“When I saw myself rising from the dead — with those fangs!”
There are eight turning points in the story of Dark Shadows — moments when the focus and direction of the show changed forever. Four of them are character introductions, and four are backstage events. Here they are, in order of appearance:
- the introduction of Barnabas,
- Julia’s offer to cure Barnabas,
- writer Sam Hall joins the show,
- the introduction of Angelique,
- Jonathan Frid’s ten-city publicity tour,
- writer Ron Sproat leaves the show,
- the introduction of Quentin,
- and MGM greenlights House of Dark Shadows.
Here we are in mid-August 1969, and we’ve reached that final turning point — the moment when a grown-up movie studio agreed to distribute a feature film about a daytime soap opera, using the same cast and crew, while the TV show is still in production. Everything that happens over the next year and a half of the show will be affected by that deeply peculiar decision.
The story that people tell about House of Dark Shadows is that creator Dan Curtis, like all artistic visionaries, was deeply misunderstood. He had a burning ambition to turn his vampire soap opera into a feature film, and nobody at the movie studios would believe in his dream. Finally, Dan found a kindred spirit in James Aubrey, the president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who recognized the value of a Dark Shadows movie and eagerly gave it the green light.
Once the film was greenlighted, the story goes, the only headache to figure out was how to get the cast off the show for six weeks while they filmed the movie. Dan and the writers came up with a way to focus on the actors who weren’t part of the movie cast, until the shooting was over. That way, the movie wouldn’t have a negative impact on the show, and when shooting wrapped, everything went back to normal. On release, the movie was such a success that it saved MGM from closing down.
That story is almost entirely false. This is actually the story of the destruction of Dark Shadows. It’s also the story of the destruction of MGM. And like all Dark Shadows stories, the line between hero and villain is not necessarily clear.
So this is the official starting point for the Who Killed Dark Shadows murder mystery game, which we’ll be playing on and off for the next year and a half. House of Dark Shadows isn’t the only one in the lineup, but it’s a major suspect, and the first one on the scene.
Now, there are a lot of details about this story that I don’t know. The thing that I would most like to know is how far in advance the writers knew they were going to write a screenplay, in addition to their regular five-episodes-a-week schedule. But details about the pre-history of HODS are hard to find, because I guess nobody really cares except me. So I’ll tell you what I know, and we’ll see how far that gets us.
Let’s start with Dan Curtis — the creator of Dark Shadows, who had twice the ambition of a normal man, and half the sense. He’d managed to nurture a tame, low-rated soap opera into a monster hit, which is impressive considering he’d never produced scripted television before. Once the vampire was on the show and the ratings were climbing, Dan started looking around for his next challenge.
In 1967, he produced a TV-movie adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which aired on ABC in America and CBC in Canada in January 1968. The movie was scored with music by Dark Shadows’ Robert Cobert, and those music cues were then adapted for Dark Shadows’ use. This was an early example of Dan’s loyalty to the people that he’s worked with before. You should keep an eye on that characteristic, because it turns out there’s a downside.
Returning from the Jekyll and Hyde shoot, Dan decided that he wanted to try his hand at directing, so he cut his teeth on some Dark Shadows episodes, taking a somewhat experimental approach to the final week of the 1795 storyline. Then Jekyll and Hyde received six Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Dramatic Program, which continued to feed Dan’s restless ambitions.
So Dan produced a pilot for a prime-time show, Dead of Night, working with some of the Dark Shadows team, including writer Sam Hall, director Lela Swift, actors Louis Edmonds and Thayer David, and stunt coordinator Alex Stevens. We’ll talk about this program in a couple weeks, because it airs in late August. For now, the important thing is that Dan was starting to raid the cupboard of his already overworked Dark Shadows family.
And then, guess what. Dan’s also been working on his — I want to say “most ambitious project”, but I’ve already used the word ambitious three times in the last nine paragraphs, so I probably need to come up with another word for it. How about insane? Yeah, let’s go with that.
Dan was working on his most insane project, which was to turn his blockbuster hit daytime soap opera into a blockbuster hit movie, while the show was still in production. The feature-length film would be written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell, directed by Dan himself, and produced by Dan and Trevor Williams, who was the art director on Jekyll and Hyde. None of these people had ever made a movie before.
So when Dan pitched the idea of a Dark Shadows film to various movie studios, the studios made the obvious and correct decision, and declined.
But here we are, on August 13th, 1969, with an announcement in Variety: ABC ‘Dark’ Soaper To Be Made Into A Feature Film. In classic Variety style, the piece is only 54 words long, using abbreviations and cutting all of the articles. “Dark Shadows,” it says, “will be turned into feature film with screenplay by Gordon Russell and Sam Hall, show’s regular writers. Feature, with Joan Bennett and Jonathan Frid starring, is skedded to begin in Oct. in N.Y.”
Couple interesting things about announcement, incl: no mention of studio, and skedded in Oct. Feature actually lensed late March. So what that about?
Well, there’s another relevant article in Variety on August 13th, with the headline: MGM’s Tenderest Hour: Fighting Now vs Compromise. And then a sub-heading: Kerkorian Acquires 24% at $35; May Go for 30% of MGM Shares; Lawyer Sees Control Already Had.
Investor Kirk Kerkorian was known as one of the architects of the mega-casino resort industry in Las Vegas. In 1969, he built the world’s largest hotel, the International Hotel, and he followed this up in 1973 by building the world’s largest hotel, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Twenty years later, he built the world’s largest hotel, which was also called the MGM Grand. Dude liked his big hotels.
Now, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had been in trouble for a while, losing money at a fast clip. In 1966, MGM was taken over by Edgar Bronfman, the head of Canadian distillery Seagram’s. Bronfman booted the MGM president, and replaced him with Louis “Bo” Polk Jr, an executive from General Mills. It didn’t work out that well.
In summer 1969, Kerkorian turned his attention to MGM, and he bought up enough stock to get a controlling interest. During August and September, there was a lot of confusion about Kerkorian’s plans for the studio, and whether he would continue working with Bronfman and Polk.
By the beginning of October, Kerkorian made a definite move, announcing that he would replace Polk as MGM president with Herb Jaffee, a VP from United Artists. Then it turned out that Jaffee said no, so Kerkorian had to find someone else.
Anyway, the reason why I’m telling you all of this is that this is the period when MGM inked a deal for Dark Shadows. That “ABC Dark Soaper” announcement appeared in Variety just as the Bronfman/Kerkorian situation exploded. The article said that Dark Shadows was skedded to begin in Oct., but when Oct. rolled around, it still wasn’t clear who was actually running the studio.
I don’t know what Dark Shadows would have done in Oct. anyway, even if they went with that plan. In Oct., the show was still deep in the Quentin/Petofi storyline. Oct. was not optimal.
Then on October 21st, Kerkorian installed James Aubrey as the new president of MGM. Aubrey’s going to be an important figure in Dark Shadows history, and everybody gets him wrong.
In the traditional story about House of Dark Shadows, Aubrey is a hero, the guy who believed in Dan’s vision. Here’s how it’s described in the 1990 book The Dark Shadows Companion:
It took two long, persistent years to find a backer — the newly-installed president of MGM James Aubrey, who took a look at the attractive, minimally projected costs and the strong identity from TV and said, “Let’s go — what the devil are we waiting for?” Former head of CBS, Aubrey understood the power of the small screen and had no problem with translating that power to the big screen.
Yeah. Okay. About that.
James Aubrey was the head of CBS Network from 1959 to 1965, and he’s credited with making CBS not just the top television network in America, but the top entertainment provider in the world at that time. A Life magazine article said, “In the long history of human communications, from tom-tom to Telstar, no one man had a lock on such enormous audiences as James Thomas Aubrey, Jr.”
Aubrey accomplished this by going as lowbrow as he possibly could. His biggest hit was The Beverly Hillbillies, a No. 1 hit sitcom about a family of country rubes who move to Los Angeles after striking oil on their farm. It was an incredibly stupid and incredibly popular show, aimed directly at what Aubrey called “the soft underbelly of America.” He wanted simple-minded sitcoms with rural and fantasy themes, aimed at the lowest common denominator — Mister Ed, Gilligan’s Island, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, and a revived Candid Camera.
He was also the most hated person in the entertainment industry. Like, really, really hated. I’ve never seen anything like it; I can’t find a single person willing to say a nice word about him. Even his New York Times obituary calls him “the smiling cobra”. He was a demanding workaholic, ruthless and treacherous and impossible to please.
His personal life was apparently notorious, although it’s hard to find people talking about it in detail. In Time magazine, he said, “I don’t pretend to be any saint. If anyone wants to indict me for liking pretty girls, I’m guilty.” So just imagine what you had to do in the early 1960s, for people to criticize what you did with pretty girls. Yikes.
Aubrey was finally deposed in 1965, after the FCC investigated him and determined that he was taking kickbacks from producers in exchange for favorable treatment. Apparently, his apartment was paid for by the head of Filmways, the production company that made The Beverly Hillbillies and Mister Ed. Another producer with Mafia connections provided Aubrey with a second chauffeur-driven car, so that he could pursue his after-hours entertainment without CBS knowing about it. Also, Aubrey’s picks for the 64-65 season all tanked, so that was the end of him and CBS.
So with that kind of reputation, why would Kerkorian put Aubrey in charge of MGM? Well, that’s another funny story.
Kirk Kerkorian wasn’t a movie buff; he was a real estate developer. And MGM had some assets Kerkorian wanted — namely, big expensive movie studios sitting on prime real estate in Los Angeles and London. Kerkorian hired Aubrey to close down MGM’s studios, cancel projects, fire people and sell off the valuable assets.
And it was more than just the real estate. A few months after Aubrey started, MGM sold off its huge inventory of props, sets and costumes to a liquidation company. They even leased the stock footage library. They might as well have posted signs in the windows: Lost Our Lease, Everything Must Go.
For the next four years, Aubrey produced a slate of lowbrow, low-budget movies that would keep the company afloat, while it was being carved up and sold. Under his tenure, MGM withdrew from the MPAA over disagreements about ratings and “exorbitant dues charges.” Then in 1971, they announced that they were going to build hotels in Las Vegas. Remember Kerkorian building the world’s largest hotel, the MGM Grand? They did that instead of making movies.
In 1973, MGM shut down theatrical distribution, and Aubrey resigned, saying “The job I agreed to undertake has been accomplished.” So that’s James Aubrey.
Okay, back to Dark Shadows. On February 11th, 1970 — six months after the first announcement — there was another short piece in Variety: Theatricalize ABC-TV ‘Dark Shadows’ for MGM. “Previously foreshadowed plans to make a feature pic version of ABC-TV’s fangy soaper Dark Shadows have been finalized for release by MGM,” it said. “Production is scheduled to start in New York in April.”
So this would be the moment that Aubrey looked at the plans and said, “Let’s go — what the devil are we waiting for?” But it wasn’t because he believed in Dan’s vision, or “understood the power of the small screen.” He gave the green light to Dark Shadows because it was cheap, lowbrow, and filmed entirely on location in upstate New York.
The Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown was a beautiful old ruin, which made a perfect Collinwood. More importantly for Kerkorian and Aubrey, it wasn’t occupying any valuable Los Angeles real estate.
It’s true that House of Dark Shadows did pretty well at the box office, which helped MGM turn a profit that year. But the movie didn’t “save” MGM, as people sometimes say. House of Dark Shadows was part of the four-year process that turned a movie studio into the world’s biggest hotel.
Oh, and James Aubrey was the guy who told Dan in 1971 that Night of Dark Shadows was too long, and he had 24 hours to cut 35 minutes out of the picture. So much for the power of the small screen.
Now, as I said, I don’t actually know very much about what the Dark Shadows writers, producers and actors did between the first announcement in August and the “finalized” plans in February.
Here’s what I know: The shooting script reproduced in The Dark Shadows Movie Book says “Second Draft Screenplay”, and it’s dated February 24, 1970. Shooting on the film started on March 23rd — not April, as the Variety article said.
In order to accommodate the cast filming the movie, Dan and the writers created Parallel Time, an alternate universe where they could clear out all the characters they needed in Tarrytown. So they moved Barnabas, Julia, Liz, Roger, Carolyn, Maggie, Willie and David off the canvas for six weeks, and handed the show to Quentin, Angelique, Cyrus, Sabrina, Bruno, Amy and a team of short-term fill-in characters. When the shooting was over, everybody came back to ABC Studio 16, and kept on making Dark Shadows.
But that’s half a year away, so why am I talking about this now?
Well, there’s a big mystery coming up in the next few months: the transition from 1897 to the Leviathan storyline.
Right now, here in mid-August, Dark Shadows is about to reach its absolute peak, both in the ratings and creatively. The 1897 storyline is almost universally regarded as the best period of the show’s run — especially in its last few months, when Barnabas, Quentin, Angelique, Julia, Reverend Trask and Count Petofi are all running circles around each other, scheming and making plans and being utterly preposterous. This is a team — these writers, these actors, these producers — who have finally figured out how to make Dark Shadows.
And then the show falls apart.
In an episode taped on October 29th — the month that the Dark Shadows film was originally skedded for shooting — Barnabas Collins runs across two strangers in the woods, who paralyze him and lay him out on an altar. They perform a curious ritual and hand him a spooky box, and now Barnabas is evil, and super interested in antiques.
And suddenly there’s this abrupt drop in the quality of the show. You can actually see it happen in the middle of an episode. Things are super thrilling and funny and heartbreaking, and then the Leviathans appear, and everything goes downhill.
A bunch of new characters are introduced who aren’t very appealing. The amazing kaiju team that made 1897 soar — Barnabas, Julia, Quentin and Angelique — are split up, distant and suspicious of each other. The best period of the show suddenly becomes one of the worst periods of the show.
What could possibly have happened in the fall of 1969 to knock the Dark Shadows creative team off their game like that?
Oh, right — in the middle of August, they suddenly have to write a feature film screenplay, plus they have to figure out how they’re going to get half of the cast off the show by October. Then things get weird with MGM, and nobody’s sure who’s running the place. The movie gets delayed, and now the writers have to figure out what to do if half the cast isn’t leaving for six weeks in October. You can imagine how that might be kind of a distraction.
There are only three people on the Dark Shadows writing team — Sam Hall, Gordon Russell and Violet Welles — and they’re doing an insanely hard job, writing half an hour of witty, action-packed, character-led, plot-twisty melodrama every day, from now until the foreseeable future. And finally, this team has clicked — they like each other, and they’re all heading in the same direction, and they’re producing really good work. That’s why the show is doing so well.
But then you ask them to write a movie treatment, and a plan for splitting the cast in two, and then a full screenplay right away, because we’re skedded for October.
This is why, six months later, they came up with the concept of Parallel Time. The fantasy of Parallel Time is that everybody has a double, who can do half of your work.
The upside of Dan’s loyalty is that he gets to work with the people that he knows and trusts. The downside is that he will run these people into the ground, and that is exactly what happens.
In a few months, when we leave 1897 and return to the present day, what we find is a wounded show. It’s the kind of storyline that you get when everyone is tired and distracted and pulled in several directions. The Leviathans bring Barnabas to their sacred altar, and everything after that is an exhausted shrug.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen, so it’s impossible to make plans. Dark Shadows doesn’t go in much for plans anyway — they’ve gotten this far by falling downstairs once a day, and coming back up with a script — but there is a limit, and it is called “when do we have to write half the cast off the show.” The Dark Shadows that we see in November is much less sure of itself, and they haven’t even met James Aubrey yet.
It’s not all gloom from here, of course — there are lots of bright spots in the Leviathan storyline, and when everyone comes back from shooting the movie, they manage to rally and do some good work. But we’re going to see what happens when you take an under-resourced team of lunatics, and push them beyond their limits.
This is the final turning point in the story. Starting this week, Dark Shadows will never be the same, not that it was ever the same to begin with.
Tomorrow: War and Peace.
Also: Join me on my journey through House of Dark Shadows
with film critic David Edelstein:
House of Dark Shadows: Let’s Not Play Insane Games.
Some of the material about James Aubrey and CBS came from The Columbia History of American Television, a 2009 book that I highly recommend. It’s a really smart, well-written account of how television was invented, how it became popular, and all the sudden leaps and false starts as it basically took over America and the world. If you’re interested in how television got to be the way that it is, you should read this book.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
The boom mic dips into frame as Petofi enters Tate’s cottage.
There’s a lot of studio noise at the beginning of Charity and Beth’s scene in the drawing room — loud creaks, then a series of dull thuds.
When Tate approaches his door, there’s another loud noise from the studio.
Something’s wrong with the lights when Petofi talks to Tate about Quentin’s secret; they perform the scene in shadow.
The first five seconds of Act 3 are silent, then the music cuts in.
When Quentin stands up to answer the door, the camera catches a bit of the overhead studio lights, and then corrects.
Charity barks, “Don’t you dare to be polite to me, Mr. Fenn-Gibbons!”
Behind the Scenes:
The colorful afghan shows up again today, this time on the couch in Tate’s cottage. We last saw it early last week, wrapped around Lenore’s crib at Mrs. Fillmore’s house.
Tomorrow: War and Peace.
Also: Join me on my journey through House of Dark Shadows
with film critic David Edelstein:
House of Dark Shadows: Let’s Not Play Insane Games.
— Danny Horn