Dark Shadows at the Movies
A history of Dark Shadows on the big screen

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By 1968, Dark Shadows was proving a massive hit in the daytime ratings, enough for producer Dan Curtis to begin actively pursuing the possibility of translating the format to the big screen. Having successfully handled directing chores on the daytime episodes, Curtis was eager to direct a big screen version of the show.

Early plans to utilise existing footage from the daytime series were soon abandoned, and numerous backers were considered. Curtis' proposals were met with scepticism, as a big screen spin-off from a soap opera was unprecedented. Finally, in late 1969, Curtis struck a deal with MGM to produce his Dark Shadows movie, which would film in spring 1970. Armed with a miniscule budget of $750,000 and just six weeks shooting time, production began in earnest on March 23, 1970. Sam Hall and Gordon Russell adapted their script from the 1967 story that introduced Barnabas, though added a distinctly more adult flavour, with a messy, corpse-laden ending. The cast would be made up exclusively of actors from the daytime series, which would continue to tape throughout filming. The current 1970 Parallel Time storyline was plotted especially to contrive absences for characters while filming was taking place, leaving a skeleton cast to continue the story during this time.

With the tight budget precluding the building of any sets, the Lyndhurst mansion and grounds in Tarrytown, New York, were put to ingenious use throughout filming, which took place entirely on location. Lens filters were used to film night shots during daytime, avoiding costly night shoots. In spite of a difficult relationship with director of photography Arthur Ornitz, Curtis succeeded in bringing a surprising amount of visual flair to the finished film, which belied its humble origins. Aided by Trevor Williams' superb set dressing, the finished film, titled House of Dark Shadows, proved a great success for MGM, and emerged as one of their most profitable films during the 1970 financial year.

Heartened by the success of House of Dark Shadows, MGM were eager to rush another Dark Shadows movie into production, which would go ahead in spite of the cancellation of the daytime series. Jonathan Frid was now tired of playing vampire Barnabas Collins and refused to appear in the sequel. Faced with this setback, Curtis and writer Sam Hall worked on an entirely new idea, showcasing the characters of Angélique and Quentin. The new film would feature no direct links with the original television series, instead produced with a fresh audience in mind.

On March 29, 1971, filming began on The Curse of Dark Shadows, later re-titled Night of Dark Shadows for its release. Without the headaches of producing the television series concurrently, the production crew were able to achieve a far more polished product than the previous year. Spiritualist Hans Holzer was employed as an advisor to the production, to give the production some authenticity, though in the event his actual contribution to the finished product proved minimal.

Hall's script, developed in conjunction with Curtis, was a wistful tale of gothic romance and supernatural reincarnation, bolstered with creditable performances from David Selby, Kate Jackson and Grayson Hall. With filming completed without major problems, Curtis set about editing the final film, which proved far denser and more complex than House of Dark Shadows.

In August of 1971, Curtis and Hall journeyed to California with a finished print of the film, which ran 129 minutes even when shorn of several key sequences. MGM executive James Aubrey had already made plans to run both films as double-bills, and demanded that its running time be trimmed to 96 minutes, giving Curtis only 24 hours to perform a drastic re-edit. Night of Dark Shadows was pre-booked to open in theatres in New England in little over a week, leaving no time to evaluate a proper reconstruction of the story for a shorter running time. Under protest, Curtis delivered the cuts as requested. Unsurprisingly, the film was considered considerably weakened from this exercise, gaining mediocre reviews upon release.

Despite this, the film still performed remarkably well, reaping comparable returns to the first film, even without the cross promotion of the daytime series. MGM requested a third Dark Shadows film from Dan Curtis, though he refused the offer, choosing to move onto other film formats and television projects, albeit ones which usually owed some debt to the horror genre that Dark Shadows had drawn from so often.

The excised footage was though lost for many years, until researcher Darren Gross located a print of the original, 129 minute director's cut of Night of Dark Shadows in the summer of 1999. Sadly, despite the film elements having survived in excellent condition, the accompanying soundtrack was found to be incomplete.

As of this writing, Darren Gross is attempting to mount a full restoration of the recovered film, employing the surviving actors to dub scenes with lost audio. At present, no firm date for the project has been set, and plans have yet to be finalised. Progress is currently documented at nightofdarkshadows.com, the project's official website.

Visit the Articles and Features section of this site to read features on the lost Dark Shadows movie footage, written by Darren Gross

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