From Soap to Primetime to Big Time—The Evolution of Barnabas Collins (Movie Review)

Dark Shadows

Drama/Comedy, Gothic Horror, Fantasy; U.S.; 2012; 113 minutes; directed by Tim Burton

Medium:  Currently in Theaters

Rating:  2.5 (5-point system)

Dark Shadows.  Almost nobody my age can forget it.  It gnaws at you.  It takes you by the throat.  It leaves you thirsting for more.  But enough of the vampire clichés and puns.  Let’s talk a little about what this cultural phenomena was for those too young to have experienced it.

Dark Shadows started out as a gothic soap opera back in 1966, and at first it was a certified bomb . Gothic didn’t sell back then, and Dark Shadows faced cancellation only six months after its debut.  Dan Curtis, the show’s creator, decided to go out in style, and suddenly ghosts started appearing . . . in a daytime soap opera!  But things didn’t really take off for Dark Shadows until 1967, with the introduction of Barnabas Collins.  Barnabas was a 200-year-old vampire who had been entombed by his father—a man who could not bring himself to destroy his beloved son despite his horrendous affliction.

Jonathan Frid—the original Barnabas Collins

And how did Barnabas come to be afflicted with this curse?  He severely ticked off the wrong lady.  He had an affair with the maidservant of his fiancée, Josette du Pres from Martinique.  Unfortunately for Barnabas, that maidservant was Angelique Bouchard, a witch whose extraordinary powers were only exceeded by her extraordinary vindictiveness.  Angelique summoned up a bat who bit our hero, transforming him into a hideous and foul creature of the night bent on converting Josette so that she might spend eternity with him.  In her disgust and horror, Josette leapt to her death.  Pretty good setup.  Complicated, but good.

Fast forward two centuries later.  Barnabas is released from his tomb and returns to the family estate as a ‘long lost cousin from England,’ whereupon he meets Maggie Evans, a resident of Collinsport, Maine, and the apparent reincarnation of his love Josette du Pres.  And if all that isn’t complication enough, Angelique has resurrected herself, taken the name of Cassandra Blair, and maneuvered Roger Collins into wedding her and bringing her into the Collins family mansion where she can continue to make Barnabas’ life a living hell.

As one might expect, the ratings shot through the roof.  But the demographics weren’t your typical housewife.  Suddenly, all across the nation, kids were rushing home and tuning in to watch the bloody mayhem.  Unfortunately, back then kids didn’t steer the family budget and what products to buy with it.  Despite huge ratings the series was cancelled in 1971.

But everyone knows you simply cannot keep a really great vampire dead for long.  In 1991 the series rose from the grave and into prime time on NBC with Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins.  Maggie Evans was no longer the reincarnation of Josette.  That person now resided in the Collins family governess, Victoria Winters.  But, despite great ratings, NBC sabotaged their latest hit by shuffling it around their schedule during Gulf War I.  After only thirteen episodes fans were left confused and bewildered by the lack of schedule consistency, and Dark Shadows once again had a stake driven through its heart.

Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins

Until 2004.  WB Television Network commissioned a pilot starring Alec Newman.  This time WB staked our hero and put him back in the ground without ever airing the completed pilot.

Now it’s 2012, and Barnabas has risen from the grave for a fourth time.  This Barnabas (Johnny Depp) however is played with much more humor than in past incarnations.  The characters of Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters have been rolled into one—a former mental patient named Maggie Evans (Bella Heathcote) who has changed her name to Victoria Winters.  Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is back as well, and she’s just as vindictive, evil, powerful and even more libidinous than ever.

Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Barnabas Collins

This 2012 resurrection is lighthearted fun.  And that’s the problem.  Dark Shadows was never meant to be lighthearted fun.  Dark Shadows was designed to terrify school children, which is something it did quite well from 1967 until 1971.  Later, it mesmerized these same children, now grown up, in prime time, and introduced the character of Barnabas Collins to a whole new generation of children . . . until NBC programmers sabotaged it.

What’s disheartening here are a number of faux pas that should and could have been easily avoided.

First off, this Barnabas seems to relish in telling all his descendants that he’s a vampire rather than taking the more prudent course of concealing his cursed existence.  The 1972 setting works, but what’s with all the gags concerning ’70s pop culture?  It all seems so out of place in a tale of vampires, witches, revenge, and loves lost.  Sure, there are a few good lines (Caroline Stoddard:  “Are you stoned?”  Barnabas:  “They tried stoning me once, my dear.  It did not work.”), but the humor seems forced and comes off as contrived and irrelevant to the myriad plots and subplots.  And then there’s Mr. Depp’s ridiculous makeup for the part—an unfortunate cross between Count Orlok in the silent classic Nosferatu (check out the long, spidery fingers and extended fingernails) and the pastie-faced zombies in Shawn of the Dead.  Part of the terror was not knowing that Barnabas is a vampire.  One look at Johnny Depp’s version and all doubts are removed—there’s something definitely wrong with this dude.  Finally, the sudden transformation of Caroline Stoddard (no, I’m not going to reveal it) was jarring, distracting, had no logical setup or continuity within the story, and was positively ludicrous in the extreme.  For that one scene alone I deducted a half point from my overall rating.

Fans will probably enjoy spending a couple of hours with a demonic “friend” from the past, but ultimately they’ll leave unsatisfied.  People unfamiliar with the legacy of Dark Shadows may get a few unexpected chuckles out of it, but not enough to carry the day.  In the end it would have been better for all concerned if this Barnabas Collins had been left entombed in Tim Burton’s mind rather than let loose upon unsuspecting theater goers.  It’s definitely worth a rental, but it’s not worth even matinee prices.

Or better yet, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows to view instead.  Unfortunately, that one doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.


Filed under Movies

11 responses to “From Soap to Primetime to Big Time—The Evolution of Barnabas Collins (Movie Review)

  1. Reblogged this on The Cineaste's Lament. and commented:
    Some more thoughts on Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” reboot.

  2. I had a sneaking suspicion it was more camp than vamp. Too bad. Johnny Depp as a vampire should have been delicious.

  3. Linda

    Great review. Very in depth. Probably won’t go see it. I wasn’t that big a fan of Dark Shadows. :-). Doug, it was a great write up- thanks!!

  4. Thank you, everyone, for dropping by. Glad you all enjoyed the review.

  5. David K. Williams

    Well, your rating was close to mine (2 1/2 vs. 3), but for different reasons. I liked many of the things you didn’t like and vice versa.

  6. I am hoping that the release of the Depp movie will trigger a release of a dvd of the two Dark Shadows movies that were made. As for the Depp/Burton version – I’m afraid I’m going to have to give a big thumbs down. This kind of an approach worked for The Adams Family – but not, in my opinion, for Dark Shadows.

    • Most definitely correct, Steve. The Addams Family was devised as a comedy, so any remake deserved the same treatment. Not so on Dark Shadows. House of Dark Shadows had previously been released on VHS, but I’ve not seen a DVD version. Night of Dark Shadows is a bit more problematic in that it really had nothing to do with the original series. Consequently, I really can’t recommend viewing that one (that and the fact it was just a bad movie).

  7. Pingback: Watt’s Happenin’? Solar Power is Watt. | R. Doug Wicker — Author

  8. Amen, amen, amen. One of the best and most informative reviews I’ve read, from one of us who knows the whole story.

    FYI, House of Dark Shadows is not on DVD yet. However, they are planning a release of it (with Night of Dark Shadows) in 2013, I believe. Meanwhile, HoDS airs on TCM from time to time.

  9. Sumner Peirce

    A wonderful review! You made every point that I made in my riposte to Lara Parker’s blog entry regarding the negative reviews of the film. She was dismissive of critics and fans with negative comments.

    Here is my posting on the Lara Parker blog to her “article”, which is rife with “sick fancies”, after the site address:

    “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Even Oscar Wilde, the author of the quote, would have been hard pressed to answer exactly how the artists of the DS2012 film educated the critics. There are many, many questions that would need to be answered. For instance, why amalgamate the characters of Victoria Winters and Maggie Evans? Why is Dr. Julia Hoffman now an alcoholic? Why is Barnabas Collins now a variant of Edward Scissorhands instead of a regular human being? Why is Carolyn a werewolf with a toss-off line in explanation because there had not been any set up for that story line? But the 800 lb. question in the room is why the injection of SNL-like one-note comic skits when the pre-premiere interviews from Depp and Burton were speaking of an homage to the original series? Without answers to just these few questions, critics are hard put to “educate the public.”

    Speaking of the The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane review, it was laudatory towards Burton calling him “an alchemist of childish fancies, bent over his creations like Edward Lear, and muttering to himself with secret glee,” and towards Eva Green. Mr. Lane was as dismissive as yourself in regards to the fans of the original series referring to them as “a huddle of fans who will now be chewing their cuticles with dread, lest the movie veer an inch from the original show.” And it is upon this very point that both yourself and Mr. Lane misunderstand the attitude of the fans of the original series when exercising their free speech even if in a negative vein towards those artistic laborers reaping in grosses of $130 million when last I checked. An homage was promised so it is not far-fetched to think that perhaps story lines and characters from the original series would be used. I’m sure that you, the late Mr. Frid, Mr. Selby, and Miss Scott were not expected to reprise your roles but your characters were expected to be similar since you are the avatars, the words made flesh. I viewed every trailer of DS2012 I could find and was quite disheartened that it would be a comedy instead of an homage as was promised by Depp and Burton. I was further appalled at the lack of lines for your cameos, the speed of them, and the blocking of the late Mr. Frid by Miss Pfeifer in the second cameo scene. We were promised a steak and received hash.

    I find DS2012 impossible to praise aside from Danny Elfman’s music and the use of Robert Cobert’s strains from the original series.

    If the poet drowns from the wash of the critic’s words, then it’s from the weight of the millstone, the poet’s artistic work, dragging the poet under.

  10. Interesting take, Sumner. While I found Dark Shadows disappointing, I did find that it had at least some redeeming features (or I wouldn’t have given it 2 ½ stars).

    Thanks for posting the link to Ms. Parker’s blog. I was unaware she had one. I do have to disagree with her rather harsh attack on film critics, as I don’t have to be an Olympic-caliber high-diver to recognize a bellyflop when I see one.

    As for painting all critics with a broad brush that claims that they’ve, “never created a work of art,” I find that pretty dismissive and more than a tad condescending.. Ms. Parker’s belittling claims to the contrary, I have created art, and continue to do so—one nonfiction contract piece I wrote for Rosen Publishing, two novels available for both Barnes & Noble’s Nook and Amazon’s Kindle, and three more novels currently undergoing editing.

    And my characters and their situations are my own. THAT is true creativity.

    Funny you should bring up the cameos, Sumner. It wasn’t until my bride and I returned home that I realized I’d completely missed those glimpses of the original actors. Shame, too, as I was looking forward to seeing them. But the mere fact that I missed those scenes would appear to validate your point as to how they were handled, and the short-shrift you felt they were given by the director.