Michael W Rickard II
Dark Shadows: Looking Back at the Groundbreaking Gothic Soap Opera. Part Three.
Dark Shadows could be innovative in its use of special effects but on average, its special effects made the 1970’s Doctor Who episodes look like Michael Bay films by comparison. It’s part of the show’s charm that the effects were pretty bad. In the show’s defense, it was a daytime show with a daytime budget and special effects weren’t routinely used on daytime soap operas.
What the show lacked in effects, it made up for in sets. The show had an ambitious number of sets. A daytime soap opera averaged 30 sets a year while Dark Shadows averaged one hundred. Set designer Sy Tomashoff would go on to win numerous Emmys for his later work. He probably would have won some for Dark Shadows but the Daytime Emmys didn’t exist yet. He won in a different way as his union contract required he be paid residuals for the show. At the time, no one expected Dark Shadows to be broadcast in other markets and syndication was unheard of. When it ended up doing so, Tomashoff enjoyed residuals.
Dark Shadows had an impressive variety of music as well with soundtrack albums and singles released. The show’s most popular song was “Quentin’s Theme,” an instrumental that broke into the Billboard Top 40. “Shadows of the Night,” a spoken word rendition of “Quentin’s Theme” by David Selby was released as a single but failed to break into the Top 100. Both pieces would be covered by several popular artists. The Original Music from Dark Shadows’ soundtracks hit #18 on the Billboard Top Album Chart.
The show was also known for its frequent bloopers. The show did not air live but it was taped to air live. That meant that the first take was filmed, and anything short of a natural disaster meant there were no retakes. If someone goofed, it stayed and thanks to videotape, these gaffes remain on the show’s home video releases. It’s fun to watch because you never know when someone is going to make a mistake. There’s a good chance it will be Jonathan Frid flubbing a line but he’s by no means the only one (just the most notorious). Stage hands sometimes stumbled into a scene, actors knocked over props, pesky flies landed on actors during their lines, and a mysterious offstage coughing could be heard from time to time.
Dark Shadows earned a cult following. Like another 1960’s cult show, Star Trek, it had an intense youth following. Sadly, advertisers ignored them whereas now they would be craved. Dark Shadows was cancelled in 1971 after ABC decided to replace it with the game show Password.
Looking back, Dan Curtis felt he had done all he could do with the show and he was ready to move on. He would go on to produce memorable television, his highlights being The Winds of War and War and Remembrance mini-series. Curtis also created the TV blockbuster film The Night Stalker and follow-up The Night Strangler (as well as a short-lived TV show based on the films’ protagonist). Curtis brought Dark Shadows back as a prime-time soap in 1991 but the show failed to catch on (Many argue this was due to it being pre-empted numerous times during the first Gulf War).
Dark Shadows and Star Trek fandom had similarities in the 1970’s. After its cancellation, Dark Shadows fans continued watching the show when it went into syndication, attracting new fans as well. The show’s diehard fans began meeting at conventions where they could meet with the show’s stars as well as their fellow fans. While Dark Shadows never saw a resurgence like Star Trek, the show proved popular enough to see VHS releases of the show’s episodes. Think about it. There was enough of a market that people bought every episode on VHS. Two hundred VHS tapes were produced that encompassed all of the episodes.
Dark Shadows was ahead of its time in many ways, ranging from its atypical storylines for soaps, its imaginative sets and costumes, and its engaging music. Even after its cancellation, Dark Shadows broke new ground as the soap opera saw success in syndication, home video, and fan conventions. Dark Shadows paved the way for what is now known as supernatural soap operas. Serialized shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Smallville, and Arrow feature fantastic elements in a serial format with lots of soap opera elements as well. While vampires, werewolves, and zombies have become commonplace on television, Dark Shadows used them effectively when no one else on daytime television was using them at all.