Movie of the Week: Master of Dark Shadows (2019)
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
To be honest, I was a little skeptical when I first heard the announcement about MPI Home Video’s new documentary, Master of Dark Shadows. I haven’t always been entirely pleased with their Dark Shadows projects, particularly their compilation “movies,” The Vampire Curse and The Haunting of Collinwood. I thought they might just repurpose footage and interviews from any number of video projects they’ve produced since the infamous daytime soap opera was introduced on home video back in the days of VHS.
That may be the case, in part… I mean, some of the actors and creators, including Dan Curtis, himself, are no longer living. However, if previously-seen interviews are incorporated, the cream of the crop has been chosen and director David Gregory (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau) has woven them into a compelling and engaging 92-minute movie. In other words, it’s totally legit and the description on the cover box accurately describes it:
The feature-length documentary Master of Dark Shadows reveals the fascinating, far-reaching impact and appeal of Dark Shadows with a compelling blend of rare footage, historical images and behind-the-scenes stories while also exploring the dramatic talents of creator-producer-director Dan Curtis. Known as the "King of TV Horror," the Emmy-winning filmmaker followed Dark Shadows with other iconic genre favorites including The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings before earning accolades for the epic mini-series The Winds of War and War & Remembrance.
The subject matter of Master of Dark Shadows is two-thirds Dark Shadows, the phenomenon it became, and one-third Dan Curtis, the man behind it. In the relatively brief introduction of Curtis, his bigger than life personality and early biography are described by people such as writer William F. Nolan, actor Barbara Steele, and daughters Tracy and Cathy Curtis. One of the things I found fascinating about it is the way Gregory weaves television history into the narrative, with participation from The Paley Center for Media.
You’ve probably heard stories about the genesis of Dark Shadows. “One night I had a dream…” Curtis states during an archival interview. That sounds grand and all, but you know it wasn’t really as simple as that. Master of Dark Shadows fills holes in the legend. For example, yes, Curtis had a dream, but it ended where the first few moments of the realized show began, so he employed writer Art Wallace to expand the story. Wallace wrote the series “bible” with elements from a 1954 episode of The Web that he wrote called, The House.
One of the terrific bonus features on the Blu-ray is this actual episode of The Web. It’s required viewing for fans of Dark Shadows. Sure enough, it’s very familiar. A mysterious stranger returns to a small town on the Eastern seaboard and insinuates himself into the life of a widow living alone in a big, dilapidated house. He knows a secret that she’s been willing to keep for 25 years by not leaving the house. When her daughter wants to get married, drama unfolds with enough twists and turns for a… well, daytime soap opera.
12 years later, similar characters would be introduced on Dark Shadows in the form of Jason Maguire (Dennis Patrick), Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett), Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) and Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers.) Rather than answer all the questions it posed like Wallace did in The House, they were left as a mystery that was never resolved on Dark Shadows. This mystery was overshadowed by elements of the supernatural that Curtis introduced into the storyline to prevent the show from an early cancellation.
Viewers paid attention when ghosts entered the storyline and Laura Collins (Diana Millay) was introduced as a Phoenix. But what were they going to do next? Curtis approached series writer Malcolm Marmorstein and asked, “What about a vampire?” His approach was to pretend like they were the first ones to do a vampire story and make their own rules. Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) became a reluctant vampire and the rest is television and pop culture history. Master of Dark Shadows follows the show as it burned bright, before burning out.
Ultimately, Curtis seemed somber about always being remembered for Dark Shadows instead of, as he says, “things I really cared about.” Those were his epics, The Winds of War and War & Remembrance. However, he was flattered by the adulation, even if it often forced him to return to the horror genre when he had nothing else to produce. He worked on projects to his dying day, completing Our Fathers in 2005 and earning an Executive Producer credit for an attempted Dark Shadows reboot and a Consulting Producer credit for a Night Stalker series the same year.
Curtis died on March 27, 2006 in Brentwood, California at the age of 78. At the beginning of Master of Dark Shadows, William F. Nolan, who wrote Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings for Curtis, describes the man with a top 10 list including words like “impatient” and “demanding.” He got what he wanted and the lives of kids all across the country that ran home after school to watch Dark Shadows were the richer for it. You may know how much he did for the horror genre, but Master of Dark Shadows also demonstrates how much he did for television itself.
Directed by David Gregory Released April 16, 2019 RT 92 min. Home Video MPI Home Video (Blue-ray)