Allow me to explain.
For the longest time, it seemed like this movie should have been the fastest and easiest way to quickly show friends what Dark Shadows was all about. Actually, it’s a pretty good way to explain what a Hammer movie is all about, except that it arguably tops Hammer in a lot of regards (especially pace). But as for Dark Shadows, it’s a poor representation. You have to explain that Barnabas is not really a bad guy who kills the entire family, and that everyone survives to see another episode. So, in fact, it feels a bit like an overseas knock-off version of a franchise. They got the character names and likenesses, but went in a direction that had no real relationship with the show. And they should have known better. They easily could have created a viable franchise that would have outlived the series. And with the right approach, I think they even could have gotten Jonathan Frid back from Mexico every few years with an intelligent script. The Seventies was such a golden age for horror, and guys like Larry Cohen proved again and again that you could successfully hybridize exploitation with excellence.
The flaw with the movie is the flaw that happens when so many films make the leap from the small screen to the silver screen. So often, it’s as if the people in charge of the movies haven’t even bothered to watch the series. Look at Lost in Space, for example. It’s my favorite object lesson (and whipping boy). All you have to do is look at the ratings of the TV show and the cultural memory which enshrines it in the Zeitgeist. In other words, look at what people loved in the TV show when it was really at its best.
As much as people like to talk about the dark early days of lost in space, those days were very brief. Dr. Smith was fairly cravenly from some of the earliest episodes. And all you have to do is get people in a room who loved Lost in Space to talk about the reasons behind their adoration. They’re not going to talk about the first five episodes. Oh, they may mention them as interesting. But no one becomes a diehard fan of a three-year series because of the very different, first five episodes. The concept is ridiculous.
And it’s heart, Lost in Space is more or less a sitcom revolving around a bright and unresourceful your full genius, his fussy and cowardly – almost Falstaffian – uncle figure, and their trusted and droll robot companion. They fall into one pop art deathtrap or another, and somehow the family bands together to work their way out. That’s the joy of the series. Alongside this, it manages to be very sincere in the most unexpected places… especially with Dr. Smith.
But when they made the movie, they just had to go dark. And none of it worked. Absolutely none of it. Nothing. Well I enjoyed hearing the voice of Dick Tufeld as the Robot, I’m not going to lie. But beyond that nothing worked. Like the recent dark shadows movie, not only did it deviate very seriously from the tone of its source material, but it didn’t even get its own new tone down successfully.
Now, as for House of Dark Shadows. There’s no excuse for this movie to be what it is. I mean, it’s not bad. But a few tweaks would have brought it much closer to the successful tone of the series and set the stage for legitimate sequels.
The villain isn’t Barnabas. The villain is Angelique. And she’s not a witch. (Wait, just go with me.) She’s a vampire with deep occult knowledge. In the backstory, the same triangle exists. She legitimately loves Barnabas, so she conceals her true identity. When he spurns her for Josette, she tuns him into a vampire. Partly out of spite, and partly because now she’ll be the only game in town. Barnabas will have none of it. Josette finds out and kills herself. Barnabas begs to be staked, but Joshua vows to chain him up temporarily until they can find Angelique and destroy her. Well, she skips town and Joshua dies too suddenly to release his son. Angelique, being a vampire, knows she won’t die. Well, probably won’t die. So she can wait out Barnabas. She looks for him, but never finds him.
A long time passes.
When Barnabas is released, he’s much kinder to Willie Loomis then we see in the series at first. Because, at this point, seeing Willie Loomis as the loyal half of this odd couple is something that just works as a storytelling device. So why get rid of it? Barnabas sets himself up as a cousin from England and secures Dr. Hoffman to begin working on a well-but-mysteriously-funded project to cure a bizarre blood disease which he claims to have acquired on a expedition. Of course, Barnabas was made into a vampire in 1795, a decade before Dracula went into print. He has no idea that he’s awakened in a world where the concept of the vampire is well-known. But Julia gets wise. She continues because of her distanced and secret love.
Now, Maggie. This is the biggest shift.
Playing on the vibe of the era, it would be easy to make Maggie a lost soul. (Just so we can get him in there, we’ll go the Hallie route and make her Stokes’s niece.) Why make her a reluctant Josette? The Jeff Clark storyline proved the strength of the wistful, person-out-of-time vibe. (In some ways, that section of the tv series plays better than Somewhere in Time, which apes it.) Maggie clearly knows that she doesn’t fit in… a classic theme of youth-oriented culture of the late 60’s/early 70’s. She has a mysterious affinity for the Josette portrait. At this point, Barnabas has a tremendous moral dilemma because he doesn’t want a repeat of what happened when Josette found out in 1795. Before he can tell Maggie, she finds out. But Maggie is a woman of 1970. Yes, she realizes that she can’t love him due to his violent needs, but swears to help him find a cure. As long as he takes his blood from transfusions.
This goes well until people start turning up mutilated. She blames Barnabas and distances herself. This makes Julia feel great, however, because now she has him exclusively. Of course, Angelique is behind all of this as the actual vampire who’s moved back to town, sensing that Barnabas has been released. Of course, Barnabas is furious and vows to destroy her. Before he can, Angelique puts the whammy on Julia, increasing her jealousy to the point that she ages him, just like in the series and regular film. Angelique offers to reverse the aging, but Barnabas refuses. Maggie, however, offers her blood to Barnabas to save his life. She doesn’t become a vampire, but does verge onto the point of death, saved only by a moderate dose of the serum that Julia has been perfecting. Barnabas discovers Angelique’s crypt and is on the cusp of staking her when he has a better idea. The fitting punishment for her is not death. Barnabas and Willie chain her, screaming, into the very crypt into which Barnabas was chained. At least until a sequel or two. Barnabas learns that the serum has put Maggie into a coma from which Julia vows to rescue her. As the film ends on that ambiguous note, Roger and Elizabeth look for David, complaining about his unsavory fascination with the sealed off wing of the house… sealed off for a reason. We dissolve to David on the other side of a wall, standing before a portrait of Quentin, hearing music that no one else hears. The portrait bears Quentin’s name. It looks stern. David speaks as if he’s in a conversation, saying, “Of course I’ll bring you back.”
We cut to the portrait whose grim expression is now neutral.
Cut back to David, “Yes, of course they have to die for it.”
The portrait is now empty.
Behind David stands Quentin Collins, as if he’s stepped from the portrait. He places his hands on David’s shoulders.
With a tiny trickle of blood running from his left eye and a slight smile on his lips, David confirms, “All of them.”
Bang. Just enough cliffhangers. And the parts of the series I love, tweaked in ways to “turn it up to eleven.”
That’s my take, anyway.