CB'S POV: Shady Doings (“Dark Shadows”)

It could be argued there’d be no Edward Cullen, no Bill Compton, Eric Northman or Lestat de Lioncourt without Barnabas Collins.

Vampires were always the “sexiest” monsters: their interaction with you is the most intimate (okay, a werewolf ripping out your throat or a zombie eating your brain is pretty intimate but not exactly the same thing); there’s the exchange of bodily fluids and we won’t even get into the phallic symbolism of fangs. But their frontman for years was Dracula as portrayed by Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was a talented actor but hardly a hunk, even by 1930s standards.

But in 1967 Barnabas Collins was introduced on the afternoon soap opera Dark Shadows. Barnabas was not just more of a looker than Bela; he set the pattern for every vampire that came after him, even other interpretations of Dracula (most notably Frank Langella’s in 1979 and Gary Oldman’s in 1992). The vampire (at least, all the male ones) became tragic, tortured figures who, more than blood even, were looking for… love.

What would you call Dark Shadows fans today? (If Trek fans are “Trekkies,” would Shadows fans be “Darkies?” Probably not…) Whatever you’d call them, among the latchkey kids for whom the show was a babysitter for were Tim Burton and Johnny Depp who, in their eighth collaboration, give us a big screen version of Dark Shadows. It’s an enjoyable but, upon reflection, slightly puzzling effort. The film is definitely a labor of love, painstakingly recreating the movie’s 1972 setting—or at least, a painstaking recreation of the filmmaker’s memories/impressions of 1972. (Having never been there I can’t say for sure, but unless I blinked and missed them, it seems no black people lived in the state forty years ago.)
A director at Burton’s level pretty gets whatever he wants on the screen, so the apparent lapses must be intentional homages to the improvisational, on-the-fly, by the seat of your pants plotting and execution of a low-budget late ‘60s soap: how else do you explain characters who are introduced, then disappear for l-o-n-g streches of the movie, then reappear mainly just to advance the plot? Or surprises that would seem amateurish if you didn’t know this is the same director who gave us Edward Scissorshands?

Dark Shadows is not the comic send-up you’d think it was, based on the television spots; the story is “played straight,” or as straight as you can play a story with so many implausabilities. Dark Shadows (the movie and the original television series) does not hold up well in the era of Supernatural and True Blood; in fact, it’d have a tough time comparing favorably with Charmed, much less Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel. It’s not that this is a bad movie; if you’re a Burton/Depp completist, you won’t be disappointed. But for most of us, I don’t think we’ll be saving a space on the shelf for the DVD release.

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