Initially strictly in it for the bread, Willie noses around the Collinwood mansion looking for the family jewels. His plan goes to shit when he becomes entranced by a portrait of Barnabas Collins hanging in the family home. He busts into Barnabas’ chained-up coffin (ostensibly to get his hands on those jewels, and dismissive of red flags like a chained-up coffin), and ends up getting turned out as a kind of Renfield to Barnabas’ Dracula. Willie’s role shifted at that point to a largely sympathetic one, as he tried to protect the local females from his boss. For his troubles he’d receive the business end of Barnabas’ walking stick more than once.
[caption id=“attachment_9094” align=“aligncenter” width=“500” caption=“John Karlen as Willie”]
Casting Haley in this role signifies a couple things. First off: Burton’s definitely not going for a carbon copy of the original here. John Karlen played Willie (after another actor briefly debuted the role) in the original 1960s series, and the handsome actor (who would later win an Emmy for Cagney & Lacey) played the role with a kind of wounded, James Dean at age 33-type intensity. Haley, it would seem, is a much more traditional Renfield type, and nearly two decades older than the character on the series. Perhaps most significant about this news is Haley feels out of place in the stylized, plastic Tim Burtonverse. Either Haley’s going to be an odd fit aesthetically, or maybe Burton’s Dark Shadows is going for a grittier feel than we’ve come to expect. But few actors can pull off the anticipated switch from scuzzy to sympathetic this role might require, so in that context Haley’s casting feels essentially “correct.”
There’s a few directions the film can take with Heathcoate’s role. The original soap, being a soap and all, changed or threw out character arcs with the whims of the plot. Initially the central character of the show, Victoria Winters was a governess hired by the eccentric Collins family to tutor their evil little kid. Sometimes it seemed Victoria was being set up as the long-lost daughter of the family matriarch; sometimes she was being groomed to be the reincarnation of Barnabas’ long-lost love Josette (until she wasn’t; eventually a local waitress served as Josette’s reincarnation/ghost/flashback counterpart. Hey, it was a soap). Vicki eventually bailed on the back and forth by escaping into the past and marrying some lawyer in the 1700s. In real life, actress Alexandra Moltke grew bored with her increasingly diminished role, became pregnant and quit the show, and later gained some notoriety as Claus Von Bulow’s mistress.
The filmmakers have some serious challenges ahead of them: streamlining/reinventing these often shaggy character arcs; finding a tone which will make this oft-told tale feel fresh again; and figuring out how to get the tweens to give a crap about another vampire movie come 2012.
It would take you months if not years to digest the entire series, so for the curious, check out Dark Shadows: The Curse of the Vampire, a two-hour condensation of Barnabas’ origin story.