Sunday, February 08, 2015

Cult-TV Review: Dark Shadows (1966 - 1971)

When the afternoon soap opera Dark Shadows (1966 – 1971) premiered on ABC TV on June 27, 1966, it was fashioned by creator Dan Curtis as a Gothic Romance (capital “r”) firmly in the tradition of a story like Jane Eyre, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).

The series initially concerned a governess, one Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) as she came to the mansion of a secretive but powerful family in Maine, the Collins.

But almost a year later -- in April of 1967 -- everything changed for Dark Shadows.

A new character named Barnabas Collins -- played by Jonathan Frid -- appeared on the series for the first time in episode number 210.  Unlike the other characters in Collinsport, Maine, he was a hundreds-of-years old vampire, a monster.

A door was opened. And once cracked, it could not be closed.

Almost immediately, Dark Shadows’ ratings skyrocketed, and before long the sleepy Northeastern town would be populated by ghosts like Angelique, werewolves, zombies, and even a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-styled character. 

Thanks to the inventive conceit of “parallel time,” some episodes of the soap also were set in earlier centuries, in the 1790s, and told of Barnabas’s origin as a vampire, the victim of a witch’s curse. Many cast members played different characters in the past, as well as their familiar characters in the present.

By 1970, Dark Shadows was attracting daily audiences of more than fifteen million viewers, and the production was receiving five thousand fan cards and letters a week. Barnabas, the vampire and outsider, became a beloved character to a young generation countenancing the Vietnam War, sexual revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement.

As the late Frid once noted, youngsters at this time sought a “new morality” and found that cause in common with Barnabas, who was “confused, lost, screwed up, and searching for something.”

A legitimate pop culture phenomenon, Dark Shadows has spawned two mediocre feature films (House of Dark Shadows [1970]; Night of Dark Shadows [1971]), a TV remake in 1991, and the 2012 Tim Burton re-boot starring Johnny Depp.  A Gold Key comic-book was also produced in the 1970s, and twenty-five years after its debut, MPI Home Video sold more than 600,000 Dark Shadows videotapes. Throughout the nineties, the series aired daily (from 11:00 am to noon) on the old Sci-Fi Channel.

The series ran for over 1,200 half-hour episodes, which represents some kind of crazy record.

Today, Dark Shadows remains utterly charming, even though it was produced on a low-budget. The series was shot as live every week day for five years and so actors regularly flub lines, cues are missed, microphones dip into the frame, and the sets look fake, and small. 

Add to that, the pacing is slow and story-lines are dragged on endlessly (a staple of the TV soap opera format, especially in those days…).

And yet the series has…something. It possesses some quality that makes it more intriguing than its individual parts. There is a crazy, almost mad inspiration to some narratives, and Jonathan Frid is a powerful presence and anchor as Barnabas. The end result is a series that seems to giving its no-budget all to entertain. It’s a little bit like William Hartnell Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) in that regard; made on the cheap, but with one embarrassment of riches, in the all-important category of imagination.

Episodes 210 and 211, aired in 1967, and concern the awakening of Barnabas in the 20th century. At Collinswood, the home of the Collins family, a shady character named Willy Loomis (John Karlen) has been asked to leave by matriarch Elizabeth Collins (Joan Bennett). 

But he has been studying the family’s history and believes that a secret tomb nearby may house expensive jewels belonging the long-dead Naomi Collins.

He breaks into the tomb, and as episode 210 ends, discovers a secret chamber, and a coffin within.  The coffin is chained shut.

Willie snaps the chains, and a hand emerges from the coffin to choke him. Barnabas is back!

Episode 211 picks up right there, as Willie disappears and the denizens of Collinwood Mansion wonder if he has left for good.  Instead of being confronted with a departure, however, they are confronted with an unexpected arrival.  A cousin from England, Barnabas has decided to visit.

We don’t see Barnabas’s face in full until he stands next to the historic portrait of Collins’ in the mansion’s entrance-way. It is at that point that the audience understands the two individuals are one in the same.

Penned by Art Wallace and directed by Lela Smith, the first two episodes of the Barnabas era feature very little of Barnabas himself. 

Instead, both stories consist mostly of atmospheric build-up, leading to his return. The pace is incredibly slow, and not much happens.  And yet the production manages to stage some creepily effective shots in stark black-and-white.  The aforementioned composition of Barnabas by his painting is certainly bracing, and in episode 210, there’s also remarkable view of Willie pushing into the Barnabas tomb, his flashlight falling on impenetrable darkness. He opens a door into a nightmare, and the director chooses exactly the right shot to suggest that truth.

Jonathan Frid was always great – dignified and sincere -- as Barnabas, but we don’t get the full impact of his performance until episode 212, in which he grabs the spot-light, and holds it for nearly a half-hour.

I have watched many episodes of Dark Shadows over the years (as well as all of the Ben Cross remake series), but it has always been a true wish of mine to watch all of them; to follow the entire run and get immersed fully in the lore.  I doubt that can happen because I am an author, a teacher, a father, a husband, and a blogger, and I don’t have six-hundred hours to devote to this particular series.  But in my heart, I would like nothing more than to go back, and follow the steps of this classic vampire soap from story to story, moment to moment. 

Experiencing Dark Shadows again, in its black-and-white, atmospheric glory is, to quote the series a little like “coming from one world to [visit] another.”


  1. Anonymous10:47 AM

    Great post. After watching the first hundred or so episodes (starting with the arrival of Barnabas Collins) streaming on Netflix, I knew I wanted to immerse myself in the entire series. Now over two years since I picked up the fantastically collectible 131-disc coffin-shaped box set, I'm near the end of the 1200 episode run. The slow pace, and the repetition of the fade-in/fade out commercial breaks, make it ideal for playing in the background. However, the relationship between Barnabas Collins and Julia Hoffman is always worth watching no matter their point in parallel time, or what roles the other cast members are playing.

  2. I remember my Grandmother watching this show back when it was a daily soap. The oldest I could have possibly been at the time would have been 7. Yet, I recall vividly someone turning into a werewolf while I hid behind Grandma sitting in her favorite chair. I can recall looking at my hands for weeks after that, hoping that they wouldn't shows signs of becoming hairy which would have been a certain indication that I was transforming into a werewolf.