Blu-ray Review: Master of Dark Shadows

STUDIO: MPI | DIRECTOR: David Gregory | CAST: Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, Lara Parker, Barbara Steele, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Ball, Ben Cross
Release Date:
April 16, 2019 | PRICE: DVD $18.99, Blu-ray$22.99
NR | 87 min. | Documentary | 1.78:1 | DTS-HD Master audio |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video | Overall

The box art for the entertaining documentary Master of Dark Shadows about the noted producer-director Dan Curtis features illustrations of Bette Davis, Karen Black and Darren McGavin. Those who are unfamiliar with Curtis’ work won’t learn here why those illustrations are present, since the doc is laser-focused on Curtis’ most famous credit, the gothic daytime soap Dark Shadows, with a lesser emphasis on his miniseries The Winds of War.

The doc is indeed a terrific “101”on Dark Shadows but devotes a mere three minutes to all of Curtis’ non-DS horror work, including the 1976 feature Burnt Offerings (which starred Davis), and the enormously popular cult telefilms Trilogy of Terror (with Black) and The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel The Night Strangler (starring McGavin).

Thus, Master of Dark Shadows is structured so that we first learn about Curtis’ early life and his initial work in the TV business (a CBS golf series was his big breakthrough). It then explores his personality, which is alternately described as “gruff” and endearing.

Much is made of Curtis’ working hand in glove with his scripters — some of whom appear as talking heads here. A lengthy archival interview with Curtis (who died in 2006) finds him readily admitting that he stole his ideas for DS from classic horror fiction. With his horror TV-movies barely even mentioned, one’s reception of the doc depends on one’s interest in either learning about or reliving the DS phenomenon.

The cast, scripters and producers — plus star Jonathan Frid, who died in 2012 (seen in an archival interview) — reflect on how the show grew from being a simple gothic soap (in the Jane Eyre/Rebecca mode) to an all-out supernatural series, with a resurrected “phoenix” character added when the show was approaching cancellation, and the show’s most famous monster, the “reluctant vampire” Barnabas Collins, becoming the focus when the show was again ready to be taken off the air.

While Curtis and Frid are present via archival footage, the rest of the cast members and scripters are seen in new interviews conducted for the doc. The most amusing stories have to do with the fact that each episode of the show was shot in a single take (for all intents and purposes “live”), so the actors, who were given the dialogue on the day of shooting, frequently lost their lines while the cameras were rolling.

The results were many bloopers that aired on the program, ranging from the mildly ridiculous to the downright embarrassing (one classic image found Frid walking onto an “empty” atmospheric shot used for the closing credits, carrying his shoes).

Kathryn Leigh Scott, Dan Curtis, and Jonathan Frid on the set of House of Dark Shadows.

Documentarians David Gregory offer not only the memories of the participants but also those of two celebrity fans — Alan Ball, the creator of True Blood, and Whoopi Goldberg, both of whom were among the legion of kids who ran home from school to watch the show.

A fair amount of time is spent on his favorite achievement, the ABC miniseries The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. Co-producer Barbara Steele (the same Steele who is an icon in genre-fan circles for her acting in Sixties Italian horror flicks) and Curtis’ daughters testify that the War duo were Curtis’ proudest moments in the TV industry.

But even he knew that DS was destined to be his strongest legacy. So, when a writer’s strike happened in 1988, Curtis oversaw a DS remake (which didn’t appear until 1991) starring Ben Cross (interviewed here) as Barnabas, Steele as his cohort Dr. Hoffman, and Jean Simmons (Spartacus) as the Collins family matriarch.

Viewers will come away from this documentary with an ample knowledge of DS lore but are heavily advised to see Trilogy of Terror (1975), The Night Stalker (Curtis was not involved in the subsequent cult series), and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) starring Jack Palance (released by MPI as part of the “Dan Curtis Macabre Collection”). This trio of telefilms are low-budgeted but highly imaginative, offering a great glimpse at Curtis’ best non-DS suspense work.

The supplements here are quite enjoyable, focusing exclusively on the original DS cast, with the exception of the very first ads for the series, which explain the Jane Eyre aspect of the show’s first months; they are narrated by cartoon perennial Paul Frees.

David “Quentin Collins” Selby recites some of his DS-related poetry (yes, really), while Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Barnabas’ great love on the show, provides a tour of the studio facility at which the series was shot.

Frid is present in three extras. The first finds him reading from Poe and Shakespeare in his later years. Despite his protests that he never really liked the horror genre, his “Tell-Tale Heart” is filled with Barnabas-ian melodrama.

He is also heard in audio from the ABC daytime Dick Cavett Show in 1969 (the video is apparently lost). He discusses his sudden status as a teen idol (Frid was 45 at the time), and the screams of young girls in the audience backs that up. He answers questions from the audience about vampirism and what kind of girl he’d like to bite.

The best moment of “Fridiculousness” (the name of one of his one-man shows) finds Jonathan at the White House Halloween party in 1969. Tricia Nixon invited him to attend, and he came in full Barnabas garb. He proceeded to hand out treats (sans any tricks) to the assembled children. A photo in this supplement of him sitting and talking to Bozo on the latter’s clown-cast is certainly one of the odder time capsules for those of a certain age.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”