, most of the “Dark Shadows” actors elevated their game for the film, giving House of Dark Shadows the kind of big screen appeal that made it a hit with fans in 1970.

House of Dark Shadows worked on two levels with its audience. For those who did not watch the TV show, the movie cogently and clearly told an entertaining story about the wealthy Collins family and the problems created by the arrival of Barnabas. And for those who did follow the show, House of Dark Shadows succeeded in underscoring the best elements of a Gothic television show while also advancing the story to a defined and dramatic conclusion that we never saw on the daily soap opera.

Curtis also understood that House of Dark Shadows needed to take a different approach in terms of tone and graphic detail. No longer shackled by the regulations of broadcast TV, Curtis introduced violence, bloodshed, and a smattering of gore to the proceedings. As historian Thompson points out in his terrific book, Nights of Dan Curtis, “The “Dark Shadows” TV series spotlighted Gothic mystery and doomed romance over violence and body counts, so the gory mayhem of House of Dark Shadows was a jarring shift in tone. Frid… now found himself playing a monster in House of Dark Shadows.” As such, Curtis shows us vampire bites as they take place, along with the actual flow of blood. Wisely, Curtis understood that viewers would not be as willing to accept the tame content of the television show; they wanted something more terrifying and more sophisticated in making the trip to the theater. Curtis gave them that—and more.

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While Curtis executed this elevated tone of terror very well, it proved to be too much for Jonathan Frid. He did not care for the violence, more specifically the brutal nature of his character. He preferred the more sensitive and conflicted Barnabas of the TV show. Offended by the fiercer and more monstrous Barnabas, Frid became dissatisfied and chose not to become a part of the next “Dark Shadows” film.

The follow-up film, Night of Dark Shadows, made its way into theaters without the presence of Frid. That forced Curtis to switch to plan B, which involved centering the story on David Selby, the second most popular actor from the TV show. Curtis brought back Selby as Quentin Collins, but instead of making him a werewolf again, changed him into a human artist who would become haunted by the ghost of Angelique, the witch that had tormented Barnabas during the television run. Night of Dark Shadows paled in comparison to House of Dark Shadows, but it certainly featured its share of terror-inducing moments, along with a surprising conclusion. It’s a decent movie, and one that would have turned out even better if Curtis had not been forced to make massive editorial cuts by an overbearing producer.

By the time that Night of Dark Shadows aired in 1971, the franchise had started to lose steam, largely because the TV show had already been cancelled earlier that spring. But with House of Dark Shadows, the release of a feature film only cemented the franchise as an important part of popular culture in the early 1970s. By that time, “Dark Shadows” had spawned board games, action figures, lunch boxes, posters, novels, and even comic books. On a more personal level, the show’s popularity had lifted Barnabas Collins to the status of a bizarre matinee idol. Not only was the middle-aged Barnabas (as portrayed by a fortysomething Frid) desired by women of various ages, but he was also regarded as a strange, offbeat hero by young men in the viewing audience.

When those fans saw Barnabas Collins on a large screen for the first time, and in a truly monstrous role, they became even more frenzied. Barnabas and Jonathan Frid became so popular that they ruled the vampire world. And for a little while at least, the phenomenon of Barnabas Collins reduced Dracula to the role of a bit player on the pop culture pecking order.

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Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.

RELATED: REMEMBERING TELEVISION SHOW “CHILLER THEATER” ON WPIX-CHANNEL 11

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