It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for a TV series to break out into theaters as the regular show continues to run on television. It’s slightly more common with animation (or puppetry), with examples like The Simpsons, South Park, and The Muppet Show all pulling it off during their runs. In terms of live-action, the list is much smaller, with notable efforts being the 1960s Batman and The X-Files, which scored a hit film between seasons five and six of the series. However, Dark Shadows managed to put a feature film on the big screen featuring a number of main cast members while the series continued to run daily. It wasn’t a surprise that the show bucked tradition or expectations; after all, it had been doing just that since its 1966 debut.
Dark Shadows was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, a writer, director, and producer whose output had a seismic impact on the horror television genre. Over the years, Curtis hopped back and forth between television and film. His 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, based on three stories by Richard Matheson, is routinely listed among the best horror films ever made for the medium. He adapted a number of classic horror novels for TV to great success, including the 1973 version of Dracula with Jack Palance in the lead. In the 1980s, he adapted Herman Wouk’s World War II novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance into a pair of mini-series that were nominated for a combined 19 Emmy Awards, Remembrance winning for Best Mini-Series. He also directed The Night Stalker, the film that introduced Jeff Rice’s intrepid reporter character Carl Kolchak to wider audiences; the 1972 TV film was the highest rated TV film of all time at that point, with 48 percent of all TV viewers in the U.S. tuned into the movie on the night it ran. That film led to a hit sequel, The Night Strangler, and the spin-off series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Curtis formed the idea of Dark Shadows around a dream he had of a woman on a train. Encouraged by his wife, his successfully pitched his concept of a Gothic soap opera to ABC in 1965. He teamed up with Art Wallace, a seasoned writer with years of genre TV experience, to flesh out the overall idea and story bible for the new series. Wallace and Curtis wrote the first eight weeks of the series (40 episodes), and then Wallace traded back and forth with screenwriter and playwright Francis Swann on the next nine weeks.
The series began by leaning on the more traditional tropes of Gothic romance, with Curtis’s “woman on the train” becoming Victoria Winters, who was drawn into a Jane Eyre-inspired plotline. Less than a year into the run of the show, ratings were less than great. In an effort to boost interest, Curtis went all-in on the horror angle by introducing vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. The show exploded in popularity, picking up three million viewers in a year. The daily timeslot (usually 4 p.m., though it had runs at 3:30 p.m.) gave teens the chance to discover the show after school, and they became a solid component of the audience. Emboldened by their success with Barnabas, the creators went full steam ahead with ghosts, witches, werewolves, and more. Time-travel became a component, with entire weeks of the series spent in different time periods; of course, Barnabas (as a vampire) and others could appear up and down the timeline, while some actors simply played their ancestors or descendants as needed.
With the show, and Barnabas in particular, taking off, Curtis started pitching for a theatrical film spin-off and sold MGM on the idea. One early concept had the creative team re-editing series episodes into a film, but that was abandoned in favor of doing a tight, film-length version of Barnabas’s main story. Curtis and the writers and producers of the daily show coordinated to write out the necessary members of the main cast for when they would needed during the six-week film shoot. Some of the same sets and locations were used. However, the film milieu obviously provided greater leverage for violence and scares, allowing for things that were out on TV (like dripping blood from vampire fang-induced neck wounds) to be shown. The film was released on August 25, 1970, and while it wasn’t a runaway success, it did double its budget, allowing MGM to greenlight a second film.
The Night of Dark Shadows trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Unfortunately, the ratings for the daily show started to taper off. After a high of seven to nine million viewers a day in mid-to-late 1969, viewership went into a skid. There are a number of theories for this, running from the 1970 recession forcing budget cuts, to the loss of ratings leading to local stations dropping the show and feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Whatever the final reason, Dark Shadows aired its last episode on April 2, 1971. A few months later, the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, hit theaters. This time, due to the unavailability of Jonathan Frid, who had gone on to other projects after the cancellation of the series, the movie focused on Barnabas Collins’s descendant Quentin and the witch Angelique. At the last minute, MGM forced Curtis to cut more than 35 minutes from the film to get its run-time down; all involved felt this hurt the film in a number of ways. When the movie opened, it made back its budget, but that was it for the original TV and film incarnations of Dark Shadows.
Over the years, the show has been subject to a number of reboot attempts. NBC put a new version on the air in early 1991, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas. Initial ratings were huge, but the show was quickly derailed by pre-emptions brought on by ongoing coverage of the Gulf War. The show was cancelled after a single season. A pilot was made for the WB in 2004, but didn’t get a series order. Tim Burton directed a new big-screen version in 2012, which starred his frequent collaborator Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins; although the film made money, it was something of an overall miss. Jonathan Frid put in a cameo for the film, which was his last screen appearance before he passed away that year. Since the fall of 2019, Warner Bros. Television and The CW have been developing a sequel to the original series, tentatively titled Dark Shadows: Reincarnation. Dan Curtis passed in 2006, but his daughters Tracy and Cathy hold the rights to the series and are involved in the production of the potential new version.
The work of Dan Curtis in general and Dark Shadows in particular continues to resonate across media. The X-Files creator Chris Carter spoken often of the debt his show owed to Kolchak. You can see its echoes in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, among others, and in the number of daytime soaps that adopted supernatural plotlines, including Days of Our Lives and the almost entirely supernatural General Hospital spin-off, Port Charles. Perhaps a new version will jump up and seize the zeitgeist again; maybe it will even be popular enough to produce new films while the new series runs. If Dark Shadows has taught us anything, it’s that nothing stays dead for long.
Featured image: Ironika / Shutterstock
Long before Anne Rice, the Post had its own interview with a vampire: Jonathan Frid—the brooding, tortured, but definitely romantic lead in the most popular soap opera in 1968.
Dark Shadows… the top-rated daytime attraction with females between the ages of 12 and 34… has become something of a national fad. Barnabas Collins board games, posters, Halloween costumes, masks, capes, coloring books, and bubble-gum cards are being rushed on the market. One entrepreneur is even preparing Barnabas Collins plastic fangs, adjustable to any juvenile mouth.
Until the character of Barnabas was introduced last year, the program’s darkest shadow of all was a cancellation notice lurking in the wings. Surveys made early in 1967 showed that it was being watched in only 2,750,000 homes, as against a whopping 4,480,000 today. The story had originated as a straight “‘soap” with Gothic trappings and old, dark house on the Maine coast; a young governess menaced by unspecified evils, etc. Topping the cast was former movie actress Joan Bennett.
“We were really bombing,” admits Dan Curtis, the independent producer who packages the show, “so I figured, to hell with it. If I’m going to fail, I’ll at least have a good time. I went wild, tossed in witches and ghosts, you name it. But that vampire made the difference. Two weeks after he came on, the ratings began to climb.”
“That vampire” is, in reality, a 44-year-old Canadian actor named Jonathan Frid, a tall, attractively homely man with a face like a gardening trowel.
I first met him in the Dark Shadows studio.
Frid was in full costume: black Inverness cape; long hair plastered down in spiked bangs; tombstone-white skin; large, slightly cruel gray neyes. He was asked if he had any personal theories on why his character bad become such a success. “To be frank, I haven’t thought about it much.” he said in his somber, dramatic voice.
Paradoxically, his off-screen mannerisms—sweeping gestures, eyebrows arching almost to the hairline—are more florid than his acting style. Frid’s vampire is restrained almost to the point of rigidity, as if fighting to hold himself back from some dark, nameless act. “There is the fan mail, of course,” he went on. “It’s up to two thousand letters a week now, mostly from women. They even send me nude pictures of themselves.
“I suppose women see Barnabas as a romantic figure because I play him as a lonely, tormented man rather than a Bela Lugosi villain. I bite girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drives me to it. And I always feel remorseful later. In the story,
I was murdered and turned into a vampire by a jealous witch back in 1796. Actually, my main interest is curing my condition. It’s even happened occasionally, like the time I was given massive transfusions by mistake. They made me a normal human. Unfortunately, there was a side effect—I actually looked 172 years old. It was either bite girls in the neck again or die of old age. , ,
The scripts of Dark Shadows are tailored to make Barnabas Collins sympathetic in spite of his more antisocial tendencies. “He does terrible things,” says Gordon Russell, one of the writers, “but we always give him a good reason ”
“Personally, the success of the show hasn’t meant all that much,” he said… “The trouble, I guess, is that soaps are rather subterranean. The people you want to impress are working while you’re on. Somehow, this sort of thing just isn’t real…”
If Jonathan Frid can’t quite come to grip with his offbeat celebrity, it’s understandable. Born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, trained m his craft at London’s Royal Academy and the Yale Drama School, he’d spent nearly two decades as one of the hundreds of New York-based actors who, somehow, just never make it. Respected by other professionals, they fill out the years between Broadway roles in regional theaters, touring with road companies, playing small parts in Shakespeare summer festivals.
During the four days I’d followed the shooting, he bad been in virtually every scene, a feat requiring countless hours of rehearsal and memorization. “The worst part is that I’m a slow study,” he said, “You can’t always be looking at the Teleprompter. The audience notices.”
On Monday, after a weekend’s rest, be had delivered his lines with energetic authority. By Thursday, the accumulated strain showed in slurred or misread speeches and ill-timed movements. “I was awful today,” he said. “We never retape, no matter how many fluffs the cast makes. Not even when scenery falls over. Costs too much.”
He collapsed into an armchair. His face was still pale and haggard, his eyes shadowed. It was the first time I’d seen him without makeup.
He looked remarkably the same.
Next month, Johnny Depp will play Barnabas Collins in a movie version of Dark Shadows. Fans of the old soap opera—who, of course, don’t look nearly old enough to have been alive back then—will be measuring his performance against the high standards set by Mr. Frid.