“Son, you should video this movie,” my father said, handing me a copy of TV Guide and pointing emphatically to the VCR he had just bought – for $1,000 – as a family Christmas gift. “It’s based on a soap opera about vampires. I think you’d like it.”
One thing you should know about my father: he is largely responsible for my love of old movies. Another: he used “video” as a verb. But the former was much more significant than the latter, even in the technologically heady days of 1981.
The film in question was HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970), Dan Curtis’ feature film adaptation of the 1966-71 ABC TV series he created, Dark Shadows. And my father didn’t know it at the time, but his offhanded suggestion would change the course of my life.
Changing the course of a kid’s life is what parents do, of course, practically on a daily basis. It started for me when my father, at the Jack Benny-esque age of 39, decided (along with my mother) to adopt a baby. There weren’t a lot of middle-aged first-time dads in 1969, but he navigated the nursery like a champ (again, with a significant assist from Mom). It continued when he brought me to my first New York Mets game seven years later, and then had to repeat the drive to Flushing, Queens countless times over the next decade. Trips to Shea Stadium begat Little League games, baseball camp, card and memorabilia shows, travels to Florida for Spring Training, and so on.
Because when I like something, I like something.
And my father knew me well enough at age 11 to know that HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS would be in my cinematic strike zone. He knew this, in part, because he had introduced me to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and all the other Universal monsters that haunted the Saturday matinees of his Depression Era childhood. And HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is a direct descendent of those black & white creep fests — a film that lies on the fault line between the atmospheric classics of the Studio Era and the gory realism of modern horror.
As adapted by TV series scribes Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS spins the tale of 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and his return to his ancestral home in a small New England town. Unshackled from the storytelling constraints of daytime drama, Curtis delivers an action-packed, alternate reality narrative that would have been impossible on TV. The craggy-faced Frid is perfect as the anti-heroic vampire, offering a far more menacing interpretation of the character than fans were accustomed to. While Dark Shadows is largely considered to have introduced the now-well-worn trope of the “reluctant vampire,” the celluloid Barnabas doesn’t have time for that emo shit. He shows up, meets the reincarnation of his lost love (played by TV co-star Kathryn Leigh Scott), and mows down anyone who gets in his way (which is pretty much everyone in the cast).
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS scared the hell out of me at age 11, just like it did to many pre-pubescent fans of the TV series in 1970 who weren’t used to quite so much gushing red blood. As predicted, I loved it, even though WOR-TV Channel 9 in New York hacked the 97-minute film to pieces to fit a 90-minute timeslot. After an initial viewing with my dad, I watched that VHS recording almost weekly, acting out scenes with my sister, who often ended up covered in ketchup. I also immersed myself in TV reference books to learn about the more than 1,200 daily episodes of the soap opera that I would, sadly, never see.
And then, the television Gods shined upon me, and Dark Shadows itself rose from the dead in syndication. The reruns didn’t last long in New York, but they did in other markets, and I found a fellow fan in Dallas named Dave Brown who would record the episodes, copy them in real time, and mail me VHS tapes every week. (Dear Millennials: Think about this the next time you complain about how long it takes for the Netflix app to load on your iPad.)
Soon after, I started writing for Dark Shadows fan publications, helping out with conventions, and, eventually, working for Frid himself – the man who had scared me so much only a few years earlier. (I didn’t tell him that, but he probably knew). All of these activities required a significant time contribution from my father, who drove me to fan club meetings, convention planning sessions, and to Frid’s home office in New York City where I worked with him and his manager, Mary O’Leary (who remains a friend 30 years later) on live theater and TV projects.
“I knew he’d like it,” my father said to Jonathan Frid the first time they met. “I just didn’t know how much he’d like it.”
My glitchy VHS from Channel 9 has since been upgraded to a beautifully restored Blu-ray, released by Warner Home Video in 2012. But, every now and then, I put that old tape in my VCR (yes, I still have one) and remember what it was like to visit Collinsport for the first time, with my father by my side.
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is now streaming via the Warner Archive Instant subscription video on demand service. WAC offers a free, two-week trial, and has hundreds of remastered movies and TV episodes, many available for viewing in 1080p high definition, on your iPad, TV (via a connected streaming device like Roku), and computer. I highly recommend it for all fans of classic and cult film and television.