Producer-director Dan Curtis — the man behind the ’60s soap opera DARK SHADOWS — died yesterday in Brentwood, California, from a brain tumor; he was 78.
Curtis made a career of resurrecting old monster movie cliches and re-using them for television. DARK SHADOWS began as a Gothic daytime television serial, in which weird things seemed to happen but always were explained away logically. To boost sagging ratings, a real vampire was introduced, Baranbas Collins, played by Jonathan Frid. The gambit was so successful that Frid wound up being the star of the show, and for years afterwards Curtis introduced every horror cliche imaginable into the show: werewolves, witches, ghosts; even plot points borrowed from THE TURN OF THE SCREW and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY made their way into the on-going stories.
Curtis also produced THE NIGHT STALKER (1973), a tele-film about a vampire in Las Vegas, tracked by reporter Karl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who also died recently). When it first aired, this was the most highly rated made-for-television movie ever, prompting a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, which eventually led to a television series that lasted one season.
Back in the days before cable, when late-night television was mostly a wasteland of reruns, Curtis also produced some original shot-on-video productions that ran in the wee hours: a version of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (starring Jack Palance) and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (starring Shane Bryant).
His early genre credits were as a producer; eventually, Curtis began directing as well, helming among many others the 1973 televersion of DRACULA, scripted by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance again, this time as the blood-thirsty Count.
Curtis also directed feature films: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (both derived from the television series) and BURNT OFFERINGS, with Karen Black and Oliver Reed.
One of Curtis’ most memorable efforts was TRILOGY OF TERROR, which starred Black in three episodes based on stories by Matheson. The third episode, featuring a warrior doll that comes to life, became a cult favorite.
Curtis eventually left the genre, producing two epic mini-series in the 1980s, based on the novels of Herman Wouk: THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, for which he won an Emmy.
After that success, he returned to the franchise that had made him famous, crafting a new nighttime version of DARK SHADOWS, which ran for a few episodes in 1990. The show suffered from familiarity and the desire to quickly race through plot points that had been developed over months or years in the original.
Curtis was perhaps not the most creative practitioner every to ply his trade in the horror genre; most of his work consisted of rehashing material that had been done many times before. But THE NIGHT STALKER stands out for being one of — if not the — first vampire films to work effectively in a contemporary setting. And DARK SHADOWS gave us a memorable character in the figure of Barnabas Collins: a tortured, sympathetic figure who yearned to be free of the vampire’s curse, Barnabas was developed in much more depth than most movie vampires, who were usually relegated to lurking in shadows and popping out from behind toombstones to pounce on their victims. By giving Barnabas a real personality, Curtis’s original DARK SHADOWS created a character who might be seen as the missing link between Count Dracula and later literary vampires like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s St. Germain and Anne Rice’s Louis de Point du Lac.