Even immortal vampire Barnabas Collins himself would find it a Herculean task to wade through all 1,225 episodes of the original "Dark Shadows" TV series. To put it in perspective, a new complete coffin-shaped DVD box set boasts a runtime of 30,000 hours, and that's without bathroom breaks.
The supernatural soap opera, which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, is now getting the full-on feature film treatment. "Dark Shadows" (the movie) has all the big-budget trimmings courtesy of director Tim Burton and his muse Johnny Depp as Barnabas. Before you devour the May 11 release, we've created an easy-breezy introduction to all the things you'll find lurking in the "Shadows."
Welcome to Collinwood
Even though bloodsucker Barnabas is the everlasting icon of the show, he was not introduced until the 211th episode of the weekday soap. Up until that point the central character was a naïve young woman named Victoria Winters, a foundling with a mysterious past who is invited to be the governess of the Collins household in the fishing town of Collinsport, Maine. Victoria was played on the TV show by Alexandra Isles (born Alexandra Moltke), and with a similar doe-eyed innocence in Burton's film by Bella Heathcote, serving as the audience surrogate among the halls of that foreboding mansion on Widow's Hill.
When Victoria enters Collinwood in both the series and film, she meets the modern-day Collins family, which consists of the agoraphobic matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (originally played by Joan Bennett), her conniving brother Roger (Louis Edmonds), her mercurial daughter Carolyn (Nancy Barrett), and Roger's psychotic, borderline homicidal 10-year-old son David (David Henesy). They are played in the film by Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Moretz and Gulliver McGrath, respectively.
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While the earliest episodes of "Dark Shadows" had an eerie gothic atmosphere reminiscent of "Wuthering Heights" or "Rebecca," with murder and intrigue galore, the ratings still stank. That's when the show's creators got desperate -- and creative -- enough to start bringing actual ghosts into the plot, as opposed to boring-as-hell metaphorical ghosts. However, the show didn't hit its stride until a suspiciously cloaked stranger came to visit ...
Until this point, the near-canceled show had revolved around various schemes to tear apart the Collins family and their fishing fleet/cannery business -- all of which is part of the new movie -- but in 1967 actor Jonathan Frid made his first appearance as Barnabas Collins, Elizabeth's "relative from England" who didn't have an English accent. Of course Barnabas was actually a 200-year-old vampire who had risen from the grave after a sleazoid named Willie Loomis (John Karlen) accidentally unearthed him from the Collinwood mausoleum while searching for treasure.
The film slightly alters this by having Barnabas inadvertently unearthed by a McDonald's construction crew (whose blood Depp feasts upon) and making Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) a lazy Collinwood groundskeeper whom Barnabas hypnotizes into his personal Renfield-style puppet.
As in the show, the vampire's backstory is that he was a charismatic 18th-century businessman who slighted the affections of a witch named Angelique, played in the film by the luscious Eva Green. She curses him with vampirism, buries him in a chained-up coffin, and then devotes herself to slowly destroying the Collins family's prosperity.
When Depp's Barnabas wakes up in 1972 (the year after the show left the air), he finds Angelique the head of a rival cannery and still out to get him. He also discovers Victoria, who seems to be the living embodiment of his long-lost love Josette du Pres. Barny sets out to bring the family back on top, cure his vampirism with the aid of smitten physician Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and make use of Victoria's ample birthing hips.
"Dark Shadows" was the brainchild of prolific producer Dan Curtis, who conjured his inspiration in a dream. Curtis went on to direct the first movie version of his show titled "House of Dark Shadows" in 1970, which utilized the original cast and storyline, but to bloodier effect. Though the film was a success and spawned a sequel, the show ran out of steam after werewolves, time travel, and alternate dimensions caused it to jump the shark (as much as a soap opera about vampires can).
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Curtis attempted to revive "Dark Shadows" in the early '90s as a bigger-budget hourlong series on NBC, but Gulf War coverage killed it after 12 episodes. Another revival for the WB in 2004 never made it past a pilot.
Though its cultural impact is not as great as other shows from the time like "Star Trek," Frid's Barnabas Collins was an even bigger icon than Mr. Spock during the show's prime, spawning merchandise, comic books and toys. The daily afternoon program captured the imaginations of not just lonely housewives but children returning home from school looking to see some cool monsters -- two of whom were a troubled kid from Kentucky named Johnny Depp and a weird 8-year-old in Burbank, California, named Tim Burton.
"I should probably have been doing homework or playing sports after school instead of watching 'Dark Shadows,'" said Burton in a New York Times profile. "But seeing that show every afternoon, at home, in Burbank, it just doesn’t get much weirder than that."
Johnny Depp considered Canadian actor Frid a personal hero, and he and director Edgar Wright ("Scott Pilgrim") plan to honor producer Dan Curtis with a remake of his other signature supernatural creation, the cult '70s show "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."
A sad footnote to Depp and Burton's lavish tribute came a few weeks ago on April 13th when Jonathan Frid passed away after suffering a fall. The film is now dedicated to his memory.
When you're cranking out shows every weekday, there's not a lot of room for Kubrickian perfectionism, or even a second take. While the cast of "Dark Shadows" always held up reasonably well under the pressure of delivering lines with little to no rehearsal on the first take, those circumstances led to some pretty gnarly on-camera gaffes. In fact, so prominent were the ever-present boom mics and camera equipment that the show earned the nickname "Mic Shadows."
Whether it was a stagehand running across the frame, an actor in mid-brainfart getting an offstage line reading, or a fly on someone's face in the middle of a super-serious speech, the original show was host to many hilarious bloopers that would never in a billion years find themselves in a $100-million-dollar Tim Burton production. Although it would be funny if they did.
How Does the Movie Stack Up?
Many fans of the series were furious when the first "Dark Shadows" trailer debuted and resembled an intentionally campy big-budget "Addams Family" knockoff, rather than an unintentionally campy low-budget soap opera.
Producer Graham King went out of his way to tell the Los Angeles Times that "people say this is a remake of the old TV series but it’s really not. I feel it’s a very commercial, accessible film for people to go to and have a really fun time. Tim and Johnny put their stamp on it."
Early reviews concur that, yes, the film is comedic, but it still retains the essential creepy characters and tone the cult following loves -- something the ads can't relay. It will also feature cameos from Frid and his castmates Lara Parker, David Selby and Kathryn Leigh Scott for the hardcore fans.
Ultimately this will be a larger mass audience introduction to the franchise and its characters, which could serve as a gateway drug for the uninitiated to head over to Netflix and taste the bloody goodness for themselves.