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After-School Vampires

Wobbly sets, incomprehensible plots, a star who couldn’t learn his lines: Can any film possibly keep up with the original Dark Shadows?

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Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, circa 1967.  

How apt that each episode of the ABC soap opera Dark Shadows began the moment One Life to Live ended, for this was a show in which the characters lived many lives in many historical eras (plus parallel time), a show that would go on to have more lives of its own—the latest a camp travesty by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins.

To get on Burton’s slaphappy, discordant wavelength, it helps to set aside all memories of the original … which, alas, I couldn’t do. In the late sixties, I fairly flew home from elementary school for the show’s 4 p.m. broadcast. Vampires and werewolves weren’t mainstream then: Horror pictures played only in drive-ins or grindhouses, and it was months between issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Yet here amid the soaps and game shows was a daily dose of bloodsuckers and lycanthropes, witches and warlocks, fetching heroines and heroes more socially backward than their granite-jawed contemporaries. Here, above all, was Barnabas. Horror geeks loved him. Teenage girls loved him. Johnny Depp wanted to be him.

This demon was born from a Hail Mary pass. Creator Dan Curtis had envisioned a Gothic soap but not necessarily a supernatural one. In its 1966 debut year—which, like most people, I never saw until it reran on the Sci Fi Channel—Dark Shadows had a Jane Eyre–like heroine, Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke), an orphan who arrived in the coastal Maine town of Collinsport to be a governess at Collinwood, the ancestral estate overseen by the reclusive Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett). The Collinses were cryptic, evasive. Every closet had a skeleton. Every skeleton took months to uncover. Nothing ever happened. It felt like an irreversible coma.

The show had been scheduled to be taken off life support when Curtis, emboldened by an uptick in interest following the appearance of a ghost, said, What the hell, let’s add a vampire—a villain meant to bite some necks and, after a few months, get a stake through the heart. As Barnabas, the Canadian actor Jonathan Frid (he died recently, at 87) cut a gravely handsome figure in a caped overcoat and carrying a wolf’s-head cane, his forelocks curled and matted down to create individual wavelets, his cheeks so sunken they’re like twin billboards for the show’s title. Frid’s dark secret was that he couldn’t memorize dialogue, and in those days it was too expensive to stop the tape and edit out goofs—even if parts of the set fell down. (Dark Shadows’ blooper reels are of footage that actually aired.) Frid wasn’t good with a prompter, either. In an interview, the late Grayson Hall, who played the vampire’s nemesis turned partner Dr. Julia Hoffman, remembered “poor, dear Jonathan” reading her lines, to which she’d respond, “Well, as you were saying, Barnabas … ” Although he could be painful to watch, many people—including Frid himself—thought his palpable discomfort worked for the character. To viewers, Barnabas seemed afflicted with a nervous melancholy befitting a man out of time. When the fan mail filled box after box, Curtis happily let the vampire remain undead.

Barnabas was the true precursor of Joss Whedon’s Angel and Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, a tragic lover, a slave to his curse, a good vampire who fought bad vampires (and other malevolent forces)—and fortyish bachelor Frid became an unlikely cover boy in Tiger Beat and 16 alongside Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy. I bought all those magazines (and thus know more about Bobby and David than any heterosexual male of my generation) as well as the twenty-plus Dark Shadows novels by a man calling himself “Marilyn Ross,” comic books, bubble-gum cards, and an LP that featured the chart-­climbing “Quentin’s Theme” along with Frid intoning Shakespeare. (“We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”)

The show’s plotting was nonsensical, the pacing torturous. Characters went back, forward, and sideways in time to a Collinwood in which the same actors played largely the same roles in different costumes. Curtis and company left major threads dangling. Barnabas and Julia hid a Frankenstein’s monster equivalent, Adam, in a closet when a visitor came knocking—and he was never referred to again. The werewolf Chris Jennings, played by a magnetically edgy actor named Don Briscoe, disappeared at the height of his story line after Briscoe had some kind of nervous collapse and went home to Tennessee (where he died decades later, morbidly obese and shunning DS pilgrims). And then there was the lass who started it all, Victoria Winters, whom Curtis intended to reveal as Elizabeth’s daughter: When Moltke suddenly decamped, she was replaced by two ineffectual actresses in quick succession before her character literally faded away—sucked back to the eighteenth century for reasons I still can’t parse. Moltke’s fate was more fascinating than Vicky’s: She dated the onetime New York theater critic John Simon, and made a splash as the girlfriend of Claus von Bülow just as his wife, Sunny, made her one-way trip to the ICU.


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