Lost Footage Hurts the Otherwise Pleasant Night of Dark Shadows
By Kristin Battestella
This 1971 second film follow up to Dan Curtis’s 66-71 gothic soap opera Dark Shadows mixed the series’ later day storylines for the big screen with plenty of mood and gothic panache. Unscrupulous studio enforced editing, however, leaves confusion and a lack of polish to hamper Night of Dark Shadows.
Artist Quentin Collins (David Selby) and his new wife Tracy (Kate Jackson) arrive at his family estate Collinwood, where soon Quentin begins having dreams and visions of his ancestor Charles Collins. Charles was having an affair with his brother Gabriel’s (Christopher Pennock) wife Angelique (Lara Parker), who was tried as a witch about 150 years before Quentin’s time. Housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall) and handyman Gerard Stiles (James Storm) know more about this history than they are saying, but neighbors Alex (John Karlen) and Claire (Nancy Barrett) Jenkins don’t know how to help as Quentin grows more and more obsessed with the past. Is he reliving the previous scandals as a reincarnation of his ancestor? Will the same murders and executions repeat themselves, or can this haunting and possession be defeated?
Less jammed pack than their predecessors in House of Dark Shadows, the later, secondary cast from the series does a fine job playing some familiar but mostly new roles here. Without the expected Collins-Stoddards, vampires, or Barnabas players and plots, Night of Dark Shadows director Dan Curtis and writer Sam Hall bring forth some of the often unseen storylines from the show’s final years. While this absence may be off putting to some Dark Shadows fans, it’s nice for new viewers to see that there was more to the show beyond Barnabas. Fun Rebecca references, and a pleasant, normal couple in a haunted house feeling also make Night of Dark Shadows a fine bridge to and from the series for fans of traditional seventies horror. The filmmaking is a little dark, but that fits this mood and the askew, cramped camera style. These production values may look old and low budget now, but the design is a step up from the infamous Dark Shadows sets falling over, same day tape mistakes, and small television style. The crazy period flashbacks and dreams may seem out of place, but this dreary, macabre bend matches the show, and well done car chases and a few scary intense sequences keep Night of Dark Shadows brooding as she goes and make for an entertaining finish. While the repetitive, drawn out soap style simply would not work for the cinema, Night of Dark Shadows is well paced – if Dark Shadows had to retire the Barnabas storyline and move on, this was the right, fresh step in a nice little ghost story direction.
But hold your excitement! Night of Dark Shadows may finally be available on DVD, but this is the 94 minute edited version rather than Dan Curtis’ full 129 minute vision. Those lovely, silent dream sequences become confusing by default in this reduced edition simply because the missing bridge scenes, clarifications, and character development are so apparent. Maybe two hours plus would have been too long for a gothic soap opera adaptation, but a few more scenes of explanation would have polished Night of Dark Shadows completely. Instead, several now cliché horror tropes like killer greenhouses and scary swimming pools seem unnecessary. Though authentic in tone thanks to the gothic locales and good old-fashioned witch-hunts, Night of Dark Shadows isn’t quite a horror movie. House of Dark Shadows took its freedom from the safe TV format and ran with the blood and vampire gore, but Night of Dark Shadows stays free of anything saucy or gruesome. It’s refreshing that the solid atmosphere, slow build of past and present, and the inherent sense of danger are given time over the shock values – unlike today. Who will win out – the past recreating itself or the here and now? Night of Dark Shadows uses frightening muted sounds and silent screams – unlike the often and loud screams and shockers of the series – and I’m surprised this what you don’t see, easy on the ears technique isn’t used more. The viewer’s mind imagines how we might sound in terror, personalizing the twists, turns, and cinematic flair.
He sounds a little different and has some weird hair, but David Selby (Falcon Crest) is in wicked form as this edition of his perennial Quentin Collins. Although his appearances in the flashbacks and dream sequences as his ancestor Charles Collins are confusing, granted, this is again thanks to the missing or unclarified answers for those memories and dreams. The past time period itself is never officially dated, and the ghosts appear to be both in Quentin’s mind and real to others. Is it really reincarnation or something else? These questions hurt the character motivations, but Selby works the going crazy as a worthwhile lead. As this something or other possessed or reincarnated something, Quentin becomes very angry, scary, and his physical appearance eerily changes in a Jekyll and Hyde style. Though they have some nice romantic scenes together, Kate Jackson (Scarecrow and Mrs. King) doesn’t seem to appear enough as Quentin’s wife Tracy. She looks really young, out of place, and unrefined but this is probably that Rebecca vibe again. Tracy investigates where she shouldn’t, creating pleasantly suspicious and angry moments, yet she inexplicably remains thru some serious violence. People in horror movies never leave when they have the chance! Lara Parker, by contrast, is ever enchanting with her wispy white gowns, witchiness, and scandals as this latest incarnation of Angelique Collins. The paintings of her are as haunting as she is, and it’s easy to see why Quentin would be captivated by her spectre over the cold and plain Tracy. Of course, the character wither tos and why fors are confusing – since when did a witch having an affair become hanging proof of said craft? Cough thanks missing footage not cough.
Longtime Dark Shadows players Nancy Barrett and John Karlen also suffer character inexplicability in this truncated Night of Dark Shadows. While Barrett looks really fresh faced and colorful compared to an often drab regular series style and Karlen has fine moments of action and intelligence, we never really learn who Alex and Claire Jenkins are and why they are at Collinwood. They are novelists and friends of Quentin, is that all? Alex maybe witnesses Angelique’s ghost and Claire serves tea. They go to New York and confusingly see and learn enough about the Collins’ past to be worried and insist Quentin and Tracy flee the estate. So, somehow the Jenkins have no purpose and all the critical plot points at the same time? Their role in Night of Dark Shadows may be most confusing of all – if not for Grayson Hall’s perfectly creepy housekeeper Carlotta Drake. Her keeping the spirit alive and reincarnation talk comes too few and far between because of those deleted scenes, and while such talk is believable nay even expected by regular Dark Shadows fans, this meta physical crutch is too big a leap for film audiences. Hall is wonderfully mysterious in what she does and doesn’t share about Collinwood’s history and has some weird game with that spooky tower, but she has no room to be as Mrs. Danvers nasty a maid as she could be – like her 1970 Parallel Time Hoffman character on the series.
I really like the lesser seen James Storm and his Gerard Stiles scares in the 1840 Dark Shadows storyline, but his modern Gerard Stiles looks a little out of place in Night of Dark Shadows – not to mention that he disappears for half the film. Despite his best menacing henchman caretaker spin, we don’t see him enough to understand why he’s battling Quentin and threatening the ladies. Christopher Pennock also appears too briefly in the hazy dreams and flashbacks as Charles Collins’ brother and Angelique’s wronged husband Gabriel, yet he’s still so over the top. Thayer David also has a mini good time as the witch hunting Reverend Strack, but surprise, surprise, he and Clarice Blackburn are little more than cameos. There’s no room for Phoenix talk in Night of Dark Shadows, either, but Diana Millay does get to mention the word fire as Charles’ scorned wife Laura Collins, just for good measure. She looks very young and beautiful instead of being so overly made up on the soap proper, and all the costumes from the empire waste gowns to cozy oversized seventies sweaters look great. Dark Shadows composer Robert Cobert’s themes accentuate the horses, superb grounds, abandoned places, and stunning Lyndhurst Castle locales. If you can go to the Sleepy Hollow filming locations, I highly recommend it!
Unfortunately, not only does Night of Dark Shadows suffer from its original forced editing crisis, but this new video release is decidedly cruel to those expecting any restoration love and may actually anger longtime fans. The volume and voices are low, with music cues out of place thanks to that missing footage job. Subtitles are a must, but the only other feature on the DVD is a vintage trailer. The menu interface is awkward, too, dated, and, well, nineties or something. Yes, it would be expensive and difficult to reinstated the recently found but without sound lost footage. One with some Dark Shadows passion, however, would find a way to make voiceovers, theme music, and cast re-records work. Vocal clips from the late Grayson Hall can’t be accrued from almost 500 appearances on Dark Shadows? It’s nice to see Night of Dark Shadows made available, but this release feels lazy, a bottom of the barrel appeasement for fans – way to slight the audience you are directly targeting for your video sales! Regardless of its condition or expense, the excised content should have been included on the video release. Night of Dark Shadows is a good gothic and moody little film – it just needs polish or a kick it up a notch edge – which that cropped material most likely delivers. Viewers will certainly look at this and think they skipped an explanation or wonder if there is a video jump, mistake, or missing scene – the lost material is that obvious in some sequences.
Can you imagine how cool it would have been if more of Dark Shadows films had been made? There are a lot of neat possibilities in the titles alone. I dare say if one really wants to bring Dark Shadows to the big screen – %#@$ that Tim Burton shit – they should remake this Night of Dark Shadows script in its entirety. From the Cobert music and Lyndhurst setting to original cast cameos and an unmistakably R rating, the original “My name is Victoria Winters…” mysterious tone and paranormal gothic style of the series is all here. I’ll even give a pass for a cut theatrical release – so long as there is a dang extended edition! Flaws and all, Night of Dark Shadows is not a bad little film for its million dollar budget. Unlike House of Dark Shadows’ cinematic consolidation of the vampire storylines – meant for fans of the show or bloody horror audiences – this is actually a good starter piece for gothic ghost tale lovers curious about Dark Shadows beyond the Barnabas plots. Wise audiences will be able to see the editing errors, and understandably, some fans of the series may disown this botched work. However, once forgiven for its apparently ongoing lack of studio love, Night of Dark Shadows is an entertaining and spooky good time.