I have a terrible confession to make: I’m not a fan of Dark Shadows. Not because I don’t like it, but because I’ve never actually had the pleasure of watching much of the tragic vampire, Barnabas, and his many horrific escapades. But Master of Dark Shadows, the new documentary on the beloved show, already has me anxious to correct that…
…For those not familiar with what is probably the most super of the supernatural daytime Soaps, the one that started it all, Dark Shadows, was created in 1966 by filmmaker Dan Curtis, and went on to spawn multiple films (including a Tim Burton remake that many fans probably wish to forget), copycats, and even a reboot of the show in the 90s from Curtis himself. Directed by horror documentarian David Gregory, Master of Dark Shadows explores everything from the creation of the show, to the stresses of production, and the massive impact it has had on American culture, featuring interviews with cast, crew, and even longtime fan, Whoopi Goldberg.
Fans of the show will immediately feel back at home in Collinsport as Master of Dark Shadows opens with Bob Cobert’s haunting theme and a series of interview snippets recounting cast/crews loving description of Dark Shadows and what the show has meant to them. Whether you’ve followed the show or not, the love for Dark Shadows is so strong in this opening sequence that we might as well be trapped in Barnabas’ vampiric gaze, unable to resist the pull that Dark Shadows has, like so many others who fell “victim” to the show’s entrancing imagination in the 60s.
Apparently, as most great ideas do, Dark Shadows began as an eerie dream that creator Dan Curtis had, involving a character on a train, who turned out to be Victoria Winters, played by Alexandra Isles. Gregory and his team do a wonderful job of portraying this moment in Curtis’ life, presenting the dream as such that we as the viewer feel as if we are dreaming in the very same moment. Master of Dark Shadows digs deep into Curtis’ life, what lead to him becoming the filmmaker he was, the heartbreaking death of his mother, and the person he became. The film presents a fascinating depiction of Curtis through old interviews with the filmmaker and new discussions with those who knew him, giving insight into his productive though demanding personality, and how he could alternatively inspire and terrify those who worked for him, which makes for plenty of memorable anecdotes.
Master of Dark Shadows practically bleeds discussion you’ll want to lap up like a hungry vampire, including behind the scenes info on the stressful nature of the production of Dark Shadows and what everyone went through to get it made. As some may know, the show was nearly cancelled during its first season, saved only by the introduction of Barnabas the vampire in the last few episodes as sort of a fuck it, why not, sort of inclusion. Played by the now legendary Jonathan Frid, Master of Dark Shadows captures the immense pressure which Frid was under, correlating his psyche and Barnabas’ own journey as a character and how the two fed off one another, which isn’t as erotic as it sounds to all of you thirsty, sexy vampire lovers.
There’s a lot of you that probably think “documentary” and imagine a boring sleep aid, and I sentence that notion to damnation! Especially in the case of Master of Dark Shadows, which is so funny at times, even the undead will rattle their old bones with a laugh. The film is an account of the horrors not just of Dark Shadows, but of the relentlessly chaotic nature of live television. Cast/crew guide the viewer through multiple outtakes, cheap sets falling apart on camera, and the stress of forgetting lines on live TV. Master of Dark Shadows lets those like myself who didn’t grow up with the show feel as if we were there, watching these bloopers live, which are certainly a charm of the show. By the end of the film, you’ll feel like you’ve been a fan for years, or that you’re in on why Dark Shadows is still remembered by so many all these decades later. Additional footage of old TV spots for the show might be worth the price of admission alone.
Of course, there was a darkness to, er, Dark Shadows, one which Master of Dark Shadows doesn’t dig into quite as much as I would’ve liked. You’d be surprised at how many creators have a love/hate relationship with the show/film that made them, and Dan Curtis was no different. Master of Dark Shadows gives the sense that Curtis was a bit embarrassed by the show and even-gasp-the horror genre itself, and wanted to be remembered for what he considered his more “important” work. Everything that’s wrong with that idea aside, the film touches on Curtis’ distaste for how the show affected his career, but throughout the entirety of Master of Dark Shadows, there is a sense that the interviewees are holding back just a bit. It doesn’t take a mad scientist to realize that not everything was fresh corpses and rays of moonlight on the set of Dark Shadows, yet Master of Dark Shadows never quite spills the blood on some of the juicier stories.
Still, Master of Dark Shadows is a revealing experience, both for fans and fledgling vampires alike. Dark Shadows was the original sexy vampire show long before Twilight introduced gag-inducing, sparkling vamps, and by the end of this engaging documentary, it’s easy to see why it has endured. Watch this one at the risk of wanting to immediately seek out every episode of Dark Shadows, or be haunted by Frid’s mesmerizing gaze.
Master of Dark Shadows releases on VOD from MPI on April 16th.
By Matt Konopka