Cine-Ween: Dan Curtis: King of TV Horror

In the pantheon of what might be called “classical” horror/monster movies, the conversation often boils down to two cycles: the Universal Monsters films of the 1920s-1950s, and the horror output of Hammer Film Productions from the 1950s-1970s. Allowances might be made for Val Lewton’s horror cycle at RKO in the 1940s, although the almost noirish style of those films (as well as their emphasis on the psychological over the supernatural) set them apart. However, if we broaden our scope to include television, then a third cycle enters the conversation more or less contemporaneous to Hammer. Building on the success of Hammer (as well as his own Gothic horror soap Dark Shadows, producer Dan Curtis developed a series of made for television horror films in the 1960s and 70s that are well worth considering in relation to their theatrical brethren. While limited by their network television budgets, Curtis’ horror films at their best demonstrate a surprisingly thoughtful, character-driven approach to the horror genre.

Broadly speaking, the televised horror films of Dan Curtis can be divided into two categories: literary adaptations and contemporary horror features. The contemporary-set features are a decidedly mixed bag, ranging from the influential The Night Stalker to the dated and inconsistent Trilogy of Terror. It is in the best of these films where the influence of Richard Matheson can be felt most strongly. As one might expect from a writer who both wrote episodes of The Twilight Zone and adapted Edgar Allan Poe stories for Roger Corman, Matheson deftly blends Gothic horror tropes with a more modern, even scientific approach to supernatural concepts. 

While the Curtis/Matheson anthology films, such as Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night, are in the style of the Amicus horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (which would also inspire Creepshow), the peak of their collaborative efforts was the duology of The Night Stalker (dir. John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972) and The Night Strangler (dir. Dan Curtis, 1973), which introduced audiences to put-upon investigative reporter Carl Kolchak. The brilliance of these two films lies in their reframing of otherwise conventional supernatural horror stories in the context of a journalistic thriller. Much has been made of Carl Kolchak’s influence on later sci-fi and horror characters, especially Fox Mulder of The X-Files. In fact, I would argue that Carl Kolchak is one of the great modern horror protagonists. This is in part due to Darren McGavin’s performance, which walks the line between smarm and likability. In addition, Barry Atwater as Janos the vampire is genuinely creepy, and despite the restrictions of network television The Night Stalker manages to get in some good scares. The Night Strangler is perhaps not quite as fun as its predecessor, but it presents a really cool twist on vampirism that is a bit more science fiction than folklore. 

What makes the Kolchak films interesting is that  monsters that were previously distant, both in time and in place, are turned loose in 1970s American cities. This is similar to Hammer’s attempt to revitalize their Dracula series with Dracula A.D. 1972 (released the same year as The Night Stalker, if you couldn’t tell from the title). However, while Hammer’s attempt to modernize the vampire is anachronistic and a bit gimmicky, the Kolchak films benefit from a grounded protagonist who is gradually drawn into the world of vampires. 

This modern flavor is distinct from Curtis’ adaptations of classic horror tales, which preserve the settings of the original novels. Of these films, perhaps most noteworthy are the adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (dir. Charles Jarrott, 1968), Dracula (dir. Dan Curtis, 1973), and Frankenstein (dir. Glenn Jordan, 1973). While all three are handsome productions, Dracula stands out as the most effective. Starring Jack Palance as the titular Count, this version departs pretty significantly from the Bram Stoker novel; this is not surprising, given that the Universal and Hammer versions bear little resemblance to the source material as well. What set this version apart at the time was its incorporation of some basic elements of the historical Vlad the Impaler into the fictionalized Dracula of the novel. This actually makes the film a rough template for the direction Francis Ford Coppola would take in his 1992 version of the Dracula story, especially in that of the film’s sympathies. Most importantly, Lucy is revealed to be the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love (as often happens in Dracula adaptations, the characters’ roles and relationships are mixed and combined in ways that bear little relation to their literary counterparts). It is also notable that despite Dracula’s bloodlust, he never comes across completely as a villain. The film features flashbacks which reveal his love for Lucy, and the tight, close-up photography emphasize the vampire’s loneliness through Jack Palance’s tortured expressions. 

At first Dracula’s only acts of violence are those which aid him in reclaiming Lucy. Strikingly, Palance’s version of the Count appears to express sadness when initially biting his victims. It is only after Van Helsing and Arthur Holmwood destroy the undead Lucy that Dracula becomes completely monstrous. At that point, the plot becomes similar to a revenge thriller, as Dracula systematically attacks those who took his love by turning Mina into a vampire as well. Yet in the last scenes of the film Dracula seems more like a victim. He is cornered, exposed to sunlight, and impaled on an overturned table. Ultimately however his death does not focus on the triumph of the supposed human heroes; it is not even shown if they return home or if Mina is returned to normal. Instead, each agonizing thrust of the spear is shown, intercut with closeups of Dracula as he dies.  The final shot remains in the room with his corpse as cheers from the past accompany a postscript, completing the film’s version of Dracula’s history as a warrior deserving of not just fear but praise and admiration. 

The TV horror films of Dan Curtis are very much in conversation with the better-known theatrical horror cycles of Universal and Hammer. What they lack in production values, they more than make up for in atmosphere and drama. Curtis as producer drew on the best of those bigger films – the pathos and tragedy of Universal’s monsters, plus the vibrant colors and sensationalism of Hammer’s output – and combines them with the character-driven soapiness that served him so well in season after season of Dark Shadows. Whether bending genres to make an otherwise classic horror movie more American or adding new backstory that changes how we feel about a previously unsympathetic monster, Dan Curtis and his collaborators were way ahead of their time. Curtis’ development and evolution of Gothic horror cinema – on television of all places – would reverberate through the genre for years to come.

Viewing Note: Dracula is on Amazon Prime and Shudder right now. Trilogy of Terror is on Amazon Prime. Dead of Night is on Shudder and Tubi.  The Kolchak movies aren’t streaming as far as I can tell, but they got blu-ray releases from Kino recently. Also the TV series that spun off of them is on NBC’s app.

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Trey Lawson

Trey Lawson is a critic, academic, and sometimes actor who writes on topics ranging from Early Modern English Literature to genre film and pop culture. He has of late been trapped in a crypt, where he reads comics and records Tomb of Ideas: A Marvel Horror Podcast with his friend and co-host James Hickson. He's pretty sure he wears a necktie too often to be properly considered punk, but would like to think he's at least punk-adjacent.
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