Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wendigo Meets HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970)

Before there was Team Edward there was Team Barnabas. A newspaper account of a 1970 publicity appearance by Jonathan Frid reads like a description of a flash mob a good thirty years before anyone thought of such a thing. Once word got out that Frid had appeared, 600 fans mobbed the venue. A police escort was necessary to get him away from the crowd. Frid was a 45 year old man and, like many cinematic vampire actors before him, not a conventionally handsome man. As with the others, there was something about the idea of the vampire that made Frid, briefly, a cult figure. But if anything, Frid was even more decisively, disastrously typecast than Bela Lugosi. When he makes a cameo appearance in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows later this year, it'll be the 87 year old Frid's first appearance on film in nearly forty years, since his starring role in Oliver Stone's first movie, Seizure.

My friend Wendigo says that Barnabas Collins is an important transitional figure in American pop culture, the bridge between the oldschool villainous master vampire and a new paradigm that was in part a product of the medium that created him. Collins was a character on a soap opera, one that so captured the public's imagination in his original story arc that creator-producer Dan Curtis decided that he shouldn't be killed off. That meant that Barnabas, unlike any previous vampire, became a character that evolved, and as he evolved, he set the template for the reluctant and the noble vampire, a supernatural being that eventually befriended and earned the trust of mortals. He could go through phases when he ceased to be a vampire, and phases when he again became evil, and finally ended the series as a happy human being. A pragmatic production decision precipitated a kind of cultural revolution, the consequences of which continue today. You don't have the greater emphasis on romance in the John Badham-Frank Langella Dracula, Wendigo says, without the example of Barnabas Collins, for whom love was redeeming, and whose love was liberating for women.

The classic publicity shot for House seems to stress Barnabas the lover. Was it false advertising?

So why in hell did Curtis ignore all this when he adapted his revolutionary concept for the big screen? In short, House of Dark Shadows portrays Barnabas Collins as a purely predatory vampire who preys on his descendants and their friends until he is staked and destroyed. What seemed to be special about him on TV is totally set aside. Wendigo has wondered why ever since he first saw the picture. He's old enough to have watched the last years of the soap opera religiously as a small, monster-loving boy. He first saw House several years later on cable TV. It worked for him as a horror film, but Barnabas being killed confused him. He enjoyed the idea of a monster being a good guy, so something was obviously missing when the vampire was just a standard bad guy. But the main thing he missed was one of the series's linchpin characters: Angelique the witch, who had become the show's nearest thing to a "big bad" as Barnabas became a hero. In the soap, her curse made Barnabas a vampire -- but in the way of soaps she was also his true love, and in the way of this particular soap even Angelique redeemed herself by sacrificing herself to aid Barnabas's final reversion to humanity. Had Curtis cast the actress Lara Parker in House, he could have had a happy ending for Barnabas by making Angelique the villain whose curse might be lifted by killing her. But Curtis presumably couldn't spare her from the still-running daily show, while Frid could be written out for the duration by Barnabas getting trapped in his own coffin. Without Angelique, Wendigo says, House isn't really the Dark Shadows that he knows and many fans love.

Dark Shadows the series was flashback happy, but this is just a costume party sequence from House with Grayson Hall in the foreground. Screencap from
House re-enacts the soap's introduction of Barnabas, who is sprung from the coffin his father had trapped him in back in the 18th century when ghoulish caretaker Willie Loomis (John Karlen) breaks into the coffin looking for treasure. Making Loomis his thrall, Barnabas sets to preying on folks, only to see in Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) the spitting image of his lost love Josette, who had killed herself rather than join him in vampirism. Riffing on the She/Imhotep concept that Curtis would later inflict on Dracula itself, Barnabas hopes to reclaim Josette by claiming Maggie. Scientist-scholar Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) discovers Barnabas's secret, while her research on the vampire's victims suggests a cellular irregularity that could be cured. Tempted by the prospect of living by day with Maggie, Barnabas submits to Hoffman's treatments, but a botched or sabotaged injection turns him into a decrepit old man with no choice but to drink blood again. In the film this results in Hoffman's death, though the character continues through the end of the series. Several characters who lasted for the duration are bumped off here, making House a veritable alternate-universe Dark Shadows -- parallel time, in the show's own nomenclature. An extended middle episode involving a vampirized Caroline Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) -- one of Wendigo's favorite creepy parts of the film, is entirely original to this movie and deviant from the series. After Barnabas slaughters most of the cast, it's up to Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) and a repentant Willie to stop the vampire from claiming Maggie as his eternal, undead bride.

Barnabas suffers some serious pre-wedding jitters thanks to makeup ace Dick Smith (above) before settling down to consummate the unholy marriage. Caps by and collinsport/

On its own terms, House is an occasionally stylish film that takes some advantage of location filming in Tarrytown NY as well as costlier, artsier sets than a soap opera uses.  Curtis directs at a breakneck pace, trying to cram weeks worth of storylines in approximately 90 minutes and starting in the middle of events. His editing is sometimes too rapid, or simply choppy, perhaps too much in the manner of soaps. The pace left Wendigo unsure of exactly how much time actually passes; it could be weeks or it could be months. Curtis's limitations as a novice movie director make the film less than it could be, but even a slicker production would not really represent the Dark Shadows that made cultural history. For Wendigo, that would have required not just Angelique but the show's signature flashbacks that showed the likable mortal Barnabas before his curse and gave viewers a greater stake in his redemption. The film is still worth a look as an influential vampire film at the start of the Seventies -- we both had a stronger sense of how much Robert Quarry's Count Yorga was influenced by Frid, if not by Barnabas, after rewatching House -- but Wendigo would recommend watching a run of soap episodes instead to see what Dark Shadows was all about before Tim Burton and Johnny Depp mess with its legacy. Until then, if you've ever wondered what a modern Dark Shadows TV show would look like, compared to the failed revival of 1990-1, Wendigo suggests taking a look at Vampire Diaries, not as a reenactment of the older show but a modernization incorporating Dan Curtis's innovations and their elaborations over time. And if Burton really messes with Curtis's legacy, we suppose it might count as poetic justice. Check back in a few months and we'll tell you what we think.

Here's the trailer, uploaded by CrowTRobot1313.


venoms5 said...

Excellent review, Sam, and much more thorough than mine, which I haven't posted yet. Barnabus doesn't really "die" in the movie. If you hang around till the credits are finished, he turns into a bat and flies at the camera.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, we saw that bit with the bat, which is typical horror movie stuff. Wendigo tells me that he feels certain that Barnabas was never staked through the heart on the TV show, so that happening still sets the movie apart from what made the show distinctive. The poor guy got chained or locked inside his coffin a lot, however, so Frid could get time off.

Anonymous said...

He was locked in the coffin twice after being released intially. Petofi did this in 1897 and then William H Loomis did this to him after he entered Parallel Time. That was a plot device to spirit him off to do HODS. An early interview with the vampire was supposedly what William was doing with him.

Taeylor said...

He was locked in his box after initially being released by Petofi in 1897 and then by Will Loomis as a plot device (so Frid could do this movie) It was an early Interview With A Vampire...I feel like Anne got her idea from that.