Before Tim Burton took a stab at 'Dark Shadows,' there was 'House of Dark Shadows.' Moving at a rather awkward pace, with laughable editing and direction, the film is like the abridged version of the original gothic soap opera created by Dan Curtis, who acts as both producer and director. The plot by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell boils the TV series' storyline down to the bare minimum as nearly 200-year-old vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid chewing up the screen with corny magnificence) searches for a cure to his eternal curse in hopes of marrying the reincarnation of his former love, Josette (Kathryn Leigh Scott). Trouble brews, however, when his lust for blood garners the attention of the police investigating a couple deaths resulting from severe blood loss and one Collins member joining the ranks of the undead.
Released at the height of the series' popularity, the movie focuses its attention only on the major plot points, giving little screen time to the melodrama that surrounds the rest of the Collins manor. The wonderful Joan Bennett, whose long career came to a close with a memorable performance as Madame Blanc in 'Suspiria,' plays the family matriarch Elizabeth, but she seems to come in and out of the story only when useful to the narrative yet never leaves much of an impression on the proceedings. Her brother Roger (Louis Edmonds) has a slightly bigger role helping with the investigation and the hunt for a vampire menace, but he, too, feels like he has little affect to the story's final outcome. His son David (David Henesy) is mostly a non-speaking role, making a few brief appearances throughout and gawking at the adults doing weird adult things.
The reason for these characters, which are rather important to the original storyline, coming and going with little explanation was due to the daytime soap being produced at the same time. The actors could only afford so much time to either production without sacrificing one over the other. Of course, when watching 'House of Dark Shadows' it's easy to see which of the two received the short end of the stick. The plot is largely a choppy, episodic mess, jumping from one event to the next with little narrative flow. Granted, the story is not difficult to follow, but the abrupt, rapid scene changes do become cumbersome and clumsily grating after some time. It's made all the worse from the noticeably inept editing, music that suddenly stops rather than slowly fades, and Curtis's directing is mostly inept with one or two inspiring moments.
It makes sense that several details from the original series would be sacrificed in order to fit as much as possible into a 90-minute full-length feature, but the final results are not all that entertaining either. This particular saga suffers terribly due to expediency and a conscious effort not to interfere with the soap's ongoing storyline. In fact, the movie ends with an unexpectedly grandiose finish that has absolutely nothing to do with the show and not affect whatsoever to what TV viewers were watching at the time. The movie's conclusion comes as the result of several events fans would quickly recognize as part of the soap. Thayer David, who plays a few different characters in the series, makes an appearance as Prof. Stokes discovering Barnabas's secret. Grayson Hall is once again Dr. Julia Hoffman who tries to cure Barnabas's vampirism but ultimately fails. John Karlen also returns as alcoholic handyman Willie Loomis, loyal to the vampire's needs.
'House of Dark Shadows' has a great deal working against it, much of that coming from a familiarity with the original TV series. The movie feels largely rushed with little time given for viewers to digest on the events as they occur — or they simple occur off-screen and brushed off with a simple line of dialogue. The one major positive of the entire production, making it somewhat bearable and watchable, comes thanks to the admirable cinematography of Arthur Ornitz. Purely from a visual standpoint, the film comes with a terrific gothic atmosphere that harkens back to the splendid vampire flicks of Hammer Films. Also, without feeling the restraints and limitations of television censorship, Curtis goes for more blood and gore than ever seen in the show. Unfortunately, this is only one small aspect of a larger production that feels sloppy and clumsily put together, made simply to capitalize on the popularity of the television series.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'House of Dark Shadows' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD25 disc inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight to a generic, static main menu with music playing.
Barnabas Collins comes out of his grave with a good but not great AVC-encoded transfer.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture displays strong black levels, and shadow details are clearly perceptible in several poorly-lit sequences. Contrast is also solid and well-balanced, but the overall quality of the image is generally on the flat, dull side. The presentation has its moments, which are quite nice to behold, but on the whole, they are far and few in between with a decent consistency. Colors benefit the most with primaries coming on top without feeling artificial, and softer pastel hues are abundant with a good deal of warmth.
Definition and resolution are also in good standing order, considering the movie's age and low-budget origins. Fine object and textural details are mostly stable and resolute, but there are the occasional soft, blurry scenes, which are made more evident by the video's better aspects. Dirt and white specks creep up once in a while, and I detected the use of digital noise reduction, however mild, during several sequences, especially when noticing film grain seemed mostly absent throughout the presentation. It's not too terrible, but the keenest eyes out there will likely notice it.
On the audio side, Warner provides a DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack that normally would get high marks from me, but this time feels largely like a bit of a letdown.
The positives include excellent dialogue reproduction and appreciable imaging for a track largely maintained in the center. However, the mid-range sounds fairly limited and restricted, which could be related more to the original design than a fault with the new high-rez codec. Other than the lack of background activity and discrete effects, the musical score makes this most apparent, exhibiting very little range and variety in the upper frequencies and even less in the low-end.
For the most part, the lossless mix does it job well, but it sounds very much like a television soap opera recording.
The only available supplement is the movie's original theatrical trailer, presented in standard definition.
As a fan of the original television series, the original film version of 'Dark Shadows' is a poorly constructed attempt to capitalize on the gothic soap opera's popularity. With bad editing and directing which becomes cumbersome after some time, the story of vampire Barnabas search for a cure to his eternal curse turns into a bit of a chore towards the end of the second act, but decently saved by a grandiose finish. The Blu-ray arrives with an audio and video presentation that won't likely impress but is not all that terribly either. This generally bare-bones package is one only the most devoted fans will care to have in their collection.