1970’s Horror: House of Dark Shadows (1970)

Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) cuddles up to vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid).

We’ll begin my blog series reviewing 1970’s Horror Films, with “House of Dark Shadows” (1970, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Each blog shall give examples of how horror films evolved from (1970-1979), and stepped out of the shadows of silly Drive-in movies to Oscar winning classics, still revered even today. I begin with Dan Curtis’ feature length adaption of his hit ABC Gothic Soap Opera. An odd choice you may think, but think again. At the time, few hit television series had transferred well to the big screen. “Dragnet” starring Jack Webb was released in 1954. In England, Hammer had adapted “The Quartermass Experiment” in 1955, starring Brian Donlevy, in hopes of attracting an American audience. Peter Cushing took on the role of Doctor Who in 2 films adapted from televised episodes, “Dr. Who and the Daleks” (1965, two years after the series began) and “Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.” (1966). Also in 1966, 20th Century Fox released “Batman” featuring TV stars Adam West and Burt Ward, hitting theaters two months after Season 1 aired.

The Best Picture in 1970 was “Midnight Cowboy”. Best Actor was John Wayne for “True Grit”. Best Actress was Maggie Smith for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. For perspective, other horror films released in 1970 were: “Bigfoot” starring John Carradine, “Count Yorga, Vampire”, “The Dunwich Horror” starring Sandra Dee & Dean Stockwell, “The Vampire Lovers” starring Ingrid Pitt, and “Trog” starring Joan Crawford. Clearly a movie based on a beloved horror soap opera (1966-1971) would fare well with cinema audiences. My cousins tell me they used to hide behind the sofa when the vampires, witches and werewolves appeared. Dan Curtis went even further by casting the original TV stars to recreate the popular Barnabas storyline as the basis for this classic. The budget is estimated at $750,000, and it was filmed in six days in several historic locations around New York and Connecticut. At the box office it took in $1,836.000 (US/Canada).

The film was released at the height of the show’s commercial success, and added more graphic violence. Actors had to be temporarily written off the series to appear in the film. Jonathan Frid played Barnabas Collins, a 175-year-old vampire who is accidentally reanimated and returns to his childhood mansion. Grayson Hall played Dr. Julia Hoffman, who connives to cure Barnabas of his curse. Kathryn Leigh Scott played Maggie Evans, a villager who resembles the vampire’s lost love Josette. Members of the Collins family were played by Roger Davis, Nancy Barrett, John Karlen, Louis Edmonds and Joan Bennett. Interesting to note the make-up used to age Barnabas into a much older version of himself was created by Dick Smith, who worked on other notable 70’s films like “Little Big Man”, “The Godfather”, “The Exorcist”, “Taxi Driver”, “Marathon Man”and “The Deer Hunter”.

Not only was this one of the better horror films released in 1970, and a fairly faithful adaption of the TV plot, it set the standard for other hit series to make the jump to successful movie franchises. “The X-Files”, “Twin Peaks”, “Star Trek”, “Firefly”, “The Muppet Show”, “Veronica Mars”, “Sex and the City”, “The Blues Brothers” and “Police Squad” all made the jump with their original cast members in tow. Dan Curtis went on to produce some of the best 70’s horror films seen on TV or the cinema, creating/directing classics like “Trilogy of Terror” (1975) starring Karen Black, “The Night Stalker” (1972, the most-watched TV movie at the time – it inspired Chris Carter to create The X-Files) starring Darren McGavin, “Burnt Offerings” (1976) starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis, “Curse of the Black Widow” (1977) starring Patty Duke and Donna Mills, and “Dracula” (1973) starring Jack Palance and Fiona Lewis.

To attest to this soap opera’s longevity, Tim Burton remade the story in 2012 sporting an all-star cast; Johnny Depp (Barnabas), Helena Bonham Carter (Dr Hoffman), Eva Green (Angelique), Jonny Lee Miller (Roger), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elizabeth Collins Stoddard) and Alice Cooper. It is extremely lame and squanders the chance to elevate the Gothic romance elements to true horror. It completely misses the mark.

I’m hard-pressed to find any reviews for the 1970 film, but Roger Ebert gave it 2/4 stars. It is a special addition to my horror collection, since my friend Keith gifted it to me. He knows I loved the (1991) NBC revival series. That re-imagining of “Dark Shadows” was beautifully filmed, designed and had an excellent cast, including Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire) as Barnabas, Barbara Steele (Piranha) as Dr Hoffman, Joanna Going (Wyatt Earp) as Victoria/Josette, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as David, Lysette Anthony as Angelique (the wicked witch who cursed Barnabas), Roy Thinnes (The X-Files) as Roger and Jean Simmons (The Thorn Birds) as Elizabeth. If you can track it down on DVD or cable, give it a try. It’s the best version of the Barnabas storyline, in my humble opinion. I give “House of Dark Shadows” (3 out of 5 stars).

Next time: “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” (1971)

About the author

David Chrisom

David joined Boston Super Blog in May of 2019. His vibrant personality is rivaled only by his creativity in his artwork and writing. We're lucky to have him on board sharing his thoughts! In his spare time he's a member of the New England Horror Writers.