Dark Shadows

darkBefore we had the tormented Carpathians, and the Black Dagger Brotherhood, not to mention Edward of the Twilight series, many people grew up watching Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. No doubt the show paved the way for the acceptance of romantic vampires today. Yet many of today’s tormented vampires can’t hold a candle to Barnabas. In fact, Barnabas was all about the candles. Candles,  eerie music, cobwebs, fierce storms, crypts and graveyards. And unlike many vampires today, he was a true anti-hero.

Unlike many people from my generation, I didn’t grow up watching Dark Shadows all the time. I never seemed to get home at the right time, so I watched Captain Chesapeake instead. Still, although I was a scaredy-cat, I managed to sneak in a few episodes now and then.

When I heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were working together on a Dark Shadows movie, my first reaction was “Perfect!” I couldn’t wait to see it. Then I realized that many fans were upset with the trailer because the movie comes across as a send-up. They are not amused. Or as my sister-in-law pointed out to be, fans took the show very seriously.

So I decided to make up for lost time. First I watched the 1970s movie, House of Dark Shadows. Think Dark Shadows with blood and color and the deaths of major characters, along with a “hard PG” rating — and a thoroughly villainous Barnabas. My reaction? Wow. Then thanks to Netflix, I started to watch the original Barnabas Collins episodes, in a row. (I wasn’t ready to buy the Dark Shadows: Complete Original Series Boxed Set.) Now I see why those fans are upset about the trailers. While the original was over-the-top, it took itself seriously. Sure, the boom mikes kept showing up uninvited in scenes, the doors shook if closed too hard, and the actors often flubbed their lines. (One of my favorites: “Several of my incestors – incestors?! – my ancestors are buried here.” )

Still, the stories were serious. The atmosphere took no prisoners. Barnabas Collins eventually became a more heroic character, but he sure as hell didn’t start out that way. He attacked local women, enslaved and beat Willie Loomis, kidnapped Maggie Evans and tried to brainwash her, killed several people who got in his way, and came thisclose to killing more people. All that in stories taking place in three centuries and more than one timeline. Take that, modern vampires who angst over the slightest thing. Just when you would give up on him, he would wax poetic about some tragedy from his past. Then, when you were on his side again, he would beat up Willie Loomis. Again. Or try to kill Maggie. All while being one of the best-dressed vampires ever.

Maybe that was what made the show work. So many paranormals have the vampire equivalent of “fake rakes” –  vampires who act as if they’re bad dudes, but who only kill evil people. Never innocents who just get in their way. Yeah. I’m so scared of you. Barnabas would kick their sparkly butts. He was tormented, but he was scary first. I’ve watched plenty of dark and gruesome horror movies,  but many of them pale next to the atmosphere of the best parts of Dark Shadows. Somehow the people behind the show, actors and crew alike, made it work, despite a tight schedule and limited budget. (Yes, even if the crew members wandered into shots now and then.)

The new movie has a big budget, but they don’t list Maggie Evans in the cast. What?! She was only one of the most important characters in the show. No Quentin Collins, either. What’s Collinswood without those sideburns? Also, no Burke, no Joe Haskell, and no smooth-talking con artist Jason McGuire. In the new movie, it seems as if Willie Loomis isn’t a crook — just a heavy drinker. Where’s the fun in that? In the TV show, Willie became my favorite “Renfield” character. He started out as a greedy, violent con artist who tried to steal jewels from a coffin, but from there, he went on to become a terrified vampire slave to actual sympathetic character. Part of the fun of the original was that so many of the characters were flawed and complicated. Take Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall in the original, and Helena Bonham Carter in the new movie). In the TV show, she hypnotizes Maggie Evans to keep her from remembering that Barnabas kidnapped her. A really cool character, but if I found out she was my doctor, I would run the other way. Ethics violations much? With people like that around, a tormented vampire doesn’t seem so bad. In the movie, while the character had a dark side, she came across as more of a loser — another heavy drinker.

So what made viewers keep tuning in, day after day, for years? What still keeps people interested? The atmosphere helped, of course, but for me, it was the characters. Sure, I started the show to see Barnabas, but I kept watching to see what happened to people I came to care about. How would Maggie Evans get away? Whose ghost was that? Would Vickie avoid the clutches of Barnabas? How would the family matriarch deal with the charming but slimy blackmailer? And just what would Dr. Hoffman do next? Above it all, the show managed to be spooky, without lots of blood or fancy special effects.

Unlike a movie, because there are so many episodes, the writers got to explore more. It was like some of today’s big sprawling paranormal series and then some. The writers were free to explore more tangents and really get into the characters. Even jump into the past or delve into alternate timelines. OK, you got more repetition, too. (I could live without hearing the name “Josette” uttered one more time.)

My only complaint was that some of the pairings the show foisted on me. That’s always been my problem with soaps — and with some romance novels. “Wait, you want me to believe they’re in love? But he’s so boring… ” Also, because it was a soap opera, Dark Shadows didn’t dare let characters become too happy. So love interests were always dying off or disappearing or even going insane.

This weekend, I saw the movie. Guess what? I still like the TV show better. The movie had Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, great sets and Danny Elfman music. But it also made too many changes that took away from the original rather than adding to it. Why remove (or take out) important characters? Why change Elizabeth Stoddard or Roger Collins so much? Why weaken Dr. Hoffmann’s character? Why why why?

So one of my plans for the rest of the weekend is to catch up on episodes. The Dr. Julia Hoffmann episodes were getting really good. Or maybe I can listen to those Dark Shadows audiobooks starring some of the original cast members. I might just happen to have one or two with John Karlen, the original Willie Loomis (Harvey Lacey from Cagney and Lacey).

Just to prove that I don’t take everything about the show seriously, here is a link to the first of three blooper reels available on YouTube.

- Anne Marble

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22 Responses to Dark Shadows

  1. maggie b. says:

    It took me all summer to make peace with JJ Abrams’s vision of Star Trek. I know on the many of the Trek boards opinions were split 50/50 for and against. In the end I treated it as a completely different entity and wound up enjoying it.

    We planned to see Dark Shadows tlast weekend but didn’t get a chance. Maybe we’ll get to see it this weekend. I have never seen the original series though it is on my Roku que. Maybe I’ll get a chance over the summer.

    As far as vamps go though, I don’t tend to like tortured murderers as my romance lead – that’s just not where my fantasy lies. So put me in the camp of liking the new cleamed up, sparkly vamps. :-)

  2. Hannah E. says:

    I had no idea that Dark Shadows was originally a television show. That’s really interesting.

    By the way, I would prefer that my vampires *not* sparkle, but I can’t say I want them killing a bunch of innocents, either. There is a definite limit to how “anti” an anti-hero can get before I stop reading. I hate it when the only way to tell the hero from the villain is by which one gets the girl.

  3. LeeF says:

    We were the “rush home from school to see it” kind of fans in the 60′s. I love that picture that you have with the article! It captures the whole mysterious, black and white vibe of the series.

  4. Nancy Gideon says:

    I rushed home!! Couldn’t wait. Loved every scary, hokey minute of the soap spooktacular series. It’s what gave me the bug to write paranormals. I was hugely excited when Johnny announced he was going to do the movie. Tim Burton . . . a little more cautious. Then the trailer . . . Soooo disappointed in their interpretation. I won’t see it. Not interested. I’d rather keep my memories of bats on wires and Quentin Collins protected. Sorry Johnny. Love you, but you did the fans wrong.

  5. AAR Sandy says:

    Maggie, where did you find Dark Shadows on Roku?

    • maggie b. says:

      AAR Sandy: Maggie, where did you find Dark Shadows on Roku?

      Netflix. I put it on my instant queue. Not sure of how many seasons I have but I know I have the 1966 Season 1. You can also buy episodes on Amazon.

  6. Amen!! I loooved Dark Shadows the series. The good, the bad, and the ugly of it. It was just a fixture of my youth and when they had it on the sci fi channel many years back I watched it there. It’s what a vampire show SHOULD be!

  7. xina says:

    My sister and I would run home from school to watch Dark Shadows. Sadly, I don’t remember much about it, but I do think if I ever had a love for vampires, it surely came from watching Barnabas Collins. I would like to see the Depp version at one point, but I will go into it as a comedy and not a drama. The original Dark Shadows was not funny, but a gothic soap opera.

  8. Vol Fan says:

    I was one of the hurry home kids too. Dark Shadows was a must see for me. Funny though, I don’t remember any of the mistakes that crept into the show due to it being live. I was so enthralled, that I just completely overlooked them I guess. Sure, I’ve heard of them all since then, but at the time, I had no idea it all was happening. (Can’t wait to see those bloopers above!) All I know is that it was wonderfully gothic, dark and scary. The music alone would give me chills. I was crazy about gothic novels and to see DS, it was very much what I would envision when I read them. Dark mansions, high cliffs, etc.

    “Angelique”/Lara Parker actually wrote a few fiction Dark Shadows books. I have a couple that I ordered via Amazon, but haven’t read them yet. I have been thinking of ordering the DVDs of the show too.

    I think DS is why I’ve never been able to really get too into today’s vampire stories. Too many of them are too goody-goody. That’s not how my childhood vampire stories ever were.

    I’m with Nancy. I was sooo excited to see they were making this movie and then it turns out to be a freaking comedy?? No thanks. I won’t go to see it.

  9. Fay says:

    I was a “hurry home to the dark shadows” kid too (born 1961). I remember the coffin and that many Friday afternoon episodes ended with Barnabus’ teeth and thoughts near someone’s neck and me thinking “AARGH, now I have to wait till MOnday!” My little sister would often wake in the middle of the night and run to my parent’s bedroom because she “saw Barnabus in the closet”. Definitely not a light weight show – I’m amazed that our parents let us watch it.
    On first seeing that Dark Shadows would be a movie, I was excited and thought it was being “resurrected”. Then the disappointment hit when the trailor indicated it would be a “spoof”. I had the feeling that they were “making fun” of something that was almost “sacred”, something that was awesome BECAUSE of its intensity.
    Thank you, Anne, for your article. Now I want to see the movie “House of Shadows” – I didn’t know about that or at least don’t remember it. And now I really want to get the Dark Shadows complete collection, but at $414 that would really take a “BITE” out of the wallet – MOO HA HA!!!

  10. Vol Fan says:

    Actually, there were two movies. House of Dark Shadows was the first and the second was Night of Dark Shadows. I know that I actually went to the movies for one of them, but I can’t remember which it was. I will need to do some more checking. Amazon says they both will be released on DVD by next year (due to the Burton DS movie coming out).

    After checking the collection, yikes I had no idea they were that expensive! Wish now that I had recorded some of it when it was on the Sci-Fi channel awhile back.

  11. Kay Webb Harrison says:

    OK, I was born in 1950; so, when Dark Shadows premiered, I think that I was in high school. I know that I saw the first episode and watched faithfully for years–attending college and working part-time cut into my afternoon TV time. I don’t remember much about the Quentin Collins story.

    The first episodes were straight Gothics, no supernatural elements. The first story arc to feature the paranormal was when Roger’s ex arrived; she turned out to be a phoenix-like creature who immolated herself every hundred years, to be resurrected in a new body. She came back to Collinwood to take her son David into the flames with her this time. The Barnabas story-line began after that one concluded.

    I enjoyed the show very much, just as I did Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Star Trek, and The Wild, Wild West.

    I want to see the Depp/Burton film. I don’t expect it to be just like the original, but I do expect it to be entertaining. I guess I’m not a DS purist.


  12. Ruby says:

    AAR Sandy — a selection of the original Dark Shadows episodes are available from Netflix to stream on Roku.

  13. Blip Vert says:

    You don’t have to be a “purist” to dislike the changes the new movie has made. From the trailer, the comedy fell flat with me, and the character changes take away from the story, not add to it. I would have been open to even a comedy if it looked like it was good, but this version just looks bad. Period. Plus, Depp looks completely ridiculous — he looks like he’s a little boy pretending to be a vampire for Halloween.

  14. LeeF says:

    It took me awhile to quit thinking of Langley on All My Children as Roger from Dark Shadows ;-)

  15. AAR Sandy says:

    Thanks @Ruby and @maggieb. I don’t subscribe to Netflix and instead use Amazon (Prime) and pay per view instead. I’ll have to check to see if they are available through Prime.

  16. Karen W. says:

    I was definitely one of those kids who rushed home to school to watch “Dark Shadows” every day, and I have adored the show since then. I didn’t understand “camp” then — I thought it was pretty scary and unlike anything I had ever seen on TV. I think my love of the paranormal/supernatura to this dayl comes from my love of “Dark Shadows” as a kid. I was even lucky enough to meet Jonathan Frid in 1990, and it was the thrill of a lifetime for me. He was a very kind, gracious man.

    I had misgivings about the new movie, but since I love Johnny Depp, I gave it a try. I liked it more than I expected to, although there were definitely some changes. (Especially making Victoria Winters/Maggie Evans the same character.) I thought the actors did a good job capturing the original “dramatic” acting style, and I thought the humor was actually well done. It wasn’t MY “Dark Shadows,” but I enjoyed it and am thrilled that new generations are hearing about “Dark Shadows.”

  17. Karen W. says:

    Sorry about the typos in my post above. :-/

    I also wanted to add that I thought it was lovely to see Jonathan Frid, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and David Selby in their cameos during the big party scene. I had no trouble recognizing them, and even though Jonathan Frid passed away before the movie opened, I’m glad he got to have his little moment in it.

  18. I never realized we had so many “rush home to see it” fans here. I feel so spoiled to have NetFlix.

    I watched an old Lost in Space episode because Dennis Patrick (who played Jason McGuire) was in it. He played the “Golden Man,” and despite the heavy makeup, I kept thinking of his character as Jason McGuire covered with gold paint. :)

  19. My sisters & I were never allowed to watch Dark Shadows after school, but that was okay with us; we were all scaredy-cats anyway. Unfortunately, we still saw the commercials. There was one in particular where a man gives a woman a ring. She puts it on, and the next camera shot shows her staring in horror at her hand–which is now a skeleton hand, with the ring on it.

    After seeing that commercial all three of us got out of bed that night and ran to find our parents. The funny thing is, this subject came up at our family Christmas a couple of years ago, and all three of us still remembered that whole incident (including the commercial) in vivid detail, 40 years after the fact! My older sister even remembered our dad’s reaction: “That’s it! No more watching Dark Shadows!” And Mom’s reply, “They don’t watch it! That was just the commercial!”

    My daughter, who grew up hearing this story, jokingly said that my sisters & I should all go see the movie together, as a sort of group therapy.

    Needless to say, I don’t write paranormals!

  20. Kari S. says:

    I’m another kid who rushed home to watch Dark Shadows every day. In fact, when I went to 6th grade science camp and had to miss a whole WEEK of my addiction, my unfortunate mother and brother had to watch it for me. My mother actually wrote me letters that week to keep me from going into soap opera withdrawal! I may go see the movie – my nephew has expressed an interest and I may take him. The series definitely helped spark my interest in reading and watching other paranormal books and shows.

    No one has mentioned the brief attempt at reviving the show for Prime Time in 1991. That wasn’t bad, but I think the creators were taking themselves and the series too seriously, and it didn’t catch on, which was a shame. The idea of Dark Shadows as a movie isn’t nearly as appealing to me as another TV series would be. The theatrical releases were a bit too much for me, however; I was too young for the more hardcore horror.

    Thanks for writing about this! Maybe one of these days I’ll pick up the original series and watch them again – warts and all.

  21. Denise says:

    I watched it as a kid and loved it, and I still enjoyed it when it was rerun on my local PBS station in the 1990s.

    You may not know this, but there was also a series of novels published based on the show (like the Star Trek novels). I still have a few of those and the ones published based on one of my other favorites, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

    I was dubious about the movie, but I like Johnny Depp, so I went to see if after my mother recommended it. I have to say I liked it. It wasn’t the same, of course, but I found it to be funny and reverent at the same time. And it ended the right way, with Barnabas getting the girl (I mean, really, who didn’t want Barnabas to get the girl?).

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