The Lost Dark Shadows

Way back in 2004, the then-WB network commissioned a pilot which would try to update and re-imagine a classic 1960s t.v. series. It was a genre show, all about an American family facing extraordinary challenges. Its still-loyal fan base included many who considered the so-called villain of the piece their favorite character. Network executives hoped this would be an exciting addition to their lineup, recapturing the enthusiasm of a generation or more past.

The pilot was called “Lost in Space.”

But another pilot was ordered about the same time. This one had been remade three times before–as a major motion picture, an off-off broadway play, and as revived television series in 1991. The 2004 pilot alas was never finished. It can be seen sometimes at Dark Shadows Festivals, but as far as anyone knows it will remain in limbo. Having been to such a festival, however, and having seen the whole thing, I can at least give others some idea of what it is like.

Different. That in particular was the main comment to come down the pipeline and in the wake of any screening. Die-hard fans often loathed, and gave a variety of reasons–some fairly illogical. The complaint that Victoria Winters was blonde, for example. Why should that matter so very, very much? Why did it matter at all? Some more disturbing remarks surrounded the casting of an Asian-American (Kelly Hu) as Julia Hoffman (re-imagined as a brilliant emergency room physician for the pilot). By disturbing I mean borderline racist. Another hated that Willie Loomis was a handsome if scruffy young man. Dan Curtis former personal assistant introduced the screening I saw, and shook his head that it just wasn’t “Dan Curtis’ vision.” Having followed the show for many years, this disturbed me not at all. Curtis created “Dark Shadows” but not alone. Many of its best elements–especially making vampire Barnabas Collins sympathetic–he openly decried. Like Gene Roddenberry with “Star Trek,” when given a chance to do it all over again he failed to create that spark which was the hallmark of the first version (all the later “Treks” got better without his direct involvement).

The WB pilot cast Alec Newman as Barnabas Collins (and you can see a clip from the film under Media on his website, played as a romantic and tormented man with deep-seated anger (unlike Ben Cross who played an angry man who was also romantic). In a nod to more traditional vampire flicks of the past, Barnabas awakens not simply by having his chains broken but when blood touches his withered, mummified mouth. He rises hungry beyond words, and literally drains Willie’s girlfriend dry (and she looked it). Generally the camera did a lot of interesting work throughout. Barnabas hunts and attacks from the trees, for example, dropping down on Carolyn Collins Stoddard (played by Jessica Chastain, who has since turned out some marvelous performances such as the recent “Murder on the Orient Express”). Curiously, Curtis’ assistant made a point of singling her out for criticism. Honestly, I cannot imagine why. Even in her few scenes I believed in this person, found her interesting and funny, with hints of some real heavy emotional baggage. How appropriate for the Collins family! David in this version gets a governess because he is clearly troubled, and the relationship between himself and Victoria takes a more realistic if muddy (like real life) turn from the very start. David’s father and Carolyn’s mother are a brother and sister who seem to share some kind of secret. More likely secrets in the plural. Martin Donovan as Roger Collins glowered at everyone, hinting at some real darkness somewhere. Blair Brown as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard came off as both strong and fragile, maybe looking the other way from some hidden aspect of life at the great house.

Marley Shelton made a refreshing Victoria Winters, not least because she remained both very polite yet firm in terms of her own job as governess. That she herself didn’t seem so very gothic helped establish her as an outsider. More tellingly, when she meets Barnabas, it is she seems to recall his face from somewhere. In other versions, it was the other way round. A tiny detail, but a good one.

Probably the hardest thing to sustain had the pilot been completed and picked as a series was the tone and look. Far more than any other version, this took its title seriously. Shadows were everywhere. Long hallways punctuated by a few lights. The dead darkness of the sea at nighttime when Carolyn visits Joe Haskell on his fishing boat. Genuine darkness in a crypt where Barnabas and the long-lost Collins treasure can be found. More, the shadows rarely seemed empty. Branches moving in the autumn wind were the least of it. People moved in and out of shadows all the time. What light existed was either soft or harsh, with little in between. Colors tinted in the red direction saturated the screen.

Angelique played by the beautiful Ivana Milicevic appeared as well, as what might be the ghost of an evil woman, freed by young David in time with her victim, Barnabas–both just as the reincarnated Josette returned to Collinwood. One had to wonder how much this sense of destiny, fate, maybe even karma might have followed through.

Yet the fans say it was different and they speak true. The 2004 pilot did things startlingly different from earlier versions. “Dark Shadows” usually felt like a kind of stage play, writ larger for increasing budgets. This felt more like a movie, an intense one. Dialogue seemed far less important than characters’ reactions to that dialogue. It even seemed as if most didn’t really understand what they were saying to one another–yet at the same time understood too much (the hallmark of dysfunctional families). Lots of little details changed as well. Willie got a girlfriend, and came across as worshiping Barnabas in the wake of being bitten. Carolyn showed the same symptom. She gets up from her hospital bed to stare at the (huge, luminous) moon and call out plaintively “Come back…please…come back.”

One of my little hopes is the unfinished pilot might become a special feature on the DVD of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s new version!

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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