Looking Back: Dark Shadows 1991

Amid all the debate and anticipation surrounding the new Tim Burton/Johnny Depp film version, the previous revival of Dark Shadows ends up forgotten.

It premiered in 1991, an hour-long weekly show in primetime on the NBC network.  That alone changed a great deal.  Whereas the original was a daily half-hour, the new program had to cope with a different dynamic.  In effect, each episode had to some extent stand alone.  More, the plotlines ended up telescoped.  What had covered months of storytelling now became the stuff of two or three, sometimes only one episode.  Indeed a large part of the initial pilot reworked ideas and sometimes who scenes (shot by shot) from the 1970s feature House of Dark Shadows.

Ben Cross, an Englishman, played Barnabas Collins.  His love interest, Victoria Winters (who, again, spoke the first line in the series) was played by Joanna Going.  In one of the first major twists, Victoria became the explicit reincarnation of the woman Barnabas had lost in the 1790s, Josette.   This had never been the case in the original series.  In fact, rather than being born again, the original series had Josette as a ghost.  All of Barnabas’ efforts to recreate his Josette had come across as a sign of insanity.  Not so here.  Likewise a subtle but important change came out in the character of Angelique (Lysette Anthony, later to play a vampire for laughs in Dracula Dead and Loving It).  Lara Parker had always portrayed her as a woman genuinely in love, pushed to what she believed justifiable lengths out of her own rage and jealousy.  The new Angelique came across as utterly evil, a stalker with satanic powers a la Fatal Attraction.

The show maintained a relentlessly gothic mood and air, but sometimes logic seemed to vanish amid all the fog.  How likely is it that a modern police force would ever approach a suspect brandishing crosses and allowing a civilian to drive a stake through a young woman’s chest?  Barnabas early on kept his coffin in an unlocked room!  Said room’s windows flooded the space with sunlight!  More subtly, one wondered why a middle-aged man (Roger Collins as played by Roy Thinnes) felt so compelled to keep his relationship with a much younger woman (Maggie Evans, played by Ely Pouget) secret?

Focus remained resolutely upon the Barnabas storyline, with character development pretty much ignored save as characters interacted with that.  Carolyn (Barbara Blackburn) had nothing to do but look sultry until bitten by Barnabas.  Chloe Grace Moretz demonstrates more personality as Carolyn in a two minute trailer than the same character got in twelve episodes of the 1991 series.  In the time travel story, at least the actress got to show some personality as Millicent Collins (who in the revival lost all her storylines except as a vampire victim).

Barbara Steele, as Dr. Julia Hoffman, managed to convey something beyond her purpose to the plot, and as the series’ last episodes aired looked to be having lots more to do — having become possessed by Angelique and in the process committing murder.

Yet when given a chance, the cast often did outstanding jobs.  All during the “vampire cure” story he showed a vulnerability, even poeticism that touched the heart.  One vivid memory that continues to bubble up in my thoughts of this series is when he sees his reflection again.  The raw joy on his face, the way he almost hugged Willie — at that moment one could understand why Josette/Victoria as well as Julia could genuinely love this man.  Despite the arrogance, the raging temper, even the sullen attitude and smarm.

Sadly Jean Simmons had next-to-nothing to do in any of the episodes aired, a huge loss given an actress of her standing.  Lost opportunities abounded.  Collinsport, the town where the story is supposed to take place, remained virtually unseen.  Again, the trailer for the new movie gives more hints in that direction than twelve hours of aired episodes.  One got next-to-no sense of how this family interacted, how specifically their dynamic operated.    One reason for this is probably (in hindsight) that unwavering focus on Barnabas.  In the original series he was but one part of a larger mosaic.  The same was true of the 2004 unfinished pilot, where Roger and Liz would would say something to each other and gave the impression of a history behind them.  Dan Curtis, who originated Dark Shadows in 1966, seemed to have lost his touch or failed to find the right collaborators for this new version.

In a way, the 91 Dark Shadows reminded me of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that began by trying too hard to copy another cult hit from the 1960s but only began to garner a real devoted following once it broke away and became itself.  Likewise its first spinoff, by tossing aside so many conventions and expectations, far exceeded is predecessor in terms of drama (for a time).  Gene Roddenberry was simply too old and sick to make that much of a mark on the new show.  Dan Curtis was not.   He was in a position to insist on his way, as he wasn’t interestingly with the original show!  Curtis wanted the vampire a flat-out evil character, a monster to be destroyed.  He got his way with the film House of Dark Shadows.  When re-making the series he found himself having to develop a story in which he had little real interest.

A shame, really.  The cast was a good one.  Had they been given the time and the writing to develop a series of interwoven stories things might have been very different.  Fans of the show tend to point out how many times it was pre-empted, claiming that to be the reason it lasted but half a season.  I cannot agree.  The pre-empting didn’t help, but the show had much more fundamental problems.

By david

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.


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  4. I watched the pilot for the first time several weeks ago. At one point I asked myself “Who is that beautiful, magnetic mature woman?” And then I realized “That’s Barbara Steele!” What an incredible presence as an actress.

  5. I am currently watching the revival right now and can honestly say that I’m enjoying it. Ben Cross makes a great Barnabas since he can easily play someone who can be charming one minute and then tearing your throat out the next. Everyone else is amazing as well, be it Joanna Going as Victoria Winters or a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the bratty David Collins. I’ll admit that the show kind of lost a tad bit of tension as the series went on (when compared to the awesome pilot) but it still didn’t deserve to get canceled like it did. Oh if only!

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