“Don’t you feel the evil in this room?”
If it seems like the Collinwood halls are filled with more ghosts and fewer people than usual, that’s because three of the stars — Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Nancy Barrett — are out this week on separate press tours for House of Dark Shadows, the feature film which keeps on finding ways to make the show worse.
In the film, Jonathan Frid plays a vampire, Kathryn Leigh Scott plays a girl, and Nancy Barrett plays a girl vampire, so she wins. You see a lot of Carolyn-the-vampire images in the promotional materials, because that’s the traditional early-70s horror movie draw — a pretty girl in a flimsy nightgown, with blood all over her face. This was the period after they invented red paint and before they invented slasher movies, so sometimes the girls had to go and get bloody some other way.
The trailer for House of Dark Shadows starts with a shot of Collinwood a la the opening of the show, except instead of saying “My name is Victoria Winters,” they have a guy who growls “VAMPIRE!” Then there’s an assortment of haunted Halloween type noises — creaky door, creepy giggle, grunting Frankenstein monster, crazy werewolf howl — which sounds exactly nothing like Dark Shadows. It’s like they borrowed a sound effects tape from the Crypt-Kicker Five.
We see the classic upshot of Willie opening the coffin, with a Boris Karloff voice murmuring, “Come and see how the vampires… DO IT!!” with a heavy emphasis on the “DO IT” part. Then there’s a half-second shot of something that I cannot for the life of me recognize as anything in particular, and a half-second shot of Maggie screaming.
Then there’s a little montage of mayhem with vampire Carolyn, which starts with her getting staked by the police, and then shows Mrs. Johnson dropping a tray as she discovers that Carolyn is dead, which is backwards, not that it matters. “House of Dark Shadows,” Boris intones, “where death… (pause) … is a way of life (silent rimshot).”
Then Stokes, in Julia’s lab, saying, “Julia, do you believe in the existence of vampires?” and Julia chuckles, “You’re not really serious.”
Boris replies, “Oh, but he is, Julia!” because the fake Karloff is now free to interact with the characters. We see Julia backing up in horror as — old man face Barnabas reaches towards her! “CLARRRRRRRRK!” yells Barnabas, pointing a stake upwards toward the camera. “I command you to come to me!”
Oh, and then a shot that’s just there to piss off Jonathan Frid — Barnabas, opening his mouth and showing off his fangs for a full three seconds.
Then Maggie walks downstairs in a wedding dress, as Boris makes the deadpan announcement, “Barnabas Collins takes a bride, in a bizarre act of unnatural love.”
Maggie poses on the staircase, as Barnabas raises his arms to welcome her, and the picture goes red, and then “House of Dark Shadows” from Boris, and “Rated GP.”
So that’s not a bad encapsulation of the movie’s content, if you take out the dialogue and characterization, which, to be honest, are not huge priorities for the movie anyway. For example: that scream of Claaarrrrk is from the end of the movie, and Barnabas is screaming it because Maggie’s boyfriend’s last name is Clark, which is not a fact that you learn in the movie itself.
This is a tough movie for a trailer to summarize, because the show is a mix of soap operas, monster movies, selections from freshman lit and black-box performance art, and the film has a tough time figuring out what it wants to focus on. Some of it is romance, some of it is mad science gone wrong, and a big part of it is Hammer blood orgy.
None of it is salacious or sexy, though. There are zero love scenes, unless you count Carolyn getting penetrated by a crowd of police officers and male onlookers. There’s minimal nudity, besides a couple upskirt shots and the general salaciousness of Carolyn walking around in a see-through shroud. As far as the love triangle is concerned, Barnabas and Maggie hold hands twice and hug maybe once. I don’t think Maggie and Jeff even go on a date; he just kisses her on the eye while she’s unconscious.
So what I’m saying is, the “unnatural love” angle is misleading at best. You definitely see how the vampires do it, but “it” is pretty much limited to biting someone on the neck and wearing a nightgown.
But this is how you market vampire movies in 1970, a year where the other vampire film is called The Vampire Lovers, and features actual girl-on-girl vampire bedroom action. The poster screams, “Taste the deadly passion of the BLOOD-NYMPHS!” So House of Dark Shadows got off pretty easy.
There’s a radio spot, too, which takes a different angle on things. That starts with thirty seconds of Barnabas and Maggie romance dialogue from the scene where they’re holding hands and hiding behind trees, backed with groovy Cowsills-ish music.
“Some people live in boxes all their lives,” says the narrator, which is actually witty, compared to everything else. And then Barnabas tells Maggie, “You know, I feel I’m beginning a whole new life, and you’re responsible for that life. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be with you!”
The music swells for some up-tempo harmonics, and then there’s Boris again, talking about Barnabas Collins and the bizarre act of unnatural love. This is followed by a burst of screams, and then “House of Dark Shadows. Come see how the vampires…” and you know the rest. The last few seconds are just Willie gurgling. Please buy a ticket and see our movie.
Meanwhile, MGM sent promotional material to the theaters that could have been used for basically any vampire movie from around 1954 to 1979 — plastic fangs, glow-in-the-dark stickers, and “fainting pills” which were actually red-hot candy. They suggested that theater owners put an old wooden casket in the lobby, and invite people to peek inside, and apparently some of them actually did.
The brainiacs at MGM also had an idea labeled BATTY FUN: “The extra showmanship of this stunt could win you newspaper and media coverage. See if a live bat can be borrowed from a local zoo or pet shop for opening day. Advertise that you have on display, for one day only, a live “vampire” in your lobby.” That does sound like fun, although I have one question: could you actually buy a bat in a pet shop in the 70s? What would a person do, with a store-bought bat?
Naturally, Jonathan Frid wasn’t pleased with all of this nonsense; he would rather be playing Orlando or Caliban, and did he mention that he once acted with Katharine Hepburn? So all of this seemed juvenile and distressing to Frid, and he didn’t do a great job of hiding his displeasure.
Here’s an excerpt from his interview with Women’s Wear Daily:
One thing that gets 45-year-old Frid down about his TV role is the teenage fans. “I always feel like an ass being a teenage idol in a teenybopper magazine,” he says. “I’ve had my phone number changed, but there’s a couple of brats that have it. It’s not so much an affection for you as a game. They’re little detectives.”
Frid is also upset about his movie. “I object very strongly about the vulgarity of the picture. It dissipates the effect of horror. It’s not horrible enough because there’s too much indulgence in blood. I don’t mind doing the scenes, but I’m afraid the public will object. Our producer knows the lowest common denominator. I also find the ads very offensive. And I will never do another horror picture without having script approval and other guarantees.”
So: WOW! Great job on the press tour, guys. I would say at this point that Jonathan Frid is entirely fed up with being on Dark Shadows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor talk smack about his movie like that, except for Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, doing promotion for Fifty Shades when they obviously couldn’t stand being in the same room for more than fifty seconds.
And then there’s the Miss American Vampire beauty pageant, the last great Dark Shadows promotion stunt. Here’s the writeup:
Miss American Vampire will receive a week’s role in the series, along with an all-expense-paid week for two in New York. Nancy Barrett, who portrays the young vampire in the film, will coach the winner for her television debut. Prior to the national finals to be held this fall, regional contests will take place in nine major cities throughout the country.
The judging will be based on originality in interpreting the “vampire look,” as well as charm, poise, stage presence, and videogenic qualities.
Girls 18-25 are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild in achieving their particular “vampire look”. Anything in the way of costumes and makeup is permissible. Suggestions for costumes include the white, diaphanous shroud, for the newly initiated vampire, or a slinky black for the more sophisticated ghoul. A touch of red here or there would not be amiss, and accessories such as necklaces of teeth would certainly be in order.
Necklaces of teeth! There’s nothing like a dental decolletage to help Jonathan Frid feel like he’s made good choices in his professional life. I would have assumed that this would be the moment he decided he really didn’t want to play Barnabas anymore, but I have to admit, he seems pretty perky in all the pictures I’ve seen. And check out the amazing jacket that he wore!
The contest was a complicated scenario; I’ll try to walk you through it. There were nine regional contests — in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Cleveland, St. Louis, Dallas and Boston — and then a national winner was selected on Regis Philbin’s daytime show, Tempo.
The New York regional was hosted at Palisades Amusement Park in Palisades, NJ, with Nancy Barrett and Jonathan Frid appearing as the judges. In The Dark Shadows Companion, Barrett recalled:
It was fun, for the first five minutes. After that, it got terribly depressing. Some of the girls came in bikinis. Some came dressed as witches or vampires or dead bodies.
One girl stood in front of me and just stared at me. ‘Am I supposed to smile at you?’ she asked. I gave a nervous laugh and said, ‘No, that’s all right. You can go on to the next judge.’ Another girl told us she was a witch. We all decided to make her a semi-finalist for fear she might ‘get us’ afterward.
Christine Domaniecki from Philadelphia was crowned the winner at the Palisades regional, and she went to Los Angeles for the national finals. Nancy Barrett was one of the national judges, too, but Frid skipped it; I guess he suddenly remembered an important engagement that he needed to attend.
A lot of the books say that Domaniecki was the national winner, probably because she’s the one who actually appeared on Dark Shadows. But the winner crowned on Tempo was actually Sacheen Littlefeather, who reached national fame a few years later in a totally different way.
Littlefeather was a Native American rights activist, and in 1970 she was living on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, as part of an 18-month occupation by American Indians. The island was no longer used once the Alcatraz penitentiary was closed in 1964, so a group of 89 Native Americans moved there, claiming it as Indian property. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Littlefeather entered the Miss American Vampire contest as a way to draw attention to the protest; news accounts referred to Alcatraz as her hometown.
Then in 1973, Marlon Brando decided to boycott the Academy Awards to show his support for Native American rights, and he asked leaders of a prominent advocacy group to choose someone who would accept the award if he won Best Actor for The Godfather, which he did. And guess who they chose? Miss American Vampire winner Sacheen Littlefeather. It was a whole thing, at the time, kind of a Kanye/Taylor Swift moment but slower and it was about Indians.
Anyway, Littlefeather didn’t accept the one-day part on Dark Shadows, and instead the role went to Domaniecki, the runner-up. She showed up in October as a non-speaking barmaid in episode 1126. I don’t know if that got anybody to see House of Dark Shadows who wasn’t already planning to see House of Dark Shadows, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Tomorrow: Standing on Graves.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When Quentin tells Julia about unexplained noises in the house, somebody in the studio coughs, right on cue.
Quentin fumbles a line: “Julia, are — tell me, this Gerard, is he supposed to be in love with this other ghost?”
When Liz is told not to go to Daphne’s room, she heads straight to it. But how does she know where it is? All she knows is that Quentin and Julia said that they were there.
Behind the Scenes:
A few facts that didn’t make it into the post: Frid, Scott and Barrett were out on tour the week of August 16th to the 21st, which overlaps with the taping of episodes 1084, 1087, 1088 and 1089. The film debuted in the southeast for some reason on August 26th, and then had a nationwise release on September 3rd.
The film was rated GP, which is what they called PG from 1970 to 1972.
The list of finalists for Miss American Vampire included Barbara Marciel (Miami), Diane Kirby (Cleveland), Nina Johns (St. Louis), Signe Vernon and Beverly Rose.
The judges at the national finals were host Regis Philbin, Tressa Drury, beauty columnist Lydia Lane, MGM casting director Joe D’Agosta and Nancy Barrett. I don’t know who Tressa Drury was, and I suppose I never will.
Tomorrow: Standing on Graves.
— Danny Horn