I put this movie into my Netflix queue because of the title, thinking it had some connection the supernatural soap opera. In spite of the title, however, it has little to do with the TV series; the little it does is more of a detriment than than a benefit except in the marketing sense. Changing the names of a few characters and locations would remove the relationship, but improve the viewing experience.
The story begins with Quentin Collins and his wife Tracy (Kate Jackson before she was anybody famous) inheriting the family mansion, Collinwood, from Mrs. Elizabeth Collins Stoddard whom it seems has recently died. The Collinwood seen here doesn’t resemble the house in the series. Instead of flimsy studio sets for the interiors, Collinwood is a now shown inside and out as a handsome and spacious, actual house. This is a reasonable change; the filmmakers had a much bigger budget, so of course they’d want to make use of it with a good location.
The housekeeper, Carlotta, is waiting to welcome the young couple upon their arrival. The Collinses jokingly refer to her as “Mrs. Danvers,” but they don’t know the half of it.
Carlotta shows the Collinses and the viewer around the beautiful house, but dissuades them from going up into the tower. It is from Carlotta that we learn that the portrait of a striking blonde woman circa 1810 in the drawing room is of Angelique Collins, a reputed witch. The painting was by Angelique’s brother-in-law, Charles Collins. Like Charles, Quentin is a painter and–by remarkable coincidence–looks just like his remote ancestor. Almost immediately upon entering Collinwood, Quentin begins to have memories of Charles’s life, his love-affair with Angelique, and her death. She was hanged from a tree just outside the house.
This isn’t Angelique’s story as I remember it. As I recall, her obsessive and unrequited love for Barnabas Collins was what turned him into a vampire in the first place, and there weren’t any painters or hangings on the grounds of Collinwood involved. So why use the same name for this witch? Is she meant to be the same character?
From Quentin’s flashbacks, we also observe that Charles’s own wife was Laura Collins, played by the same actress who played Laura during the Phoenix saga. Though she plays a part in bringing about Angelique’s death, this Laura displays no supernatural powers of her own and shows no propensity whatsoever to burst into flames. Again, I must wonder: Is she meant to be the same character?
These revisions of characters are somewhat confusing, but it’s the reuse of other members of the Dark Shadows’ cast that makes the connection to the series truly a problem. When Nancy Barrett appears, the viewer who’s been a fan of the series might naturally expect her to be playing Elizabeth Stoddard’s daughter Carolyn. Then John Karlen, who played Barnabas’s Renfield stand-in, Willie Loomis, shows up. But the two are obviously a couple. I spent a bewildered moment wondering what kind of completely deranged plot development I missed after I stopped watching the show, until dialog established that the two actors weren’t playing their familiar Dark Shadows’ characters. In this movie, they are Claire and Alex Jenkins, friends of the Collinses who live in a cottage on the grounds. If the film had nothing to do with Dark Shadows or the Collins family, this jarring dislocation of character identity would not occur.
Back to the story. When Quentin expresses a wish for a suitable place to do his own painting, Carlotta finally shows him what’s in the tower: The top-most room was Charles’s studio. Some of Charles’s paintings remain in it, including an unfinished one featuring Angelique lounging in the foreground while most of the canvas remains blank. This painting induces another vivid flashback: during a romantic encounter on a break from modeling for Charles, Angelique urges her lover to “Get rid of her. Make the painting real.” But is she referring to Charles’s wife Laura in 1810, or to Quentin’s wife in the present?
As he spends time in the studio, Quentin’s memories of the past grow more frequent. Carlotta seems to be doing everything she can to encourage this. When Quentin finally confronts her and asks what’s happening to him, the housekeeper tells him that he and she are lucky people: they not only have lived past lives, but they can remember them. Quentin was Charles. And Carlotta? She claims that in her past life, she was a little girl who was living in Collinwood at the time of Angelique’s hanging (Quentin has glimpsed the figure of a girl gazing in horror out of the old nursery window).
I’m unclear what relation this child was to the Collinses, but Carlotta says that she adored Angelique. She also tells Quentin that just before her death, Angelique promised that she would return and Carlotta must wait and be ready to aid her. Carlotta believes that the time has come. Angelique is returning to reclaim her lover and if Quentin does care for his wife, then he’d better send her away as soon as possible.
Quentin doesn’t send his wife away and as the personality of Charles begins to overtake his own, he becomes surly and abusive toward her. He also develops an unexplained limp. These changes in her husband worry and frighten young Mrs. Collins, but she stays and puts up with it. The same sort of thing happened to Vincent Price and Debra Paget in The Haunted Palace, and Debra stuck around too. I don’t know why. It never ends well. When your husband’s been possessed by an evil ancestor he strongly resembles, it’s much more reasonable to leave your stately haunted home for a little while and wait to see if he has the willpower to reassert his own personality from a safe distance.
But Mrs. Collins stands by her man even after she finds the unfinished painting, which Quentin has completed: it shows Quentin/Charles offering his wife’s presumably dead body to Angelique.
If that’s not alarming enough, he tries to force himself on her that evening, then attempts to drown her in a decorative pool the next day.
The farthest Mrs. Collins goes for protection is to the Jenkins’ cottage after the couple rescue her from the pool. Even though the woman nearly died, there’s not a hint of a doctor or police officer in sight. Claire and Alex have been observing the transformation of their friend from a nice enough guy to a short-tempered, violent jerk; they have a better idea of what’s happening to him than his wife does, but are for the most part powerless to stop it. When Alex speaks of intervening, Angelique attacks him in ghostly form.
After the drowning incident, Alex confronts Quentin, who doesn’t remember it at all and refuses to believe it at first. When he does realize that it’s true, he is horrified and tries to flee from the evil influences at Collinwood before it’s too late. The story reaches its exciting climax as Angelique and her corporeal minions, Carlotta and the handyman, act to keep Quentin from getting to the Jenkinses and Mrs. Collins.
There’s a car crash, a shooting, an attempted kidnapping, and the mousy Mrs. Collins finally smacks somebody over the head with a piece of wood (not Quentin, as I’d been suggesting to her earlier). But will she recover her husband in the end, or will Angelique reclaim her surly, limping Charles?
Once I mentally divorced this movie from everything I know about Dark Shadows, it turned out to be an entertaining, ghostly tale of reincarnation and possession. As I said above, just changing a few names would’ve made a lot of difference in how I looked at the first half hour or so. Although this was a theatrical release, it reminds me of those made-for-TV, spooky movies of the same early-’70s era that I used to enjoy as a child: Crowhaven Farm, Something Evil, Ammy, Come Home, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Okay, I didn’t actually enjoy that last one as a child; it gave me nightmares).
Note: I rewatched this film again after I finished the series, and came away with a revised opinion. You can read that review here.