Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Dark Shadows: I’m in wait-and-see mode on this one

(Article first published as Why I’ll Wait to See Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows on Blogcritics.)

I’ve followed the long and very slow progress of Johnny Depp’s plans to make a movie based on Dark Shadows with increasing trepidation. I was dismayed, to put it mildly, when Tim Burton came on as director, and suspicious about the lack of early promotion. As photos from the set were leaked and then stills from the film were grudgingly released, my doubts hit the red zone.

When the film trailer finally appeared on March 15, a mere two months before the movie’s opening, I was so appalled that at first I said flat-out that I would never see this movie, ever. When I made that statement on Facebook, the ensuing comments served as the last straw to make me close down my personal Facebook page. I guess I have to admit that I really, really care what happens with a Dark Shadows movie.

Since then, three shorter television spots have moderated the initial impression given by the trailer, and I’ve watched those and the trailer several more times. I’ll probably see Dark Shadows eventually, most likely on Amazon Prime—when it’s on sale. I can wait.

You’re probably wondering: what’s the big deal? Why should anyone care whether a remake of Dark Shadows treats the original fairly? Wasn’t Dark Shadows just a silly, badly-done soap opera with a mealy-mouthed “nice guy” vampire?

No, it wasn’t. It was far more than that.

For all its flaws in execution—mostly fallout from a limited budget and the break-neck, brainstorm speed of daily production—the original Dark Shadows (1966-1971) was an extremely creative and innovative show whose influence on the vampire trope in America, and on horror television and fiction, was enormous and is still very much in effect. Dark Shadows did things that had never been done before, and the fabulous success it enjoyed in its day was earned.

Dark Shadows was the brainchild of producer/director Dan Curtis (who later made the critically acclaimed miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance). It premiered in June, 1966 as a daytime serial with a heavy film noir atmosphere. Hollywood actress Joan Bennett starred as the matriarch of the wealthy but thoroughly messed up Collins family in Collinsport, Maine. Full of simmering mysteries around missing persons, blackmail, troubled kids and sinister handymen, the show was no more “supernatural” than Gaslight (which it greatly resembled) until the ratings dropped to desperation levels.

Facing cancellation, the writers tried a Gothic twist and added some ghosts to the storyline. Audiences perked up. Then the show had the prodigal mother of one of the kids turn up. But rather than do the usual nasty divorce and custody battle, one of the writers suggested, “what if she’s really dead?” The mom was made a “phoenix” who was trying to claim her son and burn him alive with her so he would be immortal, too.

With ratings and viewer enthusiasm improving—and the Hammer Films Dracula series at the height of its popularity—the writers decided to try a vampire story, and invented Barnabas Collins. Neither they nor the actor hired to play Barnabas, Jonathan Frid, had the slightest inkling of the phenomenon they were about to unleash.

Barnabas was never intended to be “romantic” or “a good guy vampire.” The writers planned a three-month story arc that basically refitted Dracula to a small town in Maine. Frid signed a twelve-week contract to pay the bills between stage engagements. Barnabas was a stone evil sociopath who kidnapped, held hostage and psychologically tortured a young waitress unlucky enough to resemble his long-lost fiancée (who had committed suicide to escape from him). He was supposed to be staked and his captive rescued at the end of the story arc.

But as soon as the vampire was sprung from his chained coffin in April of 1967, viewers had other ideas. Dark Shadows, and Barnabas Collins, instantly became so thunderously popular, killing off the bloodsucker was out of the question. Not only did Barnabas stay on the show for the next four years, the writers were obliged to “reform” him and make him a somewhat more sympathetic figure. This led to a lengthy flashback to the eighteenth century to show Barnabas’ origin story, a plotline that introduced witchcraft and zombies to the mix.

With that, the show was off the charts—in more ways than one. Witchcraft, demons, ghosts, a Frankenstein creature, a disembodied hand with magic powers, werewolves; the show did versions of every major horror fiction trope, including homages to Poe and Lovecraft, along with multiple time travel segments and an alternate universe sidebar. There was even a nod to the classics with a riff on the Orpheus myth. Some of the show’s former cast speak appreciatively about the opportunities to play multiple characters and/or alternate versions of the same character, an acting challenge rarely found in daytime television. The show’s viewers lapped it up. Dark Shadows was the Twilight of its day, with the somewhat bemused actors buried in love letters from fans, riding in parades and mobbed in public. All this, mind you, long before the Internet, or even cable TV.

I always suspected that Dan Curtis himself hated Barnabas The Good Guy. The character was written inconsistently, often “reverting” to a rather cruel and nasty attitude, especially towards Dr. Julia Hoffman, the middle-aged physician who fell in unrequited love with him. In 1970, Curtis had the “second string” carry the show for a few weeks while he and some of the cast filmed the movie House of Dark Shadows on several locations near New York City. House of Dark Shadows repeats the Barnabas storyline from the show almost verbatim, but with the original planned ending: Barnabas is staked in a gruesome and protracted slow-motion sequence. After the film’s release, Curtis gave an interview to the New York Times in which he described a “fantasy” of inviting the entire Dark Shadows cast to a wrap party at which they would all be slaughtered with crossbows.

As “jokes” go, this was pretty weird, but it was also typical of Curtis. In 1972, he produced a movie based on Jeff Rice’s novel The Night Stalker, about a murderous vampire—he never speaks, just snarls—rampaging through modern-day Las Vegas. It garnered the highest ratings of any made-for-television movie ever. In 1973, Curtis produced a made-for-television version of Dracula whose script added several elements from House of Dark Shadows including, to the fury of Dracula purists, the plotline about the vampire wooing the double of his lost love. After that, reworkings of Dracula in which the master vampire was actually in love with one of the female characters became commonplace. (Now you know who to blame.)

It’s safe to say that without Dark Shadows, the entire vampire genre, fiction and film, would be vastly different today—if it even existed. A list of the show’s original contributions to fictional vampire conventions includes:

  • Barnabas Collins was the first American-born vampire. Until he appeared, fictional vampires were European, modelled on Dracula.
  • Dark Shadows invented the vampire as romantic hero—or rather, its fans did, and the show’s producers, once they got over their stunned astonishment, were smart enough to give the viewers what they wanted.
  • The Barnabas-Josette storyline introduced the quickly adopted and widely imitated theme of the vampire searching for the reincarnation of his lost love. The writers borrowed this plotline from the 1931 Universal film The Mummy.
  • Dark Shadows innovated the vampire as protagonist rather than villain. He was the first vampire whose feelings and motivations the audience cared about.
  • Dark Shadows popularized the notion that a vampire might become human again through medical treatment, an idea first floated in the 1945 Universal film House of Dracula.
  • Barnabas did eventually become the first “angsty” vampire who hates his curse and seeks a “cure,” but this idea was actually borrowed from Universal’s series of “Wolfman” movies starring Lon Chaney Jr. as mopey werewolf Larry Talbot. Anne Rice’s Louis is the direct descendant of both Barnabas Collins and Larry Talbot.

Whatever his ambivalence about Barnabas’ softer side, Dan Curtis maintained rigid control over the rights to the Dark Shadows “brand.” Fan interest in the show remained so strong after its 1971 cancellation, that in 1975 it became the first daytime serial in history to be syndicated for reruns. Annual fan conventions, the Dark Shadows Festivals, began running in the mid-1980s, and the episodes started to be released on commercial videocassette in 1989 and then on DVD in 2002.

In 1990, Dan Curtis revived Dark Shadows as a prime-time drama starring Ben Cross as Barnabas and repeating the same basic storyline that had now been filmed twice, on the original show and in House of Dark Shadows. The reboot sputtered along for twelve episodes and was cancelled. In 2004, the pilot for a second revival of the show was filmed but never aired. I was actually hired to help write a role-playing game based on Dark Shadows in 1998, but after we finished the project, it was shelved because the game publisher wasn’t able to get the necessary licenses from Dan Curtis’ production company.

Dan Curtis died in 2006, and one year later, Warner Brothers acquired the Dark Shadows film rights from his estate for Johnny Depp, who said publicly that he’d watched the show as a kid and had always wanted to play Barnabas Collins. After a Writer’s Guild strike, a change of screenwriters, and several postponements by Depp as he took on other projects, the Dark Shadows movie began filming in May, 2011. It was four months before fans saw any “official” photos of the production, and only after leaked snapshots from the set aroused unfavorable comment on the Internet.

Even the most die-hard fans of Dark Shadows enjoyed it for very different reasons. I fell into the category of viewers who forgave and disregarded the shortcomings in order to focus on the stories and characters. Other fans were entertained by the show’s excesses and errors, but I was not. It’s important to remember that Dark Shadows was never deliberately “campy” or a self-conscious spoof. It took itself completely seriously, even when it ramped up the melodrama with what cast member Lara Parker called “the Dark Shadows style” of overwrought line delivery. People who call Dark Shadows “campy” are projecting their own opinion onto the show and missing the point.

When I attended some of the Dark Shadows Fests in the 80s, I met a lot of fans who were doing wildly satirical skits making fun of the show, or assembling homemade “blooper reels” of all the muffs and blunders that were aired as-is because the show couldn’t afford the time or money for retakes. While I laughed along with most of it (indeed, I performed in some of the skits with the “Collinsport Players” troupe), I found it somewhat annoying.

I yearned for a remake of Dark Shadows that would take advantage of a bigger budget, better technology and more leisurely shooting schedule to develop the dramatic core of the characters and their dilemmas. I wanted to see the implausibilities ironed out, the historical and factual mistakes corrected and the characters allowed to evolve into real three-dimensional people. In short, I didn’t want Dark Shadows merely to be replicated, I wanted to see it improved.

But I was always disappointed. House of Dark Shadows and the 1991 revival of the show slavishly repeated the inanities of the original’s lowest points. In many ways they were even more implausible and risible than their source, and mostly seemed interested in drenching the screen with blood and angst.

I was cautiously optimistic about Johnny Depp’s interest in the new film version. Until recent years, I was a great admirer of Depp, and I couldn’t imagine him donning fake fangs and playing all the stupid vampire movie clichés. But my optimism was sucker-punched when Tim Burton assumed the director’s mantle. Of all the directors in Hollywood, Burton would have been the last on my list to helm a Dark Shadows movie. He’s simply too affected, stylized and self-conscious—all the traits that would automatically turn something like Dark Shadows into a post-modern parody. I’ve enjoyed a few of Burton’s films, Sleepy Hollow in particular, but always with qualifications. I absolutely loathed Sweeney Todd.

I know that it’s not fair to judge a film on the basis of five minutes of fast-cut footage in trailers. Trailers can be deceptive. It’s not uncommon for film trailers to contain footage that doesn’t even appear in the movie, and often the final score isn’t ready so the trailer uses other studio-owned music. But the trailer and TV spots for Dark Shadows, along with the publicity photos, would have to be extremely misleading indeed to completely falsify a few general impressions.

The first obvious problem is the way the film laboriously recreates the superficial visual appearance of the original show, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious that the movie aims to poke fun at “the Dark Shadows style” in set design and costumes, as well as the silly, silly 1970s and how ridiculous everyone supposedly looked and acted. Ideally, a recreated Dark Shadows would go back to its original premises and invent its own completely new style fitting the characters and story. This picayune attention to surface appearance suggests satire, not drama.

The action and dialogue we see is heavily slanted toward sight gags, silly vampire jokes, pokes at other vampire movies, and snappy one-liners that sound like they should be punctuated with rim-shots. We see Barnabas brushing his fangs with only the toothbrush (but not his clothes) reflecting in the mirror. We see Barnabas hanging upside down from his canopy bed (shades of The Lost Boys), clinging headdown to the outside of a window (like Frank Langella in the 1979 Dracula) and popping straight upright from his coffin (like Gary Oldman in the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula). It appears that the movie is going to be one long series of vampire-related nudges and winks. I know there’s something in there about sparkles or glitter. I’ll just be waiting for it.

Depp’s makeup is inconsistent; sometimes he looks scruffier, in other shots he looks like he’s wearing a painted fondant mask made by the Cake Boss. Sometimes he’s wearing bright red lipstick and sometimes he’s not. There may be an explanation for this, but Depp seems to favor heavy, cartoonish makeup these days, and it simply makes him look like he’s playing the same character in movie after movie.

On repeated viewings, I can see some evidence of a plot, one that might even have elements of actual drama. But that’s not what the trailer and TV spots are selling. Just what they are selling is somewhat mystifying. To make matters even more confusing, in late February, Horrorhound magazine printed an interview with Tim Burton, asking him about rumors that the movie would be humorous. (Some of these “rumors” came from cast member Helena Bonham Carter’s offhand comment to an interviewer that “hopefully it will be funny.”) Burton said, “It’s news to me… I always start things with the most serious of intentions,” and also said he “wanted to rely on the characters.” Just weeks later, the trailer was released, giving Dark Shadows every appearance of an over-the-top comedy.

My preferences aside, the real issue with making a satire of Dark Shadows is this: No one is going to get the joke. People like me who remember watching the old show may not appreciate its being lampooned. But the vast majority of movie-goers won’t have the slightest idea what’s supposed to be so funny. Maybe that’s why the movie throws in so many digs at other vampire films. But as far as the original Dark Shadows is concerned, a joke that has to be explained is no longer amusing, and hence pointless.

The Dark Shadows movie raises the general question of what derivative works owe to their sources. Is it fair to appropriate a solidly established work and not only change it beyond all recognition, but do so in a way that completely reverses the tone and intent of the original? Parody and satire are only sporting when they aim upwards, poking the inflated importance and egos of the successful, wealthy and powerful. Turn those guns down at something utterly defenseless and mostly forgotten, and it’s no longer satire. It’s just bullying.

It’s possible that the trailers are misleading, that the studio PR department was so baffled as to how to market this movie that they tried hard to make it look sillier than it plays. The fact that there’s been so little “buzz” before now—for a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp vampire movie?—suggests tremendous uncertainty among the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers. I don’t want to speculate further. We’ll find out in May.

(Addendum: Since this article was first published, a fourth TV spot has been released, with a slightly different style and a voice-over narration; and sample clips from the film score album by Danny Elfman have been made available. The CD may be pre-ordered. MTV commented on the downright confusing disparity between the music, which is wonderful, and the impression given by the trailer and TV spots.

Danny Elfman is a consummate professional who led the successful fight for studios to release “score” albums of a film’s music as well as ersatz “soundtracks” of pop songs. He’s worked on many films with Tim Burton, and he would never consciously misrepresent a movie’s intended mood, tone and atmosphere. His score for Dark Shadows is reminiscent of the original show’s distinctive music by the also superb composer, Robert Cobert, and doesn’t contain even a tiny hint of whimsy or silliness (compared to, say, his score for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice.)

This supports comments such as the tweet from cast member Chloe Moretz’ stepbrother which hint that the trailers really do misrepresent the movie and Dark Shadows will be far more dramatic, dark and serious than it appears. If that’s true, I’ll be happier, but I can’t help wondering what Warner Brothers is thinking. By creating misleading promo, they’re alienating the old-time fans, while those who go to the film expecting a farcical satire will feel cheated. I don’t think Burton actually has a lot of control over the promotional campaign that the studio pursues. But he’s done one thing right, at least: I’ve already pre-ordered the film score CD.)


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