Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dan Curtis, Television's Master of the Macabre

Most purveyors of the horror genre work in literature (Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King) or motion pictures (James Whale, Val Lewton, Guillermo del Toro), but there was one man who did most of his work in the horror as a television producer. That man was Dan Curtis, the man probably responsible for more hours of scary programming than any other.

Curtis did not start in television as a producer. Instead he began by selling syndicated programming for both NBC and MCA. When he did enter production, it was as the producer of golf programmes. Curtis created Challenge Golf for ABC and The CBS Match Play Golf Classic for CBS. His fortunes would change in 1965, however, when he created a produced a soap opera called Dark Shadows.

The inspiration for Dark Shadows were the Gothic romances so popular in book stores and drugstores at the time. Initially it was a rather straight forward Gothic soap opera, but it was not long before it took a turn into the supernatural. It began initially with the appearance of two ghosts on the show, who played no major role in any of the series' plot lines. It was on December 12, 1966 that Dark Shadows turned from Gothic romance to Gothic horror. On that day a story arc began concerning the return of one of the character's estranged wives. As it turns out, she was an entity called a phoenix--every 100 years she was reborn in fire. This plot line was only the beginning, as on March 22, 1967 would become a fully fledged Gothic horror series. It was on that day that the vampire Barnabas Collins made his first appearance.

Barnabas Collins soon became the show's most popular character. And Dark Shadows became something of a fad. It perhaps produced more merchandise than any soap opera before or since. There were Dark Shadows books, games, posters, and more. It even produced two major motion pictures (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows). The show's popularity perhaps rested with the fact that it explored territory which no other show with continuing characters had ever done before. In fact, it exploited every Gothic horror cliche there was. In addition to the vampire Barnabas Collins, werewolves, a Frankensteinian creation, witches, warlocks, ghosts, and even Lovecraftian entities appeared on the show. Sadly the fad eventually passed and Dark Shadows in the ratings. It went off the air on April 2, 1971.

Dark Shadows was only Dan Curtis' first venture into the horror genre, and it would not be his last. In 1968 he produced an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. It aired in the States on ABC. This adaptation starred Jack Palance as the unfortunate doctor and his less benevolent counterpart.

Curtis' next television project in the horror genre would also be his biggest success besides Dark Shadows. The television movie The Night Stalker (first aired in 1972) centred on tabloid reporter Carl Kolchak (Darin McGavin), who has the misfortune to cross paths with a vampire. The Night Stalker was based on an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, with a teleplay by writing legend Richard Matheson (one of many projects on which Curtis worked with the writer). At the time it was one of the most successful telefilms of all time. In fact, it was so successful that a sequel was even made and aired in 1973, The Night Strangler. In that film Kolchak faced off against a murderous immortal. Richard Matheson also wrote the teleplay. The two movies would provide the basis for the TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker. Sadly, Curtis was not involved with the series and it retained little of the quality of the two movies.

Nineteen seventy three seems to have been a very active year for Curtis when it came to producing horror movies for television. One was The Invasion of Carol Enders involved a ghost taking possession of a living woman in order to expose her murderer. Curtis also produced a pilot for a TV series that never sold. The Norliss Tapes centred on investigative reporter David Norliss (played by Roy Thinnes) who uncovers a coven of vampires. Although it is well remembered, NBC did not buy it as a series.

Curtis's other projects that year were based on classic works of horror. One was a telefilm based on Bram Stoker's Dracula, perhaps one of his most famous television movies. Dracula featured Jack Palance as the famous vampire. In many respects it was more loyal than many major motion picture adaptations of the novel, including actual parts of the dialogue from the novel. It was among Curtis's most lavish productions, being shot in both England and Yugoslavia. His other film based on a classic horror work that year was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray aired. It was also in 1973 that Dan Curtis produced an episode of the anthology Wide World of Mystery--Frankenstein Part I.

In 1974 Curtis ventured into the realm of werewolves. Scream of the Wolf centred a big game hunter tracking a murderous wolf who may or may not also be human. That same year Curtis produced a TV movie based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw. Like his version of Dracula it was more loyal to its source material than most movies. It was also critically acclaimed.

It was in 1975 that Dan Curtis produced one of his most popular TV movies, Trilogy of Terror. The film featured actress Karen Black in three different roles in three different stories. One concerned a student's unhealthy obsession to his teacher. Another centred around two sisters, one was good and another who was evil. The third involved an unfortunate woman terrorised by an African tribal object. In 1977 Curtis would produce another horror anthology movie. Dead of Night also told three stories. In one concerns a man who buys a car which can travel through time, with frightening results. Another centred on one of Curtis's favourite subjects, vampires. The third concerned a mother who asks that her drowned son be returned to life, learning all too well one should be careful what she wishes for.

That same year Dan Curtis produced the television movie Curse of the Black Widow. The film featured Anthony Franciosa hunting a killer who encases her male victims in silk cocoons. Sadly, Curse of the Black Widow would be the last time that Curtis would venture into the realm of horror with original material. The Eighties saw him produce such miniseries as War and Remembrance and The Winds of War.

When Curtis did venture back into the horror genre, it would be through his first work of horror, Dark Shadows. In 1990 Curtis produced a pilot for a new, primetime Dark Shadows. The series itself, placed in a Friday night death slot on NBC, only lasted a few months in 1991. In 2004 Curtis was the executive producer on another Dark Shadows movie, this one a pilot for a new show being considered by the WB. Sadly, the WB did not pick it up as a seires.

It is quite possible that Dan Curtis is responsible for more hours of horror programming than any other television producer in the history of the medium. At the very least he was the man behind what could be the two most famous horror TV shows of all time--he created and produced Dark Shadows and produced the TV movies that led to Kolchak: the Night Stalker. Many of the horror films that Dan Curtis produced for television are well remember to this day. The reasons for this is that Curtis tried to insure that every one of his telefilms were done with quality. Indeed, he worked with such writers as Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan, and Earl W. Wallace. The actors with whom worked with were among the best in the business: Darren McGavin, Jack Palance, and Karen Black among them. Dan Curtis was not simply a producer of horror TV movies, but a producer of good horror TV shows. He has had a lasting influence on individuals ranging from writer Stephen King to producer Joss Whedon. If horror TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural have met with success, it is largely due to Dan Curtis having paved the way.

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