One of the more interesting — and promising — pieces of news I’ve seen in the past week indicates that Tim Burton is now attached as director to the proposed Dark Shadows movie, which Johnny Depp apparently acquired the rights to after creator Dan Curtis died not too long ago. This, it seems, has been one of Depp’s dream projects.
For the uninitiated, Dark Shadows was technically a soap opera that ran on ABC back in the 1960s, but it was like no soap ever seen before or since. It may have started out as your typical soap opera fare, albeit with a little more emphasis on mystery and suspense, but about 10 months into its run things took a sharp left turn into the realm of horror with the introduction of a vampire. Before anyone could so much as say “Pardon me, but your teeth are in my neck,” the character of Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) had become the star of the show and his popularity went through the roof (Frid was just as quickly forgotten after the show ended its run).
The show lived on in undead syndication for years after it went off the air in 1971. I was about 10 years old when NBC started rerunning it in the afternoons, and what got me hooked was one of the commercials that showed the scene in which the poor schmuck who frees Barnabas from the coffin where he has been chained for 200 years realizes he’s found something other than the hidden family loot he was hoping for.
That scene — and the look on the actor’s face going from greedy anticipation to disbelief to shock to horror as the vampire’s hand reaches up from behind the raised coffin lid to grab his face — had me thinking, “Wow, this is what horror is all about. I’ll have to check this out.” It had that great EC Comics vibe to it.
Unfortunately, no other scene in the show’s five-year run matches that one for sheer creepiness, and once the show went from its original black and white to color, a lot of the technical shortcomings became even more glaringly apparent. But the show was fun on the level of “I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this unfold before my eyes.” It was often shot in one take, and so bloopers and flubbed lines would stay in.
Sometimes a grip would inadvertently walk in front of the camera during a scene. Once, a fly landed on an actor’s forehead and wouldn’t go away. Actors would bump into the set walls and knock them over. The vampire bat was clearly rubber — and attached to a string. Frid often flubbed his lines, and of course many of these people were not what you’d call accomplished actors — the one exception probably being Joan Bennett. The show was often unintentionally hilarious.
Now, being that this was a Dan Curtis creation, there are several characteristics that may or may not surprise some of you. Of course, it was very low budget. Of course, many of the plot lines and other things like music got recycled over and over again. Of course, the direction was often very hammy. Subtlety was not a trademark of the show or of its creator.
The show actually made the transition to the big screen in the early 1970s via a pair of feature films. The first focused on Barnabas and, while it basically was just the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the TV show’s initial vampire plot, it was loads of fun, with all the blood and guts they could not use on television — and it apparently was an excuse to put all the young women into the “Hammer hotties” line of short skirts and outfits with plunging necklines that Christopher Lee’s conquests had been wearing for years.
The second film did not have Barnabas and, quite simply, sucked.
Then, when Curtis revived the show in 1991 — it lasted just a little longer than the Gulf War, which happened around the same time — he basically rehashed the plot of the first Barnabas movie all over again, and things got very familiar very quickly. Apart from better production values, the new show seemed pretty much like the old show.
So Depp and Burton could be the ones to bring some fresh blood to the proceedings. Their team-ups always seem to be successful, so in theory this should be a good idea. And Burton’s weird sensibilities and keen visuals could be what is needed to help Dark Shadows find a modern-day audience.
But they really need to break some new ground, storywise. Don’t just repeat the old show. The central premise of Barnabas being a vampire, fine — but go somewhere else with it. It sounds like Depp has been thinking about this for years, so my feeling is that this could be a great meeting of the minds. And both Burton and Depp seem drawn to stories about loners and outsiders — perfect for a vampire story. When was the last time we had a vampire franchise, anyway?
I’ll end with a couple of casting suggestions. If they decide to deal with the character of Quentin Collins — the family werewolf — Hugh Jackman strikes me as a good choice. I can just picture him with the 1800s-style sideburns, though maybe it’s just from seeing him as Wolverine.
And they HAVE to find a place in this for Michael Keaton, who was once a frequent Burton collaborator and an actor we rarely see anymore. Give him a good role — the kind he can lose himself in, like Beetlejuice — and put him back on the map. I could see him playing Reverend Trask, the wacky witch-hunting priest who played a role in the Barnabas origin story.
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