Posted by Susan Doll on May 9, 2011
“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is just beginning. A journey that I am hoping will somehow begin to reveal the mysteries of my past. It is a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place. . . to a house high atop a stormy cliff at the edge of the sea. . .to a house called Collinwood.”
So began the first episode of Dark Shadows, a gothic soap opera with supernatural plotlines that ran from 1966 through 1971. I remember racing home from school each day to catch the show at 4:00pm, sandwiched between the traditional soap opera General Hospital and Dick Clark’s daily rock ‘n’ roll show, Where the Action Is. Viewers of my generation will be setting their Tivo and home-recording devices for this Wednesday, May 11, at 3:00am EST, because TCM is airing House of Dark Shadows, the feature film based on the soap’s most popular character, vampire Barnabas Collins.
Though Barnabas Collins is the character most associated with Dark Shadows, he was not introduced until the second season. Initially, the show centered around Victoria Winters, played by Alexandra Moltke (later Alexandra Isles). Each episode began with Moltke intoning, “My name is Victoria Winters,” followed by a cryptic description of her most recent predicament. For example : “I have been swept up in the whirlpool of emotions that has at its vortex this great house called Collinwood. And others have swept along this same inexplicable tide.” The first season unfolded from Victoria’s point of view as she uncovered the dark secrets of the Collins family, which included murder and blackmail. Halfway through the first season, a supernatural element in the form of the sobbing ghosts of Collinswood was introduced, and viewership steadily increased.
When the vampire Barnabas was introduced the following season, the popularity of the show soared. Female viewers fell for the brooding, charismatic vamp played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, and school-aged children loved the openly supernatural storyline. At first a sinister predator with designs on Victoria, Barnabas evolved into a tragic, sympathetic character as his popularity grew. This is not unusual in soaps where viewers sometimes become attached to characters played by attractive, appealing actors, even if the characters are initially presented as villainous antagonists. When this happens, the character is redeemed, and his or her motivations reconfigured. This convention of soap operas takes into consideration the opinions and wishes of fans in a way that traditional weekly dramas do not, and it speaks to the fluidity of the continuous storylines that are the hallmark of the genre.
Two years of appearing in nearly every episode exhausted Jonathan Frid, and he requested that the producers bring on another monster. David Selby was cast as Quentin Collins, who was originally an evil spirit hell bent on possessing the soul of young David Collins. Eventually, he was cursed by gypsies and turned into a werewolf. In addition to delving into all the traditional monster storylines, the narrative transported characters back into time, giving the program a fresh vibe and allowing the actors to play multiple characters.
Those who were not fans of the series may look at House of Dark Shadows or clips from the original series on Youtube and wonder what the fuss was about. The production values reveal the hardships of performing a daily series live on tape. The set designs were limited to the Collinwood drawing room, the inn in Collinsport, the old Collinwood mansion, and a few others. In addition, the occasional mishap, such as wobbly walls, misspoken lines, off-screen clatter and crashes, and the intrusive shadows of crew members or microphones, went uncorrected. Once a character’s long dress in a garden scene got caught on a fake tree and uprooted it, forcing the actress to drag the tree around for the entire scene. Another time, a character changed into his street clothes not realizing he was not finished with his scenes. When he was suddenly called back to the set, he had no time to return to his period costume, so all his shots were framed from the chin up. And, for all its horror-film touches, Dark Shadows was indeed a soap opera, with the broad acting style, melodramatic flourishes, and lovelorn characters that define the genre. However, dig beneath the surface and move past the negative stereotypes assigned to soaps, and it is easy to understand Dark Shadows’ special place in popular culture.
The series was created by Dan Curtis, a TV auteur whose name is well known to fans of small-screen horror. Curtis produced high-profile miniseries and made-for-tv films such as The Winds of War, but he also produced and directed well-crafted horror fare, such as the television movie The Night Stalker (1972) and a well-respected version of Dracula (1974), in which Jack Palance offered a sympathetic interpretation of the character. Curtis took the horror genre seriously, producing atmospheric, dramatically solid programs that I recall with admiration to this day. Legend has it that the inspiration for Dark Shadows came from a strange dream Curtis had in which a young woman rides a train alone while reading a letter and looking out the window. She was on her way to the New England seacoast to be a governess at an old mansion. The dream ended with an image of her standing alone in an empty train station at night. Collaborating with writer Art Wallace, Curtis spun the dream into a concept for a daytime soap opera that focused on mystery and thrived on gothic atmosphere.
The appeal of Dark Shadows was the gothic atmosphere that reeked of Romanticism with a capital “R.” Even in the soap’s early days, in which the story unfolded at a snail’s pace, the atmosphere carried the show, giving the series a Turn of the Screw vibe. Foggy exteriors, gloomy mansions, creepy portraits of revered ancestors, and mysterious sobbing—combined with Robert Cobert’s background music –created a mood that lured viewers into the world Dark Shadows. Once Barnabas Collins arrived at Collinwood, and the show shifted direction from murder and ghosts to vampire mayhem, the horror conventions multiplied. By the way, Cobert’s score was released as a soundtrack album, which broke into the top 20 of Billboard’s album charts in 1969.
Dark Shadows left a lasting impression on subsequent generations of directors, writers, and actors—from Joss Whedon to Tim Burton. Today, sympathetic vampires are common in horror films, but that was not true in 1967 when the door to Collinwood opened to reveal Barnabas Collins standing in the fog. If Dan Curtis and his associates didn’t pioneer the tragic vampire caught halfway between being hero and monster, they certainly influenced future generations in that direction. Curtis was not only responsible for Barnabas but also Jack Palance’s tragic version of Dracula a few years later.
The legacy of Dark Shadows is not only the sympathetic vampire but also the serialized story with a supernatural theme. The soap opera conventions of a continuing storyline and continuous characters are perfect for unfolding suspense-style narratives and charting the shifting motives of dark characters. Dark Shadows inspired a Canadian soap called Strange Paradise, which was syndicated in America in 1969-1970, and the next decade, Aaron Spelling developed a pilot for a supernatural serial titled Dark Mansions, but it did not get picked up. In the 1990s, the daytime soap operas Port Charles and Passions switched to horror-themed narratives in the face of sagging ratings. Prime-time programs Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which were created by Joss Whedon, took full advantage of soap opera conventions and Dark Shadows’ legacy of continuing plotlines involving sympathetic vampires. On occasion, Whedon took his characters back into time to reveal an extensive back story, not unlike Dark Shadows in later seasons.
Like all soap operas, Dark Shadows offered juicy roles for veteran movie stars and also proved to be a training ground for young actors, many of whom went on to long careers. Joan Bennett, star of such classic Hollywood films as The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, played matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the anchor of Collinwood. A young David Selby, who played Quentin Collins, later costarred in the long-running prime-time soap Falcon Crest and recently appeared in a small role in A Social Network. Louis Edmonds, who chewed the scenery as oily Roger Collins, ended his career in a 16-year-run as Langley Wallingford in All My Children. John Karlin excelled as Willie Loomis, the Renfield character to Barnabas’s Dracula. Karlin’s face is more recognizable as the husband to Mary Beth Lacey in the CBS series Cagney & Lacey. Mitchell Ryan, recognizable in countless prime-time shows for 50 years, got his start as mysterious Burke Devlin. Kate Jackson, whose fame rests in her identity as “the smart one” on Charlie’s Angels, was only 22 when she landed the role of DS’s Daphne Harridge in 1970-1971. And, Donna McKechnie, the break-out star of the original run of A Chorus Line on Broadway, played Amanda Harris on DS in 1969-1970.
While looking at the cast list, I was reminded of all the well-respected actors and stars who honed their craft on daytime dramas. There have been so many—from F. Murray Abraham to Tommy Lee Jones to Martin Sheen to Ruby Dee—that this is almost a service provided by the soaps for other arenas of acting. Also, while doing a bit of research, I was reacquainted with the devotion and support of fans for their “stories,” as my Mom used to call them. Recently, Disney, which owns ABC-TV, cancelled two long-running soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live, which have been on the air 41 years and 43 years, respectively. Rumors have it that the third ABC soap, General Hospital, is on its way out, too. In typical corporate double-speak, Brian Frons, President of ABC Daytime, blamed the audiences for the cancellation by noting that they were not just not interested in watching soap operas anymore. Really, Mr. Frons? Programs that have been on for more than 40 years lose ratings under your watch, and you blame the audiences. Given the devotion that Dark Shadows still inspires, I don’t believe Frons knows much about soap-opera fans and their viewing habits—or the genre for that matter. Even those who are not fans of the much-maligned genre must recognize that the demise of the ABC soaps represents the end of an era. I doubt if the low-budgeted talk shows that are in the works to replace these soaps will last long, just like the game show that replaced Dark Shadows did not succeed in the time slot.
Curtis understood the popularity of his show and reworked Dark Shadows into two feature-length films released in theaters, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971). The former, which airs on TCM on Wednesday, revamped (pardon the expression) the storyline of Barnabas Collins and his arrival to Collinwood. This time he falls for Maggie Evans instead of Victoria Winters, a character who did not make it through the entire series. Also, in this feature film version, Barnabas is not sympathetic and tragic but treacherous and predatory. Jonathan Frid, whose approach to the character went a long way to creating sympathy for him, disliked this backward step and refused to appear in the Night of Dark Shadows, which then focused on Quentin Collins. In 1990-1991, Curtis revisited Dark Shadows as a weekly, prime-time program but disruptions by the network interfered with the continuing storyline, and the program did not survive the season.
Those who know little of this legendary soap might want to catch House of Dark Shadows this coming Wednesday to get acquainted with the story of Barnabas Collins. Next year, a new feature film based on Dark Shadows will be released. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, it promises to be better than the typical Hollywood rehash of a well-known film or tv series.
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