The House of Dark Shadows and the Legacy of Daytime GothicSeptember 21, 2020 By Go Back
Writer, director, and producer Dan Curtis (1927-2006) pioneered genre TV shows like The Night Stalker and classic horror remakes, but one of his first creations, the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, is related to me in a fangirl way. The half-hour show that first aired in 1966 and ended in 1971 would become a television phenomenon and one that endures to this day. My late mother, Patricia, was such a huge fan that she named me after one of the show’s characters, Carolyn Stoddard, daughter of the Dark Shadows matriarch.
The saga begins when governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Isles) arrives at the remote town of Collinsport, Maine. She is hired by Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Joan Bennett), the matriarch of the Collins family, to look after her troubled nephew David (David Henesy). It’s here that we meet several family members and their various eccentricities. There are many mysteries in Collinsport, but it’s not until the second season onwards that the supernatural, parallel timelines, time travel, and reincarnations would steal the hearts of fans everywhere.
In the documentary Master of Dark Shadows (2019), we learn that Curtis came up with the concept from a dream he had of a young woman on a nighttime train ride. Gothic stories like Jane Eyre inspired him, and ABC picked up the treatment for daytime TV , specifically the 3:30 pm slot, which surprised him at first, thinking it would be better for night viewing. The show initially didn’t do well until the introduction of a supernatural theme. The addition of Barnabas Collins, a tragic and reluctant vampire played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, boosted the show’s ratings sky-high and also sparked a massive fandom. Fueled by the show’s success, Curtis would go on to direct a film based on the soap, House of Dark Shadows, in 1970. There was more to see here since blood and gore weren’t allowed on television for fear of supposedly scarring the minds of the after-school bunch. With the film, Curtis was able to use a more traditional vampire story instead of painting Barnabas as a tragic figure, and he had a much bigger budget at his disposal.
House of Dark Shadows is packed with the same melodrama and maintains most of the same characters and actors from the show. Here, we have governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) searching for her charge David Collins. At the same time, sneaky groundskeeper Willie Loomis (John Karlen) finds a coffin while searching for heirloom jewels and discovers the 175-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins. Once revived, Barnabas attacks the family secretary, takes Willie on as his handler, and claiming to be a relative from England, charms the Collins family and the matriarch Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard into staying for a spell. He’s in time for a costume party in old-timey dress where he meets Maggie and Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett), Elizabeth’s daughter. What ensues is Barnabas’ obsession with Maggie, who looks like his lost love Josette, Carolyn becoming a vampire, and a possible cure for Barnabas’ vampirism.
The movie was a hit at the box office and spurred the sequel The Night of Dark Shadows (1971) featuring cousin Quentin Collins and his involvement with the witch Angelique, but it didn’t do as well as the first film since Frid didn’t want to be typecast and refused to be in the sequel. There was also a revamp of the series by Curtis aired in 1991, but Gulf War coverage overshadowed the show, forcing its cancellation.
Fast forward to 2012, when innovative filmmaker Tim Burton, known for his own gothic style, and director of Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), had a chance to breathe new life into the tale of vampires, witches, and werewolves in the town of Collinsport.
Instead of going for a literal remake, Burton’s signature style transports us into his universe of gothic whimsy where he combines the soap’s many storylines into a one-off of how the Collins family regain their glory. We see Barnabas (Johnny Depp) as a child coming to Maine with his family in 1760, his love triangle with Angelique (Eva Green), a servant and witch at the family’s Collinsport mansion, and Josette (Bella Heathcote), a young woman of society. Angelique, scorned by Barnabas, curses him to suffer eternally as a vampire and incites the townspeople to bury him in the forest. He is resurrected in 1972 to help the head of the Collins family, Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), regain their fishing business as he deals with a still vindictive Angelique who has flourished for over 200 years, and Josette’s doppelgänger, governess Victoria Winters.
In interviews, Burton said he wanted to recreate the weird vibe of the show that fans loved, and infused it with tongue-in-cheek comedy. He picked up on the unintentional camp and high melodrama from the original series and even enlisted Johnathan Frid and other original cast members for a party scene. Long-time Burton collaborator Depp goes for some major comedic camp and riffs well off of Pfeiffer, and the visuals and styling of the film has a cool 70s flare that works with the over-the-top movie. Look out for Helena Bonham Carter’s wonderfully dry version of Dr. Julia Hoffman, originally played by Dark Shadows mainstay Grayson Hall.
If you’re a genre fan looking for some O.G. gothic horror, check out Curtis’ House of Dark Shadows and then watch Burton pay respect to a moment in time when vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and witches boldly graced our TV sets in broad daylight.