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Why Dark Shadows Sucks

[1]3,548 words

I was a very small child when the Dark Shadows serial was first airing on ABC at 4:00pm Monday through Friday. Some of my most vivid early memories are associated with it. Dark Shadows was originally conceived as a Gothic romance. Premiering on June 27, 1966, it centered on Victoria Winters, a young woman who takes the job of governess to the young scion of the wealthy Collins family, who reside in the spooky Collinwood mansion in spooky Collinsport, Maine. (Victoria was played by Alexandra Moltke, actually Countess Cornelia Alexandra Moltke, herself the scion of an aristocratic Swedish family. She later gained notoriety as the mistress of Claus von Bülow.)

The series floundered in the ratings for 209 episodes, until in desperation producer Dan Curtis decided to try something outrageous by the standards of daytime TV. Hunting for treasure, local loser Willie Loomis, finds a secret room inside the Collins family vault and unwittingly releases vampire Barnabas Collins. The earlier episodes had featured supernatural elements, but nothing as radical as this.

To appreciate part of the reason why Dark Shadows made such a big cultural impact in the mid to late ’60s, one has to keep in mind that it was, after all, a daytime soap. These programs were designed primarily for stay-at-home moms and were sponsored by companies like Proctor and Gamble (who make soap, in case you don’t know – hence, “soap opera”). They dealt with family problems and love affairs. Scenes took place at the breakfast table or in the living room and were mostly heart-to-heart chats (the kind that woman like to have). Someone was always pouring someone else a cup of coffee. It was all very familiar, comforting terrain, albeit glamorized by perfect hair, makeup, and teeth. Female viewers identified with the characters and their problems. To add to the realism, soaps were shot on videotape, which always has a more immediate, direct quality to it (unlike the glossiness of film).

And into this homey, lace curtain and checked table cloth terrain, into this world of “Will Brad ever ask Janet to . . . ?” came the undead Barnabas Collins, crawling out of his moldering crypt, bent on sucking the life out of perky local waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and turning her into his vampire bride. Suddenly soap operas were scary.

And although people laugh at Dark Shadows today (for reasons I’ll turn to in a moment) it was often genuinely creepy. The fact that Barnabas had been injected into that mundane afternoon world that female viewers so closely identified with made the program feel unaccountably weird. It almost felt like these events were really happening; like the uncanny and horrific really had suddenly pierced the sunny veil of suburban placidity. And the fact that it was videotaped, with a minimal budget added to the weird quality of “realness” that the whole thing had. (As any horror film fan can attest, low budgets often enhance creepiness.)


A classic image of Frid as Barnabas

But Barnabas was no ordinary vampire, he was a tragic figure. In the first few Barnabas episodes, viewers were left in suspense, wondering if he really is a vampire (or one of those “fake” vampires that you sometimes see on TV; like the haunted house that turns out, at the end of the hour, to be not really haunted after all). In one memorable scene at the close of one episode, he walks into Maggie’s bedroom as she sleeps and proceeds to grin wide, revealing . . . a set of perfectly ordinary teeth. But audience members – at least some of them – were sure they had seen fangs. And so viewers were left in suspense over the weekend: were there fangs in Barnabas’s mouth, or not? The mystery was resolved on Monday when, at the beginning of that day’s episode, the scene was reshot. This time when Barnabas opened his mouth no one could fail to perceive that he was sporting a set of very realistic vampire fangs. And it was clear that he was up to no good.

But as the writers developed the Barnabas storyline, it emerged that he was a tortured soul, and anything but a simple villain. Back in the 1790s he had spurned the affections of a glamorous witch named Angelique. Her vengeance consisted in killing Barnabas’s beloved fiancé Josette and turning him into a vampire. When Barnabas’s grief-stricken father discovered his son’s terrible fate, he sealed him in an iron coffin, wrapped it in chains, and hid it in the secret room in the family crypt. And so Barnabas lay in that coffin, mad with blood lust, until released by Willie Loomis in 1967. The reason Barnabas goes after Maggie, by the way, is that he believes she is the reincarnation of his dead Josette. Horrified by his condition, Barnabas allows Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall, wife of series writer Sam Hall) to experiment on him in the hopes of curing his vampirism.

In short, it was all terribly tragic and romantic – and imaginative and engrossing. Barnabas was the first “tragic” vampire: before Blacula (yes, Blacula was a tragic vampire), Interview with the Vampire, the Coppola Dracula film, Angel, the Twilight [3] films, and True Blood. (Did I miss one?) In 1973 Dan Curtis made a TV movie version of Dracula starring Jack Palance in the title role. Both Curtis and writer Richard Matheson felt that Stoker’s character was one-dimensional; a thorough villain whose motives were often inexplicable. And so Curtis dipped back into the well of Dark Shadows and came up with an anguished Dracula obsessed with the woman he sees as the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. If this Dracula sounds very familiar, it’s because Francis Ford Coppola stole the idea for his 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (no, there is nothing like this in Stoker’s novel!). And, if you’ve noticed, virtually all the vampires since then have been troubled, reluctant, and vulnerable. But it all started with Barnabas Collins.

In any case, to return to the 1960s: Dark Shadows became a major ratings hit – and Jonathan Frid, the actor who played Barnabas, became an unlikely heartthrob. Frid was 43 when he joined the cast, and not conventionally handsome. But there was something fascinating about both his physical appearance as Barnabas, and his performance – something that appealed to women (especially older women, I think).

As Barnabas, Frid could be alternately sinister and affecting. He was often undeniably stiff, but that actually helped because Barnabas was conceived as very much a gentleman of the 1790s: gallant, courtly, and flawlessly polite. Undoubtedly, this was one of the major aspects of the character that appealed to women. He was not a man of the present. He was a man out of a better, more genuine age. He really loved Josette (pass box of Kleenex, please). He was masterful. He could put women under his power. And he knew how to deal with ruffians like Willie. He knew what honor meant – and what it means to make a vow. And he really . . . sniff . . . loved Josette. (Trevor Lynch has given us a very perceptive analysis of why vampire stories appeal to women in his review [4] of the first Twilight film.) When Jonathan Frid made personal appearances he was inevitably mobbed by screaming and weeping female fans. The Barnabas cult of the late 1960s had a kind of creepy, necrophile quality to it. But then again, this was the era when Tiny Tim was a sex symbol.

Of course, Dark Shadows was not just a hit with housewives and their still-single, bespectacled older sisters. Go online and read around and you’ll find countless people a little older than me talking about how they “ran home from school every day” to watch Dark Shadows. (Ironically, this was one of the reasons the series was cancelled when its ratings begin to slip: kids didn’t make the buying decisions in households – not then anyway. And so Dark Shadows became less attractive to advertisers.) The response to the juvenile fans of the series came in the form of lunch boxes, posters, model kits, board games, coloring books, jigsaw puzzles, and comic books. Paperback Library published thirty-two (yes, thirty-two) novels based on the series, penned by Marilyn Ross (actually, Dan Ross – Marilyn was his wife’s name).

This is where I come in. My mother only let me watch Dark Shadows now and then, because she thought it was too scary for a small child (and she was right: I still get chills when I remember the episode where the face of the evil Angelique appeared in the fireplace, laughing maniacally). What I knew about it I got mainly by word of mouth and by reading the comic book published  by Gold Key. (Those Dark Shadows comic books, by the way, were published until 1976: five years after the series was cancelled.) But – like Johnny Depp – I became utterly fascinated with Barnabas Collins.


The Barnabas “Vampire Van” model kit my mother threw away

I longed to own Barnabas’s wolf’s head walking stick. I even combed my hair like Barnabas. I would roam through the neighborhood at dusk (something you could do in the early ’70s), watch the neighbors eat dinner through their dining room windows, and try to put them under my hypnotic spell. I owned a Barnabas model kit (“Barnabas’s Vampire Van”) which was sort of a hearse with Barnabas inside. One day it disappeared from my room. My mother told me she had accidentally broken it while dusting. I learned much later she had thrown it away – concerned at the effect such a macabre toy might have on my young mind. Needless to say, this did no good, and I just got weirder and weirder. She was shutting the garage door after the hearse had already gone.

It was in the 1980s, I believe, that I got to finally sit down and really watch a lot of Dark Shadows, because that’s when it came to our area in syndication. I was disappointed, because it seemed really bad. The actors flubbed their lines a lot, parts of sets would fall over, props would malfunction, and you could see the shadow of the boom (the microphone that hangs over the soundstage) practically all the time. (This is how the series earned the industry nickname “Mic Shadows.”) But I had to admit that the story was great. It crossed my mind that somebody ought to take that story and do it over again – but this time rehearse the actors a little and spend more money on sets and take a little more care with the lighting.

Producer Dan Curtis, it turns out, was thinking the same thing. In 1970 he made the feature film House of Dark Shadows, featuring the original cast. It was Curtis’s first major credit as director and holds up quite well today. The film followed the basic Barnabas Collins story (only in the end he gets staked!) and demonstrated the great potential of the Dark Shadows saga – when accompanied by rehearsals, a bigger budget, and better lighting. (This film was followed, unfortunately, by a very weak sequel called Night of Dark Shadows, which should be avoided at all costs.)

In 1991 Curtis brought Dark Shadows back to television as a big-budget prime time series on NBC. The cast was entirely new—and terrific. Ben Cross played Barnabas Collins and the great horror actress Barbara Steele played Dr. Hoffman. The writers again followed the basic storyline of the original serial, right down to the sequence of events wherein Victoria travels back in time to the 1790s so that we can see how Barnabas becomes a vampire. It was an excellent series, and demonstrated once more that whatever the faults of the soap opera may have been, at its core was a timelessly classic romantic tale. Alas, the series was pre-empted so many times by coverage of Operation Desert Storm that it lost its audience, and was cancelled after one season.

But Curtis did not give up! In 2004 he filmed a Dark Shadows pilot for the WB network, with Alec Newman as Barnabas, but it was not picked up. And two years later Curtis died of a brain tumor. Dark Shadows fandom was far from dead, however. Fans have kept the memory of the series alive, luring the surviving cast back to Dark Shadows conventions (yes, it’s big enough for conventions), and even persuading them to appear in newly-penned Dark Shadows audio plays. I suppose I have to admit that I’m a fan (in case you haven’t already figured that out). And so I was delighted when I heard that Tim Burton was making a $150 million feature film version starring Johnny Depp.

It didn’t bother me that Burton was the director, as I’ve enjoyed several of his films (especially Ed Wood). I thought he would bring an interesting, quirky approach to the material – and I had heard that both he and Johnny Depp were fans. The news reports about the film bothered me slightly. Almost every single one described the original series as “campy,” which is simply not accurate. Yes, Dark Shadows is often unintentionally funny: when the actors flub their lines or fake trees fall over, etc. But “camp” is something from which we derive a kind of delicious ironic enjoyment because it’s unoriginal, naïve, or in bad taste (and the greater the pretensions of the makers, the funnier it is).

Camp can be produced unintentionally or intentionally. Ed Wood’s films are campy because he thought they were good, while in fact they are terrible. By contrast, the Batman TV series of the 1960s was deliberately campy. But Dark Shadows doesn’t fall into either category. It’s actually quite original and it features, as I’ve said, a clever, imaginative, and absorbing plotline. And it was always in good taste. To paraphrase what Brigitte Bardot once said about sex, when Dark Shadows is good it’s really good, and when it’s bad it’s still pretty good. So good, in fact, that one overlooks the flubbed lines and mic shadows.


Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins — scary

So it bothered me slightly when I heard that the film promised to be a “campy” reinvention of the “campy” series. However, I often enjoy deliberate camp, so I was prepared to accept Burton’s film. Once I saw the trailer, in fact, I was prepared to love it. It seemed riotously funny, imaginative, and visually arresting. And so last Thursday I queued up and saw the film in a cinema in Manhattan. I deliberately avoided seeing it on its opening day, as I assumed cinemas would be packed . I assumed wrong, however, as Dark Shadows has done disappointing business so far. When I saw it there were only about 15 people in the cinema with me – though admittedly it was four o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.

I was disappointed that the film did not open with Robert Cobert’s classic theme (re-used in the 1991 series), but my disappointment quickly turned to delight. As others have pointed out, Burton has done a masterful job of re-creating 1972: the year in which the film is set (the original series ended in 1971). Right down to lava lamps, door beads, bean bag chairs, and Donovan. The film re-tells the basic story of Barnabas – how he becomes a vampire (in flashback), how he returns to Collinsport, his love for Josette, his occult war with Angelique – though a great deal has been truncated and otherwise altered. And it is uproariously funny. I literally laughed so hard parts of me hurt – though I often seemed to be the only one in the theatre getting the humor.

Indeed, the humor is this film’s greatest asset. And its greatest flaw.

Although I have to say that I enjoyed this film, by the time I was about thirty minutes away from its conclusion it began to give me a kind of empty feeling. It was funny, but it wasn’t amounting to anything. There was no suspense. I never felt afraid, or awed, or moved. And, most importantly, I didn’t care about anyone. I didn’t care about Barnabas or his family (portrayed in this film as dysfunctional, unlikeable weirdoes), or his love for the new Josette. The last fifteen minutes of the film turned into a depressingly predictable, over-the-top special effects fest, and I was glad when it was over. I have no plans to see it again. I laughed, but it meant nothing to me.

In short, Dark Shadows has gotten the predictable postmodern treatment. The original series was deadly serious (as was the 1991 remake). There was nothing ironic about it. Barnabas Collins was not a figure of fun; he was a tragic hero, for whom we felt sympathy, admiration – and who sometimes genuinely frightened us. And the story of his undying love for Josette was genuinely moving. In the Tim Burton film, all of this is treated with ironic distance. Barnabas becomes an Edward Scissorhandish oddball who thinks little people live inside the TV set, and that the M in the McDonalds sign stands for “Mephistopheles.”


Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins — not scary

Barnabas’s belief that Victoria Winters is the reincarnated Josette is handled in a kind of a smirky, ironic, offhand manner. It’s as if Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith are so convinced the audience will find this plot element all-too-familiar they do not even attempt to handle it in a fresh, dramatic, or interesting manner. If you blink you’ll miss the scene where Barnabas “recognizes” Victoria as Josette. And the actress who plays Victoria (Bella Heathcote) has that flat, bland, unrefined quality that so many young actresses have today.

The rest of the cast is interesting, but they have little to do. The one who probably comes off the best is Eva Green as Angelique (Green was the girl in the Bond film Casino Royale – the recent one). Burton’s girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter plays Dr. Hoffman, and both the actress and the character are wasted in this film. In the original series, it was clear that Dr. Hoffman loved Barnabas, while he did not return her feelings. In the film version, this translates into Dr. Hoffman getting on her knees and giving Barnabas a blowjob.

Quite a lot happens in Dark Shadows. There are actually several subplots going simultaneously, but none of them is developed or resolved adequately. In the last ten minutes of the film we discover that little Carolyn Collins is actually a werewolf. This is thrown in apparently because . . . well, apparently because they wanted to throw in a werewolf (the original series featured one, though he was Quentin Collins).

Jonathan Frid and three of the original cast members from the series appear in the film, briefly seen as guests at a ball Barnabas organizes (with Alice Cooper as musical entertainment – one of the film’s funnier sequences). This was apparently included for the Dark Shadows fans, and in a sense so that the original cast could be seen as giving their imprimatur to the film. Frid died at the age of 87 a little less than a month before the premiere of Dark Shadows on May 11th. A number of writers have suggested that it is good thing he didn’t live to see this film. I can’t disagree with them.

I wouldn’t brand this film as a “travesty” of the original series, because it’s clear that Burton and Depp had their hearts in the right place. It is meant to be a kind of affectionate parody. The problem is that Burton simply was not up to the task of dealing with this story. It’s a case of a very modern, ironic, postmodern director attempting to translate to the screen a story brimming with very unmodern romance, and genuine horror. The characters in Dark Shadows (the series, that is), really felt things. They felt true passion, obsession, and terror. They were open to the possibility of true love. They felt the weight of history, and the presence of the uncanny. I don’t think Tim Burton has ever felt any of those things.

In the end, as I rode home on the subway, the chief thought on my mind was: what a wasted opportunity. Dark Shadows is such a wonderful story – probably the best vampire story of all. And vampires are really hot right now. Had Burton (or, preferably, a different director) made this film totally straight – no camp, just real horror and romance – they could have launched another Twilight series (only much better) and made a bajillion dollars. But reviews of this film have been bad, and the box office has been very disappointing. There will almost certainly be no sequel, no new television series. Hollywood will conclude that there’s no money in Dark Shadows. For years, fans hoped to see the story that had so fascinated them translated to the big screen and finally given the treatment it deserves. But Tim Burton has buried Dark Shadows for all time. It’s as good as stuffed in a coffin, wrapped with chains, and sealed in the Curtis family crypt.

Like Barnabas Collins himself, Dark Shadows now truly belongs to the past.