DARK SHADOWS, Pale Imitations

Phil gives a guided tour of the many, many different iterations of the gothic soap DARK SHADOWS, now getting the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp treatment.

It's wild for anyone over 40 to consider that most of the audience who'll see the new Dark Shadows film have little to no awareness of the source material. The original series ran only five years - a relatively brief run for a soap opera - but in its heyday was a full-blown phenomenon. Even after the wave of tie-in novels, comics, and merchandise, for decades it was the only daytime soap to be syndicated in reruns (in local markets and on public television in the 70s and 80s, then on the SciFi Channel until 2003), and the series remains the only soap opera to be released in its entirety on home video. But it's wilder still to see how upset fans have gotten over the comedic tone of the upcoming film, considering Dan Curtis Productions has attempted to restart Dark Shadows no less than three previous times over the years, yet never once coming close to the pop culture tsunami of the original version.

1970 saw the theatrical release of House of Dark Shadows, starring the original cast members (some reprising their roles, others playing composites or new characters). Show creator Dan Curtis seized the opportunity to direct his first feature film, but the end result was a bit of a misfire. Filmed concurrently with the series, with Curtis writing individual actors off the daily show for month-long stretches so they could appear in the film, the story was a retread of the Barnabas resurrection/reincarnated lost love story arc. Creatively this sort of hobbles the film; fans had seen this story already, but as the show was still in production, a feature film couldn't function as any kind of sequel or in-continuity installment. One imagines this was an attempt to both net a wider audience and allow Curtis the freedom to go full throttle on the horror, ramping up the bloodletting and sex to a level the TV series could never deliver. This aesthetic flew in the face of the show's old-fashioned (and low-tech) delivery, and resulted in most of the series' well-established characters ending up dead and/or vampires by the film's end. In contrast to the sweetly naive tone of the show, the film's sleazy trailer promises a film that will show you "how the vampires do it!"

Cramming such a large cast and such a drawn-out story into 90 minutes was a bit of a hopeless cause; characters come and go, seemingly present only to provide some face time for the beloved TV cast. Joan Bennett, an A-lister from Hollywood's Golden Age who was trumpeted as the series star during its 1966 premiere, has perhaps three or four scenes in the film, then sits around in a catatonic state for much of the movie's second half, like Patton Oswalt in that episode of King of Queens. Where Barnabas Collins evolved into the tragically cursed hero of the television series, the film re-imagines him as something closer to Bram Stoker's Dracula - a pestilent monster who literally bleeds his family tree dry (and dabbles in incest) during the course of the story. And the movie's just plain not as fun to look at as the shot-on-tape TV show. Captured on drab 1970 film stock, House of Dark Shadows is more muddy than moody, filmed in a series of gloomy looking practical locations in Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, NY, and the absence of the garish, candy-colored palette of the studio-bound TV show is strongly felt.

Shot on the cheap, House of Dark Shadows did well enough for a sequel to be commissioned, but by this point Jonathan Frid had had enough of Barnabas Collins (he was convinced to remain on the TV show only after being rewritten as another character in one of the countless excursions into past/future/parallel timelines that became such a prominent part of the show). But a second feature happened anyway. Without its star vampire, Night of Dark Shadows wasn't a 1:1 recreation of the anything from the TV show, instead reusing actors and characters in slightly reinvented roles to tell an original story of witchcraft, ghosts and reincarnation at Collinwood. As a result it's a marginally more interesting experience than its predecessor - a new story with mostly new characters, and with a slightly more sure-footed and focused Dan Curtis (the TV show was over by now) once again at the helm. Unfortunately, according to legend, Curtis proudly previewed his 129 minute film to studio execs, who balked at the running time and gave him 24 hours to cut 35 minutes from his film. The hasty re-edit shows in the final product, with glaring gaps in narrative and character development. Even chopped to hell, Lara Parker (playing the bewitching Angelique) has never been sexier, and some of the scenes capture a lusty Hammer horror vibe, probably due more to the costume designer than anyone else. (The good news for fans is that is the upcoming film has catalyzed a restored version of the film, due next year on blu-ray along with House of Dark Shadows.)

The twenty-year dry spell that came next is where I discovered the series; it would air in syndication in fits and starts, bouncing from channel 4 in New York to NJN, the Trenton NJ PBS affiliate, both trying it in the late afternoon before banishing it to irregular airings at 1-3am. Then in late 1990, word spread that Dan Curtis was redoing the show as a prime-time series for NBC, this time with a proper budget.

The 1991 reboot of Dark Shadows is essentially the bodice-ripping Harlequin Romance version of the show likely imagined by many a female fan for decades. This time, Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) was flat-out sexy and sympathetic (by now likely informed by the popular fiction of Anne Rice), and the show has a gloss to it absent from both the TV show and the feature film adaptations. It's well cast (Barbara Steele, Joanna Going, and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt all turn up), and it's played completely straight. The problem is, despite a mostly slavish retelling of the introductory Barnabas Collins plotline, there's none of the original's crazy electricity, none of the one-take mania that crackled in the original series. The show premiered right on the eve of the first Gulf War, and was pre-empted a number of times so we could all watch our country bomb the living shit out of Kuwait. As a result, ratings swung wildly from great to terrible, and the plug was pulled after just twelve episodes, before any of the original property's true lunacy could take root.

In 2004, two years before his death, Dan Curtis oversaw yet another Dark Shadows reboot; this time it was for the WB, a network which had enjoyed great success with Buffy and Angel, and was hungry for more of those vampire dollars. Producers Mark Verheiden (Smallville) and John Wells (The West Wing, Southland) hired director PJ Hogan (Peter Pan) to helm the pilot, and like the previous two incarnations, this Dark Shadows starts with governess Victoria Winters (this time played by Marley Shelton) on a train bound for Collinwood, and retained the familiar element of miscreant Willie Loomis (Matt Czuchry) looting the Collins family crypt for jewels, accidentally unleashing a very thirsty Barnabas Collins (Alec Newman). In other ways, this iteration changes things up quite a bit: Barnabas  is younger and, like the rest of the cast, more conventionally attractive than his past counterparts (eventually, at any rate; when his coffin is first unearthed, he's a dessicated husk - played by BAD favorite Doug Jones! - until he gets some sanguinary nourishment).

Dr. Julia Hoffman, previously portrayed as a harsh, often unpleasant woman, is now a sexy ER doctor (Kelly Hu) pulled into the plot by the discovery of Barnabas' bloodless victims. The Collins family bad girl Carolyn (Jessica Chastain) is more overtly sexual than ever before. The evil, spurned witch Angelique (Ivana Milicevic who, by the way, appeared with Burton's Angelique - Eva Green - in Casino Royale), makes only a brief appearance at the end of the pilot when she, hit by a car and impaled in its windshield, laughingly mimics the driver's terrified screaming in a face-to-face close-up right out of Sam Raimi's playbook.

The pilot's color scheme is straight-up Dario Argento, with nearly every scene awash in garish red and green lighting. The temp music track (the pilot was never finished) even contains cues from Argento's Deep Red. It's a little crowded, as pilots tend to be, but it's the closest the property's come to a true reinvention as opposed to retread. The folks running Dan Curtis Productions (the same folks very likely smiling through gritted teeth right now as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp turn their beloved franchise into a feature-length sitcom) promptly declared that the director "just didn't get" their property. The pilot was shelved, and is today screened only periodically at special events.

So the upcoming film is, counting the original series, the FIFTH telling of this story - a story which itself was a pastiche of existing horror plots. When you add up the nearly 500 hours of content bearing the title Dark Shadows, the surprise isn't that Burton and Depp went for a comedic take; the surprise is that it's taken this long to go the comedy route, and that anyone would think we need another two hours of a straight-faced approach to the material. Whether it's your cup of tea or not, the new film looks to capture the crazy spirit of the original series for the first time since the show's cancellation in 1971; it's ultimately no more an "insult" to the original property than the previous four decades of failed attempts.

Of course, none of the previous attempts to relaunch the franchise were as high-profile as the new film; there's a sense of mourning among the original fanbase that their special property is being taken away from them. It's easy to mock, but we've all been there. Whether it was with Rob Zombie's Halloween, or JJ Abrams' Star Trek, most of us have been guilty at one point or another of fearing that our favorites would be "ruined" by re-imaginings. To the hand-wringers, I would suggest they take heart in the fact that their beloved show is already preserved for all time (the first 160 episodes of Barnabas' story is on Netflix; all 1,225 episodes are on DVD; the entire 1991 reboot is available on DVD and Hulu, and the two feature films can be viewed on Amazon Instant). Let this film pass you by, if you must.* This too shall pass. And Tim Burton couldn't even kill Planet of the Apes.

*Where does that leave the rest of you? Judging from this week's reactions to the trailer, somewhere between curiosity and indifference. But if you're a little curious and only willing to give the show 22 minutes of your time, watch episode 353 (erroneously and variously referred to on Netflix Instant as Season 4, Episode 23 or Episode 143) . It's slow, but it's about as much plot as a single episode is going to give you, and it's pretty much a quintessential episode, showcasing a few things I love about the show: the enthusiastic "hey, we're in color now!" production design (the show had only recently made the jump from black and white), and some great verbal sparring/scenery chewing between Barnabas (Frid) and Dr. Hoffman (Grayson Hall). It also features a good number of the characters you'll see in Burton's film. I'd have suggested an episode which featured the whole cast, but I can't; part of Dan Curtis' budget trickery involved using no more than six cast members in any given episode.