Fans of haemovores everywhere probably already know that Johnny Depp has plans to reunite with Tim Burton in a motion picture adaptation of the cult t.v. series “Dark Shadows.” The whole idea of Depp as a vampire no doubt has sent many a heart aflutter. Quite understandably! It is one of those ideas that seems amazing to have not happened before now.
Odds are most have already heard of “Dark Shadows” and have seen at least a few episodes. Given that it was a half-hour soap opera that ran for about four years, not too many can claim to have seen even the majority of them. The movie “House of Dark Shadows” (starring the original cast) and the 1991 remake–half a season of hour-long primetime episodes–cannot help but be easier to catch in their entirety. More, DS (as it is known) has a reputation for cheese that is not undeserved. Production costs prevented second takes unless absolutely necessary while the flimsiness of the sets were notorious.
Yet precisely because there are so many episodes, and so many flubs that ended up aired, and such a diverse range of talent in both acting as well as writing, DS probably doesn’t get all the credit it deserves. Quite simply, it was startlingly ahead of its time in many ways. Consider Barnabas Collins. In terms of popular entertainment, here was one of the very first reluctant vampires — an attempt to genuinely portray what it would be like to be transformed into a supernatural creature that fed upon people. While the title characters in both “Carmilla” and “Varney the Vampyre” show a few signs in that direction, not until “Dracula’s Daughter” (the official sequel to the Bela Lugosi film) did mass media see anything like regret, depression and loneliness in one of the undead. Apart from a few hints in films during the 1960s (the Baroness in Hammer’s “Brides of Dracula” for instance), it wasn’t until Willie Loomis broke those chains on a hidden coffin that such a character emerged center stage for any length of time. Nor was that the plan! Dan Curtis, creator of the show, had wanted Barnabas a more straightforwardly evil vampire–much as was seen in the motion picture based on the series. Yet his own work on other projects distracted him from the writers’ intentions along with actor Jonathan Frid’s inclination to portray Barnabas as a person instead of a boogeyman. When the character’s popularity took off, Curtis found himself with a fait accomplit.
More, Barnabas did more than inspire Johnny Depp. Anne Rice (she of Lestat fame) openly admitted to having watched the show (as well as the aforesaid “Dracula’s Daughter”) and to have gotten some inspiration. Her first bestseller introduced the world to another Reluctant Vampire (Louis) and heralded the way for Nick Knight, Angel the Vampire With a Soul, Spike, Edward Cullen, etc.
But there’s more. In the 1991 remake as well as other vampire shows (such as “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) an idea permeated based on one of Karloff’s early films, namely “The Mummy.” This idea, seen now dozens of times, was that of a vampire seeking his reincarnated first great love. Indeed, more than one vampire fan has groaned aloud (or onscreen) at news of another version using the same cliche — for cliche it has become. Yet DS in its original form did something quite different. When Barnabas first returned to Collinwood and took up residence in the Old House, he did not in fact find his beloved Josette reborn. Josette at that time had been established as a ghost. Rather, he found a girl who merely resembled Josette, drank her blood to enslave her and then tried to brainwash her into becoming a copy of his long lost fiancee. A much more interesting use of the trope than the either the 1991 or 2004 (unfinished) versions posited–one where the governess Victoria Winters was not only a Josette-lookalike but pretty clearly Josette herself returned to Collinwood. In the original storyline, though, a far more compelling dynamic emerged. Barnabas, torn and probably to some extent insane by human standards, found himself pulled in two directions. He could accept the possibility of love with this modern young woman, or wallow in the past by trying to turn someone else into Josette (and one has to wonder how well that would have worked, really).
Consider also the character of Angelique — not as she was for most of the show (a Satanic Witch) but as a vampire in one particular storyline that remains a fan favorite. Female vampires who are not simply members of a harem to the main vampire were relatively rare in the late 1960s. Of them all, none showed the full range of Angelique! She loathed her state, longed to be anything else, yet took full advantage of her powers. During the course of that story, she bit to enslave a fair number of men–Jeff Clarke and Joe Haskell among them–but her focus remained on Barnabas, whom she enslaved as he had done so many others. Like the show’s most famous undead, Angelique seems to have been an ancestress, of Janette on “Forever Knight” as well as Pam on “True Blood.”
Sadly, these innovations did not last even on the series itself. Perhaps inevitably, a reincarnation of Josette did eventually show up. Later female vampires were singularly lacking in personality, and were usually under someone else’s dominion. In the last year or so of the show, even Barnabas lost his edge. How dangerous after all is a vampire who never feeds, never bites anyone, never even struggles with bloodlust? But the achievement remained, a series of landmarks in the genre that others would do well to recall and emulate.
Especially Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.
D.MacDowell Blue blogs at http://zahirblue.blogspot.com/. He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is now working on a web series called “End Of The Line” which he likes to describe as “Dexter Meets Twilight“.