March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Two 'Dark Shadows'-inspired movies brought Barnabas Collins and Angelique to the screen more than 40 years ago

Friday, May 11 —  Tim Burton isn’t the first director to bring “Dark Shadows” to the big screen. That honor goes to Dan Curtis, who created the TV series and went on to oversee the 1970 feature “House of Dark Shadows” and its 1971 sequel, “Night of Dark Shadows,” both of which opened in theaters while the popular soap opera was still running every weekday on ABC.

In fact, “House” is essentially a Readers’ Digest version of the beginnings of the Barnabas Collins story, following the vampire’s quest to find new blood and an old love 200 years after he should have died. Jonathan Frid plays Barnabas, and most of the TV cast reprise their well-established parts, including Joan Bennett as the reclusive Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Grayson Hall as the scheming Dr. Julia Hoffman and John Karlen as Willie Loomis, the greedy Collinwood groundskeeper whose failed treasure hunt results in the unintentional opening of Barnabas’ coffin.

On TV, Barnabas was often quietly creepy, but in “House” he is less cultured and more malevolent. Still, he has a soft spot for Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), a dead ringer for Josette, the woman Barnabas loved and lost centuries ago. In other respects, “House” takes major liberties with the basics of the series, revving up the gore and sensuality far beyond 1970s TV standards and allowing Barnabas to kill off or put his curse on many of the show’s key players.

Some of the plot of “House” has carried over to Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” including the concepts of Julia testing an unproven cure for vampirism on Barnabas. Of course, the same kinds of clothing and hairdos that Burton’s movie ridicules were still considered quite fashionable in 1970, so any laughs they might prompt in “House” are purely unintentional. While the movie takes itself seriously, the marketing department apparently had some fun with the ad campaign: “Come see how the vampires do it” was one of the taglines they came up with.

“Night of Dark Shadows” qualifies as an offbeat spinoff of the show, with Lara Parker retaining her role as Angelique, the vengeful 18th-century man-trap, while other series regulars create entirely new characters; for example, Hall plays Carlotta, the secretive housekeeper of Collinwood, while David Selby, who portrayed Quentin Collins on TV, plays a completely different guy named Quentin Collins in “Night.” (If you think you can apply the usual rules of storytelling to “Dark Shadows,” you’re very wrong.)

In “Night,” artist Quentin brings his bride, Tracy (a perky Kate Jackson, five years before becoming one of “Charlie’s Angels” and more than a decade away from “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”) to his ancestral home of Collinwood. Easygoing Tracy tries to embrace her new role as lady of the manor, but she’s disturbed by the silent disapproval of Carlotta and Quentin’s surprising outbursts of verbal viciousness and violence. Blame it on that meddling Angelique, who was hanged as a sorceress 200 years ago and continues to work her manipulative magic from the spirit world, proving that the only thing worse than a wicked witch is the conniving ghost of a wicked witch.

Playing out like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and something along the lines of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Night” is a fairly effective little shocker that predates (and provides a pretty good blueprint for) “The Exorcist,” “The Possession of Joel Delaney” and the rest of the demonic possession flicks of the mid-1970s. If the film seems a bit choppy in places, particularly in its last third, that’s easy to understand. Much to the dismay of distributor MGM, director Dan Curtis reportedly turned in a feature that was over two hours long. Studio bosses insisted he immediately trim it down to 90 minutes, which resulted in some crucial scenes being sliced and slashed. A restored “director’s cut” of “Night,” with a running time of 129 minutes, is tentatively slated to be released on DVD and Bluray later this year.

Both movies are long out of print on video, but you can rent or buy digital versions of "Night" and "House" at Amazon or iTunes.