The Gothic World of Dan Curtis
The primary focus of this recent documentary about producer/director Dan Curtis is of course on Dark Shadows–as its title declares. Fair enough, since that is his most famous work and what he’s best remembered for. Fans of the show, such as myself, will be its main audience. I think that most of us will come away from viewing it satisfied in that respect.
But pretty much all the rest of his film and TV work is given disappointingly short coverage.
When he was 13, Dan Curtis’s mother died quite suddenly in front of him; this tragedy was a fact I’d never known about him before, but it’s where his story begins. Barbara Steele, who worked with him on Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and played Dr. Julia Hoffman in the Dark Shadows Revival, calls it the “defining factor of his life.”
Steele is one of many people interviewed for this documentary. Others include the surviving members of the original Dark Shadows cast and show’s writers, Curtis’s secretary Rita Fein, his two daughters, ABC executives, media historians, and surprisingly Whoopie Goldberg.
Those who know and worked with Curtis speak of his determination, forceful personality, incredible energy, and his excessive number of teeth (“about 90- 900 teeth,” says composer Bob Cobert). The daughters, Tracy and Cathy, accompanied by family photos and snippets from home movies provide us with more private background about how and where their parents met and got married, and the young couple’s early days struggling in Chicago and New York while Curtis set up his own production company. At last, he managed to sell his first idea for a television show: CBS Match Play Golf Classic.
A golfing show sounds like a peculiar choice for the “Master of Dark Shadows,” but it was a sport Curtis was passionate about. At this point in his life, he had no idea what direction his career was going to end up taking.
If you know anything about the history of Dark Shadows, then you’ve already heard the story of how the original idea came to Dan Curtis. It’s retold here via old interviews with him: he had a dream about a girl on a train, riding along a coastline with waves crashing on the cliffs below. She was going to be a governess.
Curtis’s dream ended when the girl got off the train at a small and empty station, but he used that as the starting point for his pitch for a new afternoon soap opera. It’s retained exactly in Victoria Winter’s arrival in the first episode of Dark Shadows.
The next 45 minutes or so, the bulk of this documentary, doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the show. It was initially a Gothic-flavored drama and didn’t do very well. It was about to be cancelled when Curtis decided to go all out into the supernatural. According to his daughters, who were the prime teeny-bopper age to be eager viewers (and whom I’ll just bet held seances at their pajama parties just as my sister and I did), they asked Daddy to make his show “more spooky.” At each spooky step, the show’s ratings improved–Josette’s ghost, the Phoenix story, and finally the introduction of a vampire, Barnabas Collins, which made
Dark Shadows not only a hit show, but a pop-culture phenomenon, and made Jonathan Frid an unexpected star.
It’s lovely to see the old cast members sharing their memories. It’s like seeing old friends again. We have Lara Parker (Angelique), Nancy Barrett (Carolyn), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans and Josette), David Selby (Quentin, the man with his own hit Theme), John Karlen (Willie Loomis), Roger Davis (Peter Bradford/Jeff Clark), James Storm (Gerard Stiles), Christopher Pennock (Jeb and 3 different Gabriels) and Marie Wallace (Evil Eve and Mad Jenny).
Malcolm Marmostein talks about the Phoenix storyline, and Bob Cobert tells his stories about how he composed the Dark Shadows‘ and Quentin’s Themes; the latter is recycled from some music he wrote for Jekyll and Hyde, but from the clip they show here it’s so in the background that I can’t say I would have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out.
Jonathan Frid, who passed away in 2012, appears in some of his last interviews as well as in clips of his celebrity appearances on various TV shows during the show’s peak of popularity.
But all peaks must eventually crest and fall.
When Curtis directed House of Dark Shadows, he got his first taste of film direction and working with a budget and wanted to do more; he left the TV show to be run by others while he planned a second Dark Shadows movie. At the same time, Frid, who had never sat comfortably within the nature of his stardom, didn’t want to be a vampire anymore and refused to be in the second movie. Curtis used a different type of story for Night of Dark Shadows and the show’s ratings plummeted until it was cancelled early in 1971.
Dan Curtis went on to direct several more films and TV movies, and this is where I feel the documentary let me down. The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and Burnt Offerings (both of which I hope to review in future) and his adaptations of the horror/Gothic classics Frankenstein, Turn of the Screw, Dorian Gray, and Dracula are covered in under 2 minutes. If you didn’t know anything about them before seeing this, you wouldn’t know any more afterwards.
I’m always irked by the disparaging of horror as if it’s something for a writer or filmmaker to be embarrassed about–and after nearly an hour celebrating the success of Dark Shadows, I’m sorry to see that tone taken here with Curtis’s other work in the genre, which has been consistently popular for over 200 years, since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Dr. John Polidori gave us Lord Ruthven, the first romantic vampire. No one should be sorry to have made the highest rated made-for-TV movie of that era, or to work with people like Darren McGavin, Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Lynn Redgrave, or Bette frikking Davis.
Also, with regards to Burnt Offerings, I’d be interested to know if the recurring image of the creepy, grinning chauffeur that haunts Oliver Reed’s character is based on Curtis’s own childhood experience of the driver at his mother’s funeral.
Winds of War and War and Remembrance get a little more time, 5 minutes. They were big-budget, groundbreaking, long-running miniseries made on an enormous scale, employing casts of thousands and filming in multiple overseas settings. Both Dan Curtis and Barbara Steele won Emmys and have every reason to be proud of their work. Directing on this level gave Curtis great satisfaction, but he never had a chance to work on so vast a production again.
Again in an interview, Curtis says it was a “let down” when ABC asked him to bring Dark Shadows back again in 1991. He agreed on the condition that he could reuse the old stories.
When Ben Cross talks about his role as Barnabas in the Revival Series, he says that he’s never seen an episode of the original show. He asked Dan Curtis to give him the pertinent ones, but Curtis didn’t want him to be influenced by Jonathan Frid’s performance. His vampire was going to be different.
Barbara Steele doesn’t seem familiar with Grayson Hall’s Dr. Hoffman either.
The show only lasted 13 weeks, but it was around this time in the ’90s that the release of the original Dark Shadows on video sparked its own revival and its fandom’s reawakening.
Curtis continued to work on other projects up until the end, in spite of his declining health. According to his daughters, he was determined to outlive his wife Norma… which he did by less than 3 weeks.
This brings us back to family photos, and one final interview snippet with Dan Curtis:
“I’ll probably be remembered for Dark Shadows and not the things I really cared about.”
Which reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was dismayed at the enormous popularity of his little detective stories and would have liked to be remembered for his Walter Scott-esque historical novels–that nobody remembers. Only time will tell if Barnabas and the rest of the Collins family have a shelf-life akin to Sherlock Holmes’s.
There are a lot of very nice extras on this BluRay, but the one that caught my attention was a 1954 episode, “The House,” from an otherwise long-forgotten show called The Web. Written by Art Wallace, it’s about a woman who has never left her home in 25 years, after her husband’s disappearance. Then a mysterious stranger who knows her secret shows up. Sound familiar? I’ll review it separately.