In April of next year, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton will begin filming a big-screen adaptation of the 60s daytime soap Dark Shadows. Movie nerds are cynical out of the gate about this one; the Hot Topic crowd, once awareness of this film trickles down to the mall, will probably be stoked. The public at large seems indifferent; Burton and Depp are tackling another property from their beloved childhood. And it will do- critically, creatively, financially- what’s expected of a Burton/Depp collaboration.
And what a missed opportunity it will be.
It’s likely you’ll see Burton and Depp going through the motions of the original series’ central plot - centuries-old vampire crosses oceans of time to find his reincarnated love, etc., etc. (Seriously, this scenario was warmed over when Francis Coppola stole it from Dark Shadows- or possibly from 1932’s The Mummy- 18 years ago.) This core story of Dark Shadows has been officially remade three times previously: as an anemic feature film in 1970 starring the tv show’s cast (House of Dark Shadows); as a prime-time one hour series in 1991, canceled after one season; and as an unaired pilot for the WB in 2004. Diminishing returns to say the least, and none of the attempts were particularly successful at capturing the original show’s magic.
And make no mistake: there is magic to be found in the low-rent, one-take productions that graced the ABC airwaves from 1966-1971. Something grabbed the imagination of viewers and fans, to the point where, 40 years later, there are still yearly conventions celebrating the original cast and crew, and their supernatural adventures at Collinwood. And it’s within that original cast, those original balsa wood sets, and the increasingly insane storylines that there exists storytelling gold.
Far more interesting than a remake or “re-imagining” of the well-worn reluctant vampire story is the behind-the-scenes tale of reluctant pop stars, middle-aged New York actors who found themselves "slumming" on a daytime soap, and who accidentally became so huge one cast member told the press, “I feel positively like a Beatle.” For the cast and crew, the show’s run became an insane whirlwind of rushed production, of scrambling to remember lines, of personal appearances drawing crowds in the tens of thousands, and a five-year rollercoaster ride of fame and adoration they could have never imagined.
Six months into its run, the moody 60s TV soap Dark Shadows faced cancellation. Figuring he had nothing to lose, show creator Dan Curtis took the advice of his children to “put some monsters in it”, and added a ghost to his moody, low-rated soap. The ratings spiked, but not enough. So in the spring of 1967 Curtis pulled out all the stops and introduced a vampire into the proceedings. In the form of a middle aged, Canadian stage actor who had chronic difficulty remembering his lines, the show found its unlikely savior, and secured its place in TV history.
Among cheap Styrofoam tombstones and the stink of artificial fog, the show’s players spun the tale of Barnabas Collins, 175-year-old vampire who is looking for the reincarnation of his lost love, Josette. Cast in the role was Jonathan Frid, chosen by Curtis from a photograph (or not; some stories suggest Curtis pointed to the wrong photo, actually intending to select Bert Convy). Frid, a stage actor with little television experience, stumbled through his first year, panic filling the frame of his close-ups, his eyes darting around wildly as he struggled to remember what to say next. There was more than a bit of resentment when his co-stars saw the broadcasts and Frid’s stage fright was misinterpreted as the illustration of a tortured, cursed soul.
Posing as his own descendant and namesake, Barnabas secretly terrorized the residents of Collinsport looking for blood. And when all this bloodletting made Barnabas a supernatural sex symbol, no one was more amazed or bewildered than Jonathan Frid. “It just seems incredible,” Frid told an interviewer who asked what he thought of his sudden success. “It makes you wonder about people and what attracts them.” He displayed a letter from a viewer in New Westminster, British Columbia. “You’re my favorite,” she wrote. “You have great charm and dignity, but also you express the most evil, corrupt and forceful domination of your victims.” Similar sentiments poured in from a variety of locations and age groups. “Please don’t get rid of Barnabas,” one woman wrote. “I wish he’d bite me on the neck. He gets me so excited, I could smoke a whole pack of cigarettes just watching him.” A 15-year-old schoolgirl from New York City chimed in: “I look forward to seeing you every day. I just sit there drooling over you.” And no one seemed to bat an eyelash when this unconventional-looking, 42 year-old “confirmed bachelor” gave interview after interview to magazines like Tiger Beat and 16, describing the essence of his performance as Barnabas as a “man with a secret, desperate to keep anyone from finding out.” Today, legions of gay men cite the character as a role model; watching the show today, the subtext is painfully obvious, and the players performing it were too worldly to not be in on the gag.
Piles of fan mail turned up at the studio. Frid’s six week contract was quickly extended, and he would remain with the show through its cancellation in 1971. During this ride he would appear on countless talk shows, magazine covers, merchandise - he even visited the White House, summoned because Richard Nixon’s teen daughters were die-hard fans of the show. After appearing in a handful of low-budget films (including the lead role in Oliver Stone’s directorial debut, Seizure), he retired from screen acting and returned to the theater, vocal about his confusion over why he was ever popular in the first place. In recent years, he has re-emerged at Dark Shadows conventions, seeming to finally find some comfort in his own legacy. It’s an absurd yet bittersweet arc tailor made for Burton and Depp.
But a film about the show needn’t simply be the Jonathan Frid story; the cast was peopled with a menagerie of characters ripe for the Tim Burton treatment.
Barnabas’ enemy-turned-confidante was Dr. Julia Hoffman (typical of the show, she was referred to as Julius Hoffman before her first appearance; a typo changed her gender). Played by Grayson Hall, a raspy-voiced dame with an Oscar nomination only two years earlier (for Night of the Iguana), Hall’s onscreen histrionics have become nearly as legendary as Barnabas himself, and today the late actress has her own high-camp drag queen following. One doesn’t have to squint too hard to imagine Helena Bonham Carter playing the cynical, chain-smoking, “what the hell am I doing on this show?” Hall.
The rest of the cast was filled out with performers more colorful than the characters they played: an out-and-proud Southern Gentlemen (Louis Edmonds), a gluttonous former alcoholic and accomplished thespian (Thayer David); a Golden Age of Hollywood starlet undone by personal scandal (Joan Bennett); a brash young actress (Nancy Barrett) who, on a break, married a cast member twice her age. Each of these individuals would end up playing a half-dozen different characters or more, as the show jumped between the present, past and future, as well as parallel dimensions.
As the plots grew more outlandish, producer Curtis added more characters, younger men and women with more obvious sex appeal than the aging, twitchy Frid. One of the first was David Selby (still doing good work today in series such as Mad Men and films like The Social Network), an inexperienced actor from Virginia who was cast as mute ghost Quentin Collins (the character was finally given lines and more screen time as the actor got his Southern accent under control). A housewife named Lamar Rickey allegedly took a bus from Iowa to New York to audition for the show and was promptly cast (under the name Lara Parker) as Angelique, the show’s main villain. Familiar faces came and went (Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson got her start on the show; Harvey Keitel is an extra in several early episodes.) Other young heartthrobs were added, and at least one actor is on record as saying he performed his role while under the influence of LSD.
The supernatural gimmick proved so successful that within a year, Dark Shadows was the highest rated soap on television, going from black and white to color, spawning fan clubs, merchandising, and a country-wide mania that lasted to the end of the decade. As the show grew, werewolves, witches, Lovecraftian beings from other dimensions and a Frankenstein monster were added to the mix. Quite often, Barnabas would form kinships with these other “cursed souls”, finding solace in other beings with whom he could share his secret. As he kept the Collins family in the dark about his true nature, Barnabas adopted a growing cadre of confidants who knew the “real” Barnabas. By 1968, Barnabas has what’s essentially an entire gay family around whom he can “be himself.”
In real life, the actors were menaced not by supernatural monsters or forces of evil, but by a tight budget and an even tighter shooting schedule that resulted in what was, essentially, a live broadcast from their tiny, fly-infested studio on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. Retakes simply weren’t allowed, no matter how many lines were flubbed or forgotten, no matter how many headstones tipped over, no matter how many crew members wandered into the shot. The set could (and in one scene, did) catch fire, yet the flustered actors had to continue. When Curtis appealed to the network to be allowed into the station’s sole editing room to polish his rough production, he was dismissed and told to air his show as is. (Some of the show’s most memorable meltdowns are collected on a Dark Shadows Bloopers DVD; it’s a hoot.)
There were colorful characters behind the lens as well: Dan Curtis, a bigger than life, cigar chomping, old school producer, is the kind of role with which Paul Giamatti would have a field day. Curtis took a perverse delight in putting the cast through their paces: “We work the hell out of them! It’s death in the afternoon and panic in the streets every day on the set. If somebody blows a line, that’s too bad!” His director, a tough-talking New York gal named Lela Swift, ran the set with an iron hand, trying to keep a cast of dozens on time and on budget.
As the show ran out of steam in the beginning of the 70s, Curtis squeezed two feature films out of the property before the show was cancelled (the network cockblocked Curtis’ plan to inexplicably end the series with an adaptation of A Christmas Carol using the show’s players.) Curtis transitioned to other series (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), feature films (Burnt Offerings) and a series of well-received miniseries (The Winds Of War), but periodically attempted to revive Dark Shadows until his death in 2006.
Adapting this story of the eclectic and colorful souls who cemented the legacy of the original series (the show remains the only daytime soap released in its entirety on home video) is a way to TRULY capture the magic of the property, and one that doesn’t limit itself to simply retelling the tired, romantic vampire with a reincarnated love story. Portraying the series’ entire run means including the werewolves, witches, time travel – the whole berserk electronic stew transmitted every day at 4pm to eager kids, teens and housewives.
Such a film would allow Depp to not simply portray a version of Barnabas Collins; he’d be fulfilling that childhood dream he’s often mentioned by becoming THE Barnabas Collins – the Barnabas we remembered watching as kids, among exact duplicates of the original sets, with the entire cast of characters intact. On top of this, he’d also have a great deal more to chew on as an actor in essaying Jonathan Frid, a character who struggles with his life and career decisions, and the unforeseen effects of those decisions. His story ends in the present, when an 82 year-old Jonathan Frid emerges from seclusion to attend his first Dark Shadows convention in decades- a man at the end of his days, finally making peace with a role he once thought trapped and limited him. Though Burton covered the faded glory of Hollywood rather effectively in Ed Wood, this wouldn’t be a retread of those themes, but rather a progression of them. And even if there’s some thematic overlap, at this point most Burton aficionados would rather see him head back into those waters than the alternative.
The story of Dark Shadows is one of artists falling short of their goals and dreams, yet accidentally exceeding them without realizing it. The cast of Dark Shadows was a seasoned, hard-working group of veteran performers who’d given up becoming “stars," and while seemingly slumming in the world of daytime soaps, they became bigger than they ever imagined. It’s an eccentric, absurd underdog story, so there’s no doubt it’s a Tim Burton story. And it’s certainly a more compelling story than yet another hollow re-imagining.