The trailer for Dark Shadows promises comedic, bloody and anachronistic lunacy, with Johnny Depp as an 18th-century vampire discovering life in 1972, and Tim Burton at the directing helm.
It is also another case of Burton and Depp digging into pop culture’s past, the way they did in films such as Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
For Dark Shadows, they dug into bygone television history for what Burton has called “a weird daytime soap opera.”
That was the original Dark Shadows, a daytime drama airing on ABC for 30 minutes each weekday from 1966 to 1971, a span of more than 1,000 episodes. Alex McNeil’s Total Television calls it “a radical departure from other daytime serials; it featured vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves and other Gothic surprises.”
This was especially enticing to young people. “I do remember, very vividly, practically sprinting home from school in the afternoon to see Jonathan Frid play Barnabas Collins,” Depp told Entertainment Weekly. “Even then, at that age, I knew — this has got to be weird.”
It was also a huge hit. It inspired two big-screen adaptations (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows), a hit song (Quentin’s Theme), a short-lived prime-time updating in 1991, various related merchandise, an annuity of sorts for cast members in the form of appearances at fantasy conventions, and a career change for the show’s producer-creator, Dan Curtis. The appeal endures, as evidenced by the release of all the episodes in various DVD sets (including a complete-series box) and the new movie.
All this happened thanks to a vampire, Barnabas Collins, who was not even part of the show until after more than 200 episodes had aired.
And Barnabas got his chance because ABC, then a struggling network, was desperate to have something — anything — going in daytime.
In the early ’60s, ABC was doing so poorly, it “was about to leave the daytime business,” then-programming executive Len Goldberg recalls in the ABC history Beating the Odds. A show that would prove long-running, General Hospital, had premiered in 1963 but had not gotten a consistent hold on viewers. Where the Action Is, a pop-music series hosted by Dick Clark, and The Dating Game, the first of producer Chuck Barris’ hits, began drawing viewers in 1965. But Where the Action Is proved to be a temporary fix. And Never Too Young, a soap opera aimed at teens, did not last, leaving ABC searching for something else to fill the gap.
Enter Curtis, a producer known mainly for his work on golf telecasts. The story goes that he had a decidedly gothic dream about an old town, the wealthy Collins family and its governess, then told his wife — who said he should make it as a TV show.
Curtis took it to Goldberg, who told him, “Dan, you dreamed Jane Eyre.” Curtis’ idea had none of the supernatural elements that would make the show legendary. But ABC was ready to roll the dice, and agreed to the series. It premiered in June 1966.
“It didn’t do too well,” Goldberg observed. Curtis was blunter in a conversation with former Beacon Journal critic Mark Dawidziak: “It was going down the tubes.”
In these less patient TV times, Dark Shadows would have been gone in a matter of months, maybe even weeks. In 1966-67, it was still on the air, if unimpressively, when Curtis decided to take a risk of his own.
“My kids said make it scary,” Curtis says in Dawidziak’s book The Night Stalker Companion, a look at a later Curtis effort. “I said, ‘Why not? I’ve got nothing to lose.’ ”
He started with a vampire because “I wanted to see exactly how much I could get away with.”
In April 1967, in the 210th episode, audiences got their first glimpse of Barnabas, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid. When his coffin was opened, Frid, dark and somber but with a hint of a twinkle in his eye, knew he was in what he called “a campy soap opera” in a 1970 newspaper interview. He was not a horror fan, but he thought Dark Shadows might lead to bigger things. And, he said, “I don’t play it for laughs. I take it very seriously.” (Burton, for his part, insisted to MTV News that his movie is not a comedy but an attempt to capture the soap’s “weird vibe.”)
Goldberg admitted some nervousness about the move, at one point watching uncomfortably as his bosses checked out the show. But it hit and Curtis found himself at the helm of a fanged phenomenon. To keep it going, he told Dawidziak, he made Barnabas “a reluctant vampire,” and — years before TV saw a similarly motivated character on Angel — that made the character more interesting and more durable. Then the show piled on other elements, including moving the story back and forth in time. And, for five years, it worked.
It also gave Curtis a clear TV identity. During and after churning out Dark Shadows, Curtis proceeded to present still more scary fare: the Night Stalker movies and TV series, versions of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula and Frankenstein, and more. “I put my nightmares on film,” he once said, but it was not always fulfilling.
In the early ’70s, Curtis worried out loud that he was being pigeonholed as a horror-maker. But he did manage to break out of that niche at times, including his magnum opus, the Winds of War/War and Remembrance miniseries.
Frid was not so fortunate. He did some theater work, but screen ventures were mostly Dark Shadows-related. (He has a cameo in the new film.) When he died in April, obituaries seized first and foremost on Dark Shadows.
But for all the actors who labor and never get one memorable role, Barnabas is still a triumph. As is the old, original Dark Shadows, once again in the public consciousness more than 45 years after its debut.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.