In the mid-1970s, Karen Black was at the height of her career. She had worked with those directors and actors–Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper–who were changing American film during that era, as well as established film-makers like Alfred Hitchcock. She’d won two Golden Globe awards, and would be nominated for another. She had also received one Oscar nomination and was even up for a shared Grammy for her song work in Robert Altman’s Nashville.
But when her name comes up among people of my generation, the words that we automatically associate with it are “Zuni fetish doll.”
No one who saw this 1975 made-for-TV movie, directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, when they were a child has ever forgotten the final segment.
While I can’t call the first two segments of this trilogy terrifying, I do think they’ve been unjustly disregarded. Along with the third segment, they provide Black with a rare opportunity for a young actress to showcase her talent by playing 4-to-6 different characters (depending on how you want to count them), from meek to menacing. One might assume that she chose this TV movie as a vanity project, but she always said that, when it was first offered to her, she didn’t want to do it.
This 1954 episode of the otherwise long-forgotten suspense TV show, The Web, is one of the special features on the DVD for the documentary about Dan Curtis, The Master of Dark Shadows. It’s noteworthy because it was written by future Dark Shadows writer Art Wallace and its story bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the soap opera’s earliest plots. Viewers of the show will find a lot that’s familiar here.
The House begins when a stranger (Charles Dingle) enters a bar in a small New England fishing village. He tells the bartender that his name is Walt Cummins and talks a bit about warm, English beer to indicate that he’s a traveler, before mentioning that he’s been here before but not in many years.
Would the people he used to know still remember him? In particular, he asks after a woman who lives in a big house at the edge of town, Elizabeth Stover (not Stoddard).
Sure, says the bartender, Mrs. Stover still lives there with her daughter Louise even though the place “is about ready to fall down”. The funny thing is that Mrs. Stover refuses to leave her house, has stayed there for 25 years since her husband John walked out and took her jewelry with him. Everyone in town supposes that she’s waiting for him to come back some day.
Mr. Cummins smirks and says that he’ll be “a real surprise” to her.
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 theDark 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.
Although the Dark Shadows 1991 revival series was favorably received when it started off, it soon lost its audience–quite literally, since episodes were frequently preempted by news reports during the first Gulf War; viewers didn’t know when they could see the next one. Sadly, the show was not renewed.
I’ve finally gotten to the last episodes in my own recent, belated viewing.
The 1790s storyline has progressed more or less as expected, with only minor variations in the details. Although there are some nice touches here and there, it’s in the modern-day story that the real twists come–including one event that completely astonished me, and which I wouldn’t dream of giving away to anyone who hasn’t seen the series.
Episode 11: Vicky’s Trial & Josette’s Fate
In the previous episode, Josette agreed to leave Collinwood; Vicky convinced her that if she didn’t stay to die at Widow’s Hill, then Vicky herself would be saved and be able to return to her own time.
In spite of these good intentions, Josette’s resolution doesn’t hold up once she discovers that Barnabas is still over at the old house. So happy is she to see him again that all thoughts of Vicky and her own documented fate go out of her head. Once he reveals that he’s become a vampire, she even offers him a bite of her throat.
In 1991, Phyllis Wicke remains dangerously ill with diphtheria, but she retains a connection with the events she was once part of in 1790 before she and Vicky switched places. In her delirious state, she tells the present-day inhabitants of Collinwood that it was such a pity, that handsome young man being killed. She’s referring to Jeremiah Collins, Barnabas’s younger brother.
When we jump to the 1790s story, the Collinses of that era are attending Jeremiah’s funeral. Josette, still under Angelique’s love-spell, is in hysterics over her husband’s coffin and sobs that Barnabas has “killed my only love!”
The pastor performing the service speaks of Jeremiah dying in a “tragic firearms accident” instead of being shot in a duel. The Collinses are already hard at work covering up their family secrets and rewriting the past.
Witchfinder Trask interrupts the funeral, arriving to arrest the witch responsible for this calamity: not Angelique, but Victoria Winters.
The family protests, apart from Aunt Abigail, who literally points an accusatory finger at Vicky. Trask hauls Vicky into a carriage and takes her to the Collinsport Gaol.
Barnabas comes to the jail to stop any interrogation before Trask can lay a hand on her. He seems to think the whole thing is ridiculous even if the old witchcraft laws are still on the books, and tries to reassure Vicky that nothing bad will happen to her; she’ll be acquitted and she certainly will never be hanged as a witch.
But if you remember the original series, you know exactly how this is going to turn out. Vicky has every reason to be worried.
The last episode ended with a seance, during which Victoria Winters disappeared abruptly from the table to be replaced by another young woman, who was wearing colonial-era clothes and immediately collapsed. A letter of recommendation she carried with her addressed to Joshua Collins provided her name, Phyllis Wicke*, and a date of April 1790.
The inhabitants of modern-day Collinwood wonder: Is that where Vicky has gone?
Let’s find out.
Episode 7: 1790
Unlike the original series during this same storyline, time does not stand still at Collinwood. Vicky is gone, but life goes on in the 1990s. Before we even find out what happened to her, this episode begins with Dr. Hoffman and Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard looking after the unconscious 1790s governess.
After she’s tended to the young woman, Julia asks Barnabas if he recognized her. He confirms that he does: Phyllis Wicke was indeed governess to the children, and she arrived at Collinwood 200 years ago in pretty much the same state. The mail-coach from Boston overturned on its way to Collinsport and she was injured. She recovered from that, but soon afterward became ill from a fever and died.
Elizabeth falls asleep while sitting at Phyllis’s bedside. When Phyllis wakes up, she dashes out of the room and out of the house wearing only her colonial underwear.
The next installment of my review of the sadly short-lived 1991 Dark Shadows revival series. The story line is still following the general plot of the film House of Dark Shadows, but that’s not going to last much longer.
Episode 5: Dr. Hoffman’s Disastrous Jealousy
Barnabas’s courtship of Victoria Winters continues. Similar to the character in the film–as opposed to in the original series–this Barnabas Collins demonstrates that he’s aware that the best way to win the affection of the young lady he believes to be the reincarnation of his lost love isn’t to kidnap her and lock her up in the basement until she believes she’s Josette. Dinner dates will get him much farther.
Giving Vicky Josette’s music box as a gift after one such dinner does a lot too. Even better: asking her to dance the minuet to the music-box tune. It’s a lovely, romantic moment. Barnabas mightn’t have done badly to propose right then, but instead he prefers to wait to pop the question until he’s completed his treatment and is fully human again.
Unfortunately for him, Vicky plays the music box in her room the next morning as she wistfully looks back on their evening. Dr. Hoffman, who’s still living at Collinwood, hears the music and learns where Vicky got it from. After a conversation a couple of episodes ago, Julia had mistakenly imagined that Barnabas would give this significant present to her himself.
While watching the pilot, I realized that this revival more closely followed the story of House of Dark Shadows than that of the original series, but with the newly created character of Daphne Collins in place of her cousin Carolyn for the Lucy Westernra role of victim-turned-vampire. This doesn’t leave Carolyn with much to do in these early episodes, but it keeps her alive for later plotlines that never had a chance to unfold.
Before Julia Hoffman first suspected that Barnabas was a vampire, she let slip that Daphne’s memory could return at any time. Barnabas, unable to take the risk that Daphne might be able to identify her attacker, summons her telepathically out of the house, past the sleeping deputy and Joe who are supposed to be keeping watch over her. Daphne meets Barnabas out on one of the Collinwood terraces and is bitten one last time.
When the two men wake the next morning, they run searching around the outside of the house until they find her lying where Barnabas left her, dead.
After Daphne’s funeral, we get a scene that’s straight out of House of Dark Shadows: David is bouncing a ball against a flight of steps on another terrace and chanting, “If I catch this one, Daphne isn’t dead.” He repeats this three or four times, and catches the ball every time. This spooks him a little, and with the hour getting late, he decides to head back inside. But his late cousin Daphne steps out of the mists and shadows to try and take a bite out of him.
David runs into the house and tells the grown-ups what he’s just seen. No one believes him except for Professor Woodard (standing in for Prof. Stokes, who believed him in the movie) and perhaps Dr. Hoffman, although she doesn’t say so.
Still scoffing, Daphne’s bereaved boyfriend Joe Haskell goes over to the Collins family crypt in the cemetery and meets up with Daphne for himself.
The late 1960s and early ’70s were the prime era for UK or Euro lesbian vampire films. Most were based, more or less, on Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian novella, Carmilla. A smaller number use the historical figure Erzsebet Bathory. Daughters of Darkness is one of the latter, and makes “the Blood Countess” an actual vampire instead of an all too real, human monster.
Daughters of Darkness is remarkably international. It was filmed in Belgium by Belgium director Harry Kümel, but funded by six or seven different countries. Its star is famous French actress Delphine Seyrig, but producers in their respective nations also contributed German actress Andrea Rau and French Canadian actress Danielle Ouimet (playing a Swiss). America’s contribution was the lead actor, a Brooklyn boy playing British–I think; the character’s name and his accent sound more Eastern European than Brit to me. Anyway, it’s John Karlen, who has had previous experience dealing with vampires. He’s the reason I wanted to look at this film after seeing the trailer for it on one of the Dark Shadows extra features DVDs.
This film begins on a train, with newlywed couple Stefan and Valerie Chiltern demonstrating how to have sex within the confines of an upper berth. She seems a nice enough young woman, if a tad vapid, but we soon learn that there’s something just a little off about him.
Due to an accident on the line ahead, their train is late arriving at Ostend and they miss that evening’s ferry to England. While they wait for the next ferry, the couple checks in at the massive Hotel des Thermes right on the beach. It’s the middle of winter, so the hotel is empty and seems to be staffed only by one elderly concierge, who gives them the Royal Suite.
Not that Stefan minds the delay. He’s reluctant to get home with his bride. When he asks the concierge to put in a phone call to the UK for him, he slips the man a note as well as a tip. The note asks the concierge to say that he couldn’t get the call through.
Why doesn’t Stefan want to go home? It’s his mother, who he says will not welcome this impulsive marriage, which followed a whirlwind romance during a few weeks’ vacation in Switzerland. “She already hates you and she doesn’t even know you exist,” he tells Valerie.
Mother is going to be the least of their problems. While the couple discusses the matter over dinner, another pair of guests arrives in a stylish, old-fashioned car: the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is dressed like a glamorous 1930s movie star (Seyrig’s look specifically recalls Marlene Dietrich) and her cherry-lipped companion, Ilona. The concierge is surprised by the Countess; he’s sure he’s seen her before, 40 years ago when he was first working at the hotel as a young bellhop. And yet the lady doesn’t look as if she can be much more than 40 (she admits to 35).
“It must have been my mother,” she responds coolly.
The Countess wants the Royal Suite for herself, until she catches sight of the newlyweds in the dining room. She takes immediate interest in the young couple, and accepts the suite next to theirs. In the privacy of their room that night, the Countess and Ilona discuss their neighbors. The Countess hasn’t stopped talking about Valerie since she first saw her, which makes Ilona jealous.
When Ilona observes that Valerie and her husband will only be staying at the hotel for one night, the Countess replies that many things can change in a night.
The Dark Shadows Revival series aired in 1991, but ran for only 13 episodes. I never saw it at the time, but have heard something about it since and was interested because of the cast. It’s too easy to say “I can’t imagine anybody but So-and-so playing that role”–I tend to be more curious about recasting, and more forgiving, if it’s an actor I already know and like. Jean Simmons as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, for example, or horror-film icon Barbara Steele as Dr. Julia Hoffman. Ben Cross from Chariots of Fire as Barnabas? I definitely had to have a look.
Last week, to celebrate the publication of my new book about blogging Dark Shadows from beginning to end, I bought the revival series DVD set. I’m not going to review each episode individually, but the pilot is an hour and a half, the same length as a standard feature film; I’m going to consider that by itself before I go on with the rest in batches, and try to stay with my first impressions.
The episode opens with a train winding along a coast at sunset. When I first saw this, I said, “Vicky’s taking Amtrak.” Then I noticed that the sunset was on the wrong side. This show was filmed in California, not on the east coast where you’d never see the sun setting on the Atlantic Ocean.
As she did at the beginning of the original series, Vicky introduces herself in voiceover:
“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey I hope will open the doors of life to me and link my past with my future. It is a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place… to a house called Collinwood. To a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met, people who tonight are still only shadows in my mind and who will soon fill the days and nights of my tomorrows.”
I haven’t compared them word for word, but this sounds very much like her speech in the first episode of the old show. We do not, however, go from Vicky (Joanna Going) on the train to Roger and Elizabeth waiting for her and arguing about whether or not she should have come to Collinwood.
Instead, Elizabeth is getting Vicky’s room ready for her with the help of the housekeeper Mrs. Johnson (Juliana McCarthy, who was Enabran Tain’s housekeeper Mila on Deep Space Nine, although I didn’t recognize her without the Cardassian makeup). Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn and her niece Daphne are also present. I wondered if Daphne was meant to be Roger’s daughter and David’s elder sister, but later on she’ll be referred to as Roger’s niece as well, so there must have been another Collins sibling who was her parent.
Roger (Roy Thinnes) and Elizabeth do have a conversation about why David needs a governess and can’t go back to the local public school “after what happened,” but their focus is on the boy’s behavior and not on Vicky herself.
Vicky, meanwhile, has arrived at the Collinsport train station. It’s after dark. No Burke Devlin gets off the train with her, but I wasn’t expecting him to be there. She walks over to the Blue Whale, run by Sam Evans and his daughter Maggie, and phones Collinwood to ask that someone come and pick her up. Daphne is at the Blue Whale too by this time with her hunky boyfriend Joe Haskell. I experienced a moment of confusion regarding the two similar-looking blonde Collins girls, since I thought that Carolyn would be with Joe. This time around, Daphne’s the one he’s dating. Not that we should get too attached to Daphne.