Thursday, February 28, 2013


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*

The teleseries DARK SHADOWS, which began in 1966 as a gothic soap-opera, became over the years sort of a dramatized encyclopedia of horror-motifs, managing to recapitulate the majority of the most famous tropes of popular terror-tales.  Though the character of Barnabas Collins was not the first monstrous presence to impinge upon the mansion of Collinwood, he quickly became a figure of cultish popularity.  Thus it’s logical that producer Dan Curtis, seeking to profit by spinning the series off into a theatrical film, should choose to focus upon the saga of Barnabas.

Like most soap operas DARK SHADOWS maintained a sizeable cast of characters, many of whom are packed into the movie like sardines.  HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS often felt to me like one of those Hong Kong movies that adapts a sprawling Chinese novel, introducing new characters in rapid-fire fashion.

With some alterations HOUSE keeps the essential family memberst of Collinwood: matriarch Elizabeth, her brother Roger, Roger’s grade-school age son David and Elizabeth’s grown daughter Carolyn.  Other major characters include Carolyn’s fiancée Todd, Maggie (governess to David), handyman-cum-vampiric-pawn Willie, Maggie’s boyfriend Jeff and two “friends of the family,” Professor Stokes and Dr. Julia Hoffman.  The latter two prove to be savants in the ways of vampires,  albeit with very different affiliations.

Into their midst comes Barnabas Collins.  Willie, looking for buried jewels, accidentally releases the undead Barnabas from a family mausoleum, so that Willie becomes this vampire’s “Renfield.” Barnabas is described in a theatrical trailer as “the head of this family of blood relations.”  For once the trailer-hype is psychologically apt.  Though Barnabas gains entrance to Collinwood by posing as a distant British relation, he’s actually the same Barnabas who lived 200 years ago, whose relation to his descendants is less a cousin and more of a “super-father.”  With remarkable celerity Barnabas talks himself into occupancy of the “old house” on the Collins estate, a deserted structure which was formerly Barnabas’s ancestral home.  As in the series, the “old house” provides a virtual shadow-counterpart of the main house.

Because the script for HOUSE telescopes many long-running plotlines from the teleseries, the functions of many characters become abridged.  Elizabeth and Roger have nearly nothing to do, and of the two boyfriends, only Jeff gets to participate in Barnabas’s downfall. Carolyn, who started out in the series evincing a strange attraction to her uncle, flirts with her “cousin” Barnabas and so becomes the first victim he turns into an undead revenant.  David, who started as a malevolent imp on the series and morphed over time into a more traditional juvenile, starts out as a mischievous figure, has one big scene when he sees his dead cousin Carolyn return to life, and then the boy disappears from the story.

The telescoping does increase HOUSE’s similarity to the basic plot of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA.  In that novel the vampire count principally pursues two women, Lucy and Mina.  Lucy is depicted as being somewhat less straight-laced than Mina, with the result that Dracula attacks the “easy” girl first, changing her into a monster who must be staked to death by her horrified fiancée—a fate which the heroes must then seek to prevent for Mina. 

As soon as Carolyn flirts, however minimally, with cousin Barnabas, her Lucy-like fate is sealed, and she becomes the first Colins to perish.  Buried on the estate, she comes back to life.  In one of the film’s most effective scenes, David—who doesn’t look too broken up by Carolyn's death—is playing a ball-game with himself, chanting strangely, “If I miss this one, Carolyn won’t be dead.”  He misses, and moments later cousin Carolyn reveals herself in her filmy cerements.  The family refuses to believe David, leaving her free to strike when her fiancée Todd checks out her mauseoleum.  In a minor gender role-reversal, Todd, the male victim, must then be prevented from seeking out his demoness lover.  Later Carolyn is found and executed by Stokes and the local constables.  Stokes, the resident Van Helsing, provides the staking himself, though unlike Van Helsing he’s fated to perish later in the story.

Barnabas has his own preoccupations: having met Maggie the governess, he sees that she has a striking resemblance to his lost love of 200 years past, Josette.  He wants to wed Maggie, but fears dragging her into the life of a vampire.

Dr. Hoffman comes to his rescue, after a fashion.  As the first of the two local savants to figure out Barnabas is a vampire, she approaches him and tells him that she’s devised a way to reverse his curse of vampirism.  She secretly does so because she’s fallen for the urbane bloodsucker, and doesn’t know of his passion for Maggie.  Willie—who has the same protective attitude toward Maggie that Stoker’s Renfield had for Mina—purposefully jinxes his master by revealing Barnabas’s plans to Hoffman.  Though her serum temporarily cured Barnabas of his affliction, she deliberately bollixes up the next injection.  Barnabas not only reverts to vampire status but finally shows some fraction of his age, taking on the look of a man in his 70s.  Barnabas kills Hoffman and bites Maggie for good measure before being forced to flee the mansion.

The remainder of the story is a good if slightly pedestrian reworking of the usual vampire-killing scenario.  While the police arm themselves with silver bullers that they never use, Jeff chases down Barnabas—who manages to kidnap Maggie—with a crossbow in hand.  Drawing somewhat more on the conclusion of the 1931 DRACULA film than on the novel, the vampire is betrayed by his pawn, as Willie’s intervention makes it possible for Jeff to kill Barbabas.

HOUSE’s best moments, like those of the series, are the more understated psychological moments, rather than the showier set-pieces involving vampire-slaying.  As noted, most of the continuity stems from scripts for the teleseries, though the reworking of Carolyn’s fate gives the flick a certain distinct identity of its own.

In the couse of the teleseries, the writers introduced the character Angelique as a witch responsible for cursing Barnabas with vampirism, while another leading-man-monster, Quentin Collins, came along to provide his own horrific plotline.  The film NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS discards any of the serial’s plotlines regarding these characters, aside from minor resemblances: the new Angelique is still a witch, and the new Quentin is still a late addition to the Collins family.

Some time after the events of HOUSE, the surviving members of the family apparently disperse, though it’s specified that the matriarch Elizabeth has passed on, leaving Collinwood to distant relative Quentin inherits the mansion.  He and he and his wife Tracy arrive to take possession.  They find it occupied by a housekeeper, Carlotta Drake and her helper Gerard.  Significantly, even before meeting Carlotta, Tracy speculates that she may be like the “Mrs. Danvers” character of the novel REBECCA.

As they tour the house, Quentin beholds the portrait of one of his ancestors: the beauteous Angelique Collins.  Quentin is initially most pleased to receive the house, as he needs a place where he can work on his abstract paintings.  He comments that his ancestors probably wouldn’t care for his painting, one of the film’s few notations of the gulf between the living present and the dead past.

The past is lying in wait for Quentin, who happens to be the reincarnation of his ancestor Charles Collins.  Though Charles had a wife named Laura, he conducted an affair with Angelique, wife of his brother Gabriel.  Gabriel and Laura arrange with the local fire-breathng reverend to have Angelique executed as a witch—which, as it happens, she is.  She’s helpless to stave off her own execution, but she swears to return in another age, and adjoins her young pupil Sarah to pave the way for her advent.

Two hundred years later, Sarah is reincarnated as Carlotta Drake, who is not only fully conscious of her past life but conspires to facillitate the return of Angelique.  This includes not only playing on Quentin’s mind, so that he begins to identify himself with his ancestor, but also getting rid of wife Tracy and the Collins’ friends the Jenkins, who try to free Quentin from the witch’s thrall.

The teleseries version of Angelique is one of the great soap-opera villains, but the version we see in NIGHT is merely a stereotypical seductive sorceress with no depth of character.  Indeed, she only speaks in the scenes from the past, and the most villainous presence in the film is that of the housekeeper Carlotta.  The film is a competent enough ghost story, but it’s slowly paced and fails to deliver the resonance of a REBECCA, which is still the go-to work for conflicts between the “new living wife” and the “old dead wife.”

The one mythic moment here is the film’s twist on the relationship between the dead wife and her fanatical acolyte.  Back in the witch-burning era, we see that Sarah is a child who idolizes Angelique like a mother/teacher and protests her execution.  In modern times, Carlotta—who in some convenient fashion “just knows” herself to be Sarah’s reincarnation—effectively becomes the “mother-figure” and makes it possible for Angelique to be reborn.  But the film doesn’t exploit this psychogical myth-potential any more than it does the fraternal conflict, and comes across as distinctly the lesser of the two SHADOWS films.

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