50 years of ‘Dark Shadows’

❉ Take a trip to the coastal town of Collinsport, Maine, where – trust us – nothing creepy ever, ever, happens…

In 1966, a few months before Star Trek’s debut, a show was born on US television which – whilst generally unknown to non-US viewers – would have an ongoing effect on how the supernatural would be depicted in books and on screen. Paving the way for Anne Rice, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephanie Meyer and others was ABC’s time-travelling vampire soap-opera ‘Dark Shadows’ and – as the nights grow darker and the shadows longer – it seems a good time to reflect on what made the series so ground-breaking.

Just over fifty years ago, on Monday 27th June 1966, the orphan Victoria Winters was travelling by train to Collinwood, a desolate mansion where the mistress of the house – played by screen legend Joan Bennett – hadn’t left the estate in 18 years. If one is being monumentally kind, the mysteries and secrets of the house and town were played out at a somewhat glacial pace and, for its first few months, the gothic melodrama failed to attract viewers. Cancellation loomed.

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But the lunatics in change of the show decided to go out in a blaze of glory. Having talked of metaphorical ghosts inhabiting the house they decided to go literal; one afternoon the spirit of Josette DuPres popped out of her own portrait and a mass of bored housewives across the land put down their irons and went “Hang on… what was that”? And so the die was cast.

As the buzz began to build the writers decided to go for broke; so it was that the widows of Widows’ Hill scared a kidnapper into an early grave and the mother from Phoenix turned out to actually be a phoenix. Instead of turning viewers off, the ratings improved – possibly because more and more children mysteriously started missing their last lessons to watch the show they’d heard about from that kid who’d pulled a sickie the other week.

Given I pitched this as a time-travelling vampire soap-opera you’ll not be surprised to discover the next “this can’t possibly work” idea was to see if a vampire could fly with the viewing public. And so it was that the Collins mausoleum was broken into, a chained coffin was opened and a mysterious British relative started being old-fashioned at people while local girls ended up feeling wan and lethargic with strange marks on their throats. I think it’s fair to say the audience responded: at its peak the show commanded 20 million viewers.

Barnabas Collins, portrayed by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, was only supposed to be on the show for 13 weeks, the plan being to stake him in the storyline’s conclusion. But he was an unexpected hit: a Shakespearian actor, not suited to learning new scripts on a daily basis, he came across as hesitant and uncertain, a fact the writers fed back into the scripts as deliberate; making the “reluctant vampire” a tragic, misunderstood, tormented antagonist.

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But of course every vampire needs a Van-Helsing, and so Doctor Julian Hoffman was created. On the journey to the screen there was a slight sex-change – allegedly due to a typo on the casting sheet – but finally Julia Hoffman arrived, played by Grayson Hall: the remarkable actress who had been an Oscar nominee for her part in ‘The Night of the Iguana’.

Julia, too, was meant to come to a sticky end before the story’s conclusion, but like her nemesis she was something new to viewers: a woman who was successful, smart, defiant, and manipulative. It also didn’t hurt that her chemistry with Jonathan Frid was perfect. With a winning power-couple on their hands, plans had to change: both had to stay on the show at all costs.

So it was that a séance sent governess Victoria Winters back in time to 1795 to spend months discovering the circumstances that turned Barnabas Collins into a vampire while the writers spent their time figuring out how to make Barnabas and Julia best friends. (Séance-based time-travel is as everyone knows, an occupational hazard for governesses. There should probably be some kind of warning in the job description.)

Eventually, of course, Vicki returned to the present day and gradually Barnabas and Julia became uneasy allies, then partners in crime. But now all the bets were off: from here-on in the show would feature werewolves, warlocks, Frankenstein’s monsters, Lovecraftian aliens, parallel universes, trips to 1995, anything. And while the writers mined every gothic and horror trope they could find the show became adept at what commentator Danny Horn calls “narrative collision”: knocking different stories together and seeing if it makes interesting and surprising television. And, with very few exceptions, it certainly did.

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Obviously it ended eventually, after five years every writer had burned out, and the actors were itching for something new. But what Dark Shadows managed to achieve in its short time on television was something truly remarkable – and certainly something that could not be done on daytime television today. In an era where the Christian right is so dominant, the idea that a show featuring Black Masses could be on at 4:00 in the afternoon – obviously ABC moved it later so the kiddies could watch(!) – is just ridiculous and should, therefore, be celebrated.

Sadly, of course, there is the spectre at the feast: Tim Burton’s ghastly adaptation of 2012. It’s a played-for-laughs mess which also tried (and failed) to compress two years of soap-opera storylines into a desperately confused movie. Anyone who watched it is justified if they don’t really understand what this writer is making a fuss about.

But to be fair the creator of the show didn’t do much better: Dan Curtis revisited the Barnabas storyline in 1970’s ‘House of Dark Shadows’, re-imagining it as a ‘Dracula’ clone and sapping the story of its emotional weight. It’s this version that largely informs ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, and has also been the basis of two attempted ‘Dark Shadows’ revival series. In both these cases the heart isn’t there: they reproduce the key remembered moments but the Xeroxing produces inferior copies. The original series is certainly the one to watch.

This is not least because it’s the most fun. ‘Dark Shadows’ was never played for laughs, but the characters did not lack a sense of humour; Roger Collins in particular was decidedly arch, and whilst the actors play it seriously there is a delicious undercurrent of camp; not in the term’s common usage, but in its more correct one: that of heightened sense of theatricality.  This is melodrama in its purest form: at its best each cliff-hanger, reveal or WTF special effect earns its “dun-dun-dun” musical sting.

But what’s most remarkable is what the production team achieved with so few resources. Early ‘Doctor Who’ is often mocked for its “as live” feel. But ‘Doctor Who’ was rehearsed over a week, and retakes would be mounted when something went wrong. ‘Dark Shadows’ was recorded daily, and in its early days it never retook: flubbed lines, and all confused attempts to find the light or the camera were left in and the results of these fumbles are now immortalised on the official DVDs.

Its successes, however, are also preserved in amber: there’s an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ in 1970 which is simply breath-taking given the resources available. And in one episode the set catches fire during a scene, which is truly a joy to behold; the camera zooms in and the actors give their all while the fire extinguishers go off behind them. It’s the closest genre television will get to live theatre with all the added tension that provides. It’s like watching Angela Lansbury performing ‘Blythe Spirit’ – you just hope they make it to the end and applaud even more when they do.

‘Dark Shadows’ in its original incarnation is far from perfect – it’s cheaply made, assembled in haste, and there are plots which meander regrettably – but all in all it’s a beguiling monster. Of the 1225 episodes – of which, remarkably, only one is missing – it stands as a true original, an experiment which set a challenge few TV series (except perhaps ‘Sunset Beach’) have attempted to meet.

And yet its impact it had on popular culture is undeniable: Barnabas Collins is the grand-vampy of them all: the antecedent of Edward Cullen, of Coppola’s Dracula, and any number of tragic members of the undead. He may be, depending on your point of view, either a trailblazer, or someone with a lot to answer for, but he was certainly there first.

In the interests of full disclosure, I now find myself writing for the Big Finish continuation of the show, but I am first and foremost a devoted fan, and in the very few years it’s been a part of my life I have enjoyed it immeasurably.

Seriously, I said at the start: “time-travelling vampire soap-opera”. What’s not to like about that?


❉ ‘Dark Shadows The Original TV Series: The Barnabas Collins Episodes’ was released by Metrodome Distribution on Region 2 DVD in 2012. Region-free DVD collections are also available from Amazon.com.

❉ You can find out more about the ‘Dark Shadows’ full-cast audio dramas and talking books at the Big Finish hub page.

❉ ‘Dark Shadows’ – and other classic horror – are discussed in depth over at the Collinsport Historical Society.

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