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“Master of Dark Shadows” Might Be A Glorified Obituary



There are two reviews to be written about Master of Dark Shadows, a new documentary nominally about producer/director Dan Curtis. For those of you already immersed in his work, there’s not much in the film you won’t already know.

Worse, much of Curtis’ career is reduced to bullet points between the demise of “Dark Shadows” — the Gothic soap he created in 1966 — and his expensive television collaborations with Herman Wouk in the 1980s, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” The cover art might depict Carl Kolchak, the Zuni Fetish Warrior from “Trilogy of Terror” and Bette Davis in “Burnt Offerings,” but “Master of Dark Shadows” breezes past them with barely a mention. Worse, they’re referenced only in regards to Curtis’ interest in escaping the horror ghetto, which is not especially flattering to those works or their fans.

Still, as someone who loves many of the movies and television series touched upon in the film, it felt nice to spend a little time with old friends. Master of Dark Shadows might be a glorified obituary, but it’s an obituary for someone whose work I adore. I’m glad this movie exists, even if the content is a little underwhelming.

For those of you less familiar with Curtis, think of Master of Dark Shadows not as an obituary, but as a 100-level college course. From a cultural perspective the movies and television shows he created, produced, directed or championed make up some of the fundamentals of American horror. I’d put Dan Curtis in the same category as Rod Serling, Richard Matheson and sure, even Joss Whedon.

You always know when you’re watching a Dan Curtis production, credits be damned. They’re deeply American in their sensibilities, which often makes them difficult to parse. He shares Hammer’s interest in formal wear and cleavage, but none of their sense of grace and moral tradition. I’ve compared his first feature, House of Dark Shadows, to Italian Giallo films, but that comparison falls shy of being correct because of the stodgy displays of sexuality in his movies. Curtis also loved classic monsters like vampires, ghosts and witches, but preferred to slam them together against the nihilistic sensibilities of 1970s cinema. There are no happy endings in a Dan Curtis production.

Of course, none of this is really discussed in Master of Dark Shadows. Instead, director David Gregory holds our hand as he walks us briefly through the early days of Curtis’ career as a salesman for syndicated television and his first real success as a producer, bringing golf to television with “Challenge Golf.” Curtis was able to parlay this success into making a pitch for a dramatic series, negotiating with ABC in 1966 for a project that became Dark Shadows. After a slow start, the Gothic soap became a television sensation, and it’s here in the film that Jonathan Frid wrestles away control of the narrative from both Curtis and Gregory. Which is no small feat for a man who has been dead since 2012.

Despite being billed as “The Gothic World of Dan Curtis,” the majority of Master of Dark Shadows is spent discussing Dark Shadows. And whenever you discuss Dark Shadows, you’re going to spend most of your time talking about Frid, the Canadian actor who joined the cast more than 200 episodes into the show’s run and became a pop culture sensation. The gaunt, middle-aged alumnus of Yale and Oxford was set to retire from acting when offered the role of Barnabas Collins…a year later he found himself an unlikely teen heartthrob appearing on the covers “Tiger Beat” and “Sixteen” alongside Davey Jones and David Cassidy.

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More than an hour passes before Master of Dark Shadows moves on from Dark Shadows and Jonathan Frid, spending about 10 minutes on his Herman Wouk adaptations (the first of which, The Winds of War, cost a whopping $38 million to produce — less than some actual wars) before moving back to… Dark Shadows. In this case, it’s the 1991 prime-time “revival” series for NBC, but even in this sequence — the final one in the documentary — you can sense resentment from Curtis over having to return to the well.

Ben Cross, the actor who succeeded Frid in the role of Barnabas Collins, says Curtis wanted to distance himself from the original series to such an extent that he asked the cast not to watch it. Decades later, on another channel and shooting on a different coast, Curtis still found himself in the shadow of Jonathan Frid.

Master of Dark Shadows closes on footage from the 50th anniversary Dark Shadows Festival in 2016 in Tarrytown, New York, and some words from Curtis that Gregory must not have digested. “I’ve always said I’d be remembered for Dark Shadows,” Curtis says in an interview taped sometime before his death in 2006. “And not things I really cared about, which were the great epics that I made. ‘Dark Shadows’ will be the thing that will be on my gravestone.”

When the closing credits begin to roll, it’s over the face of Frid as Barnabas Collins, fangs bared in a panel from the 1971 Dark Shadows newspaper comic strip.

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Frid manages to upstage Curtis in the documentary’s bonus features, too. Among them are a delightful 1968 appearance by Frid on “The Dick Cavett Show” in which the two actors try to out-manner each other. (The episode has been lost, but has been “reconstructed” with stills and audio of the appearance.) There’s amazing newsreel footage of Frid’s 1969 UNICEF Halloween appearance at The White House with Tricia Nixon, plus his “Shakespeare & Poe in the Shadows” PBS special from 1983.

Dark Shadows cast member Kathryn Leigh Scott takes us on a guided tour of the New York City studios used by the show in the 1960s, which is invaluable because the studio has since been demolished. And … well, there’s lots of great bonus features on Master of Dark Shadows. My reaction to the documentary might be lukewarm, but the special features make this disc an essential part of any Dark Shadows fan library.

You can find read more from Wallace on Dark Shadows at

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Midnight Mass: The Blood of Life



The isolated island community of Crockett receives a mysterious new head priest, full of secrets and a brand new testament under a very unusual Messenger of God. 

Meet poor Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), freshly released from prison and wracked with guilt over what got him there, a stupid drinking accident that caused the death of his ex-girlfriend. The last thing he wants to do is go back to Crockett and the judgment of the mostly religious community there, his disappointed family, and the nightmares of his ex’s death that plague him. But where else would have him? Resignedly on the ferry, he goes. 

Riley’s dad Ed (Henry Thomas) isn’t the kind of man who talks very much at all, much less about his feelings, or his very real disappointment in his elder son. Riley’s teen brother Warren (Igby Rigney) has no idea what to say to him either, and just generally keeps mum. Riley’s mom Annie (Kristin Lehman) is accepting and loving, hesitant in how to help her eldest son but never wavering in her faith in the help of our lord Jesus. Mom seems to think a good heaping dose of the Church would set Riley right but is surprised to learn that the old priest of the Parish, Pruitt, has taken an extended leave of absence from the island, and his newcomer replacement Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) is young, charismatic, and bursting at the seams to tell the whole island about the gifts he brought them, most especially what he claims as a new testament under a messenger of God. 

We’ll get back to that whole ball of issues in a moment, the other interesting characters of Crockett Island. Bev Keane (Samantha Sloyan) is the nightmarish overly polite and gently, almost lovingly condescending neighbor Christian woman you’ve ever loathed, the kind of person who explains away every last thing her Church may do wrong or contradictory because, after all, God works in mysterious ways. Pfft. Of course, Bev immediately ingratiates herself as the second to the new Father Paul in their services and is the first to start covering up his transgressions as they become more rampant. 

Newcomers to Crockett Sheriff Hassan (Rahul Kohli) and his son Ali (Rahul Abburi) present a burgeoning problem to the plans of Father Paul and his shadowy companion, for they are both practicing Muslims. The practical side of investigating these so-called ‘miracles’ and strange happenings falls on Hassan’s shoulders, as he already struggles with barely-concealed racism and suspicion from his fellow islanders, and of course his son is being wooed away from him by the promise of actual, tangible miracles, but from a different whole faith and God. Father Paul definitely does not practice a traditional Christian faith and relies far too much on making use of the eucharist, the ceremony of the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ turning into bread and wine and, well, consumed. 

Wade (Michael Trucco) and his wife Dolly (Crystal Balint) are lifers of the island and both in general interested in one thing, the advancement of their own family, specifically their daughter Leeza (Annarah Cymone), who happens to be in a wheelchair. And that happens to be the canny Father Paul’s first real miracle-with-a-cost that he demonstrates to the astonishment of the parishioners, after a heartfelt and rousing sermon, Father Paul commands Leeza to rise, to stand, and to walk. And lo, she does. What parents wouldn’t wholly dedicate themselves to a cause after seeing this happen to their beloved precious daughter? The fringe benefits of healing, and power, the ones that come at a mighty, currently unnamed, cost, are simply a nice bonus. 

Joe Collie (Robert Longstreet) is the town drunk, and while his reasons for drowning his sorrows in the sauce might be understandable, absolution wears a very different face when it comes from Father Paul. While Leeza might be willing to forgive Joe, and even as Joe begins attending the newly-formed Al-Anon meetings on the island of course hosted by Father Paul, redemption might’ve been better sought from medical professionals, and not this newfound method of religious worship. 

Dr. Sarah Gunning (Annabeth Gish) is the islands’ kind of all-around medic, and this is how she and Riley’s old friend Erin (Kate Siegel), also newly returned to the island, a few months pregnant but traveling quietly alone, met when Erin comes to the Doc for obstetrics. Sarah’s older mother Mildred Gunning (Alexandra Essoe) has many medical and mental issues, and Sarah struggles in their shared home, to take care of her addled mom and balance her own life. Then Father Paul takes it upon himself to visit one of his oldest parishioners, bringing the sacred host and wine with him to give directly to Mildred, who starts looking and acting so much better under his loving care. 

The show is very much a slow slow burn, with a lot of the actual action taking place in the last two episodes. Much of the beginning and middle episodes feature two people just sitting alone, having quiet and seriously in-depth conversations about heavy subjects – grief and repentance, what happens when we die, the disasters that come as a result of addictions, how our actions’ consequences reverberate to those we love around us, faith and the foibles of man, and of course, the giving of oneself over to a higher power, for strength, and guidance, and love. 

Except, for the higher power that Father Paul brought back with him, to share with his beloved flock of Crockett Island, while it may be extremely powerful and full of what could be considered miraculous magic, everything comes at some kind of a cost. And when the Messenger of God is finally revealed to the shocked denizens of Crockett at Easter Mass, with Father Paul rapturing on about rebirth as the bloody massacre begins in earnest, it’s faith, not in any kind of God or religion, but faith in each other, that may save a few hardy souls. 

Question the wisdom of your religious leaders along with the rest of us in a fine slow-burn addition to the Flanaverse, Midnight Mass is on Netflix now! 

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Saw X: It ain’t brain surgery!



Legendary executioner Jigsaw returns to exact revenge on a cadre of scam artists who promised him a bogus cure for his cancer! 

First off, be aware, that this is what I call an interleaved sequel, a movie set between previous films in the franchise. In this case, Saw X occurs after the events of the very first Saw film, and before Saw II. Everybody got where we are? Good! Into the madness, we dive! 

So, as we all know, John Kramer’s been diagnosed with cancer, very aggressive brain cancer, and likely doesn’t have much time left. And he’s tried everything under the sun, doing a ton of meticulous research, we’d expect nothing less from our master of the art of murder, and not one thing has worked. Yet one man from the support group for cancer sufferers, Henry (Michael Beach), offers an off-the-books supposed miracle cure, and John jumps at the chance. 

Why does this nonsense always sound too good to be true? Because it is. Deleted scenes from the first Deadpool movie already told us why traveling to Mexico for any kind of medical cure is a sublimely stupid move, but Kramer is desperate. And while he might be sick and dying, John Kramer has never been what anyone could call stupid. So the villa out in the Mexican countryside, the affable cab driver Diego (Joshua Okamoto) professes surprise at Kramer being highjacked for his good, the nervous muttering from assistant Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), the side-eyeing from little housekeep Gabriela (Renata Vaca) and her tequila, and most especially the smooth and smarming reassurances of head “doctor” Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), all leave a kind of sour taste in John’s mouth. 

The whole cluex4 scene is done in the style that the Saw films are known for, where we the audience are treated to cut-together explanatory scenes in a flip-flash fashion of usually about two minutes, for poor John when he realizes he’s been hoodwinked and just how badly, seems a little contrived. But then it’s entirely possible that we the audience truly expected our genius mastermind of the infamous Jigsaw murders to have realized what was happening sooner, and got enraged along with Kramer. And cheered as he prepared to take his bloody and ultra-violent revenge! 

First up in our grand guignol of executions is the return of Jigsaw’s first protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). And despite her avowed reverence for Jigsaw and his proven “therapy”, Amanda does waver a bit when the scammers are put through the paces of their specially-made Saw traps, and they shriek and blubber and bleed out. The appearance of the ringer of the bunch, Parker (Steven Brand), doesn’t even slow our beloved engineer of the damned down, because we knew Jigsaw would have his other apprentice waiting just off stage, the deliciously vicious Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Even the monkeywrench of involving little-boy soccer fan Carlos (Jorge Briseno) in the traps, is just another cog in the machine that is the brilliantly plotting mind of John Kramer. 

A fine addition to the Saw legends, showcasing a return to the beloved style and panache of the original Tobin Bell-starring Jigsaw films, Saw X is splashing gore and gallons of blood in theaters now! 

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Scott Pilgrim Takes Off



“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off,” Netflix’s latest series, is a rollicking journey through the world of video game culture, blending nostalgic references with a fresh narrative twist. Centered around Scott Pilgrim, portrayed with magnetic charisma by Michael Cera, the show skillfully integrates gaming elements into its storytelling, creating a delightful homage to the video game subculture.

The series cleverly employs pixelated graphics, power-up animations, and game-like sound effects to bring the virtual world to life. These visual cues, reminiscent of classic video games, enhance the storytelling and resonate with audiences familiar with the gaming landscape. The attention to detail in recreating iconic gaming moments is commendable, creating a visual and auditory treat for enthusiasts.

The exploration of video game culture goes beyond mere aesthetics; it becomes an integral part of the characters’ identities and interactions. The script intelligently weaves gaming terminology and tropes into the dialogue, effectively blending the real and virtual worlds. The series navigates the challenges and triumphs of the characters through the lens of gaming, making it a unique and engaging experience for both gamers and general audiences.

The ensemble cast, including standout performances from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ellen Wong, and Chris Evans embraces the gaming theme with infectious enthusiasm. The chemistry between the characters is palpable, adding emotional depth to the series.

“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” successfully taps into the zeitgeist of video game culture, offering a nostalgic yet contemporary take on the gaming phenomenon. It’s a must-watch for those who cherish the pixelated roots of the gaming world while providing an accessible and entertaining narrative for a broader audience. The series takes off not only in its title but also in its ability to soar within the ever-expanding realm of Netflix originals.

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