Warner Bros. // 1970 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 16th, 2012
A story of blood relations.
Rejoice, night creatures! For anyone who was disappointed by Tim Burton's 2012 take on the old horror soap Dark Shadows, here's House of Dark Shadows to remind you of what you once loved about the television show.
When the Collins family groundskeeper accidentally unearths the body of centuries-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid), everything in the Collins family goes up for grabs. Barnabas becomes infatuated with Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott, The Great Gatsby), the family tutor who resembles a lost love, but he's also being threatened by Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), who has been turned into a vampire herself and is mad with jealousy. Meanwhile, the family doctor Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall, Night of the Iguana) has discovered a cure for Barnabas' vampirism, which works...for a time. Before long, Collinsport is overrun with vampires, all with their own romantic and bloodsucking agendas.
As someone who has never seen a single episode of Dark Shadows (but who did see Tim Burton's miserable big-screen adaptation this summer), I was surprised how much I enjoyed House of Dark Shadows, the first of two theatrical features spun off from the series. The movie, which is still firmly rooted in its soap opera origins, plays like an American take on the blood-red romanticism of the Hammer films of the 1960s. It was originally going to made up of a few episodes of the show patched together to form a single narrative, but director (and Dark Shadows creator) Dan Curtis opted instead to do an "original" story -- but which I mean that he basically just retold some of the events originally featured on the show but gave them a new spin. The movie, for example, is bloody where the show was not, and it's that bright red '60s blood that puts off so many viewers but which us diehard horror movie fans love.
Because the movie attempts to condense several of the stories originally handled by the TV series, there's actually a lot of similarities in the plot and the structure between House of Dark Shadows and the Burton film. Not to keep bagging on that movie (because I could never stop if given the chance), but seeing how the same ground is covered in House of Dark Shadows helps to underscore just where the 2012 version gets it all wrong. Yes, the material has the potential to be silly. Yes, it can be campy at times. But the sincerity of the 1970 movie is vastly preferable to the self-satisfied irony of Burton's movie -- it may not be scary, but it at least takes itself seriously enough to keep us invested even when things are kind of goofy. It's not as though House of Dark Shadows is humorless, either; the movie understands what it is and plays to its strengths. Forty years later, we get a movie that assumes it's more than it is by pretending to be something it's not.
Warner Bros. Blu-ray of House of Dark Shadows, released concurrently with its sequel, 1971's Night of Dark Shadows, makes for a decent-looking movie in HD. The 1080p transfer does well with the film's color palette (in particular the moments of bloodshed), enhancing the intended palette, retaining a good amount of fine detail and not showing many signs of age, considering the movie is over 40 years old. The biggest problem with the video is that there are sequences in the movie that are so dark it's almost impossible to make out what's happening on screen, partially as a result of crush and partially as a result of the underlit photography. It's not a dealbreaker, but those scenes are difficult to get through. The DTS-HD mono audio track is a little on the shallow and tinny side, but that's to be expected for a movie of this budget and period. The only bonus feature included is the movie's original theatrical trailer. That's it.
House of Dark Shadows is not a great movie, and it's unlikely to make a fan out of anyone who isn't already into the TV show. Still, as theatrical films spun off of TV shows go, it's pretty good -- somewhere between The X-Files and Sex and the City. It's creepy apples to terrible oranges.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG