“So where was he?” Martha asked as the closing credits began to roll.
“You didn’t see it?”
“The quadruple cameo?”
We had just watched “Dark Shadows,” the movie director Tim Burton’s take on the Gothic soap opera that sent teenagers rushing home from school to their TV sets from 1966 to 1971. “He,” of course, meant Jonathan Frid, the actor who created the role of Barnabas Collins, anguished lovelorn vampire thrust two centuries beyond his time. Like Barnabas, Frid returned to Collinwood – though after a mere 41 years — along with his castmates Kathryn Leigh Scott (his lost love, Josette), Lara Parker (the witch Angelique) and David Selby (Quentin the werewolf). They are guests in a party scene where the greeter is the latest Barnabas, Johnny Depp in heavy eye makeup. Thus the quadruple cameo.
Surely Martha and I aren’t the only women of a certain age who’ve gone to the movie hoping to snatch back a piece of our youth. The original “Dark Shadows” was both a Gothic romance and, unintentionally, a piece of high camp, a combination guaranteed to appeal to adolescents. Burton’s version was neither straight enough nor funny enough to send us swooning in delight, but there does seem to be something in the air. The “Mad Men” episode that aired two days after the opening was titled “Dark Shadows”; in it Megan Draper, a would-be actress, runs lines with a friend who has an audition for the soap. Megan dismisses “Dark Shadows” as “a piece of crap” but admits she’d kill for a chance at it.
Megan’s right; the show really wasn’t very good, what with its sets that wobbled every time a door closed, a lot of bad writing and some even worse acting. Still, I always felt that someday, someone with money and production values would remake it. And sure enough, every 20 years or so, it rises like Barnabas from his coffin at sunset.
Martha and I discovered we shared this secret vice during our previous incarnations at The New York Times. As chief of the culture copy desk, she was my boss when a one-season remake starring Ben Cross as Barnabas and Jean Simmons as the matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (originally Joan Bennett, now Michelle Pfeiffer) was televised in 1991. Martha was in college during the original run and recalls cutting an especially insipid journalism class to watch it, which doesn’t seem to have hurt her career. I, a few years younger, was one of those kids who ran home to watch it at 3:30; school bus schedules being what they were, I usually missed the first few minutes. “Dark Shadows” was the fixation of my decidedly uncool high school clique. If the cheerleaders were watching, I never heard about it.
Long after the show went off the air, it lingered in our adult lives. Writing the daytime TV column for The Boston Globe in the 1980s, I did a joint telephone interview with the former head writer, Sam Hall, and his wife, Grayson Hall, the original Dr. Julia Hoffman (now Helena Bonham Carter) when they had moved on to “One Life to Live”; my clearest memory of the interview is feeling my front-hook bra open in the middle of the newsroom just as the Halls picked up the phone. In recent years, Martha told me more than once that I would have to write Frid’s obituary when the time came, and he was on the list of advance obits I proposed to The Times after leaving the staff, before 2008 economics ravaged the freelance budget.
When the movie came up during pre-show chat in the usher corps at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, I was shocked that people there had already seen it, fondly remembered watching the soap or – this being New York – knew someone who had worked on it. Here the show was no fantasy, but an enterprise that employed dozens of actors, writers and technicians. “Dark Shadows” “saved my parents’ lives,” the Halls’ son, Matthew, wrote in a 1990 essay that went to explain that they were broke and just about ready to give up on New York when the show came calling. Anyone trying to make a living in the arts in New York knows how that feels.
As cultural phenomena go, “Dark Shadows” is fairly small potatoes. Still, it had one major effect: it made soap operas respectable. Previously derided as the guilty pleasure of housewives (and others who wouldn’t admit watching), soaps began drawing a new, younger audience. First “Dark Shadows” celebrities started popping up in teen magazines like 16 and Tiger Beat, then in more mainstream publications. Soon other daytime personalities were gaining publicity, and before long, there were entire magazines devoted to the soaps. Would Luke and Laura of “General Hospital” been such a hit if viewers hadn’t been conditioned to soaps by watching Barnabas?
In China two years ago, my student Sophia came up to me after class one day and shyly said, “I wanted to ask, what do you think about this current vampire trend?” Sophia is of the “Twilight” generation, and I explained to her that each generation seems to have its own vampire story. As Frid himself once pointed out, these stories aren’t really about a need for blood; they’re about compulsive sex, and that’s a sure draw for audiences whose hormones are raging.
I’m sticking with my own generation’s storyline. Last week I discovered that 160 episodes of “Dark Shadows” – that’s 32 weeks, or eight months — are available for streaming on Netflix. So I’ve started watching one episode a day, Monday through Friday, to preserve the time-honored pattern of weekend cliffhangers. By sheer chance, I started streaming the first episode around 3:30 in the afternoon. I’m doing my best to stick to that time slot, except when pressing business interferes – working a matinee, or Skyping an English lesson to Poland, or going to the movies with Martha. The class I’m teaching at Columbia University this summer runs until 4 p.m., and I suspect I’ll be sitting down with “Dark Shadows” around 4:30 – right after school. What’s wrong with a little brain candy at the end of the day?
So far, I’m struck by how classically soapy the show is, at least in the early episodes before the supernatural plotlines took hold. The action is excruciatingly slow, and often silly. Still, something about it captured our youthful imagination.
It must have captured Tim Burton’s, too. His film is part homage, part send-up. At least one passage of dialogue — when Barnabas first meets the governess Victoria Winters and says her name is so beautiful that she must never be called Vicky — is lifted straight out of Episode 213. But he’s made changes, too. Burton and Depp have fun with the ‘70s in ways the soap never did, but then, Collinwood hardly seemed a part of that era. For the first time, Carolyn comes across as a plausible teenager, and a sulky one at that, instead of a Junior League candidate dressed by Orbach’s. Dr. Hoffman expresses her attraction to Barnabas in ways inconceivable on TV back then.
However much Jonathan Frid was looking forward to the movie, it may be just as well that he died just weeks before it opened. “But how can they be sure?” I asked Martha. (Well, that’s not my problem; his obit in The Times carried someone else’s byline.) The film’s final image left me crying “Sequel!” and starting to plot possible storylines. On “Dark Shadows,” nothing stays dead forever.