A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #15: “Night of Dark Shadows” (1971)
by A.J. Hakari
Boy, the Dark Shadows franchise just can’t make me care about it, can it? Okay, so the Tim Burton flick wasn’t the best introduction, but I look at the original soap opera’s gigantic box set the same way Pee-Wee Herman regards snakes. That’s too much TV for me to crack anytime soon, and others must have felt the same way, because series creator Dan Curtis wheeled out 1970’s feature film House of Dark Shadows to summarize certain story threads for people who missed out. The only hitch was that it was a borderline-incomprehensible movie, so what could be the next course of action in appealing to non-fans? The following year’s Night of Dark Shadows seemed like a good start, but even this stand-alone creepshow that requires no prior knowledge of the program makes getting into it an incredibly plodding exercise.
Life is pretty good for Quentin Collins (David Selby). Not only does the young painter have beautiful new bride Tracy (Kate Jackson) at his side, he’s inherited the sprawling Collinwood estate. But right from the chilly reception that resident housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall) gives Tracy, Quentin suspects strange things are afoot at his new digs. After a handful of bizarre, inexplicable visions, he finally prods Carlotta into telling the truth, revealing the Collins family’s connections to the supernatural. She claims that Quentin is the reincarnation of an ancestor whose lover Angelique (Lara Parker) was burned as a witch and that her ghost still haunts Collinwood, waiting for her man to return. Our hero refuses to believe such a preposterous notion, but Carlotta has other plans, scheming to ensure that the spirits of the past possess Quentin and deliver him once more into her mistress’ arms.
Although inspired by a story arc from the show, one doesn’t need to have seen it before popping in Night of Dark Shadows. The set-up is simple and familiar enough for first-timers to understand what’s happening…and that’s one of the main reasons why it sort of stinks. The entire enterprise is so predictable from the start, offering no distractions or red herrings throughout to even try and convince us otherwise; it ends exactly how you think it will, so hunker down for 90 minutes of inevitable-delaying. Without a huge roster of characters and references to keep track of, it’s easier for Night of Dark Shadows to warm us up to its protagonist’s plight, but even then, his succumbing to evil forces is handled rather expediently. He’s barely learned about his ancestors’ dirty deeds before he goes full George Lutz on Tracy, who gets cast aside as a weeping wreck too dim to do much about saving her husband. This lack of coherence (which includes a subplot about a mystery-writing couple that just sort of hangs around Collinwood) could be explained by Curtis having to excise over a half-hour of footage, but with this franchise’s track record, one has a sinking feeling that even more padding ended up on the cutting room floor.
Night of Dark Shadows is a marked improvement over its predecessor, since I didn’t spend the majority of this wanting to beat my head against a tombstone. Griping aside, Curtis’ eye for atmosphere is in full form here, and Hall delivers a creepy and understated performance as Carlotta. Night of Dark Shadows isn’t terrible, just uninteresting, a completely by-the-numbers ghost story that won’t win the series many new admirers.