"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I am not, generally speaking, a big fan of the good guy vampire meme. Only in the post-modern world could a creature that personifies disease, rape, and cannibalism become an international sex symbol. In a world overcrowded with glamorous Hollywood vamps, from True Blood and The Vampire Diaries to that godforsaken mess known as Twilight, it is always nice when someone comes along to remind us that the vampire is a man-eating ambulatory corpse. A zombie with fashion sense. Most recently that man has been Tim Burton, whose Dark Shadows closes a forty-six-year-old circle. By choosing to portray vampiric leading character Barnabas Collins as a pale, cadaverous ghoul with a Max Shreck manicure, Burton and Depp have succeeded in making the very vamp who started the whole "new school good guy bloodsucker" old school again.

You probably know the story. In 1966 Dan Curtis launched a gothic daytime soap that was basically "Maine Eyre," Charlotte Bronte transported to the Pine Tree State. A young orphaned governess arrives at a decaying family estate inhabited by the last scions of the proud Collins dynasty, each of whom harbors grim secrets. Various soap opera shenanigans follow. But eight months later the ratings were flagging and Curtis decided to spice things up by going completely off the deep end. He introduced a vampire into the plot. Ancestor of the modern Collins family Barnabas wakes up after having been chained in a coffin for two hundred years and immediately begins a killing spree while also pursuing the woman who looks suspiciously like his lost love. Canadian actor Jonathan Frid was hired to play the role for thirteen weeks, but the ratings took off like a rocket and Frid's Barnabas was an unexpected sex symbol. He was subsequently provided a compelling back story and evolved into the protagonist of the series.

It was the kind of thing that only could have gone down in the sixties, the kind of stereotype busting that gave us an African woman as a starship officer and a cute blonde housewife who was a witch. Barnabas Collins marks the arrival of the vampire as leading man, a figure we identify with and cheer for rather than a monster to be destroyed. Without Barnabas, we don't have Lestat, Saint Germain, Angel, Bill Compton, or Edward Cullen (whose surname even reminds us of Mr. Collins). Barnabas was the mutation that started a whole new strain.

But he was not some awful sparkly James Dean wannabe. Barnabas entered the show as a monster, and even though he evolved into a sympathetic one, he was still basically an American Dracula (ironically, since Dark Shadows even Stoker's inhuman Count has gotten the good guy treatment). One of the things that pleased me about Burton's Shadows was that it was very up front about Barnabas' monstrous nature, far more so than the glamorous Ben Cross Barnabas of the 1991 mini-series. Depp's version of the character looked like the love child of Jonathan Frid and Count Orlock.

The movie has received mixed reviews, but all in all I was pleased with it. Condensing 1225 half-hour episodes of storyline into a two-hour film was no easy task, but even with the added doses of farce and satire it was still recognizably Dark Shadows. Fans of the original no doubt were amused by the Maggie Evans/Victoria Winters amalgamation and Caroline's microphone query about her missing father. Danny Elfman even did a fair job or recalling the original TV score. But what will stay with me is Depp's rather complex Barnabas, who shifts between 30 Days of Night mass-murdering construction workers and hippies to devoted family man. If you want one scene that summed up the ambiguity of this Barnabas, it has to be when Barnabas is concerned for the welfare of neglected nine-year-old David Collins, but in looking after him casually uses mind controlling hypnosis on the boy as if it were nothing at all. I couldn't tell if it was touching or creepy. I settled on both.

In the end, the best thing about 2012's Dark Shadows is that it indicates there is still some life in the old gothic vampire yet. Figuratively speaking, of course.

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