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Dark Shadows

I hate that juvenile feeling of ownership I sometimes get, which hasn’t really manifested in negative behavior since junior high. Remember that? When everybody was deemed a poseur because they discovered the exact same thing you already liked, but they found out about it two months later through MTV or some magazine, instead of stumbling across it organically like you did, Mr. or Ms. Unique. At the time, it was very serious and only made sense to call out the posing plebes for not enjoying Metallica on as many levels as you do. Now, it seems really stupid. But once in awhile, I do have that annoying feeling of “I saw it first”-style possession.

Such is the case with Dark Shadows. I started watching the original soap when I was 13 and didn’t stop until I was in college and couldn’t find the time to continue watching it. With few exceptions, I watched two episodes a day, every weekday afternoon, and saw the entire series about two and a half times. Long before Buffy or The West Wing, Dark Shadows—low budgets and melodrama aside—showed me the possibilities of television as an artistic medium, and it made me want to write. Numerous sci-fi and horror stories I wrote during this period were “inspired” by Dark Shadows, and it inspired a love for flawed characters and lunatic plots that I’ve carried over into less derivative writing. In other words: everything I write, whether it seems like it or not, stems from the influence of Dark Shadows more than anything else. I cut my teeth on Stephen King and Quentin Tarantino—what a poseur!—but I didn’t start eating solid food until Dark Shadows.

It’s not an entirely obscure show, for people of its generation. I was born a decade after it went off the air and only discovered it through my parents, childhood fans who were thrilled to learn Sci-Fi Channel played reruns. I resisted it at first—it was too low-budget and cheesy—but I quickly succumbed and became a die-hard fan. Not such a die-hard fan that I’ve ever been to a Dark Shadows convention—but die-hard enough that I seriously contemplated going to them every time the public-access-quality ads featuring Lara Parker or Kathryn Leigh Scott showed up during episodes.

They’ve tried to “reboot” the series numerous times. The most successful was in 1990, with a not-entirely-good series that ran for 6 or 13 episodes and was produced by original series creator/producer Dan Curtis and largely written by original writer Sam Hall’s son, Matthew Hall. A handful of times, Curtis tried unsuccessfully to get movie versions off the ground. Finally, a pilot for a Buffy/Angel sort of take on the series was produced shortly before Curtis’s death. Allegedly, its existence is the reason Angel got canceled—because Warner Brothers produced it, so The WB wouldn’t have had to pay the increasingly expensive license fee to Fox Television to continue airing Angel—but then The WB ended up not picking up the show.

When they announced the new movie, Johnny Depp declared himself a youthful fan who had always wanted to play Barnabas Collins. I was sort of excited, I have to say. I love Johnny Depp, and Tim Burton desperately needs to make a good movie so I can continue to respect him (he’s approaching 20 years without making anything coming close to good). I thought this would be another winning combination—Depp playing a character he’s excited about, Burton creating his own variation on a world of Gothic horror. He’d done it before, in his two Batman films and Sleepy Hollow, but maybe this time he’d have a decent script anchored by an excellent performance. Thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Depp can pretty much write his own ticket. Overlooking The Tourist, I wanted to imagine he’d use his current street cred to make the one movie he’s always wanted to, and he’d take Burton along for the ride.

Then I saw the trailer. Cough.

Look: I know trailers are terrible. There are thousands of reasons why, but my parents saw a 30-second promo during March Madness and told me all about their disappointment that it was all cutesy and jokey. Because I’m a snarky asshole, I immediately said, “What, does it start out all serious and ominous, and then there’s a record scratch and ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ plays over a series of pratfalls?” The thing is: that’s not entirely dissimilar to what happens.

But does it mean anything? Maybe not in terms of Depp and Burton. Burton has always had a sort of demented, hard-to-market sensibility, so trailers for his films—even the good ones—often look like shit. But, while the tone may be Burton-esque, it’s a lot more Addams Family than Dark Shadows.

Dark Shadows was only a place for unintentional laughs. Because they shot it live on tape for almost no money, it’s always amusing to see a line flub, a camera bump the wall, a bad special effect, and so on. But the show itself was deadly serious—it had its fair share of snarky, smartassy characters, but they were in the vein of Edward Albee. Their caustic wit masked deep-seated anger and depression, not wacky reactions to extraordinary events. When extraordinary events reared their heads, characters reacted exactly as they might have in a Hammer film: with soulful terror. Dark Shadows was a place where television didn’t exist to begin with—not even as a plaything for wacky fish-out-of-water gags.

Because, you see, Barnabas was a vampire chained inside a coffin in 1795, resurrected in 1967, but he wasn’t a fish out of water. He claimed to be an obscure cousin from the English branch of the family, took over the abandoned Old House (which was his home when he was alive), and started stalking a local girl who resembled his lost love, Josette. He had no interested in assimilating, and at Collinwood, he didn’t have to. People trusted him, even after Maggie Evans mysteriously disappeared, and his sole focus was to reclaim the love that was destroyed.

Maybe the movie’s about this. It seems a lot more like it’s about Barnabas struggling to fit in, a common theme for both Burton and Depp. But it’s not really true to the spirit of Dark Shadows, and yeah, that annoys me. It also annoys me to think that this will be the introduction to Dark Shadows for many, many people. It’d be like introducing people to Starsky & Hutch by playing the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson movie. Which just makes it another in the long, dispiriting list of atrocities Hollywood has perpetrated in the name of making a few bucks and keeping a big star happy.

(And blah blah blah—those of you who don’t read this blog frequently should know that I don’t object to remakes, sequels, and adaptations in principle. It’s not about precise accuracy—it’s about spiritual accuracy. This Dark Shadows film, based on a possibly misleading trailer, looks like it gets the tone, spirit, and basic theme all wrong. So what’s the fucking point? Why even call it Dark Shadows, except that it’s easier to get a movie based on an existing property made than Untitled Derivative But Still Technically Original Depp-Burton Vampire Project.)

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