In Our Opinion

DARK SHADOWS

By • Sep 29th, 2012 •

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Co-Written with Derek Botelho (author of The Argento Syndrome).

When the series ‘Dark Shadows’ ended its amazing run of over a thousand episodes in 1971 it left in its wake a legion of followers, not the least of which were thousands of gay and lesbian fans that responded to the coded subtext of a show that dared not speak its name. Barnabas Collins was the ultimate reluctant vampire (a theme that would not be lost on Anne Rice a few years later when writing ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and the character of Louis, who was eternally conflicted with his human and vampire aspects). The late Jonathan Frid, who was well into his forties when cast in the role, invested his interpretation with a fascinating anxiety that was really the actor’s way of coping with his inability to remember his lines. Frid once told me he wore the metal off his iconic wolf’s-head cane with perspiration as he struggled to remember his lines on a daily show that went out live to millions of viewers each week. Although ‘Dark Shadows’ premiered in 1966 it would take a ratings drop to force the hand of series creator Dan Curtis into moving from the gothic trappings of Jane Eyre and Rebecca into the full scale recycling of classic Hollywood monsters.

The introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins into the series plotline became a national coming out party for the show’s gay fans. Jonathan Frid was an eccentric choice to say the least and one that Dan Curtis did not originally want, as game show host and part time actor Bert Convey was also being considered for the role. If Convey had been selected then ‘Dark Shadows’ would have fallen more into the mold of the current ‘Twilight’ saga as Bert Convey was hunky enough at the time to give that kind of Edward Cullen vibe.However it was destiny that would prevail, casting Frid (an unknown Canadian actor with nearly two decades of toiling in regional theater doing Shakespeare) into a role that would change his life forever.

The role of Barnabas Collins as written was very much a character out of a gothic romance, brooding like Heathcliff for his Cathy as Barnabas pines endlessly for his Josette. However as played by the rather fussy Jonathan Frid we are exposed to a decidedly different kind of obsession. When Baranbas is finally released from his chained coffin some two hundred years later (thanks to the greed of a blond handy man named Willy) he presents himself to the current family as a distant cousin from England. The first thing on this vampire’s mind is getting his hands on the Old House (a smaller estate on the Collinwood property) and start decorating with his now completely domesticated slave and houseboy Willy. As the Collins family watch in shock and awe as Barnabas pulls out all the stops, ordering the best antiques Boston has to offer, he begins to whip the Old House into a showcase of Victorian kitsch.

At this time Jonathan Frid was receiving adoring fan mail by the truckload and the publicity was so intense that ABC television knew they had a monster hit on its hands. The press releases of the day emphasized the female-following Frid had acquired, which then manifested itself on the teen market by making Frid a bona fide heartthrob for teenage girls across America, landing him on the cover of teen magazines, Tigerbeat and Sixteen. It was jarring to say the least to see the middle aged Frid posing along side twenty something hunks of the day. What ABC did not comment on were the thousands of letters Frid was receiving from teenage boys whose gaydar was metering off the charts.

‘Dark Shadows’ began in black and white but with its newly found popularity color was not far behind and soon fans could enjoy the full spectrum of the pop art camp sensibility drenched in pastels and deep purple, as the show took off into wildly complex story lines that would allow the cast to time travel as well as wear gaudy period costumes allowing Frid and the somewhat younger and hotter David Selby (playing what else – the reluctant werewolf) another trope to be used later on in the Twilight novels and later films giving young virginal girls (and boys) the choice of a vampire or werewolf lover.

The final and most important addition to the show would come in the guise of a bizarre actress whose off Broadway performances had already made her a camp icon among the gay men in New York. The paring of Grayson Hall with Jonathan Frid would not be equaled in show business until Vincent Price married Coral Browne. Grayson Hall was cast as the doctor Julia Hoffman who is secretly in love with Barnabas and who ultimately becomes his downfall. As these two became more and more inseparable in the storylines, so did the gay atmosphere on the show and by the time Grayson was trolling about the set in full gypsy drag as ‘Magda,” drag queens everywhere had a new role model.

When the show had finally run its course Dan Curtis was asked by MGM to make a feature film based on the show and soon HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS was in release across the land. The feature would be plagued with censorship issues regarding blood and gore and much to the distaste of Jonathan Frid, he found himself biting his victims with all the blood that had been missing on daytime TV. The scene in which Barnabas whips Willy with his cane was a shock at the time for viewers accustomed to a more sedate Barnabas, as they had never seen this sadistic side to him. The ad campaign for the film was rather perverse even for a horror film. “Come see how the vampires do it.” a voiceover demands as we see Frid taking his Josette down into a fog bound set with a coffin as an altar. Then comes the punch line, “See Barnabas Collins take a bride in an act of unnatural lust!”

This was the material at hand when Tim Burton and Johnny Depp decided to finally fulfill a promise they made to each other to remake ‘Dark Shadows,’ since both men had been fans of the show as children. Burton’s film is the fourth incarnation of the show; the second was nearly two decades later. In 1991 there was an updated version of the show which only lasted a season and had Ben Cross playing Barnabas and genre goddess Barbara Steele essaying the role of Dr. Hoffman. Curtis’ reboot tried to escape the campy outdated realm of the original show and really mined the Victorian gothic aspects, turning it into a soap opera for adults. A much darker and grown up show than the one remembered all those years later by the baby boomers, it failed to capture a new generation of fans.

Barnabas bowed a third time in an unaired pilot commissioned by the WB in 2004 that was only screened in conventions, as again the teenage market was the target and the cast was almost entirely made up of actors in their early twenties. When the Here! channel was formed to create its own cable network for gay and lesbian entertainment it did not take long for them to pay homage to the legacy of ‘Dark Shadows.’ Most of the production executives and staff had watched the show either as kids growing up with the show or on the dozens of reruns the show has had since its demise in 1971, (including the 1991 reboot which did not have the same appeal since Barnabas Collins was played by a brooding Ben Cross with no sense of camp whatsoever). The Here! Channel wanted programming that covered as many genres as they could find writers and producers to accommodate their needs.

The result was ‘Dante’s Cove,’ a supernatural series which took the legacy of ‘Dark Shadows’ to places it might have gone before if the era had been more tolerant of same sex attraction. The premise of ‘Dante’s Cove’ is a parallel universe of the original ‘Dark Shadows.’ It begins in the 19th century with a closeted gentleman with the decidedly Barnabas Collins styled name of Ambrosius Vallin, whose family, like the Collins’, tends to own most all of the land that would once be known as Dante’s Cove. Ambrosius is engaged to a witchy woman named Grace, who is of course taken from the character of the witch Angelique who turned Barnabas into a vampire on ‘Dark Shadows.’ In the premier episode Grace is seen as an archly vindictive woman with supernatural powers and glowing red eyes when provoked.

DANTE'S COVE

DANTE'S COVE

Grace is deeply in love with Ambrosius who seems at first to return her desire. Whatever tone was established in the first five minutes of ‘Dante’s Cove’s flashback sequence is blown so to speak when Grace, having left her gloves on the piano back at Vallin Manor, returns in time to catch her fiancée’s ass being pounded by his faithful butler Raymond. Both men are naked and well on their way to a climax when Grace, who is justifiably pissed, lets loose with her red eyeballs throwing Ambrosius aside long enough to petrify the well-hung servant where he stands as his dick is bobbing in the wind. She turns him into jelly but not before we witness a full frontal melt down that is ridiculous in its execution.

In keeping with the time honored ‘Dark Shadows’ tradition Ambrosius is taken down to the cellar where he is chained to a wall for all eternity or until (now here is where it gets very Sleeping Beauty on his ass) a young man’s kiss will set him free…a young mans dick got him in this situation so this seems fair after all. ‘Dante’s Cove’ and its spin-off show ‘The Lair’ are not all that amazing in execution, with most of the acting being not unlike a Falcon video without the hard core sex to make it watchable. However the locations are hot and so are the men so it does bring the ‘Dark Shadow’ legacy full circle as the spirit of the original Barnabas Collins as well as Ambrosius Vallin are allowed to finally get their groove back.

Set in 1972, Burton’s new take on the Collins mythos picks up a year after the original show ended. This conceit of Burton’s to take the show into modern times, yet still a good forty years in the past seems a nod to Hammer’s film DRACULA A.D. 1972 for a few reasons. Most obviously the date, and secondly, the Hammer film was very self aware of what it was. After years of churning out their own versions of the classic monster movies and at that point seven Dracula films starring Christopher Lee in the title role, and I am sure in no part trying to steal a piece of the ‘Dark Shadows’ pie, Hammer decided to make Dracula “modern” and “campy” for a new generation of teenagers. With tongue firmly in cheek, Johnny Alucard raises Dracula from the dead (again!) in modern day London and goes running around looking for Van Helsing’s ancestors for a final showdown.

This latest retelling of ‘Dark Shadows’ seems to live in a very similar space as the Hammer film as Burton has Barnabas alive in modern day New England after being awoken from his endless slumber by the witch who fated him to a lifetime of torture as “the reluctant vampire”. And now Barnabas is gayer than ever, prancing around in the guise of Depp with a very effeminate hairdo, long fingernails and translucent skin much like Edward in the Twilight films, while he does his SWEENEY TODD voice to channel the vampire. I can only wonder if the new film will open with the TV show’s immortal refrain: “My name is Victoria Winters, my journey is just beginning…”

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One Response »

  1. I just wanted to inform the readers that this piece is co written by Derek Botelho . Derek has just finished a book on Dario Argento THE ARGENTO SYNDROME for BearManor Media…we share the same publisher in fact.

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