House Of Dark Shadows (1970)

JULY 1, 2012


While I wasn’t a big fan of Burton’s film, I still held out hope that there might be something to Dark Shadows that would appeal to me, and thus despite having just gotten home and in much need of a real meal, I headed off to the New Beverly tonight for House Of Dark Shadows, the first theatrical version of the soap opera. Produced in 1970 while the show (of which I haven’t seen a single frame) was still on the air, I was assured that I didn’t need to know the show to follow it. Plus it was paired with Grave Of The Vampire, which I felt almost obligated to see due to the first line of my review from a few months back.

Well, I would argue that you didn’t have to watch the show to understand the film, since it doesn’t hand-hold in the slightest as the movie starts mid-action scene, with two characters talking about others that a new audience wouldn’t have been introduced to yet. Add that to the fact that these scenes are all but completely obscured by the opening credits (this being the early 70s, all the credits were up front), and you have a very jarring introduction to this world, if you chose to make it so. In fact, it was only then that I found an appreciation for Burton’s film – not only did it do a much better job of making a stand-alone product, but if I hadn’t seen it I’d be even more confused as to who everyone was and how they related to each other.

The plots are pretty similar, which also helped. Barnabas is reawakened, falls in love with a girl he thinks looks a lot like his old flame, Julia prepares a serum for him, etc. The main difference is that the character played by Chloe Moretz in Burton’s film is much older here, and yet another character who falls in love with Barnabas over its 97 minutes (three total!). Also the Roger character is more of a hero here than the asshole he was in the new movie, and actually has a point to being there, unlike Elizabeth (Joan Bennett here, Michelle Pfeiffer in the new one) who basically just hangs out in the movie and gets cut to every now and then.

In fact that seems like a main problem here – the need to work everyone in and give them something to do, which makes the pacing awkward. Elizabeth is gradually reduced to an extra, Barnabas disappears for a while to make way for Carolyn’s subplot, etc. It’s fine on a soap opera, because there’s a new episode every day, so if someone is left behind on Tuesday they might be the main focus on Wednesday, but in a “stand-alone” movie, it’s quite awkward to jump around so much at the expense of forward momentum, not to mention time to breath – so many plot points are quickly introduced via someone just saying so – even Barnabas’ awakening just sort of happens without fanfare. If there was ever a movie of this nature that needed a new character to act as an audience surrogate and explain things to (like the bartender in the first X-Files movie), it was this.

It certainly improved on one thing (again, from what I understand): the gore. The daytime TV show might have been “scary” compared to the other soap operas, but it couldn’t possibly have been as bloody as this gets at times, as the film gives the Hammer films of the time a run for their money during the staking scenes. Hell, when Carolyn was staked I was actually kind of shocked at how much blood there was, given the show’s origin (it’s not like the gore would be expected) and my familiarity with other films of the period. They might not have done a great job of making something that would inspire new fans, but they certainly excelled at making a competitive horror film.

It’s also better than Burton’s film. The tone isn’t as erratic, the finale is more exciting (and less prone to out of nowhere idiocy), and Barnabas is much more interesting here. Depp’s version didn’t manage to be scary, so when he had to be a vampire it didn’t work, but Jonathan Frid really sells his character’s conflict of a guy who doesn’t want to be the monster he has to be in order to live. Production value is obviously diminished (being that the new film had roughly 40 times as much money with inflation factored in), but at least it feels like a singular vision instead of the result of a dozen producers, a major star, and an increasingly lazy “visionary” trying to have their say.

I’m actually kind of curious how many folks went home from this and began watching the show. As it was released pretty much right in the center of its run, it doesn’t really fit into any sort of continuity that I can tell, seeing as so many of the characters are killed off in the film when they were still alive and well on the show. Being a soap opera, I’m sure it was prone to the usual ret-conning and flat out ignorance of earlier plot lines, but I sincerely doubt that the next episode after the movie’s release explained how everyone was back to life. My guess is that it didn’t have any impact on the show at all (barring having to reduce certain actors’ screentime during the film’s production), but it’d be kind of funny to see an episode more or less devoted to undoing everything here. Guess they could have just said it was all a dream.

As for Grave Of The Vampire, the print was faded to the point of being invisible, but it was fun to hear folks’ reactions to the goofy “cake” line and other silly plot points, plus it made for a weekend double bill of Michael Pataki (who showed up in yesterday’s The Baby). I dozed off for a while, so I didn’t get the full experience, but as a guy commented on the way out, it’s awesome to see a world where vampires are no big deal (the cop in Grave immediately suspects vampirism as the cause of a recent murder), and of course any movie with a “The End… or IS IT?” title card goes over well at the Bev (the one in Raw Force got a standing ovation, as I recall). At any rate, it was a fine selection to be paired with Dark Shadows; two very odd, not very exciting but somewhat charming 70s vampire movies. Where’s our big budget Grave of the Vampire revival?

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. This was a standalone movie, with no intended connection to the continuity of the series. It's sort of a "reboot" of the initial vampire plotline that saw Barnabas resurrected, only boiled down to 90 minutes and with a definite ending. Some things that took months to unfold on the show happen here in a matter of minutes. Nothing that happened in this movie was ever referenced in the show.


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