I remember there being a time in my childhood where my mother regularly watched soap operas. General Hospital was the one she watched the most. It was the whole Luke & Laura phase of the show. There were no vampires, that I remember, on that show. However, from 1966 to 1971, ABC broadcast Dark Shadows, a soap opera that cared more for the undead than hot young doctors in love. The show has had a cult following ever since and was famously turned into a feature film by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp in the lead. That film earned mixed opinions but it was not the first time Dark Shadows had gone to the big screen. In 1970, just a few months before the show would end it’s TV run, the first of two features was unleashed, House of Dark Shadows.
The story begins quite abruptly as handyman of the wealthy Collins family Willie Loomis (John Karlen) searches the grounds for the hidden treasure of the Collins family. During the search, he ends up accidentally freeing the vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) from his crypt. Willie quickly becomes a Renfield of sorts to Barnabas.
Barnabas soon makes his way to the Collins house and meets the various family members. He explains that he is a long-lost Collins relative. Though he’s a bit strange, the family is quite taken with him. Barnabas ends up becoming quite fond of them too, especially Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), governess of the young David Collins. Barnabas is struck by her resemblance to his long-lost love Josette.
Barnabas explains to Willie that Josette killed herself on their wedding day. This is overheard by the jealous Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) who has the hots for Barnabas after he bit her earlier. She threatens to expose the vampire, and ends up getting fatally bitten this time around. She is buried but Collins family friends Professor Stokes (Thayer David) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) begin to suspect Carolyn was killed by a vampire. That is confirmed as Carolyn rises from the grave, a vampire herself, a short time later. Meanwhile, Barnabas starts to get cozy with Maggie while being treated by Dr. Hoffman with a concoction that she believes will turn him human so he can marry her…but can he deny his vampire nature.
The character of Barnabas Collins came to the series Dark Shadows about a year into it’s original run. This film is essentially a retelling of the first series of episodes to feature the character. It’s similar to what was done with the film Dr. Who and the Daleks, which was just a big-screen version of a previously broadcast story. It also has several similarities with the story utilized in the recent Tim Burton film, Dark Shadows. As this film was beginning, I really felt like I was coming in late to the party. It begins with Willie Loomis hunting around for treasure with no explanation of who he is or what he’s doing. Meanwhile, characters are running around the mansion shouting “David! David!” Again, there is no explanation. I suppose it’s appropriate to say that it feels like trying to watch an episode of a soap opera for the first time after that show has been on the air for years already. In true soap opera style, there are also lots of characters and it is easy to confuse who they are and exactly what role they play in the whole Collins family dynamic.
Once the story gets moving a bit, though, the confusing aspects don’t matter so much since we are completely enthralled with Barnabas. Jonathan Frid makes a great vampire and it easy to see why his presence on the show essentially rescued it from its lackluster first season. He’s a very charismatic vampire and I think it helps that he’s not exactly the most handsome guy to ever brandish fangs. The ladies all are drawn to him, and looks have nothing to do with it. It’s that unexplainable vampire magnetism. Lugosi would be proud…or maybe jealous.
The film has a nice horror atmosphere…flirting a bit with the Hammer style if not completely achieving it. There’s also a fun 70’s vibe that peeks out of the gothic dreariness from time to time. Ultimately, after feeling lost for the first twenty minutes or so, House of Dark Shadows ended up with a solid horror payoff.