MASTER OF DARK SHADOWS **** USA 2019 Dir: David Gregory. 92 mins
Co-produced by Severin and directed by veteran David Gregory, this informative, absorbing feature documentary rounds up an impressive bunch of collaborators, family and famous fans (from William F Nolan and Barbara Steele through to Alan Ball and Whoopi Goldberg) to present an authentic yet affectionate portrait of the life and career of writer-director Dan Curtis. Curtis, who died in 2006, is portrayed as a no-nonsense, talented writer in constant pursuit of the next big idea and with a useful salesman background. After breaking through on CBS with a golf show, he milked the late-60’s soap opera boom by conceiving DARK SHADOWS, boldly putting a supernatural spin on daytime TV and bringing vampires to previously uncharted small screen territory.
Played as a romantic hero by Jonathan Frid, Barnabas Collins was TV’s first reluctant vampire and a precursor to many later series’ anti-heroes (notably, ANGEL). Originally intended to be on the show for 12 weeks, Frid became a star, the network watched closely to make sure no blood was spilled on screen, and the 4pm afternoon slot became popular with kids coming home from school to find a horror show in soap opera clothing rather than “Some stupid drama of two people kissing”. The documentary celebrates how DARK SHADOWS revolutionised the kind of fandom with which we are now familiar, while also capturing a new kind of TV series forced to sustain its gimmick by employing an assortment of horror tropes and even a time travel story arc in which existing stars played different characters. Although it briefly touches on Curtis’ later horror work, TV successes and a reluctant return to DARK SHADOWS for a 1991 revival with Ben Cross, the film works best as a breezy, honest account of a no-bullshit entrepreneur who struck gold with something novel and continued to deliver quality television for the rest of his career. What’s more, his influence is at the heart of so many of the supernaturally flavoured network, cable and streaming shows that continue to draw large audiences to this day.
Review by Steven West