Friday, November 9, 2012

Vampire Season: House of Dark Shadows

You know you really love a movie when you can watch it a thousand times and still find something new to appreciate. The VHS copy of House of Dark Shadows sits on the shelf next to about one year's worth of episodes of the TV show (whatever storyline I happen to be watching this year). Compared to the MPI volumes, the top of the cardboard box of HODS is covered in dust. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched it.

One of the most distinctive features of the movie I noticed when I watched the newly released Warner’s DVD this past week was how sleek and compact the screenplay is. Primary episode scribes Sam Hall and Gordon Russell distilled months of daily storyline into 95 minutes that combines characters and reduces story arcs to their lowest common denominator, something the Tim Burton adaptation failed to do.

Those not familiar with the television show may not fully grasp the familial relationships – Elizabeth owns Collinwood manor, Roger is her brother, David is Roger’s son, and Carolyn Elizabeth’s daughter – but it isn’t necessary to follow the storyline. We don’t even need twenty minutes of prologue telling us how Barnabas came to be cursed, who Josette is and why he plans to give governess Maggie Evans her music box.

Filmed in 1970 when old school vampires were at their cinematic peak (think Count Yorga and Christopher Lee’s Dracula popping up in A.D. 1972), Jonathan Frid’s suave, European cousin Barnabas is re-imagined with a visceral taste for blood not possible on afternoon television. The television Barnabas was a bit of a whiney-butt. After all, he is the grandfather of Anne Rice’s reluctant Louis and, whether we like it or not, great-grandfather to Stephanie Meyer’s glittery Edward., two reasons why I applaud House of Dark Shadows. This is a bosom-heaving, blood thirsty vampire movie to rival the best of Hammer Films, complete with savagely bitten throats and fonts of blood when the stakes are hammered home. It’s no wonder when I saw House of Dark Shadows at the theater in 1970 at age 11, the lobby was filled with whimpering grade-schoolers. Barnabas Collins is pee-your-pants scary. If you don’t believe me, watch what happens when Dr. Hoffman takes her revenge and Barnabas shows his true age.

Hyperactive storyline aside, free from the restraints of daytime studio video work, House of Dark Shadows features frenetic cinematography. The camera zooms, tracks, swirls, and sometimes makes the viewer sick with handheld moments. The transfer from film to DVD, while not perfect, at least presents the films murky, dark colors with more clarity, the reds more precise, than was ever possible with VHS. The cast, especially Frid, deliver fever-pitched performances, making this a classic vampire film to be reckoned with.

If you’re new to Dark Shadows (and if you follow this blog, I doubt that you are) and ready to dip your foot into the bloodbath, leave the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp debacle on the video shelf, and spend the night with this lusty demise of the Collins family as we know it.

And as always, fang me later. 

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