Dan Curtis: “Dark Shadows” and Beyond

This post came out of a conviction that the name “Dan Curtis” ought to be a household word, at the very least as a horror auteur, beyond the small circle of aficionados who revere him. I realized only belatedly that I was a huge fan of much of his work and only over time did I tie it all to this one man.

Like the great impresario P.T. Barnum, Curtis (Daniel Cherkoss, 1927-2006) hailed from Bridgeport, Connecticut. A graduate of Syracuse University he started out in the 1950s selling syndicated shows to TV. In the early 1960s he produced golf programming. And then in 1965, the idea for Dark Shadows came to him in a dream. He pitched it to ABC, and it became a phenomenon. It was a daily Gothic soap opera set in Collinsport, Maine centered around the doings of vampire Barnabas Collins and all the supernatural creatures who came to town to stir up trouble. The show ran from 1966 through 1971, was later syndicated, and spawned the movies House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971). And of course was later remade in a campy version by Tim Burton.

In 1968, he produced a TV movie version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Jack Palance, the first of many adaptations of horror literature Curtis would either write, produce or direct for TV. Others included Dracula (1973, also with Palance), Frankenstein (1973), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1973), and The Turn of the Screw (1974).

In 1972, in collaboration with Richard Matheson, he launched The Night Stalker phenomenon with the eponymous TV movie. This was followed by The Night Strangler (1973), then the series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), which we wrote about here.

In 1973 he produced the TV movie The Norliss Tapes, about a missing occult investigator, intended to be a pilot for a series starring Roy Thinnes. In 1974 came the TV movies Scream of the Wolf and The Invasion of Carol Enders.

In 1975, again with Matheson, the enduring classic Trilogy of Terror, starring Karen Black.

And in 1976, one of his few cinematic releases, the haunting Burnt Offerings. In 1977 came Dead of Night and Curse of the Black Widow. After this he made a few returns to horror, but it ceased to be the sole focus of his output.

In the late 1970s, Curtis shifted gears in a big way, switching from dark subject matter to material that was nostalgic, history oriented and patriotic. A transitional project was the 1979 series Supertrain, a notorious flop which Curtis executive produced. An apparent riff on The Love Boat, it’s sci-fi premise was that it was set on a nuclear-powered high speed luxury train. Several other projects were more successful however. He made two TV movies about growing up in Bridgeport during the Great Depression, Every Day Was the Fourth of July (1978) and The Long Days of Summer (1980). Then came his two epic World War II mini-series based on Herman Wouk novels, The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988-89), both huge television events.

After this phase, he returned to familiar territory with a brief reboot of Dark Shadows (1991), the alien abduction mini-series Intruders (1992), and the inevitable Trilogy of Terror II (1996).

There’s much more work to his credit right up until his death in 2006 by brain tumor, but these are his best known projects.