Dork Shadows?

Fan reaction to Burton's film shows longing for cherished past.

Posted May 07, 2012

Barnabas. Angelique. Quentin. For a lot of us, these names ring a very loud bell. Lots of kids during the late 1960s ran home from school every day to watch the creepy gothic series, Dark Shadows. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp loved it, too, despite what many fans believe after viewing the campy trailer for their eighth collaboration.

I understand the concern. Dark Shadows was archetypal. Initially filmed in moody black-and-white, it defied soap opera tradition and dished out plenty of chills. It wasn’t like anything else on TV, and it grew beyond anyone’s expectations into a cultural phenomenon. It’s still cherished today in devoted fan groups, many of whom don’t like Burton's attempt to spoof.

It all began in the summer of ’66. The setting was a creepy New England mansion on an enticing cliff overlooking the ocean, where presumably people had jumped to their deaths. Meant to follow the typical path of a gothic novel, with an innocent young woman stepping into a shadowy world, the show took a sharp turn into a strange series of séances, cryptozoology, and time travel. This was largely thanks to one character.

Almost a year into the show, a visiting "cousin" came calling. He looked identical to a Collins ancestor featured in a prominent portrait, right down to the imposing ring he sported on his finger. This introduced Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire searching for redemption and a cure, even as he killed local females. Rather than arriving from England as he’d claimed, he'd been chained inside a coffin on the estate. An unwitting caretaker had freed him.

Initially, Barnabas was intended to be a temporary character, but he literally injected the show with new blood. He soon became the central figure.

The series explored his origins and fate. As a mortal man, he’d had an affair with a witch, Angelique. When he spurned her, she sent a bat to transform him into a vampire, adding a curse to thwart him from ever being satisfied in love. Unable to bear a loveless existence, he begged his father to kill him. Instead, he got chained into a coffin. There he lay for many decades, starving but alive.

The vampire, best known to that point as the evil entity in Dracula, had transformed into a sympathetic creature that longed for his former humanity.

Fans quickly embraced Barnabas and many identified with the metaphorical overtones of the outsider, the prodigal son, the lonely misfit who kept looking for ways to be normal. Barnabas was a just nice guy with bad luck. There was something in his blood that drove him toward deeds he did not want to do.

The series struck a cultural nerve. This vampire’s tale mirrored a troubled society with evolving values. It arrived in the midst of race riots, political assassinations, civil rights demonstrations, and liberation movements. As a culture, we grew more willing to view our monsters in a new light. We examined our inner dark shadows. Like Barnabas, we sought to be free of an unsavory legacy that clung to us.

How a movie, a novel, or a TV series becomes such a phenomenon is more serendipitous than calculated. It must express our collective psyche in symbols we recognize, and also air at just the right time. Dark Shadows did.

I suspect that Tim Burton knows that no movie today is going to recreate this experience, no matter how much the fan base wants it. Even the show’s inventor, Dan Curtis, failed to mount a Dark Shadows comeback, and not because the wrong actors were cast or the plot sucked (so to speak).

Dark Shadows had moved young viewers during the 1960s in an inarticulate way that made it more than just a series. It was an event. It belonged to an era.

I was one of those school kids who loved the show. I’m also a Depp and Burton fan. I’m not keen about an interpretation that borders on silly, but I know that my past experience with this series can’t be replicated today by just recasting characters and recreating props.

I appreciate Burton’s boldness in taking it on and he’s probably wise to tap into his own way of cherishing the show. Burton has a fan base, too, with its own expectations, and he should honor his vision. There's room for both.

For those fans who want Barnabas the way he was, the original episodes are being released in a new DVD format. The 131 DVDs even come in a little coffin.  

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