Gothic Saga or Undead Captain Jack Sparrow


Darkshadows.jpgThe movie version of Dark Shadows opens on Friday. As a fan of the original series I am willing to give the movie a shot, even though it looks nothing like the beloved original. The original series (1966-1971) was something of an oddity, even at its peak. It felt Gothic and had an old world atmosphere. Judging from the trailer, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have added humor and more than a bit of self-awareness to the story. Should be fun.

The story: In 1795 Barnabas Collins is the heir to a shipbuilding and/or fishing empire. He returns to his family home on the coast of Maine after a business trip to the French colony of Martinique. There he proposed to his bride-to-be. She was also an heir to a fortune, (with…vast tracts of land) and she was coming to Maine for their marriage. Unfortunately she was bringing her personal maid servant who was a) someone Barnabas had a quick meaningless fling with while on the island, b) a vengeful witch deep into the dark arts and c) apparently immortal. Love hits the rocks, literally.

Two hundred years later the Collins family are the big fish in a very tiny pond – running the decayed remnants of the business. The patriarch is a stuffed shirt. His sister hasn’t left the house in 18 years and doesn’t want anybody to go into the basement. His son had ‘issues’. His niece was a skank. The family governess was an orphan who may or may not be his sister’s love child.

One of the family servants believes that the family buries their dead laden with jewels, so he decides to dig one up. Too bad for him he chose to dig up Barnabas Collins, undead, chained in his coffin for almost 150 years, and one really unhappy camper.

This is set up for the sixties series. Of course, like every other soap opera, it took 2 years to get to this point. Ratings had been taking a slide and the show producers decided to juice up the numbers by adding a ghost. This worked gangbusters so they decided to go for broke. Hello Barnabas.When things really took off they decided not to stake him after all.

The show was huge at its peak – late 1968 to the end of 1969 – which happens to coincide with the period I watched it. The show had flashback stories – which is how they doubled back for Barnabas’ back story after he was a proven phenomenon. The peak was another flashback – this time to 1897. Quentin Collins, a ghost, think The Turn of the Screw, haunts the family and possesses the children. Barnabas goes back in time to find out why Quentin was so evil, and happens to be around to see him cursed as a werewolf (crazy wife and a sister-in-law who really knew how to punish an inattentive husband) and made immortal (Picture of Dorian Grey, this time). The flashback took about a year of shows and was both the commercial and artistic peak of the show. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, witches, possession, H.P. Lovecraft, gypsies, The Lottery – the show referenced about every horror story before it ran down in 1971.

From 1968 to 1972 I was in grade school and living in Great Falls, Montana. As I understand it, the highest August temperature in Great Falls history happened in 1969 (106 degrees) and the coldest December temperature in Great Falls history happened in 1968 (-43 degrees) – which explains why we were inside enough to follow the show. Part of the limitations of afternoon TV at the time was that we got the story in 20 minute daily bursts. This along with a fair amount of repetition allowed you to miss episodes and still keep up with the story.

This also limits the show’s modern day audience. In addition, the show was basically filmed live – 5 days a week, 52 weeks per year. For daytime TV it was apparently expensive to stop filming for a retake, so they almost never did. The bloopers are legendary. Add to that 60s era special effects, a lack of the now customary levels of horror show blood and torture – the show was on about the same era as The Brady Bunch remember – and you can understand why a modern audience may find the original show quaint.

Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas Collins has been praised as the first sympathetic non-evil vampire. He attributed that look that everybody read as regret and sorrow to his need for cue cards (5 shows a week, remember) and glasses. Frid passed away a few weeks ago (along with Levon Helm and Dick Clark – Clark was a distant third, as far as I am concerned). His Barnabas was evil, redeemed, and, yes, cured.

So then, Johnny Depp. His Barnabas looks about half way between Captain Jack Sparrow and Edward Scissorhands - which is fine. It looks like they’re playing up the notion that Barnabas was alive for the American Revolution and the Vietnam War. Groovy. In the original, Barnabas’ vampirism was a secret and the long running worry was whether or not the family would find out and pound a stake into his heart. For 2012, it looks like he is ‘out’ – and trying to understand the America of 1972. This could be interesting.

As it happens, SJCPL owns all of the 1897 flashback and about half of the 1795 flashback, as well as the an opening volume that summarizes the show’s pre-Barnabas days and his introduction. If you loved the original, or can manage to suspend enough disbelief required for a show filmed live over 40 years ago, you may well find the original charming and addictive. Enjoy.





  1. thanks Joe,
    Great post as usual. I remember rushing home from school with my sister so she could catch Dark Shadows. She loved the show, me? I was 8 years old and I just wanted to play outside. I didn’t care much for vampires then, and I still don’t, but the movie looks fun and I’ll probably watch it when it comes out on DVD.

  2. Awesome! I came across this Dark Shadows Crash Course on –

  3. Excellent crash course – but with 2 or 3 major errors. But that would be geekish of me to enumerate them.

  4. Where does someone new to Dark Shadows begin? At episode 1?

    • Julie – DVD collection #1 makes sense (quick summary of the early episodes, the introduction of Barnabas, his hunting of Maggie Evans (the likely reincarnation of his first love Josette), otherwise start with the 1897 flashback – and remember that the first 2-5 minutes of the episodes are a recap for the previous day.

      BTW – we used to have a shelver at RBF named Josette – I asked and she confirmed that she was named for the character in DS

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