Night of Dark Shadows (1971) **
Jonathan Frid didn’t like House of Dark Shadows any more than I did. The way he saw it, everything that had made “Dark Shadows” interesting had gotten lost in the translation from small screen to big, and while I have no basis for concluding whether he was right or wrong about that, I can imagine where he was coming from easily enough. What “Dark Shadows” had been doing was unique and strange coming from a daytime soap opera, but it was old hat— as in, vintage pickelhaube old— for a theatrically released horror film. Frid’s disaffection was rather a problem for producer/director Dan Curtis, because he was really hoping to resurrect Barnabas Collins for the sequel he had in the works. In the end, Frid made Curtis an offer he couldn’t accept: he’d do it for $1 million— $100,000 more than the new movie’s entire tentative budget. Although that certainly left Curtis in a fix, it wasn’t an inescapable one. Barnabas hadn’t been the only “Dark Shadows” character suitable for use as the villain in a feature film, after all. Most obviously, there was the vampire’s longtime nemesis, the revenant witch Angelique. Granted, it would be weird to use her without Barnabas as a foil, but on the upside, it would be easy to build a story around her by stripping the TV show’s late-season parallel time plotline for parts. Night of Dark Shadows thus emerged as a peculiar sort of sequel indeed. It brings back virtually the entire cast of its predecessor, but puts them in all-new roles which share the names of established “Dark Shadows” characters, but virtually nothing else. Furthermore, it could equally well be set a generation before or a generation after the events of House of Dark Shadows— assuming, indeed, that we’re meant to place it in the same continuity at all.
Newlyweds Quentin and Tracy Collins (Doctor Franken’s David Selby and Kate Jackson, from Killer Bees and Satan’s School for Girls) have just had what sounds like an extraordinary stroke of good luck. They’ve inherited Collinwood, the ancestral manse of Quentin’s family. This wouldn’t be much of a gothic, though, if the bequest was an unqualified boon, so of course there are plenty of sinister downsides. The most obvious is Carlotta Drake the housekeeper (Grayson Hall, of The Parisienne and the Prudes and Gargoyles), an authentic Mrs. Danvers type who takes an instantaneous dislike to Tracy, and who is annoyingly, inexplicably opinionated about how Quentin should conduct his business. In particular, Carlotta never tires of insisting that her new boss set up his art studio in the room at the top of Collinwood’s turret. Groundskeeper Gerard Stiles (Jim Storm, from Scream of the Wolf and Trilogy of Terror) promises to be almost equally troublesome for his part, although you probably have to see him and Carlotta together to pick up on that. The two servants evidently have some kind of shared secret, and Gerard takes exception to how the new owners’ arrival impacts his own role in whatever it is. And finally, naturally, the mansion is haunted as fuck. For the most part, Collinwood’s ghosts are of the “psychic residue” variety, rather than the “self-aware undead spirit” variety, but as Danny Torrence could tell you, that needn’t make them any less bothersome.
The specific past trauma that these ghosts eternally reenact revolves around an illicit affair that Quentin’s ancestor, Charles (also David Selby), carried on with his brother’s wife. That was in the early 19th century, when Charles and Gabriel (Christopher Pennock, from Caged in Paradiso and Dr. Mabuse: Etiopomar) both lived at Collinwood with the respective spouses, Laura (Diana Millay) and Angelique (Lara Parker, of Dr. Mabuse and Race with the Devil). Neither Laura nor Gabriel took it well when Charles and Angelique decided they liked each other better than the people they actually married, but both loved Charles too much to blame him for his infidelity. No, if he strayed into Angelique’s bed, it had to be because Angelique did something abnormal to him. Now it happened that Reverend Strack (Thayer David, from Dead of Night: A Darkness at Blaisedon and Journey to the Center of the Earth), the local minister, was whipping up a witch panic at the time, and Charles’s wife and brother battened onto that to excuse his behavior. Angelique was charged, tried, and convicted of witchcraft, and hanged from the big tree opposite that turret where Carlotta wants Quentin to do his drawing and painting.
The thing is, Angelique really was a witch, whether or not that had anything to do with her banging Charles. What’s more, she alone among the ghosts of Collinwood is truly undead, and her malign magic is definitely implicated in what now begins happening to Quentin. Not long after he sets up his studio in the turret (which turns out to be the same place where Charles had his studio, and his favorite trysting spot with Angelique as well), he begins remembering moments from his ancestor’s life as if they were his own, and taking on aspects of his ancestor’s personality. One night, when his friends, husband-and-wife novelists Alex and Clare Jenkins (John Karlen, of Impulse and Nightmare on the 13th Floor, and Nancy Barrett), are over for a relaxed little housewarming, Quentin even attacks Gerard, inexplicably convinced that the handyman is trying to come between him and… well, something. Carlotta has the answers, if Quentin would care to consult her. Angelique has arranged for Charles to be reincarnated in Quentin, in such a way that the longer he stays at Collinwood, the more like Charles Quentin will become. Meanwhile, the further that assimilation advances, the stronger Angelique’s presence on this plane of existence will grow. Eventually, when there’s nothing left of Quentin at all, Angelique will be powerful enough to take on physical form and reunite with her long-dead lover. Carlotta knows all that because Angelique was responsible for her reincarnation, too; the witch was always partial to Sarah Castle (Monica Rich), the housekeeper’s daughter, and wanted her around to run Collinwood’s daily affairs when the time came. Quentin is not onboard with any of it once he learns the mansion’s secret, but it isn’t as though he has any say in the matter. If he’s to remain himself, it’ll be up to Tracy, Alex, and Clare to foil the witch’s plan.
Night of Dark Shadows has basically the opposite problem from House of Dark Shadows. Whereas its predecessor stampeded through whole years’ worth of previously established TV plot, heedless of the uninitiated viewer’s ability to keep up, this one tells a story all its own at a lackadaisical plod, confusing the hell out of the TV show’s fans by putting familiar names and faces on unfamiliar characters. Non-fans will therefore have an easier time of it, since they won’t spend the whole film wondering, for example, when Quentin is going to become a werewolf. (Spoiler alert: he never does.) I personally fall into the latter category, which I’m sure explains part of why I somewhat prefer Night of Dark Shadows to the first movie. The other big selling point for me is that I’m less tired of these clichés than I am of the ones that largely animated House of Dark Shadows. Better to riff on Black Sunday to limited effect than to run through the old Dracula routine yet again!
That isn’t to say, though, that Night of Dark Shadows is without its points of needless confusion even for those who come to it with no prior expectations. There are a few nagging holes in the story Carlotta tells Quentin to explain what’s happening at Collinwood. First of all, there’s no clear reason why Carlotta should that she’s “really” Sarah Castle, while Quentin has no idea that he’s “really” Charles Collins. Second, it’s left inconclusive whether Tracy is also the reincarnation of Laura Collins, and if she is, it’s impossible to fathom why Angelique would have arranged to bring back her rival along with her lover and her favorite household servant. And most glaring, Gerard’s role in the proceedings is vague to the point of incoherence. It may be that he’s the reincarnation of Gabriel Collins, and that it was necessary on that score for Angelique to attach herself to him before she could be with Quentin. The nearest Night of Dark Shadows ever comes to saying as much, however, is during the ominous exchange with Carlotta near the start of the film. Otherwise, Gerard’s motivations are almost entirely opaque.
Mind you, we shouldn’t be surprised that it feels like something important is missing from Night of Dark Shadows, because quite a lot genuinely is. The cut that Dan Curtis originally delivered to the studio ran a languid 129 minutes. That was deemed unacceptable, and Curtis was forced, on very short notice, to trim it down to 95. What got lost might not have been necessary for comprehension, but what I’ve read sure makes it sound like it would have helped. And paradoxically, it also sounds like the long version was a tad peppier than the short one, since it was mostly the action set pieces that Curtis snipped. Incredibly, that includes even an exorcism sequence that was supposed to serve as the film’s climax! What remains is both laconic and tedious, consisting to an irritating extent of people sitting around Collinwood, worrying about things.
Finally, I’m forced to conclude that Angelique is simply no substitute for Barnabas after all, no matter how short my remaining patience for Stokeristic vampires. Her main weakness is that she spends most of the movie existing only in latent form, barely even counting as an offscreen presence in the usual sense. This is where I most suspect the studio-ordered shortening did critical damage, because some of the excisions apparently concerned bits of the 19th-century story that could have made Angelique feel more concrete during the first half. In any case, Night of Dark Shadows certainly needed something equivalent to The Shining’s kitchen conversation between Danny and Dick Halloran, something to define for us up front the parameters of the haunting of Collinwood.
Sadly, we may never know what we’re really missing with Night of Dark Shadows. Although the footage Curtis had to cut at the last minute does still exist, the original audio elements do not. Some years ago, there was a project underway to re-record the lost dialogue with as much of the cast as was still alive (some other solution would have to be found for Grayson Hall’s lines), but I can find no indication whether the work was actually completed. All I can tell you is that the latest home video edition of Night of Dark Shadows contains only the short version, and that the very clean and crisp (maybe even restored?) print screened at the 2016 Drive-In Super Monster-Rama was likewise the 95-minute cut (although heaven knows it felt like more than two hours at the time).