Sunday, 17 January 2010

Dark Shadows

It's been a while since I talked about my love for the 1960s TV series Dark Shadows, so here I go again! I am committed to watching all 1225 episodes in order, and it is something that I love with such an enduring passion that I know I will be a fan for the rest of my life. With a baby on the way my Dark Shadows marathon is currently on hiatus for a while at episode 568, but it won't be long before I'm deep into the mystery and intrigue at Collinwood once again...
so I thought I'd share the article I wrote about Dark Shadows for Paul Scott's comic Omnivistascope, here it is...

A generation of American kids ran home from school to catch the latest episode. Stephen King and Tim Burton cite it as a major inspiration. As a child Johnny Depp loved Barnabas Collins so much he wanted to be him. But you’ve probably never heard of Dark Shadows. Luckily for you Ben Clark sets the record straight.

In 1966, the American TV Network ABC launched a new afternoon soap opera called Dark Shadows. It would go on to become one of the most unusual and enduring programmes in the history of television. Instead of the usual soap opera fare, Dark Shadows was about vampires, ghosts, mad scientists, witches, werewolves and zombies. Though virtually unknown in Britain, a huge following still exists for the show in America. Come with Omnivistascope on a journey to the great house of Collinwood, high atop Widows Hill…
Dark Shadows is a Gothic romance about the wealthy and mysterious Collins family, so influential the town of Collinsport, Maine is named for them. It begins when raven haired orphan girl Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) gets a job as Governess at their stately mansion Collinwood. She has been employed by the matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard (Joan Bennett), but for what reason? She immediately gets involved in a feud between aging playboy Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds) and the debonair Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan), who has served time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Then she encounters the supernatural entity that is Roger Collins’ ex-wife, and is kidnapped by crazy Matthew Morgan (Thayer David), only to be rescued by a ghost, all at the same time as trying to discover details about her mysterious past.
Dark Shadows was the brainchild of TV Producer Dan Curtis and writer Art Wallace. Curtis later made the two Kolchak TV movies, precursors to the series Kolchak-The Night Stalker, a huge influence on The X-Files, and the Emmy nominated mini-series The Winds of War. Wallace subsequently wrote for many esteemed productions, most notably Star Trek. Robert Cobert produced the haunting, Theremin-esque theme tune and incidental music, a major part of the show’s unique style.
While the programme is very much a product of both the conventions of 1960s TV and traditional soap opera, it stood out from the pack with it’s spooky vibe and air of Gothic mystery. Victoria’s journey is clearly inspired by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and though the show is set in the present day, the 18th Century mansion of Collinwood, with it’s oak panelling and grand staircase, give it a timeless quality. The sets built by Production Designer Sy Tomashoff are one of the greatest achievements of the show, equalling the opulence of a major motion picture with a tiny budget.
In the 1960s, television programmes were recorded “live to tape”. Editing technology was so primitive and expensive that the actors had to perform almost as if they were on stage in a theatre. Producing five half-hour episodes a week in this way inevitably led to mistakes, and Dark Shadows is famous for it’s bloopers and fluffed lines. You will no doubt have seen many a boom microphone in shot in films and on TV, but probably not the actual camera! However the mistakes add to the charm of the show after a while and are barely noticeable. If it’s OK for William Hartnell to fluff his lines on Doctor Who, then it’s certainly OK for Joan Bennett!
Apart from a couple of ghosts, the supernatural elements of Dark Shadows were relatively low-key. All of that was to change, however, with the introduction a year into the show of Barnabas Collins, the vampire.
Although the unusual nature of the show garnered praise and attention in the media, it was not a great success in terms of ratings. With cancellation looming, creator Dan Curtis and his team decided to try a different approach. A secret room is found in the Collins mausoleum by scumbag Willie Loomis (Cagney and Lacey’s John Karlen). He intends to rob the grave inside, but instead accidentally awakens the 200 year old vampire Barnabas Collins!
Played with enormous warmth and depth by classically trained actor Jonathan Frid,Barnabas soon takes Willie as his Renfield-like accomplice, and introduces himself to the family as a distant cousin from England. In reality he is the original Barnabas who lived in the house in the 18th Century, and supposedly left for England in 1795. Cursed to be a vampire, his own father imprisoned him in a chained coffin, and he has been there, fully conscious, ever since. This immediately made him a sympathetic monster, and audiences went crazy for him almost overnight. He was the saviour of Dark Shadows, but also something of a millstone in terms of the direction the show could now travel. Dan Curtis was somewhat ambivalent about his new leading man.“When Barnabas Collins turned into such a huge hit, I couldn't kill him off, which I had originally intended to do. I had to find a way to keep him alive.”
Barnabas quickly became the centre of the show. A series of attacks on young women starts to occur, and the horror of “The Collinsport Strangler” returns after almost 200 years. Other plotlines are discarded, with the Collins/Devlin feud settled amicably. Blackmailer Jason Maguire (Dennis Patrick) discovers Barnabas’ dark secret, so Barnabas murders him, and he is never seen again. It may not be the direction that Curtis originally intended, but this is as compelling as anything that 1960s television achieved in any capacity.
A murderer and a monster he certainly is, but Barnabas is the archetypal sympathetic vampire. It would be hard to imagine the novels of Anne Rice without him, for instance. Driven by his feelings for lost love Josette Dupres, Barnabas was adored by fans, however terrible his actions. He kidnaps local girl Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and attempts to drive her insane to the point where she believes she is Josette, who killed herself in 1795 after finding out what Barnabas had become. (It was Josette’s ghost who saved Victoria Winters when she herself was kidnapped earlier!) After a few months of these storylines, the show became a phenomenon, and Barnabas-Mania gripped America. Toys, games, comics and novels based around Barnabas and Dark Shadows were produced in huge quantities to appease the massive following the show had among children, unheard of for a soap opera.
Though the supernatural now dominated the show, Dark Shadows was still grounded in reality. None of the characters openly admit that a vampire may be behind the horror that has gripped Collinsport, and those that come close to the truth are killed or driven mad by Barnabas and his reluctant henchman Willie. Even after forty years, these events are truly shocking for a soap opera or drama of any genre.
If Barnabas had never been introduced then Dark Shadows would be almost forgotten today. It inspired a boldness in the creative team that, however outlandish the storylines they came up with, the more audiences lapped it up.
Nothing Curtis and his team came up with was as outlandish as the 1795 storyline. During a séance at Collinwood, Victoria Winters is sent hurtling through time back to the 18th Century, where she witnesses the terrible events that led to Barnabas being cursed in the first place. Over almost 100 episodes, she interacts with the Collins family of that period. Brilliantly, the historical family are portrayed by the actors who played their 20th Century counterparts. This “repertory company” approach was kept throughout the five years the show ran, with the same actors playing their past, present, future and parallel universe counterparts. On a daytime soap opera!
The wedding of Barnabas and Josette is destroyed by Josette’s maid Angelique (Lara Parker). Angelique is a powerful witch, who is in love with Barnabas. At the point of death she curses Barnabas to be a vampire for all eternity. This one act of spiteful jealousy leads to centuries of pain and misery for the Collins family and those around them. Again, the beautiful Angelique became a favourite with audiences, despite her despicable actions.
After narrowly avoiding being hanged for witchcraft, Victoria manages to return to the present, to find her boyfriend Burke Devlin apparently killed in a plane crash, and Barnabas’ secret still not revealed to the wider Collins family. This is about a third of the way through the series. Alas, beyond this point I can take you no further. Not even the mighty Omnivistascope can compel me to seek out spoilers for episodes I have yet to see! My Dark Shadows marathon is time consuming and bloody expensive, but without question one of the most rewarding and exciting things I have ever encountered.
Apart from Prisoner-Cell Block H, Dark Shadows is the only long running soap opera ever to have all of it’s episodes released on home video. All 1,225 episodes are available on Region One DVD from MPI Media Group. I hope that I have made the show sound like it is worth further investigation! But a word of warning. Once you step through the doors of Collinwood, you may find that you never want to leave.

Joan Bennett
Joan Bennett played Elizabeth Collins-Stoddard, and she was the star of Dark Shadows. Starting in silent cinema, she became a major film star in the 1940s and 50s, appearing in several Fritz Lang pictures, Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment with James Mason, and was Mrs Spencer Tracy in the original version of Father of The Bride. Later in her career she also appeared in Dario Argento’s film Suspiria, itself reminiscent of Dark Shadows. Her character, the head of the Collins family, gave the show a real sense of drama and purpose, and in 1968 she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Joan Bennett died in 1990, after an acting career spanning seven decades.

The Story That Refused To Die
Two Dark Shadows feature films were made at the height of the show’s popularity in the early 1970s, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Both are available on DVD. In 1991 a lavish remake of the series aired on NBC, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas, and also featured Jean Simmons and Roy Thinnes. It started successfully, but was tossed around the schedule because of coverage of the Gulf War, and was cancelled after 12 episodes. In 2004 a pilot for another remake was made by Warner Bros. Starring Alec Newman as Barnabas and Marley Shelton as Victoria Winters, it was not picked up for a series or even broadcast and remains generally unseen.Big Finish Productions began their series of Dark Shadows audio plays in 2006. Similarly to their Doctor Who range, the plays feature original cast members like Kathryn Leigh Scott, David Selby, John Karlen and Lara Parker. Robert Cobert also contributed music for the plays, which still continue today.Warner Bros. retain the rights to Dark Shadows, and in 2007 announced that they were to make a Dark Shadows feature film. It appears that Johnny Depp will be fulfilling his childhood fantasy of being Barnabas Collins after all, as he is currently lined up to star in the film, with a provisional 2010 release date.

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