DVD Review: The House of Dark Shadows

The House of Dark Shadows is a film based on the popular soap opera, made in 1970 while the show was still running and while some of the original cast were still around. It’s a highly compressed version of the first 100 episodes or so starting with Barnabas Collins’s resurrection, with some events and characters rearranged.

The film begins with Maggie Evans and another young woman whom I don’t know named Daphne searching for David Collins, first around Collinwood–which looks like a real house instead of a collection of flimsy sets. Then Maggie goes over to the abandoned old Collins house to look for the boy. Dialog will later establish that Maggie is David’s governess; Vicky Winters is long gone or else, in this version of the story, never existed.

While at the old house, Maggie runs into Willie Loomis, who apparently works for the Collinses and in his spare time hunts for some long-missing jewels. He tells Maggie about an important clue to their whereabouts and, after David’s father Roger fires him a few minutes later, decides this is the right time to follow up by visiting the Collins family crypt.

Willie gets choked - in color!Willie doesn’t find the jewels, but he does find a coffin sealed with chains, which he opens… and the rest of the scene plays out pretty much as it did in the television version except that it’s in color.

As in the television version of events, all we see of Barnabas is a ringed hand.

Oh, and Daphne? No point in getting attached to her. While leaving Collinwood that evening, she walks down a long and spooky avenue of trees toward her car and becomes Barnabas’s first victim before we’re ten minutes into the movie.

Barnabas shows up at the house the following evening, introducing himself as a descendant of that Barnabas who supposedly went to England in 1797. Everyone talks about how much he looks like the old painting of Barnabas Collins (same painting as on the show, although we won’t we get a good look at it until later).

It’s here that we meet the rest of the cast. Vicky Winters is gone, as I’ve noted above, but the Collinses remain: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard and her daughter Carolyn, Roger and his son David, all played by the same actors. Both Carolyn and Maggie have fiancés, young men I don’t know at all. Dr. Julia Hoffman is also at Collinwood way ahead of the point in which she enters the TV version of the story, on a sabbatical from her medical work to research the Collins family history, although she has taken an interest in the death of Daphne and will also examine Barnabas’s subsequent victims. The actor who used to play Elizabeth’s loyal handyman Matthew is back as a VanHelsing-ish professor. Dennis Patrick, who was once con-man and blackmailer Jason McGuire is now playing the local Chief of Police.

Barnabas arrives at CollinwoodIf the Collinses had any doubts about this previously unknown relative, they vanish when Barnabas offers Elizabeth a gift, a necklace with an enormous emerald that once belonged to Barnabas’s mother, and is undoubtedly one piece of that missing jewelry Willie was searching for. Barnabas claims that his ancestor took it with him when he went to England.

Barnabas also gives his relatives information about where he lived in London; later, he will tell Carolyn how the British branch of the Collins family had settled in Coventry until their home was destroyed during the war. This caught my attention since he doesn’t do anything like it in the television series; it suggested to me that Willie must have helped him create his fictional back-story by providing some helpful details about 20th-century history. You don’t pull the bombing of Coventry out of nowhere if you were locked up in a coffin 140 years before it even happened.

As in the TV version, Barnabas moves into the decrepit old Collins house and he and Willie fix it up. The double-level, wood-paneled entry hall, for example, looks gorgeous and, as with Collinwood, I believe this was filmed in an actual house.

Once the old house is suitable to receive company, Barnabas holds a costume party. It is there that he first sees Maggie, wearing a Regency-style dress, and is struck by her resemblance to his lost love Josette. He is certain that she is in fact the reincarnation of Josette.

Vampira CarolynBut the girl he next sinks his teeth into is Carolyn, who then becomes a vampire herself and spends the middle part of the film playing Lucy Westernra from Dracula. She appears to David shortly after her funeral; no one believes the boy, except for the professor, until her fiance visits her tomb and gets bitten in turn.

Carolyn, by the way, looks great in her bride-of-Dracula outfit (Is that what her family had her buried in?). It wouldn’t work as well if she still had that fashionable Marlo-Thomas flip hairstyle she wore in 1966-67, but with long, blonde, straight hair parted in the middle and that long, white flowing gown she looks angelic and evil all at once. What man, once bitten, wouldn’t come back for more?

Todd grieves over Staked CarolynCarolyn’s fiance has to be restrained from going to her for a second bite, and even tries to defend her from the Collinsport police and Professor NotHelsing when they burst in on the couple and drive a rather graphic stake through her heart.

That’s the end of poor Carolyn, but the master vampire’s identity remains a mystery. It’s Dr. Hoffman who gets the first clue, when a glimpse in her compact mirror shows her that Barnabas has no reflection. When she confronts Barnabas, it’s not to destroy him, but to offer him a chance for a cure. In examining his victims, she’s discovered a strange, predatory bacteria in what remains of their blood; she believes that this is the cause of vampirism and she can develop a serum against it. Barnabas consents to the experiment.

At first, everything goes well. The serum injections are working and a month or more goes by without Barnabas needing to attack anybody to drink blood. He becomes able to go out into the sunlight, which confounds the Professor’s suspicions about him. Now that he’s recovering his lost humanity, Barnabas sets out after Maggie.

Instead of kidnapping her and locking her up at the old house while he tries to convince her that she is in fact Josette, he behaves like a gentleman and invites her over for dinner. Another dinner follows, and they go out for afternoon walks in the lovely autumnal New England countryside while her fiance is away in Boston.

Barnabas and Maggie on an autumn walkThis non-vampiric courtship actually goes a long way toward winning Maggie’s affections. With only a few more treatments to go before he becomes fully human, Barnabas is preparing to pop the question when Dr. Hoffman learns about his plans. Overcome with jealousy, she sabotages her own experiment and Barnabas suddenly looks his age–a full 200 years.

When the same thing happened to him on the TV show, it was an accident, but the resolution is the same. Barnabas needs some fresh, young blood to restore himself, and he turns to Maggie for it.

His attack on her is interrupted by Elizabeth, but he makes his escape.

Old BarnabasI’m not sure how anyone who saw him flee Collinwood makes the connection between this ancient vampire and the Barnabas they all know, but in the scenes that follow, the Chief of Police hands out silver bullets (aren’t those for werewolves?) to shoot Barnabas through the heart once they find him. He and Willie have left the old house and gone into hiding.

The police are also meant to be guarding Maggie as she lies in her bedroom with crucifixes on the windows and what looks like garlic festooning the headboard–but it seems that a vampire’s bite contains a seductive lure of its own.

Like Carolyn’s fiance, Maggie tears the bandage off her own neck and seems eager for more. She disappears from her room.

Jeff Clark: Vampire HunterAs the hunt goes on, the cast gets thinned out and it’s Maggie’s fiance–previously a nebulous figure in the background–who emerges as the hero of this story. Arming himself with a crossbow, he heads out to shoot Barnabas and rescue Maggie before Barnabas can make her his bride.

This is obviously a film for Dark Shadows fans and no one else. I know who most of the characters are and can fill in certain unexplained plot points because I’ve been watching episodes of the old TV show for the last couple of years. I imagine fans of the series at the time this film came out could do the same. But would anyone else follow it in more than the broadest outlines–that is, apart from those parts that were already long-familiar tropes of the basic vampire story evolved or taken directly from the multiple versions of Dracula?

Aside from Barnabas, Willie, and perhaps Maggie, the characters are underdeveloped; most of the others appear because they were prominent in the series, but they have next to nothing to do. The non-vampiric Collinses all but disappear after Carolyn is staked. And I never could keep the two fiances straight.

While it was somewhat interesting to see how certain actors reappeared in new roles and familiar events in the soap-opera story line were compressed or switched around, the overall impression left by this film is one of a muddle. Trying to do too much, it doesn’t do nearly enough.

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Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.