Central to this documentary about the producer Dan Curtis – who was also, less importantly, a director, and, probably without typing anything, a writer – is the big man’s big grin, which composer Bob Cobert describes as showing ‘about ninety teeth’. There’s aggression in that shark maw, as stories of his battles with suits of various sorts tell, but also a kind of driven showman’s insecurity. The title and the bulk of this feature refer to Curtis’s status as the visionary behind the lasting cult horror/soap, though a segment towards the end about his much greater mainstream success adapting Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance into event miniseries suggests that his own estimate of his output might not be in accordance with that of the fans. The compromised, truncated post-Wouk revival of Dark Shadows seems to have been as much an admission of defeat as a passion project, though there’s only a subliminal mention (in an end credit nod to the actor Alec Newman) to the fact that there was a third attempt at DS between the cancellation of the 1991 version and Tim Burton’s comedy remake.
Before DS, Curtis got into TV and made a packet with a show about golf we get glimpses of that even obsessives wouldn’t revive … and between its cancellation in 1971 and the Wouk wedges of schedule, he was among the most interesting and innovative producers of made-for-TV horror, with The Night Stalker, remountings of the gothic classics, and Trilogy of Terror. Still, Dark Shadows looms large here. I must be one of the few in Britain who’ve watched the whole of the thing – over 1200 episodes – and I admit I’ve not seen more than a few minutes of The Winds of Whatever, so count me among the philistines who kept the poor man trapped in his coffin. This inevitably goes over ground covered in the plentiful extras on the big coffin-shaped boxed DVD set of the show, though there are a few new snippets – such as the actor who admits that the timing of the show made it very popular with prostitutes and drug addicts, for whom its afternoon slot made it breakfast time viewing. There’s inevitably a degree of print-the-legend about the well-polished anecdotes of cast and crew, and some aspects of the phenom have never been really addressed – the well-known story goes that the show started out as a gothic romance in the Jane Eyre vein, and resorted to the supernatural to avoid cancellation, then went full-on monster rally (in an era when that meant The Munsters) with the appearance of the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. It’s true that Barnabas is a major figure in the evolution of the vampire story – his influence can be seen in things as varied as Interview with the Vampire, Salem’s Lot, Blacula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Angel and True Blood. But he only became a reluctant, tormented vampire after his initial characterisation as a weaselly villain wore thin – and some of the strongest stretches of the series have him as an odious bad guy.
Understated is the fact that the show also got a fillip when it decided to have long historical flashback sequences, which gave the cast – except Frid, who was actually one of the weaker players – the opportunity to do a range of different characters, sometimes shucking off goody-goody images to be splendidly wicked. There’s a concentration on the late Frid, who had a typical typed-by-a-hit-show burst of celebrity and subsequent grumpy disenchantment then reconciliation and acceptance (cf: many on Star Trek, Dr Who, or like franchises) – though this doesn’t address the relevance of his private life, as a gay man playing a sexual outsider who’s desperate to conform, which gives real piquancy to many runs of the show where Barnabas is almost cured of vampirism only to have the blood lust come back, which is built into the premise since a non-vampire Barnabas became deadweight for the series. Cancellation came because, as Curtis admitted, DS had run out of stories to pillage – but immediately before the plug was pulled, Frid finally got his way and Barnabas was written out so Frid could take a new role in which he was weakly cast as the Heathcliff-like Cousin Bramwell and all interest drained out of the series.
It’s a shame the dwelling on Barnabas means not paying as much attention to the real standouts of the cast – Nancy Barrett, Thayer David, Grayson Hall, Jerry Lacy, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott – many of whom are still around and chipper. There’s some fun stuff about the merchandising boom – which ranked DS with such contemporaries as Batman and The Monkees – and the burgeoning fan culture, which has lasted well beyond the end of the show. The celeb fan who comments is Whoopee Goldberg though Alan Ball (True Blood) gets to say a few things – it’d be interesting to hear from Anne Rice or Stephen King, though. Interviews with writers – Malcolm Marmostein, William F.Nolan – testify to the rigours of working with a demanding producer, but also his endless invention.