By Chaz Lipp

Long before director Tim Burton rebooted the franchise for a new generation with his own Dark Shadows(2012), the massively popular cult series graced the big screen on two previous occasions. The first time was 1970, as moviegoers queued up to see Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins in Houseof Dark Shadows. The groundbreaking, supernatural television soap opera was nearing the end of its 1,225-episode, five-year run when the film hit cinemas. The show was off the air by the time the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, was released in the summer of 1971. Both films have been released on Blu-ray for the first time as bare bones, budget-priced titles.

Dan Curtis created Dark Shadows in 1965 and when the first black-and-white episodes aired in 1966, it was a straight soap opera. Before long, the supernatural elements that became the show’s hallmark were introduced, leading to the establishment of a wildly devoted fan base. It wasn’t until a year into the show’s run that Barnabas Collins made his first appearance, quickly becoming Dark Shadows’ most recognizable icon. Such was the show’s popularity that the leap to the big screen was inevitable. Curtis helmed House of Dark Shadows, serving as both producer and director.

Rather than fitting in with the continuity of the TV series, House was conceived as an adaptation of the Barnabas story arc. That’s good news for anyone completely unfamiliar with the series; you can jump right in with the film. After being stuck in his coffin for the past century-and-a-half, Barnabas (Frid) is unwittingly set free by a maintenance man under the employ of the Collins family. By doing so, Willie (John Karlen) has allowed Barnabas to re-establish himself with the current family at Collinwood. He becomes obsessed with their associate, Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott). Maggie is a dead ringer for Barnabas’ long-deceased fiancée Josette. 

At the same time, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) has developed a potential cure for vampirism. She works with Barnabas, administering serum injections, to see if he can possibly return to a normal human state. If successful, Barnabas could be united with the subject of his infatuation, Maggie. Things of course don’t go smoothly, to put it mildly. Quite a few deaths-by-fang ensue throughout the film. The storytelling is a bit clunky in places, but the gothic atmosphere ensures a satisfying creepy feel. This is a B-movie to be sure, but Dan Curtis (working from a screenplay by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell) packs a fair amount of chills into it. And Jonathan Frid, who passed away earlier in 2012, is even more darkly alluring as Barnabas than ever before.

As I mentioned, Night of Dark Shadows didn’t make it to theaters until after the TV series was rather unceremoniously cancelled. Frid was not back as Barnabas, having passed on participating in a sequel. As a result, Nightis not a vampire tale but rather a story of ghosts and reincarnation. Not only did Dan Curtis return as producer and director, this time he was credited with co-writing the screenplay with returning writer Sam Hall. Though the story centers on another character from the soap opera, Quentin Collins, this one is even more of a standalone film than House

For the first two-thirds or so, it works very well. In fact, up until the third act I was convinced this was the better of the two. Quentin (David Selby) is a newlywed artist. He and his wife, Tracy (Kate Jackson), move into Collinwood, happy as clams until strange things begin to occur. Quentin’s disturbing and violent visions suggest that he has more of a connection to his new home than he could’ve possibly known. The housekeeper, Carlotta Drake (Grayson Hall), creeps Tracy out by brazenly suggesting she doesn’t belong. Turns out both Quentin and Carlotta are reincarnations of former Collinwood inhabitants, with their pasts gradually revealed via flashbacks. 

Selby’s turn-on-a-dime performance, going from nice to nasty (and back again), is genuinely magnetic. Jackson, in her feature film debut (and several years before Charlie’s Angels), is a vision of heaven-sent beauty. She makes Tracy’s naivety entirely believable as the plot thickens when the ghost of Angelique (Lara Parker), a woman with whom Quentin had an affair in a past life, begins haunting her. But in the last half hour or so, it becomes all too apparent that big chunks of plot are missing. Was this a result of careless writing or bad editing?

It seems that Curtis’ carefully constructed film initially came in with a rather epic (for this kind of film) running time of 129 minutes. Perhaps fearing that a movie based on a recently cancelled show would land in theaters DOA, the distributor apparently forced him to trim it down to its final 94 minutes within the timespan of one day. That would certainly account for the inexplicable, head-scratching plot turns late in the film. It also explains why a few curious mysteries, such as the full story of estate hand Gerard Stiles (Jim Storm), go unresolved. It’s a shame that the movie was hacked into near-incoherence. It’s still effective from an atmospheric standpoint, but hard to love in the end.
In 1080p, both Houseand Night are certainly acceptable on Blu-ray, if nothing particularly special. It seems Night’s source elements were in considerably better shape, as it looks noticeably better. Neither of these will turn any heads (unless you’re comparing it old VHS copies). Sharpness is generally fine on both discs. Black levels could be much deeper, especially with House. Detail is usually lost in the darker scenes. Too often where we should see inky, deep blacks, we only see darkish grays. Again, Night offers a cleaner image throughout, whereas House is in fact marred by print flaws. These transfers are pretty good for what they are (i.e. minor cult films). The DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtracks accompanying each film are also adequate, workmanlike, and free of any problems. Dialogue is upfront and intelligible. Each of these films features a rather basic sound design and it’s hard to find fault in the Blu-ray presentation. 

Though it will likely come as a disappointment to hardcore Dark Shadows fans, the only extra feature on either film is its theatrical trailer. But I think the important thing with these titles is that they’re available in high definition at all. However flawed they may be both of them provides enough spooky ambiance and effective performances to make them worth a viewing.
Chaz Lipp

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