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Dark Shadows: A Primer

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Thursday, May 10, 2012
With the big screen version arriving in theaters this week, here's a primer of sorts on Dan Curtis' cult classic and its cinematic update.
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Dark Shadows

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz

(Warner Brothers)

It began life as the most normative of soap operas, a typical Nor-eastern sudser where small town intrigue and family feuds led to deception, drama…and sometimes death. Creator Dan Curtis wanted to evoke a kind of House of the Seven Gables feel, using mood and tone to differentiate his Gothic serial from the rest. Still, audiences weren’t interested, and ABC was threatening cancelation. Inspired by something his daughter said (“Why not add a ghost?”) and realizing he could jumpstart his show’s failing fortunes, Curtis offered up ‘the Lady in White.’ It wouldn’t be long before the town of Collinsport, Maine and its chief residing brood, The Collinses, were bedeviled by all manner of monsters, myths, and legends.


Indeed, over the course of its late ‘60s/ early ‘70s run, Dark Shadows would become a pure cult phenomenon, catching on with the hung-over members of the Peace Generation while inspiring a new generation of underage fright fans. Anyone who grew up in the era remembered running home from school, grabbing a snack, and sitting down in front of the TV awaiting the latest installment of the creature-driven diversion. Once he discovered that audiences would eat up a supernatural storyline, Curtis dug deep into the reservoir of dread. During it’s time, Dark Shadows would explore such classic macabre icons as Frankenstein, the Werewolf, and of course, Dracula.
  
While his writers eventually came up with some inventive ideas all their own (The Phoenix, The Dream Curse, The Leviathans), it was the show’s take on the lovelorn vampire with a complicated past that propelled it into the pop culture consciousness. Within weeks of ‘distant cousin’ Barnabas Collins’ appearance at Collinwood Manor, the marketing machine was functioning in overdrive. Soon, there were toys and other tie-ins, and actor Jonathan Frid starting making appearances on all the major talk shows. It’s safe to say that Barnabas and his cursed existence - along with his passion for lost love Josette and his homoerotic relationship with ‘servant’ Willie Loomis - turned a struggling premise into a preposterously effective showcase.


So it makes sense that someone would want to come along and tap into that decades old horror zeitgeist. Heck, Curtis even tried to resurrect the series - twice (the most recent being a 2004 attempt to revive the misguided 1991 remake). But now the oddball pairing of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have brought their own eccentric sensibilities to the series, turning the tale of an old money family with literal skeletons in their closet into a combination of fish out of water and diabolical love triangle. While they’ve managed to keep many of the elements that make Shadows such an enduring favorite, they have taken quite a few liberties with the material. Fans and the informed alike will therefore benefit from this overview, a primer of sorts for those walking in with (or without) their own expectations.


First of all, the Collins Family remains relatively intact. Elizabeth (a terrific Michele Pfeiffer) is still the melancholy matriarch, her legacy left in shambles by bad business decisions and little help from her sibling. Indeed, brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) is too busy trying to rip-off the residents of Collinsport to care about anything, including his haunted son David (Gulliver McGrath). The family has taken to bringing in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) to look after the child. Even Elizabeth’s own teenage daughter Caroline (Chloe Moretz) is too busy being rebellious to share in the familial fuss.


All of this changes when Barnabas arrives. He immediately determines to reverse the Collins’ fortunes, while falling for newly hired Governess Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote). You see, she’s the spitting image of his late, beloved wife Josette, and our undead hero has never really gotten over what happened to her. Instead, he has held an eternal grudge against the household servant/secret witch, Angelique (Eva Green) who destroyed his soulmate and cursed him with vampirism. When Barnabas then learns that his rival is responsible for the Collins’ current situation, he vows revenge. When she discovers that the man she’s obsessed with is back above ground, Angelique is determined to destroy Barnabas once and for all.


Now, this is not the same storyline as the TV series. Yes, Victoria Winters arrives at Collinsport to care for David, but the boy is an evil little monkey who is currently in the process of trying to kill his father. The new Governess is not the object of Barnabas’ eye - it’s tempting townie Maggie Evans who resembles Josette. Our neckbiter was indeed cursed by Angelique for many of the same reasons as in the new storyline, but he is not unearthed by a group of workmen. Instead, a pair of thieves named Jason McGuire and Willie Loomis break into the Collins’ family vault, looking for treasure. They unleash Barnabas instead, who immediately takes a hypnotic shine to the slightly dim Willie. Later on, Dr. Hoffman arrives, wanting to study Barnabas and perhaps find a cure for his blood lust. In the film, her motives have been modified significantly.


For the most part, the particulars are in place. Since there’s not a five day a week dynamic to fill, shortcuts and composites are to be expected. Still, there is a big difference between the Dark Shadows one saw on a 13” screen in their living room and the four decades in the making movie update. There’s no Ben Stokes, no Reverend Trask, no Burke Devlin or Sam Evans. Caroline is now a good five to six years younger than she was in the series, while David has been turned dour, not demented. Angelique was never a constant presence in the TV show. She only showed up every once in a while to drive Barnabas nuts. Now, she runs a competing fish cannery which has systematically destroyed the Collins company. The soap was about family and its frightening secrets. The film centers on revenge across time and the trials of a romantic rogue with a taste for blood.


Perhaps even more importantly, the film finds that hackneyed happy place between traditional terror and Twilight‘s teen angst angle. We are supposed to see Barnabas as bad, but not really comfortable with his creature status. In truth, he’s just an 18th century dandy who made the mistake of spurning a witch’s wild advances. He’s good, even if now he is a ghoul. There is also a lot of humor, though not as much as you see in the trailer (they seem to have lifted every joke from the film and placed it in said ads). Barnabas was never that much of a fish out of water on TV. He may have been baffled by a few of the ways of the modern world, but for the most part, he was too dashing and determined to let such a situation throw him. Now, he’s the fodder for a series of musical montage gags.


There’s is more to mention, but it would ruin what remains of the overall Shadows legacy and the film itself. From the family’s familiarity with what Barnabas really is to a series of last act revelations which appear to prepare us for a sequel, it is safe to say that this is not your ‘70s series. Instead, it’s a concept that has been retrofitted to remind audiences of current entertainment tropes while trying to please the fans of everyone involved, including the legions of Depp and Burton fanatics. It will please some, baffle many others. Indeed, like many of the collaborations from this peculiar pair, Dark Shadows plays like an in-joke that only a few are in on. In this case, it will be those with a working knowledge of the cult series that will feel a bit left out. 


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