• “Dark Shadows: The Revival,” created by Dan Curtis, MGM DVD, three discs, 592 minutes, originally released 1991, $19.98.
Before Twilight or “True Blood,” Lestat or Angel (but not before Dracula), there was “Dark Shadows” and its enigmatic undead protagonist Barnabas Collins. As you may know, the iconic daytime soap of the 1960s will be revived in film this summer by director Tim Burton, with his favorite collaborator Johnny Depp bringing Barnabas back to life, as it were, on the silver screen.
The movie’s trailer makes it look as if Burton once again will produce a broad farce, utilizing Depp’s eccentricities (and the director’s own outsized imagination) for laughs. Think of the new “Dark Shadows” as a comic cinematic reboot of a dramatic TV series — perhaps not unlike, ironically, the recent “21 Jump Street” movie, which updated the two-decades-old Fox network show that starred … Johnny Depp.
Any humor in the original “Dark Shadows” was unintentional, in part resulting from the perils of producing a low budget, live-to-film program five days a week, with the scenes often done in a single take. (The effects were so cheap that Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas, occasionally had to turn away from the camera and remove his fake fangs to deliver his lines.) Much remaining humor came from the outlandish premise of the program, which featured not only vampires, but also ghosts, werewolves, time and space travel, séances, and parallel universes. In a daytime soap opera, mind you.
The gothic melodrama ran for five years over more than 1,200 episodes. The Barnabas character was introduced nearly a year into production (episode 210, says Wikipedia) when ABC threatened to cancel the soap and creator Dan Curtis decided to take more chances with the storylines.
“Dark Shadows” developed a cult following and a fan base that appears quite unhappy with the liberties Burton will take with the franchise. If you’d like to see what the fuss is all about, don’t sift through hundreds of hours of grainy footage from the original soap: Rent or buy a DVD of “Dark Shadows” The Revival,” a 12-episode NBC series from 1991 that was faithful in many ways to the original while adding greatly improved production values and a lot more sensuality and horror. The revival is a great guilty pleasure.
“Dark Shadows” is set in the isolated Maine village of Collinwood, where the wealthy Collins family had lived since Colonial days. An 18th-century witch turned Barnabas into a vampire. He was trapped in his coffin for more than two centuries until a klutzy handyman at Collinwood mistakenly released Barnabas from the grave.
Frid’s Barnabas was a sensitive, tortured soul who at times appeared eager to have his humanity (and mortality) restored. His successor in the 1991 series, Ben Cross (“Chariots of Fire”) was much more ruthless. Both, however had, er, long memories and enjoyed seeking revenge.
I never saw the original series until it appeared in reruns on the SciFi Channel. But I watched the 1991 revival when it aired initially and was hooked from the start. The writing (some by creator Curtis) and acting were ideal for a primetime soap, featuring an excellent cast — Cross, Jean Simmons, Roy Thinnes, Joanna Going, Barbara Steele, and a 10-year-old Joseph-Gordon Levitt.
The revival debuted quite successfully in mid-January, with the two-hour pilot drawing more than 20 million viewers. In less than a month, however, the first Gulf War began, and NBC pre-empted several episodes to cover the conflict. The series never regained its initial audience — it finished the season tied for 95th in the ratings — and, after airing 12 episodes, NBC did not renew it, leaving plenty of plot lines unresolved.
Don’t expect Burton’s movie to tie any loose ends. To his credit, though, Burton drew up a small role for Jonathan Frid, who was able to film the part before, sadly, he passed away in late April at age 87.
I expect plenty of high camp from the “Dark Shadows” movie, all of it intentional. But as with so many Hollywood projects these days, the idea behind the film is not original. You might find the inspiration for Burton’s movie an unexpected joy.