Rewind: The Enduring Thrills of the Gothic TV Soap ‘Dark Shadows’
In an occasional series, Rewind will look back at a television show or film that has proved to resonate.
In Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, due in theaters Friday, Johnny Depp puts on the fangs of immortal vampire Barnabas Collins, awakened from his centuries-old slumber into a time he cannot comprehend, surrounded by a wealthy and eccentric family he does not know, and thirsting for both blood and his doomed true love, Josette du Pres.
Dark Shadows, of course, is based on Dan Curtis’s groundbreaking cult classic, the 1966–71 ABC daytime soap that became mandatory viewing for many households, including a generation of viewers rushing home from school to catch its latest supernatural plotline. The show spun off feature films (1970’s House of Dark Shadows and 1971’s Night of Dark Shadows), a short-lived 1991 NBC revival series (plus a failed 2004 pilot at the WB), and countless audio plays, books, comics, and merchandise. But Dark Shadows—which will be rereleased Tuesday as a $600 limited-edition complete-series DVD box set, with all 1,225 episodes packaged in a plush coffin—didn’t initially feature the brooding Barnabas (played memorably by the late Jonathan Frid) or indeed contain any hint of the horrors to come.
When Dark Shadows began in June 1966, it was a black-and-white soap revolving around a young orphan, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), who received an offer of employment from Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett), the matriarch of a wealthy New England family in far-away Collinsport, Maine. Recalling Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the Collins clan was deeply eccentric and isolated, their crumbling castle on the hill regarded alternately with suspicion or animosity from the townspeople. Soon a ghost or two emerged into the storylines, a blend of soapy intrigue and romance, and then there was the strange case of Laura Collins (Diana Millay), the estranged wife of scion Roger (Louis Edmonds), who was revealed to be an Egyptian phoenix, risen from the ashes, to reclaim her son David (David Henesy).
But it was the arrival, in April 1967, of Barnabas Collins that pushed Dark Shadows truly into the supernatural camp. Originally intended to appear for just a short run of a few weeks, Frid’s memorable take on Barnabas as a tortured, self-loathing vampire at odds with his hungers and impulses became such a hit with viewers that he remained on the series through the remainder of its run. (Over that time, Frid would play Barnabas in a series of time periods, as vampire and mere human, and other characters as well.)
Initially falling into the mold of malevolent immortal cemented in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Frid’s fluid and engaging take on Barnabas presaged the now ubiquitous remorseful vampire that occupies such a huge place in popular culture. Without Curtis’s Dark Shadows and Frid’s Barnabas, we may not have had Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, or True Blood, or the novels of Anne Rice and countless others. (Indeed, Rice’s own Interview With the Vampire was preceded by a 1970 Dark Shadows plot in which an alcoholic author, played by John Karlen, tries to coerce an interview out of the vampiric Barnabas to write a new book.)
Barnabas eventually moved from a bite-happy villain to a tragic and often selfless hero whose hold on humanity remained perilously thin, and the character—along with trusted companion Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall)—often investigated supernatural or metaphysical phenomena. Over the course of the show’s five-year run, Dark Shadows would introduce werewolves, disembodied spirits, witches, ancient beings, and assorted other creatures, as well as utilize time travel and alternate timelines (take that, Fringe!) to weave a labyrinthine story that was set throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
The entire cast would function largely as a repertory company in these instances, with the actors stepping out of their normal roles to play various other characters, often the ancestors of their present-day personae. Lavish sets and costumes completed the effect, and these storylines often lasted months, centering around the time travel of Barnabas, Victoria, or Julia or an exploration of causality and free will in what became known as “Parallel Time” plots, which explored the lives of Collinwood’s inhabitants had certain events transpired differently.
This may seem out of place for a soap opera, but Dark Shadows transcended the genre entirely, its deeply serialized plots crackling with the electricity of out-there ideas and horror-tinged mayhem. (NBC’s Passions followed a similar trajectory and owes its own short-lived successes to this series.) Under the aegis of Curtis and his team, Dark Shadows pulled its inspiration from countless literary classics, fusing together the works of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, in particular), Oscar Wilde, Shirley Jackson, and others with a familiar soap-opera structure, a haunting backdrop, and a revolving door of characters that included socialites, factory workers, con men, and a witch or two. (The most famous of these was, of course, Lara Parker’s vindictive Angelique.)
While the storylines remain compelling and unique even today, aided by Robert Cobert’s memorably lush orchestral score, a departure from the norm at the time, Dark Shadows also inspires an endearing loyalty upon viewing. Shot live-to-tape, the show’s rigidly tight timeframe allowed for typically only one take, which meant that actors often flubbed their lines. (Quite often, in fact.) Additionally, this allowed for humorous production gaffes: the boom microphone falling into the shot, the set pieces wobbling occasionally, or a stagehand wandering in front of the camera. But any unintentional humor created by these flubs is secondary to the feeling that the cast and crew were essentially performing a new play every weekday, and that type of ambition—as well as the vision of Curtis & Co.—needs to be appreciated and celebrated.
Even nearly 50 years after its debut, Dark Shadows remains unforgettable, an expansive and inventive show that retains its sense of mystery and foreboding drama. Whether Burton’s take on the show’s mythology claims as deep a foothold in the public consciousness remains to be seen (I’m choosing to look at his film’s more overtly humorous tone as a “Parallel Time” story in itself). What’s clear is that Dark Shadows continues to cast its own long shadow over the imagination of many who have figuratively set foot in the great house of Collinwood.