Rod Labbe on House of Dark Shadows (1970)

ABOUT OUR GUEST

While this year’s countdown may officially be finished, I want to share Rod Labbe’s contribution.  You may be familiar with Rod, as I am, through his interviews in Scary Monsters.  With my lifetime love of Dark Shadows, I find his story particularly compelling.  This is a fun read that provides insight into what made the show such a phenomenon, concluding with one of Rod’s signature interviews.  It’s a perfect epilogue for the Countdown to Halloween…

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In 1967, I was fourteen, an 8th grader and not someone who spent his leisure time after school watching soap operas. Yet, I found myself doing exactly that every weekday, when I became an avid fan of ABC TV’s Dark Shadows, the only “spooky” soap on the tube.

My cousin had actually mentioned the show to me a few months earlier, and I gave it a shot. Uh-uh, not impressed! Intrigue about a nasty little boy, David Collins (David Henesy), who may or may not be psychotic and may or may not have tampered with his father’s car (Roger Collins, played imperiously by Louis Edmonds), almost causing an accident. The entire episode dragged, with a lot of flat dialogue and very little in the thrills department. What was my cousin thinking? As if I, a horror film connoisseur, lover of Hammer and American International Pictures and raised on Price, Cushing, and Lee, could possibly find this low-brow stuff “scary!” The very idea’s ridiculous.

Then, something odd occurred. Eight months later, April of 67, I was home alone and decided to tune in to an afternoon gameshow. As I physically cranked the dial (yes, this was before remotes), I stopped on a strange scene: a disheveled man (Willie Loomis, played by John Karlen) standing mesmerized before an ornate oil painting. He stared, slack-jawed, moving closer to the portrait…and I heard the sound of a heartbeat. If that weren’t enough to send chills up my spine, the portrait’s eyes began to glow.

What is this? I thought, checking the TV Guide. Well, whadaya know, it turned out to be Dark Shadows! The writers had abandoned anemic murder plots and were following another path: horror! One viewing, and my mundane small-town world shifted into a whole new mode. Spring and its sunny attractions could wait–I was busy joining the ranks of bored housewives and shut-ins hooked on soaps.

Dark Shadows and I became fast friends. Nothing escaped me; gaffes, actor substitutions, and plot meanderings were catalogued and saved in my memory banks. “Isn’t the Old House creepy? Cobwebs everywhere!” I’d blather, torturing any unfortunate within earshot. “Harry (Craig Slocum) Johnson’s a lowlife snake! And why does Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan/Anthony George) hate Roger so much? I can’t believe Mrs. Johnson (Clarice Blackburn) cleans that entire house single-handedly. Seriously, she must be a superwoman!

Yep, I was obsessed. I read everything I could related to the show. At first, there was hardly a blip…but then, boom! Dark Shadows became a true cult phenomenon.

All Shadowsphiles know that DS sprang from the fertile brain of creator/producer/director Dan Curtis. His idea (or dream, if you believe accepted lore)–Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) relocates to distant Maine for a governess position at Collinwood, a mansion overlooking the sea–was rooted in the tried and true gothic, woman-in-jeopardy genre.

For its first year (June 66-early 67), Dark Shadows tread this rather threadbare path, examining storylines involving human drama, romance, and peril. Victoria found herself facing danger at every turn, with a lot of cobwebs and secret passageways at every turn. Intriguing, yes, and certainly, this set Dark Shadows apart from the rest. But it needed an extra oomph!

Soap operas, circa 1966, were turgid affairs and hardly the polished productions we’re accustomed to today. Musical scores consisted of fruity organ solos, and the chintzy sets and overstated acting provided ripe material for satire.

But Dark Shadows eschewed such conventions, even before it went for the jugular.

Production values dazzled; set design, art direction, costumes, make-up and an evocative soundtrack were movie quality. And what other daytime drama had a genuine golden age star heading its cast? Joan Bennett, veteran of Hollywood’s heyday, commanded center stage as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Collinwood’s mistress. Beautifully regal at 56, she brought class to the proceedings and kept that bar impeccably raised for DS’ five-year run.

The show’s greatest draw was its increasingly supernatural wackiness. At first, apparitions were on tap, a bit staid, but again, unusual for daytime TV. Curtis cranked up the weirdness quotient with a story arc involving Roger Collins’ estranged (and missing) wife, Laura.

Played by lovely Diana Millay, Laura’s an aloof, puzzling figure, and her inexplicable reappearance sent shockwaves throughout Collinsport. What could she possibly want, after so many years…money? Position? Respect? When asked, the strangely serene ex-Mrs. Collins professes only motherly love for young son, David. Her hidden agenda, however, is hardly benevolent.

Laura, you see, is a “phoenix,” the human embodiment of a mythical bird that rises, reborn, from its own ashes every 100 years. To accomplish this, she must burn with her progeny, but he cannot participate unwillingly. Vicki, ever intrepid, uncovers the insidious plan just as flames are licking at son and mother. Foiled, Laura expires in fire, smoke, and lots of shrieking, David survives, and Dark Shadows notched its first real exercise in spookery.

Ratings quivered sufficiently to stave off impending cancellation. Curtis, energized, cunningly utilized his trump card: Barnabas Collins, reluctant vampire. It was an inspired move.

Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, up till then an unknown, achieved pop culture immortality as the tragically conflicted Barnabas Collins. Soon, his face and form were featured in magazines, newspapers and advertisements across the country. There were trading cards, horror pillows, model kits, hit singles (Quentin’s Theme), games (two by Milton Bradley), a View-Master set, and homegrown fan clubs galore. Never in television history has a soap opera been so completely marketed, and it’s still rolling out new collectibles to this day!

I did my bit for fandom by joining a few clubs, becoming lifelong friends with the presidents. As teens in the era of Vietnam and Manson, we shared feelings, ideas, opinions and philosophies, connected through Dark Shadows. What an experience! I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Yep, to say Dark Shadows ruled my life would be putting it mildly. I even took the plunge and became a fan club president myself, presiding over a thriving group for actor Dennis Patrick–who’d played conniver, Jason McGuire, and later, Paul Stoddard, Elizabeth’s philandering husband. That led to having an inside track on all the latest DS news and developments, the biggest being a big screen adaptation!

Dan Curtis directed, under the aegis of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The movie, eventually titled House of Dark Shadows, was filmed in early spring of 1970 and released three days before Halloween. It encapsulated the “Barnabas story,” replacing Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke had left the daily show by then) with Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and adding a lot of violence, mayhem and blood.

Did I mention blood? Oh, it’s there, all right. House of Dark Shadows is not for the squeamish!

I saw HODS twice that fall and at least a dozen times since, including on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray. The film has a few rough edges here and there, and editing isn’t always tight, but there’s no denying an electrifying energy shuddering out of every set piece and sequence. Jonathan Frid gives an amazing performance as Barnabas: tragic, pitiful, conflicted, mean as hell and downright villainous. He’s ably supported by the entire TV cast, including Joan Bennett, Louis Edwards, Thayer David, Kathryn Leigh Scott, John Karlen, Don Briscoe, Dennis Patrick (Sheriff Patterson in the film), David Henesy, and Nancy Barrett.

Forget Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), an annoying “satire” (some would say, travesty) starring Johnny Depp as a Barnabas who apparently learned make-up tips from Michael Jackson. House of Dark Shadows plays it straight and is an ideal introduction to the show (which, by the way, will be running on the Decades channel daily, starting October 29th). Highly recommended, even if you aren’t a DS fan–House of Dark Shadows has that beautiful Hammer Studio’s “feel” to it and works as a horror film with bite. And yes, I know how lame a joke that is!

To close, here’s what Dennis Patrick had to say regarding HODS, when I interviewed him way back in 1970:

ROD: House of Dark Shadows is creating quite a stir at the box-office. A fun project?

DENNIS: Oh, a marvelous time. We filmed in upstate New York, and the weather was transitioning from winter to spring. Some chilly mornings (laughs)! March in the northeast is never warm.

ROD: Were you surprised to be called back for HODS? You’d already exited the show.

DENNIS: Dan said he had something for me, so it wasn’t a total surprise. I will say I found playing Sheriff Patterson a welcome change of pace from McGuire and Stoddard.

ROD: Carolyn’s staking reminded me of a Hammer film. Recently, I caught Taste the Blood of Dracula (Hammer, 1970) and detected similarities. Are you familiar with them?

DENNIS: Hammer? No, I don’t think I’ve heard of them. Are they a releasing company?

ROD: Hammer’s an English studio. They usually do horror stuff. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are their biggest stars. Frankenstein and Dracula?

DENNIS: Now I remember. I do know of Christopher Lee. He’s a wonderful Dracula.

ROD: Did it take long to do?

DENNIS: What…the movie? House of Dark Shadows?

ROD: No, Carolyn’s staking scene.

 DENNIS: Nothing in that film took long to do (laughs)! Setting up and getting things ready can be a tedious affair, but Dan plans ahead. All the camera angles had been worked out in advance, and we rehearsed the scene.

ROD: Without music?

DENNIS: We don’t hear the background music. It’s added later.

ROD: Heh, I knew that (blushes).

DENNIS: Background music is such an integral part of the scene, I understand why someone might think the players hear it. Maybe we should! We’d get into the mood faster.

ROD: How was the staking effect accomplished?

DENNIS: They’d rigged a balloon containing fake blood under the front of Nancy Barrett’s gown. Thayer David pretended to stake her, the balloon was pierced, and there you have it.

ROD: Looked very convincing.

DENNIS: Simple effects are usually the best.

ROD: Speaking of blood, House of Dark Shadows has buckets! The vampire attacks are especially vicious.

DENNIS: Dan went full bore, an option allowed him with film. Soaps, on the other hand, are held to stringent network standards. Even so, Dark Shadows sometimes went too far. Were you surprised by the violence?

ROD: A tad. I expected it, though. The times, they are a’changin’.

DENNIS: I’ve heard similar remarks. Personally, and not to criticize Dan, I prefer a subtler approach…but you can’t argue with success, and House of Dark Shadows has found an adoring public. What more could you ask for?

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