Master of Dark Shadows (2019)

Master of Dark Shadows first published by SciFiNow

As its title implies, Master of Dark Shadows, directed by David Gregory (Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, 2014; Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, 2019), has two focal points. The first is the romantic gothic TV series Dark Shadows that played on ABC from 1966 to 1971, and its various reincarnations: spin-off films House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971); NBC’s short-lived revival of the TV series in 1991; and Tim Burton’s film reimagining in 2012. The second is its ‘master’, Dan Curtis, who created the original series (and directed the first two films), and whose life forms the spine of this documentary.

  The irony is that, as archival interviews with Curtis (d. 2006) make explicit, while he was certainly proud of Dark Shadows, he would prefer to be remembered for the later TV work that he did on the award-winning epic mini-series The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988-89). Master of Dark Shadows covers most of Curtis’ life and career – including a successful golfing series, several horror telemovies (most famously The Night Strangler, 1973), and the feature Burnt Offerings (1976). In a conventional albeit compelling manner, the documentary merges well-researched file footage and interviews with Curtis’ surviving family, cast and colleagues. Its bulk, though, is dedicated to the five years that Curtis worked on the original TV series, for which the producer’s original inspiration was a dream that was apparently itself inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

Curtis had wanted his show to go out at night, but ABC gave him a half-hour daytime slot. What developed was something rather different from the soap operas normally screened at that time, even if it was made under the same pressures of rapid production. When it became clear, halfway through the first series, that the viewing figures were not good, Curtis, desperate in the face of cancellation, began bringing in overtly supernatural elements – and his introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) struck an instant chord with younger viewers, who would just be getting home from school as the show started and could not quite believe that there was horror (with a sexual subtext) on TV for them to watch.

  ABC had a hit – an innovative programme that took the soap format down all kinds of odd, previously unexplored alleyways, while also reinventing the vampire myth via Barnabas’ unusual reluctance to drink blood. It was also made on the fly and shot live, with wobbly sets and fluffed lines there for all to see – and Master of Dark Shadows, narrated by Ian McShane, lovingly chronicles the show’s virtues and flaws, while presenting a portrait of a likeable if gruff and very pushy artist with a real knack for both selling a pitch and working exceptionally hard to see it through to its bitter end. 

The documentary is also candid about how keen, by the end, Curtis was to put behind him a series whose storylines he felt had become thoroughly exhausted. Caught between its twin remit of documenting man and show, the documentary too feels catawampus in its overall structure, and perhaps should have ended sooner than it does. Concentrating solely on Curtis’ work for Dark Shadows would have made sense for the film’s title, and more importantly would have ensured that the last 15 or so minutes of the film – a section paradoxically both too long and too reductively short – need not have been dedicated to a whistle-stop tour of Curtis’ not insubstantial post-Dark Shadows work. As it is, Master of Dark Shadows comes with a lop-sided shape and, like the series that it (mostly) celebrates, in the end rather outstays its welcome. Still, given that there is no other documentary on this topic, Gregory’s desire for Curtis completism is entirely understandable. 

[ Full disclosure: when Ben Cross, who starred in the 1991 TV reboot of Dark Shadows, is shown here declaring, “I frankly have never seen one episode of the original series,” he is also speaking for me. To its credit, Master of Dark Shadows leaves me wanting to correct this.]

© Anton Bitel