March 28, 2006

Dan Curtis - An Appreciation

Continuing from yesterday's obituary...

If Dan Curtis' only major accomplishment was Dark Shadows, or his adaptations of horror classics in the early 70s, or even the Night Stalker/Night Strangler movies, or even Winds of War/War and Rememberance, he would be considered a great producer. The fact that all of these are on his resume - especially in a 20 year period - demonstrates his unique talent, and how his passing is a great loss for contemporary pop culture.

I've said it privately, and I'll say it publicly - Dark Shadows is the closest America will ever come to Doctor Who. Initially starting as a "Gothic soap opera", it moved into more supernatural (read: ghosts and spooky happenings) realms. On the verge of cancellation, Curtis executed a desperation move - introduce a vampire into the show. Of course, that vampire was Barnabas Collins, an acting tour-de-force for Shakespearean-trained Jonathan Frid. If you ever have the chance to watch the initial Barnabas arc in black-and-white, it contains obsession, scientific accuracy (although Polite Scott might quibble, since he has a little more experience with "blood diseases"), terror, and enough of a jolt to say, "This isn't another soap opera." Gradually, the show began integrating other horror classics into its storylines, and shifted between Collinwood's present-day inhabitants and past relatives, with actors often playing mulitple roles.. For five years, this was the must-watch show, and had a nice, frothy mix of soapiness, fantasy, and flat-out brilliance. (It even had two spin-off movies and a 1991 revival series - how cool is that?) Sure, the sets wobbled occasionally, and maybe there was a flubbed line or missed cue, but so what? That didn't hurt Doctor Who, and it sure doesn't hurt Dark Shadows (which, not coincidentally, is available on DVD - rent it on Netflix, though, because unless you are a hardcore DS fan, the sets are not cheap).

After that, taking on some of the horror "classics", Curtis did a series of knock-em-out-of-the-ballpark adaptations of horror classics. (Ironically, some of which I remember watching when I was small and wee). Watching them now, the only real awkwardness is that several are on videotape - other than that, these are some striking, accurate adaptations. Personal faves include Jack Palance in Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (no, I'm not kidding, why do you ask?) and a chilling adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Plus, who can forget the classic Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black being terrorized by a doll no bigger than a roll of toilet paper?) Better than reading the originals, and quite frankly...I wouldn't be surprised if Mister Alan Moore watched these, mixed in a little bit of The Wild Wild West...and, you know....I'm just sayin', that's all. (Plus, you could easily draw a line from Curtis' audience-friendly takes on horror themes to Buffy, but that's just my opinion; your mileage may vary)

Even though he was not involved in the later Kolchak series, Curtis directed the two "debut" movies of everyone's favorite reporter, Carl Kolchak. The Night Stalker took on vampires in Las Vegas, but it's The Night Strangler which is my personal favorite. Utilizing Seattle, Kolchak discovers a man who has created an immortality serum...but it's well worth finding and watching for yourself. Don't worry about the non-Curtis Kolchak series, which relied on a "monster-of-the-week" premise: these are the films that influenced The X-Files, providing a rational explanation for seemingly otherworldly behavior. (Of course, usually the results were more "otherworldly", but that was Curtis' singular genius - making the extraordinary seem somehow, well, normal).

So, friends, when I say that pop culture has had a significant loss, I'm not exaggerating - we truly have lost one of the true pioneers of modern media.

And now, I'm off to "shake what my mother gave me", whatever that means.

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