Dark Shadows

As a vampire-obsessed young adult, I found myself in the odd position of having the gatekeepers for my interest in the genre often be slightly older women whose first/imprinting experience of Yes, THIS Is The Thing For Me came through the medium of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Winds of War creator Dan Curtis's now-legendary supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows (recently reinterpreted in movie form by Tim Burton with a not-exactly-winning combination of smirky 1970s fetishism and sub-par Johnny Depp freaktitude, in such a way as to neatly alienate the original fanbase almost completely while failing to snag any new fans worth speaking of). Having never seen the show myself, in those dark pre-YouTube years, I was forced to rely on vague descriptions of Canadian actor Jonathan Frid (the original Barnabas Collins)'s unaccountable hotness in order to parse out its appeal, which often didn't seem exactly borne out by whatever stills of him I occasionally happened to trip across.


I also learned a fair deal from Stephen King's coverage of the show in the first edition of Dance Macabre, his ambitious and enthusiastic mid-1980s survey of horror in popular culture; my favourite aspect of King's commentary was his glee at the way Curtis had managed to trump most soap operas' “kid trick”—ie, any child born onscreen tends to attain adulthood at a speed roughly three times that of a normal human being, often becoming a parent themselves maybe two years later—with an even more exciting “ghost trick” that allowed him to kill characters off with maximum emotional trauma, then bring them back as monsters! More shows in general should do this last thing, IMNSHO, if canon allows for it; hell, even overtly horror-identified nighttime soaps like The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural don't do it half as often as they should.

Legendarily, Dark Shadows hadn't actually started out as a show about reluctant, brooding vampires or the ghostly witches who curse/love them, let alone time travel, mad science, possession or werewolves. Back when Curtis first started the series' wheels a-spinning, it was just supposed to be a gothic in the Jane Eyre or Victoria Holt model. The basic plot: lovely young Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke originally, though the part would go through two more actresses before the show's cancellation) is hired as governess/handler to a creepy little boy by a rich, reclusive family who live in a desolate old mansion, all of whose members hide secrets; mix well, and let the obsession-spawned bad behaviour begin. Broadcast from 1966 to 1971 in a 30-minute weekday afternoon time-slot on ABC, Dark Shadows was already about 200 episodes (one season) into its original network run when Curtis finally decided to shake things up by introducing Frid's Barnabas, who was accidentally released from the coffin he'd been imprisoned in since the 1760s by angry, drunken Collinsport thug-of-all-trades Willie Loomis (James Hall, then John Karlen), after Willie got it into his head to go poking around the Collins family crypt in search of easily fence-able Revolutionary War-era jewels.

Easily brainwashing Willie into becoming his reluctant, terrified Renfield, Barnabas then went on to introduce himself to his descendants as a “long-lost cousin” who just happened to bear a striking resemblance to that other Barnabas Collins, a cover supported by the fact that his own immediate relatives—understandably reluctant to admit they'd had to bury their eldest son (un)alive in the wake of him suddenly tearing his beloved fiancée’s throat out for no apparent reason—had told everybody he'd run off back to England. Soon enough, he realized that lovely local waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) was the reincarnation of said fiancée, Josette Du Prés, and began scheming to make the girl into his immortal bride, a process only slightly complicated by in-house Collins family researcher Dr Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall)'s discovery of his true identity, and her resultant quest to cure Barnabas's vampirism by scientific means.

Trid as Barnabas

In 1991, over twenty years after the show was cancelled, Curtis attempted his own variety of reboot, which died after barely completing a single season (it was on the cover of almost the first Entertainment Weekly I ever bought, if I recall correctly). The cast was good—Ben Cross as Barnabas, Euro-Horror icon Barbara Steele as Dr Hoffman, plus such ridiculously hot young things as Michael T. Weiss (who'd later go on to headline The Pretender) and Joanna Going as governess Victoria Winters (here combined with Maggie/Josette, for maximum central narrative character punch)—but their insistence on attempting to plunge straight into a tangle of competing storylines it had once taken (however long) to set up certainly didn't help, along with the sad fact that the series itself perhaps had far less name-recognition value than Curtis had originally gambled on (except amongst old-school stalwarts, who were mainly annoyed they couldn't get Frid back again). It did, however, have the effect of leaving me with a pimply, slightly moronic-seemingly beanpole as my head-version of Willie Loomis—ie, actor Jim Fyfe, who took over the role for as long as it took this version to be scrapped . . . which makes the show's next cross-cultural pop-up even weirder, given how weird it all was to begin with.

Okay. Everyone remember S.E. Hinton? The woman who wrote such teen-angst YA classics as The Outsiders? In 2004, I stumbled across what purported to be her first “adult novel,” and read it . . . only to discover it was, essentially, a piece of Dark Shadows fanfiction with the serial numbers not-exactly-expertly filed off. The title: Hawkes Harbor (Tor Books), in which young ex-sailor Jamie Sommers—wasn't that the real name of the Bionic Woman?—survives a gritty, Catholic guilt-soaked youth in the Jack London-inspired South Seas, only to eventually have his mind blasted by opening the wrong coffin and immediately being preyed on by long-starved vampire Grenville Hawkes. Committed to a mental institution, then released (albeit on heavy drugs) and used alternately as a dogsbody/housekeeper and repository of 20th century cultural know-how by austere, autocratic Grenville, Jamie spends the next thirty years acting out all the Dark Shadows plot-threads one assumes Hinton liked best before finally growing enough of a spine to repossess his life and hammer out a weird, vaguely slashy friendship with his former “master.” (How slashy? Once Grenville's cured—something Barnabas never entirely managed—they end up going on a Love Boat-style cruise where both pick up chicks, Jamie gets involved in a threesome, and later makes Grenville “cough his drink out” by asking him if his date gave “good head.”)

In other words, what Hinton managed to create here is possibly the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time, except with far less porn (though there is a fairly hot—and unexpected—scene in which not-Maggie begs “Jamie” to deflower her before not-Josette takes over, erasing her own personality completely) and far more woobification. (This latter term, in case you're wondering, is used to describe the process whereby a canonically villainous [or at least asshole-ish] character is somehow turned into a loveable main character whose beatified suffering is the secret fulcrum of all things just because the fanfic writer in question thinks he's really hot thus putting unlucky, undereducated Willie Loomis on a temporary footing with fangirl catnip like Tom Hiddleston's Loki and the Harry Potter fanfic phenomenon known as “Draco in Leather Pants.”)

With this final stop on the Dark Shadows cultural iteration tour, we return neatly back to the present, when Burton's movie finally spurred Warner Home Video to release the original show's two tie-in movies—House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971)—on DVD and BluRay. Seeing this as my opportunity to finally get the full Dark Shadows treatment without actually having to wade through six years' worth of old soap opera footage, I laid my money down and watched them both over one weekend. And . . . you know, I kind of do get it now. Kind of.

Between the two, Night—which takes the tale of Angelique (Lara Parker), the witch who cursed Barnabas with vampirism because he didn't love her, and pops it out into an almost entirely new story—stands more on its own; it's denser, literally darker, and weirdly affecting. But House of Dark Shadows, which compresses most of the Barnabas storyline (dozens of TV hours, in its original form) into a 97-minute mini-epic, is crackily compelling—not least due to Frid's interesting combination of theatrical charisma and period fug. He's about the size of a house, huge and gnarled, and his anachronistic clip-job is less the bowl-cut that renders Depp's version so hilarious than a classic Caesar; his eyes are deep-set and full of hypnotic pain, his voice surprisingly convincing no matter what variety of crazy BS he happens to be handing out, at least until he steps off-screen (very Peter Cushing!).


And everyone around him appears to be bringing their A-games too, perhaps cheered on by the fact that they're suddenly able to play straight through a revised, snapped-up version of their single best character performance, without constantly having to stop and power down again so ABC can fit in a bunch of commercials. Unlike the “normal” slug-like, repetitious pacing of a soap opera, in which conversations can taken entire weeks to get to their midpoints, the movie is free to time-jump with hysterically economical compactness—I've never seen a film that so needed an X-Files-type time-and-date stamp in the corner of any given scene, as you find yourself asking, with each new cut: Waaait a minute, I think we skipped something here . . . maybe a lot of things. Is this later? How much time did we just lose—hours, days, months?

This passionate commitment to brevity, in turn, breeds a wonderful sort of dramatic ruthlessness. Bright red Technicolor blood spurts from every vampiric chomp-down, characters are routinely turned and staked within what seems like five to ten-minute turn-around periods, and Curtis has absolutely no fear when it comes to killing people, even supposedly main characters. The set-pieces, though naturally derivative, ooze a gothic glamour that's sadly absent from many modern horror movies—I particularly liked the scene in which the bratty youngest Collins kid bounces a ball against the shallow end of a dilapidated, drained swimming-pool, telling himself in a sing-songy voice: “If I catch this, then Carolyn [his sister] isn't dead . . . ”; eventually, he looks up over the bouncing toy to see newly-vampirized Carolyn herself take shape in the shadows, eddying towards him with her arms open in true Bloofer Lady style, so smoothly her feet barely seem to touch the ground. Freed from the static set-ups of TV, the camera-work is also fluid and energetic throughout, tracking around various cobweb-festooned locations with an almost cinéma verité energy.

Things get more classical in Night of Dark Shadows, which takes a very Roger Corman Poe pictures interest in dream sequences, threatening art (a half-finished painting eventually reveals a frightening vision of the future, as dictated by supernatural interference from the past) and slow-motion historical flashbacks. Like Frid, Lara Parker—witch-ghost Angelique, hung from a tree outside the Collins family mansion's attic studio for the crime of seducing her brother-in-law, who was then buried alive with her corpse—is a rip-roaring presence, fierce and seductive, with her gently blowing blonde curls and her Ingrid Pitt wardrobe of Diréctoire negligées; she reaches out to ensnare her unwitting reincarnated lover, Collins family heir Quentin Collins (David Selby, who played a strikingly different version of the character on the show), away from his sporty, no-nonsense wife Tracey (Kate Jackson, also a Dark Shadows alumnus, in her feature film debut), with the help of sinister housekeeper Carlotta (Grayson Hall), who keeps Angelique's spectre powerful by remembering her own past life as a lonely child who once considered the beautiful monster her only friend.

Like Selby, Jackson and Hall, the rest of the cast are also Dark Shadows stalwarts, though showcased here in completely new parts: Former “Willie” John Karlen is Quentin and Tracey's best friend cum Van Hesling figure, a writer researching historical thrillers with his wife Nancy Barrett (“Carolyn”), while other supporting characters are played by Jim Storm, Diana Millay, Thayer David, Christopher Pennock and Claire Blackburn, all of whom previously turned up in House of Dark Shadows. It's a bit like watching two seasons of work from the Collinsport Theatrical Touring Company Ensemble, yet opportunities for creep abound throughout, whether it's watching Selby shift unexpectedly from his present-day self to murderous Charles Collins (still sexy, but with a foot-dragging Igor limp), Parker turn herself into a white mist that sucks the life from unsuspecting sleepers, or unstable Storm suddenly threaten his annoying employers with a knife like some Starsky and Hutch mugger. (There's a welcome return visit from that abandoned swimming pool too, this time filled with dank water and weeds, just perfect for drowning a half-strangled spouse in.)

One way or the other, these alternately atmospheric and goofy movies will give you a far better idea of Dark Shadows' enduring appeal than all of Tim Burton's $100 million-budgeted smirkily retro antics combined—less lost classics than a double jolt of well-executed, spooky fun, the refurbished House and Night remain still pretty damn entertaining even today, not to mention easy on the wallet. So check them out soon, before they vanish back into cult TV limbo. 

About the Author

Gemma Files

Gemma Files was born in London, England and raised in Toronto. Her story “The Emperor’s Old Bones” won the 1999 International Horror Guild Award for Best Short Fiction. She has published two collections of short work (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, from Sinnersphere Productions, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). A Book of Tongues, her first Hexslinger novel, won the 2010 DarkScribe Magazine Black Quill Award for Small Press Chill, in both the Editors’ and Readers’ Choice categories. The two final Hexslinger novels, A Rope of Thorns and A Tree of Bones were published by ChiZine Publications in 2011 and 2012.