House of Dark Shadows-1970
Starring-Jonathan Frid, Grayson Hall
Scott’s Review #1,079
Reviewed November 9, 2020
House of Dark Shadows (1970) is undoubtedly meant mostly as a treat for fans of the popular gothic soap-opera, Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC television from 1966-1971. The soap was groundbreaking for its gloominess and its focus on the world of vampires, eliminating the tried and true apple pie wholesomeness of serials like As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. The film was an enormous hit with followers at the time of release and while it can be enjoyed by all, it screams of having a specific target audience in mind.
Released during the height of the television show popularity in 1970, it must have been enthralling to be the first feature film based on a daytime soap opera. And how exciting for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen. I tried to keep this in mind as I was watching, and it helped me enjoy it more. In later years I watched bits of season one, so some knowledge exists.
If memory serves, some of the action happens in the series and in the film (like Barnabas rising from his coffin), but that doesn’t seem important and served as more of a recap to me. The film is entertaining enough on its own merits in a spooky, atmospheric way, although besides more blood and chills, it follows the same formula that the series did.
Our star, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerges from his coffin in the family mausoleum much to the chagrin of the family handyman and introduces himself to the Collins family as a distant cousin from England. He has an uncanny resemblance to a figure on a portrait displayed in the estate that is over a hundred years old. A fancy ball is thrown to celebrate the family where Barnabas bites Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) turning her into a vampire. He quickly becomes obsessed with governess Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) while awakening suspicions in psychologist, Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall).
The whole package is stylish and haunting with lots of necessary goth attire like coffins, capes, fangs, and blood red lips. The production style is appealing and not the least bit cheesy or amateurish. The famous Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York was used during the shoot and with good results. The interior lavish, the exterior is just as grand with lush grounds and a hidden driveway being useful to the plot. The eerie attic with macabre and stifling trimmings is vital in one scene. This works much better than a studio set, and the overall production is superior to the series.
The final thirty minutes or so is the best part with a cool Hammer horror likeness. When Julia gives Barnabas, a powerful injection meant to cause him to age rapidly, all hell breaks loose. You see, while Barnabas is obsessed with Maggie, Julia is secretly in love with Barnabas, so the dramatic soap opera necessities are intact. The makeup during this sequence is highly effective and downright creepy.
Other characters are likable and respectable to the film, but the acting isn’t so great, which reduces the believability factor just a bit. Stalwarts like Joan Bennett as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Roger Davis as Jeff Clark, and David Henesy as little David Collins have prominent roles. It’s an ensemble effort as each character has something to do to support the main story. This is a nice add-on and gives everyone time to shine.
Regardless of knowledge of the daytime drama series, one can enjoy the film on its own merits, though how exciting it must have been for fans to see their favorites on the silver screen in 1970. I am not sure how many viewers will need to invest in the film because it feels like a reward for viewers of the series and in present day a retro nostalgic experience. The series was again celebrated in film with the mediocre 2012 effort entitled Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp.
House of Dark Shadows (1970) is a compelling watch around Halloween time since it has nice autumnal, gothic elements fitting for the season of the witch. The ghastly (in a good way) makeup and bloody bites and pretty people turned vampires, suffering with stakes through the heart is worth the watch.