Studio: MPI Media Group
Director: David Gregory
Writer: David Gregory, Maximillian Meehan
Producer: David Gregory, Jim Pierson
Stars: Dan Curtis, Jonathan Frid, Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, Ben Cross, Barbara Steele, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Ball, Ian McShane
Actors, collaborators, and archival interviews recount the popularity of the TV series “Dark Shadows” and the influence of its creator Dan Curtis.
“Master of Dark Shadows” probably won’t make many new fans out of people who have no preexisting affinity for the venerable gothic horror property. At 85 minutes, the documentary can’t burrow deep enough into “Dark Shadows,” or its creator Dan Curtis, to have that sort of sway.
For the franchise faithful however, director David Gregory’s quick skip down Memory Lane features all the nostalgia necessary to pull out plenty of fang-baring smiles. The doc steers heavily into the latter half of its title, and more cursorily on covering the “Master.” Still, copious clips, archival footage, and interviews with every important figure a fan can think of present an entertaining primer on the cultural phenomenon that “Dark Shadows” became.
“Master of Dark Shadows” begins with collaborators characterizing filmmaker Dan Curtis in single words. Affectionate terms identify Curtis as brilliantly creative, intuitive, and dedicated. More than one person calls Curtis “tough,” with less flattering words describing him as stubborn, impatient, and definitely demanding.
Later in the film, veteran actress Barbara Steele details the day she stormed off the set of the 1991 “Dark Shadows” revival with a vehement “I quit!” Commiserative crewmembers gave Steele an ovation for daring to defy Dan Curtis’ taskmaster tone, although her rebellion lasted less than 24 hours. She now laughs about the incident as an illustration of her admiration for the complicated creator. Steele’s testament provides fitting punctuation for the notion that Curtis could be difficult to deal with professionally, yet remained personable to those who saw the vulnerability in his ferocity.
Following the sound bite montage serving as his introduction, “Master of Dark Shadows” touches on Curtis’ early life. Dan’s two daughters Tracy and Cathy Curtis bullet point background bits about their father. Dan’s wife Norma receives the first of her three swift mentions. Essentially, the movie doesn’t spend any more time than required on a basic biography, maybe five minutes, before hurriedly getting to the goods most viewers came for.
Wistful recollections and colorful anecdotes from two-dozen talking heads discuss all things “Dark Shadows” for the better part of a consecutive hour. Unlike similar documentaries that go thick on superficial gushing, famous fans such as Whoopi Goldberg and Alan Ball only appear long enough to make their points about the program’s popularity. “Master of Dark Shadows” otherwise maintains its focus with David Selby reminiscing about his role, Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker covering theirs, writers Malcolm Marmorstein and Joseph Caldwell recalling the creative chaos of story sessions, and too many other actors, academics, and ABC executives to mention. Even memories from Curtis’ personal secretary Rita Fein provide a peek behind the creator’s curtain.
Dan Curtis died in 2006. Series star Jonathan Frid died in 2012. “Master of Dark Shadows” doesn’t let their unavailability prevent the show’s two biggest heavyweights from weighing in. Although scanlines date Curtis’ inclusion, previously recorded footage featuring both he and Frid almost seamlessly slots in alongside other interviewees.
“Dark Shadows” goes off the air not long after the film passes its one-hour mark. The remainder of the movie briefly covers Dan Curtis’ work afterward, including the 1991 NBC revival with Ben Cross, but mostly spotlights Curtis’ passion projects “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” If he had it his way, Curtis concludes in an amused summation, he would be remembered for those miniseries and not for “Dark Shadows.”
But the supernatural soap opera’s fans collectively will it differently. You’ll need a supplement for context on what made the show’s content so richly compelling. Based solely on “Master of Dark Shadows,” you might think the hype is a lot of hullaballoo for a camp classic with a strange song for a chart topper, goofy special effects, and more live-taping blunders than a blooper reel of Judd Apatow outtakes. You’ll certainly need something else if you expect to become learned about the complete career of Dan Curtis.
I wouldn’t want to argue with a harrumphing naysayer over dubbing the documentary as a feature-length home video extra. Nevertheless, I confess I’m whistling the main title theme as I type this and have a sudden urge to indulge in a double bill of “Burnt Offerings” and “Trilogy of Terror” before taking a TV trip to Collinwood. That’s the mark of a movie that’s done its job, solidifying “Master of Dark Shadows” as a delightful dip into the immense ocean of “Dark Shadows” fascination.
Review Score: 75