Released in August of 1971, director Dan Curtis’ stylishly spooky tale of reincarnation and possession stars David Selby and a pre-Charlie’s Angels Kate Jackson as a young couple, with Lara Parker as the spirit of the long-dead witch who torments them. Ostensibly a sequel to HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, MGM’s biggest hit of 1970, NIGHT features no characters from the first film, with only a passing reference to Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the family matriarch played in HOUSE (and on TV) by veteran actress Joan Bennett. Even more significantly, it’s also the only major Dark Shadows property not to feature Barnabas Collins, the emo vampire who first put the bite on daytime television in April of 1967.
For many fans, Dark Shadows without Barnabas is like porn without the sex. And so, for more than 40 years, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS has been the misfit toy in the supernatural playpen; yes, it’s Dark Shadows, but it’s not really Dark Shadows.
Why there is no Barnabas in the sequel to a movie about Barnabas is also complicated, and requires a few spoilers. At the end of HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, the handsome hero Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) dispatches the vampire (Jonathan Frid) before he can put the permanent bite on Jeff’s girlfriend Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott). As anyone who has seen the film (which is also available to stream on Warner Archive Instant) knows, the permanence of Barnabas’s destruction is highly debatable. (If you don’t know what I mean, make sure to watch until the credits are over.)
But even if Barnabas is dead (or dead again) at the end of HOUSE, it doesn’t matter. The blokes at Hammer Studios killed Christopher Lee at the end of every Dracula movie and unapologetically brought him back for the next one. By 1970 it was understood by everyone that the destruction of a monster is easily rectified once a movie studio signs a check for a sequel. Stake through the heart, impaling, beheading, burning, and silver bullets all are minor inconveniences when there is money to be made, and popcorn to be sold.
So why isn’t Barnabas in NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS? All I can tell you is what series star Jonathan Frid told me when I worked for him back in the mid-1980s.
“I hated it,” Frid said to me, referring to HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. “It was all about screeching cars and blood and gore. It had none of the charm of the TV show.”
Frid took particular issue with the final sequence of the film, in which director (and series creator) Dan Curtis went a bit overboard on the reverb during the climatic faceoff between hero and anti-hero.
“You couldn’t understand a goddamned word I said,” Frid lamented.
He went on to tell me what happened when Curtis called him into his office to discuss a sequel, not long after the first film was released.
“I told him I wanted $1 million dollars,” Frid said, with a chuckle. “And that was that.”
Even if NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS was a great film – and I’m not saying it’s not – the cancellation of the TV series in April of 1971 and Frid’s lack of participation would likely have doomed it to failure. But it was the studio itself that sealed the movie’s fate. After Curtis had completed editing and scoring (with TV series composer Robert Cobert), MGM studio chief James Aubrey – the man who presided over the sale of the legendary studio’s backlot, costumes and props – ordered more than half an hour be cut from the 129-minute film. The final product was a more drive-in-friendly 95-minutes, but it was narratively confusing and editorially sloppy.
Still, there is plenty to recommend in NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS.
David Selby reprises the role of Quentin, a part he first played on television at the height of the series’ popularity. On TV Quentin was both a ghost and a werewolf; here he’s a decidedly mortal painter, and the last surviving member of the Collins family. Quentin and his wife Tracy (Jackson) move into his ancestral home, with two friends, writers Alex Jenkins (John Karlen) and Claire Jenkins (Nancy Barrett) occupying the guest cottage. All is well until the Mrs. Danvers-esque Carlotta Drake (Grayson Hall) begins encouraging Quentin to do his painting in the mysterious tower room. Soon after, the spirit of Angelique (Lara Parker), a witch hanged on the estate 170 years previously, returns to once again cast her spell on the Collins family.
And then it all goes to Hell, literally.
What makes this doubly confusing for longtime fans is, all of these actors (along with a few other supporting players) were familiar faces from the TV series, but here are playing entirely different characters. And three major cast members from the first film (Barrett, Karlen, and Hall) appear here in different roles.
In many ways it’s easier to enjoy NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS if you’re not a Dark Shadows fan. While HOUSE was almost intentionally campy in its overt violence and fangs-to-the-wall storytelling, NIGHT is a decidedly more grown-up affair, with genuine chills and a level of adult sensuality the ABC censors would never have allowed on daytime TV. And then there’s the gorgeous Lara Parker, whose ghostly charms would convince any red-blooded man to do all manner of terrible things to his wife (even if she’s as cute as Kate Jackson).
So there you have it. I just did what I said I shouldn’t, and explained NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS mostly by telling you what it’s not. But what it is is a spooky, rough-hewn, relic early ‘70s indie-style horror (even if it was financed by a once-major studio). And it’s worth a look, whether you’re a Dark Shadows fan or not.
And for extra, added fun, you can listen to this episode of the Collinsport Historical Society podcast, where host Wallace McBride talks to film archivist Darren Gross about his efforts to restore the still-extant missing footage to the film. Maybe, like Angelique, that footage will magically appear again some day on a certain streaming service….