Bay Of The Living Dead: Master Of Dark Shadows
Welcome to Bay Of The Living Dead, a regular column about the horror genre.
A few columns back we took a look at some of the the made for TV horror films produced by Dan Curtis. Now, along comes Master Of Dark Shadows, a new documentary which celebrates Curtis (1927-2006) and his most famous creation, the horror themed daytime soap opera Dark Shadows.
Dark Shadows aired on ABC from June 1966 until April 1971. It continues to be seen in reruns, on DVD, and on streaming platforms–the series is currently airing on Decades TV (channel 36.4 over the air in the Bay Area, or channel 180 on Comcast). In its day Dark Shadows was a sensation, pulling in millions upon millions of viewers each afternoon–people were enthralled by the ongoing adventures of the vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and the various ghosts, werewolves, witches and mad scientists who crossed his path. Master of Dark Shadows recalls that phenomenon, and tips its hat to Curtis, the show’s creator.
Interviewees include a variety of surviving Dark Shadows cast members, plus vintage interviews with Curtis and Frid. Curtis’ former secretary, his daughters, several Dark Shadows writers, the show’s composer, and super fan Whoopi Goldberg also share their thoughts and memories.
The film begins by recounting Curtis’ early days as a television ad salesman in New York, and recalls how he talked his way into producing a golf show for CBS. When that show was winding down, Curtis looked for another project, and literally dreamed the concept for Dark Shadows. He sold the idea for the show to ABC, who were initially disappointed by the low ratings for the fledgling daytime drama. At the suggestion of his daughters, Curtis decided to make the show “scary”, and the ratings not only increased, they went through the roof.
At this point the film for the most part ceases to be about Curtis and becomes “The Dark Shadows Story”, which is probably what most DS fans are more interested in anyway. For about an hour Master Of Dark Shadows explores what appealed to viewers when they watched Dark Shadows–a lot of it had to do with casting Barnabas Collins as a reluctant vampire who hated his undead state and who was repulsed by the things he had to do in order to survive. This was a new concept, and a far cry from the classic image of the vampire as a bloodthirsty villain. The film also explores the pop culture frenzy which surrounded Dark Shadows during it’s heyday. For viewers old enough to have been around when Dark Shadows was the hottest show on daytime TV, this portion of the film is great fun.
Dark Shadows didn’t last long. Unlike other soaps, which could run for decades (All My Children was on for an astounding 41 years), Dark Shadows, as popular as it had become, was cancelled shortly before its fifth anniversary. The film, annoyingly, glosses over the reasons such a hugely popular show ended so abruptly–a little more insight into what brought about the show’s sudden demise would have been most welcome.
Master Of Dark Shadows also glosses over some of the post-Dark Shadows work which Curtis did. TV films like The Night Stalker (1972) and Trilogy of Terror (1975) were among the highest rated TV films of their era and established Curtis as a horror auteur to be reckoned with. Yet both films are barely mentioned in Master Of Dark Shadows.
Master does spend a good deal of time on The Winds Of War and War And Remembrance, the two epic World War II miniseries which Curtis produced in the 80s–he won an Emmy for the latter. Former horror movie queen Barbara Steele, who co-produced both War films, appears in Master and recalls the challenging shoots of both productions.
Overall, Master Of Dark Shadows is well produced, great fun, and a must see for any fan of Dark Shadows or of Curtis’ other work. The extras menu on MPI Video’s Blu Ray release of the film is quite generous and includes a brief tour of the TV studio where Dark Shadows was produced–DS cast member Kathryn Leigh Scott serves as your tour guide. There’s also a 1968 interview with Jonathan Frid from The Dick Cavett Show, a then popular TV chat fest. There are original DS TV spots, and a complete print of The House, a 1954 TV drama which served as the basis for one of DS’ earliest storylines.
Though slightly flawed, Mater Of Dark Shadows is highly recommended.
Speaking of made for TV horror, you might want to check out The House That Would Not Die, a 1970 TV movie which just made it’s Blu Ray debut. From 1969-1974, ABC produced dozens of made-for-tv movies under the banner The Movie Of The Week. These low budgeters included westerns, envelope pushing dramas about social issues of the day, and horror films. Though made quickly and cheaply, the movies of the week were often as good as the fare then being offered in cinemas and usually garnered high ratings.
The House That Would Not Die is a ghost story which first aired on October 27, 1970. It stars Barbara Stanwyck, a huge name in films during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Stanwyck was 62 at the time she made House. Her film career had fizzled out, though she continued to work steadily on television.
Stanwyck plays Ruth Bennett, who moves into a Revolutionary War era house with her niece Sara (Kitty Winn). Almost immediately ghostly things begin happening. Both Sara and Pat (Richard Egan), the ladies’ neighbor, become possessed by the spirits of two long dead inhabitants of the house. Eventually they come to realize that the house’s original owner had murdered his daughter and her boyfriend because he didn’t want his daughter to leave him. The old man returns to the house each night calling out to his daughter “Amie, Come Home……..” He sees Sara as his daughter and thinks that she’s come home at last……..
Like most movies of the week, The House That Would Not Die was produced to fit into a ninety minute time slot. There were around 15 minutes of commercials, so the film is short, a scant 72 minutes. There are only six characters in the story. It’s a bare bones production, but it works, because the acting is strong and the house is appropriately spooky. Stanwyck shows that she still “had it”, that elusive star quality which made her a household name when her film career was still at its peak. When Stanwyck walks into a room, all eyes are upon her–she commands the screen.
The diva gets able support from a fine cast who play out their fear and desperation beautifully. There’s a wonderfully chilling seance sequence, and a terrific scene in which the ghost traps his twentieth century house guests inside the house–it’s scary stuff!
The House That Would Not Die is an old fashioned ghost story, creepy, suspenseful and great fun. Definitely worth a look.
Kino Lorber’s Blu Ray of the film includes an interview with director John Llewellyn Moxey, a prolific auteur who called the shots on a number of films of this type.