Fueled by cult fever, 'Dark Shadows' vamps its way back into prime time
He's bad. He's batty. And (aieee!) he's back. As a matter of fact, his decision to come back may be the most convincing proof of his battiness. Now that we've driven a stake through the greed-is-good '80s, who wants another rich bloodsucker? Then again, no properly raised vampire would continue to lie low when so many pine so ardently for his return. Just listen to Helen Samaras, a 37-year-old travel agent in West Hempstead, N.Y.: "As a teenager, I watched Barnabas Collins almost every day for five years. So did all my girlfriends. We adored him. We all wanted to reform him, to help him out. Then suddenly he wasn't there anymore and I became one sad kid. For 20 years I've been hoping they'd bring him back. There never was a vampire like Barnabas."
Nor a soap opera like "Dark Shadows." Daytime television's first and only supernatural serial aired on ABC between 1966 and 1971--not a long run, by soap standards, but one that spawned a passionate and remarkably steadfast following. Now, as "DS" cultists prepare to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show's debut, the saga of the reluctant vampire is about to stalk into the night. On Jan. 13, NBC will unveil a weekly, prime-time version of "Dark Shadows" with original scripts and whole new cast. What's even weirder is that the resurrected Barnabas will be competing with the ghost of himself. Home videos of old "DS" episodes are selling so briskly (600,000 copies) that their manufacturer plans to reissue all 1,225 installments. Cable's Sci-Fi Channel, scheduled for an early '91 launch, will rerun episodes twice daily. Bookstores recently started stocking "The Dark Shadows Companion," an awesomely trivia-stuffed paean written by a former actress on the show. In short, all omens point to a full-scale "Dark Shadows" revival. And you think Bart Simpson is a rotten role model.
Given the fidelity of "DS" devotees, the NBC series could break from the Nielsen gate faster than any of this season's newcomers. That was hardly the case with its ancestor. "Dark Shadows" started out as a Gothic romance, a shamelessly derivative hybrid of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." Ratings were so anemic that ABC began hoisting the ax. Dan Curtis, the show's creator and executive producer, tells the rest: "One day my 11-year-old daughter said to me, 'Since it's failing anyway, why not make it really scary?' So I stuck a ghost on and the ratings jumped. Then,just to see how much I could get away with, I introduced a vampire. Suddenly, the ratings skyrocketed. The kids loved him, but women went totally out of their minds. It was unbelievable. We'd come out of this dinky studio and there'd be 500 people chanting: 'BAR-NA-BAS!'"
At its peak, "Dark Shadows"--by now populated with witches, werewolves, zombies and a few less classifiable sickos--attracted 20 million daily viewers. The actor who played Barnabas, a Shakespearean-trained Canadian named Jonathan Frid, received more than 5,000 fan letters a week. Everyone, as the dealers in Hollywood say, got a taste. There were two film spinoffs ("House of Dark Shadows" and "Night of Dark Shadows"), 30 paperback novels, a hit record, comic books, jigsaw puzzles, board games, even a cookbook featuring a Barnabas Bloody Mary. Finally, in 1971, the soap ran out of steam. Curtis went off to produce two mammoth mini-series, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," before NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff persuaded him to reunite with his "Godfather."
Like its template, Curtis's new version is set in a fog-shrouded, Maine-coast manor house called Collinwood. The premise remains simplicity itself--what one of the show's writers calls "a love story with a body count. " A 175-year-old vampire falls for a young governess who, he's convinced, is the reincarnation of his longdead fiancee. This time around, Ben ("Chariots of Fire") Cross plays Barnabas and Jean Simmons the matriarch of Collinwood, a role originated by the late Joan Bennett. In terms of production values, "Dark Shadows" has come a long way from the days when Barnabas's snap-on plastic fangs proved such a speech impediment that he sometimes had to turn his back and surreptitiously slip them off to deliver his lines. All the revival's sets are lavish and every special effect is state of the art. Especially the bats. "We used to have these terrible rubber things we'd hang on a string and jerk up and down," recalls Curtis. "Now our bats are mechanized."
The biggest departure, however, lies in the interpretation of Barnabas. Frid played the vampire as a vulnerable, sensitive-male sort. Teenagers saw him as one of them, just another guy with a hang-up (OK, a major drinking problem) who hated the fact that he couldn't fit in. Cross, in contrast, is all tightly coiled menace. You want to tell him: Ben, loosen up. (We realize his character is supposed to be a stiff--but that's only in the daytime.)
On the other hand, Cross's Barnabas definitely generates more steam. Not that the original didn't pack an erotic charge. Jim Pierson, a Hollywood production assistant who organizes "DS" festivals and conventions, has concluded from his chats with fans that "a lot of housewives wanted to be Barnabas's sex slave. Frid has told me that he's still getting propositioned." What Cross does better is to create a smoldering mating dance with his potential victims, particularly the governess. Remember all that will-they-or-won't-they speculation about "Moonlighting's" Maddie and David? Prepare yourself for a kinkier replay.
As for the horror content, the generation raised on Freddy Krueger probably will find "Dark Shadows" about as scary as they find Bob Hope funny. Which doesn't mean that connoisseurs of vampire-genre writing will be disappointed. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone disliking a show that tosses lines like: "We've got a madman out there ... I found traces of human saliva in her wound ... Bats! Ech, what a place ... She lost all that blood, but where did it go? .. . I can't get over it. You look exactly like the man in the portrait ... This thing, whatever it is ... Please don't hate me. I CAN'T HELP MYSELF!"
As the series progresses, Curtis plans to interweave old and new plot lines. The governess will travel back two centuries to unearth Barnabas's vampiric origins. Meanwhile, the female doctor called in to cure Barnabas will develop a crush on him instead and, upon being cruelly rebuffed, try to knock him off. (Lest anyone think she succeeds, remember this vampire's most immortal line: "You can't kill me because I'm already dead.") Finally, Curtis intends to break with "DS" tradition by deliberately camping up one of its characters--Willie, Collinwood's groveling caretaker. "Willie and Barnabas become like the Odd Couple," he reports, his chuckle rising to a guffaw. "In one scene Willie presents him with his favorite cape. 'Here's your cape, Barnabas,' he says. 'I ironed it real nice for you. Too bad you can't see yourself in the mirror'." Suddenly Curtis's laughter catches in his throat. "Of course there's nothing funny about Barnabas," he grimly adds. "Nothing funny at all."
Agreed. So check the locks on your fogshrouded manor house and advise your governess to buy some Teflon turtlenecks. There's a madman out there.