Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Dark Shadows 1970 - 2012: Reboots Don't HAVE To Suck, Mr. Burton!
The trailer for the upcoming Johnny Depp/Tim Burton reboot of the '60s/'70s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows is finally out (see Matthew Lickona's Big Screen blog post today for a look-see).
I don't know WHAT to make of the trailer: attempting to kill Barnabas with a disco ball?! I love the colors, and the trailer LOOKS great, at least the first minute or so. The rest is better with the sound turned down. I hope the actual film isn't so heavy on the campy comedy (a little goes a long way with this kinda material) -
The shots of Collinwood and the Collinsport wharf were stunningly evocative of the original series, but I really hope the film itself has a much more balanced ratio of gothic soap VS caustic dope.
The original actress who played Angelique, Lara Parker, wrote a couple of DS novels, and the second one, Salem Branch, had a bit of the same mocking-the-70s tone, with Barnabas hooking up with a tribe of hippies camped near Collinwood and screwing a hippie chick in a tent. A hippie chick who looked a lot like Angelique. And some other high-camp silliness involving a trip to Salem MA - Burton seems to taking a similarly irreverent (ie sucky) approach.
In the years since a stake was driven through the heart of the original Dark Shadows TV show, there have been a LOT of reboots. And I'm here to tell you (and Mr. Burton), they don't HAVE to suck as bad as this misbegotten new trailer does.
F'r instance, I've been checking out the original Dark Shadows cast reunions being offered as CD audio dramas by Big Finish Productions.
Assuming you're already familiar with DS, here's the Wiki on Big Finish, followed by my reviews of several DS audio dramas, including the newest season two box set Kingdom of the Dead:
In 2006, Big Finish Productions continued the Dark Shadows saga with an original series of audio dramas, starring the original cast. The first season featured David Selby (Quentin Collins), Lara Parker (Angelique), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Maggie Evans), and John Karlen (Willie Loomis). Robert Rodan, who played Adam in the original series, also appears in the fourth story, playing a new character. A second series was released in 2010. In addition to the cast returning from Series One, Kingdom of the Dead also featured Lysette Anthony, Alec Newman, Lizzie Hopley, Jerry Lacy, and David Warner.
Now then: I really LOVED Dark Shadows as a kid, and I continue to follow it almost 50 years later. Listening to these reunion CDs in my candle-lit office, it feels a lot like returning "home" myself. DS was an important and encompassing inspiration to me back in the day. I even used to dream my own sequels for the first few years after the show was gone. It's nice to spend a bit of time catching up with so many old friends!
The first CD to reunite the original cast is Return to Collinwood - I gave it a spin and really enjoyed it. I never quite figured out when it takes place - they talk about it having been 10 years, but Willie mentions things like buying on eBay and wanting to put a plasma screen TV in the Old House.
Perhaps time moves 2/3 slower in Collinsport? The modern references were kinda clunky and unnecessary - Willie on eBay?! - but luckily they moved quickly into the more timeless storyline.
The script reminded me more of the series scripts than any of the other reunion CDs I've played so far. In that regard, the dialogue was hokey in parts, but the actors chew it up and spin it into some terrific scenes! I sometimes forget what superb actors the ensemble was, and Return has so many original castmembers that it was truly like a family reunion to listen to. The production values aren't as slick as subsequent Big Finish productions, but the performances make up for the lack of music cues and background sounds.
SPOILER ALERT (first of many!): The scenes pitting Quentin against Angelique are sublime, and I laughed out loud when Maggie FINALLY slapped Angelique right across the face and called her a bitch - I laughed again when Angelique then purred at how nice her own blood tasted!
Even if this CD isn't considered as canonical as the Big Finish productions, that scene at least deserves to take place in whatever "official" timeline comprises the definitive DS saga!
Next I played the Big Finish House of Despair. Coming on the heels of Return, it's all the more impressive for the music and production details. The Big Finish scripts are far more, well, articulate than the original series ever was - the CDs are frankly better-written than all but a few of the TV show scripts, but Big Finish has the luxury of working with finite beginnings, middles, and ends, unlike the TV show writers who had to keep the story narrative running (blindly) for years.
Despair seems to pick up the series' loose threads far more evocatively and, well, professionally than Return to Collinwood. And what terrific performances, especially Selby and Karlen's Willie! I don't remember them having such magnetic rapport between them on the series, nor did the TV show ever really paint Quentin's haughty sense of manifest entitlement as well as Despair pulls off in the first 15 minutes.
The Blue Whale (whose TV show exterior was shot at the Black Pearl Restaurant in Newport, RI., near where I grew up) really felt like one of those closed-to-outsiders (and all but the most compliant insiders) New England hideaways that I know oh so well.
The them-vs-us faceoff between Quentin and the townspeople was perfectly played out, re-introducing a local class struggle often ignored or poorly played out in the series.
I also checked out the Big Finish Final Judgment CD, with Josette's tortured spirit bringing Angelique to a trial, of sorts, over her alleged misdeeds. The two women have most all the dialogue to themselves, and it's a good sparring match - they go over the whole Barny/Josette/Angelique/Nathanial love quadrangle with some interesting alternate insights, particularly from Angelique, telling her own side, or at least her rationale, behind the events leading up to and following Barnabas' curse.
Then there’s the London’s Burning CD, with Selby doing a somewhat superfluous Quentin tale set during a WWII blitz. Didn’t hate it, but probably won’t get the urge to revisit, it was only so-so.
Also from Big Finish – an audio adaptation of the book Angelique’s Descent, written by the actress who played evil witch herself, Lara Parker:
Some might take some exception to how aspects of Angelique's Descent are treated now by DS fans as canonical, but the story does seem to borrow from the very best of original series elements, like what a cad Barny was being to both Josette AND Angelique, before AND after his transformation into vampiredom.
The script, FX, and performances are absolutely top notch. I find a bit of fault with the ongoing "softening" of Angelique, and the various attempts to validate those final few wonky moments of her love affair with Barny in the original series. But the various shades of her, uh, complicated personality are too well played on this CD for me to complain much ---
What Parker lacks in writing skill, she MORE than makes up for with her impressive performance for the CD reading. Her acting range was a revelation, and I already thought very highly of her abilities - she goes effortlessly from the voice and dialect of her father, to the little slave girl's early-American eBonics, and in and out of dozens of other characterizations.
And the music and sound effects weave a rich tale all of their own - never having heard a "book on tape" before, I don't know if others put this much care and work into them, but the audio take on Descent is a terrific bit of work! It even turns hallucinogenic and "psychedelic" at times during the more outre voodoo rituals, making the listener feel nearly as dizzy as the characters having spells worked on them - FAR more of a full-fledged production than I was expecting! I may play all the CDs again, once I catch up on all the work I shunted aside to spend a few days (re)visiting Collinwood.
Parker wrote a second Dark Shadows book, The Salem Branch – tho Big Finish has yet to adapt it with the cast members, I did check out the book itself.
Unfortunately, I thought Salem Branch was just AWFUL. Descent at least conjured a more believable human version of Barnabas than Frid ever pulled off, even/especially in the House of Dark Shadows film.
I could believe Barny would willingly have a(nother) fling with Josette's servant girl while sorting out his mixed feelings about whether he truly loved Josette. But my preferred DS universe ranks Josette as "the one," despite Barny twisting this love into spooky obsession thru the years.
That final clinch between Barny and Angelique on the TV show just never sat right with me ---
Salem Branch is downright offensive (SPOILER ALERT). MAYBE I could accept Barny hanging out in the woods with a '60s hippie commune (on the family estate!), and screwing a hippie chick in a tent because she looks like Angelique (?!), at least given his human - and poorly aging - self at the time. BUT there's this constant, creepy undercurrent of pedophilia obsession that other reviews I've read have noted.
Barny's inner dialogues about young David, before, during, and after their little trip to Salem, are stunningly and stupidly suggestive, particularly one bit where he's sniffing the kid's bedroom as he sleeps and thinking about "the earthy smell of David's sleep" or some such nonsense.
And don't even get me started on the dumbest way to time-travel ever introduced into the DS mythos, including even the Gold Key comic books of the 60s and 70s ----- worse, even, than the TV show’s ridiculous (if psychedelic!) Staircase to the Future, which I still think of every single time I see a wide-bar stepladder.
As for the four-CD season two compilation, Kingdom of the Dead – I was gonna play one CD per night after work but, once I started it up, I was compelled to listen to all four episodes at once ---
The addition of the always-sinister David Warner to the cast is inspired, and his reading seemed to invigorate all who had scenes with him. Especially David Selby, who too often sounds bored not only with being a Collins but with being David Selby. Warner may be the best actor in the entire lot, and he seems to bring out the very best in our old friends and fiends.
I was surprised at how big a role “new/revival DS” 1991 cast member Lysette Anthony ended up playing in the production – she’s come a long way since I first saw her in Krull back in ‘83! I really liked her as Angelique on the TV revival, despite her occasionally gargling her French accent – her Windcliff-based character in Kingdom at first seemed to be a throwaway cameo, so I was pleasantly surprised at how pivotal she turned out to be.
Tho it’s STILL bizarre how the same four locales seem to comprise the entire universe to DS characters (Collinwood, Blue Whale/Collinsport Inn, Old House/cemetery, Windcliff), despite theoretically being able to traverse the world in an audio drama free of budget constraint.
Of COURSE someone at Windcliff HAS to have one of the main story keys, despite the randomness of the locale being worked into the storyline yet again (and Maggie, for someone on the run from a Barnabas she thinks will finally kill her off, seems like a dumbass for going back to the place where Julia dumped her LAST time Barny went rogue on her, and she seems even dumber for then returning to the Inn a coupla days later, seemingly unconcerned about Barny, instead of just LEAVING Collinsport…..)
And, hey, where’d that church building in the cemetery suddenly come from??? You’d think somebody would have noticed it before, especially all those people running from Barnabas/Quentin/Adam/Blair/Vampire Angelique/etc at various times – blessed ground, right there in Barny’s back yard? Back in the day, Maggie shoulda gone straight THERE insteada Windcliff.
The show includes the return of young David Collins. Really, tho, a doctor?? And he’s not back at Collinwood for 10 minutes before the first body shows up, requiring a doc to checkitout. David’s willingness to keep hanging out at the mansion at first seemed like more dumbass plot convenience, but it was cool (and surprising) to later discover how and why he was so comfortable doing so, despite his professed terror over freaky childhood memories.
(Do you think David remembers being hanged in a closet in the alternate House of Dark Shadows variant universe? The young boy's death scene was cut from most prints of the film)….
Original cast member Jerry Lacey returns to his role as the religious nut Rev Trask, tho the righteous Rev must share a body with a more contemporary descendent. I’m still confused as to how and why he kept slipping between personas, sometimes mid-sentence.
First, I thought it was a multiple personality struggle. Then, it seemed he was mostly-Trask in the presence of certain people, but mostly the contemporary Reverend in the presence of others. A bit baffling – having seen Lacy in only a couple other projects (as Humphrey Bogart’s ghost in a Woody Allen movie, and in an episode of the old Newhart TV show, which co-starred his wife Julia Duffy), I’m left thinking that perhaps he’s just an inconsistent actor.
Love him in full Trask righteous rage – otherwise, not so much ---
And David Selby – back in the day, the writers couldn’t make up their minds whether he’s Dorian Gray or the Wolfman, or whether he was a hero or cad. Rarely was he allowed dialogue that portrayed him as BOTH selfish/indolent and brave/heroic within the same storyline, let alone within the same episode or scene.
Kingdom is by far his greatest DS performance – he comes across as the jaded, ageless bored rich brat so selfish that he willingly – enthusiastically, even! – offers the life of an innocent in exchange for his own return to the “real” world. But at the same time, he nurtures his heroic “big picture” personality, dropping the sociopathic tendencies to be concerned about, and even willing to help, others in need, even periphery characters he has no real invested relationship with. BUT – he’s still cool with messing around with the innkeeper’s wife...he (and the writer) finally makes Quentin a very real and compelling character indeed.
The sound FX and music were top notch as usual, and the Maggie/Willie combo sparked brighter than ever, even if Karlen’s voice is getting pretty rugged and Noo-yawky as he gets older. I played all four CDs in the dark and could easily visualize what was happening – it was like “watching” a full scale reunion/update DS movie sequel.
Quite thrilling for someone who’s been following DS since I was only about 9 years old!
As for Andrew Collins’ portrayal of Barnabas (one of the few roles NOT played by someone from the original TV shows) – meh. Somebody had to do it. It’s always a bit jarring, to hear so many original cast members (even James Storm and Alec Newman?!), and then to hear this square peg amidst so many well rounded holes (no offense, Angelique, please don’t curse me for calling you a hole….).
He seems to be playing the Ben Cross Barnabas from the ‘90s revival series --- just not as well. Now had they actually gotten Ben Cross himself to play Barnabas again, THAT would have been something! But I’m afraid Andrew’s performance here is the one consistently weak link in the production.
(SPOILER ALERT) That said, it was terrific to finally get the ultimate Maggie VS Barnabas showdown, with her fully remembering ALL the things Barny did to her before the TV audience demanded the vampire become a “good” guy! Talk about finally getting closure!! Great scene, she was simply amazing! He was, well, confusing. He’s mad and wants to kill her again – then he’s sorry. Then he’s feral again. Then he seems to forget there was ever a problem with her. Again.
Maybe the missing Doctor Julia Hoffman is STILL working some kinda medicinal or voodoo-based mojo on Barny from afar, making him act like an inconsistent and mostly aimless plot device.
BTW, couldn’t they just have “killed” Julia off-stage, instead of leaving her character hanging/missing? It’s not like the actress who played her, Grayson Hall, is coming back from the dead to play her again, and they’d be dumb to further dilute the original cast(s) with another newcomer playing a major character from the shows --
The Night Whispers features Jonathan Frid finally playing Barnabas again, for the first time in nearly 40 years, along with John Karlen as Willie and revival series cast member Barbara Steele.
I have to admit I was quite startled at how ravaged his voice is – not quite Jack Klugman-ravaged, but somewhat akin. It took almost half the show before my mind was able to reconcile that it was actually Jonathan Frid I was listening to.
That said, his performance is quite stellar – even the cadence sounds different than his younger self, but he eventually drew me into the story, or rather his series of reflective monologues, which is mostly what the CD contains. Karlen’s Willie is mainly there just to bounce dialogue off, and it’s comical when poor ol’ Willie tries to interject one of his own flashbacks (“Yeah, that reminds me of….”), only to have Barnabas cut him off with the impatience of someone who has very little time left to “share” ----
Barbara Steele is also basically a narrative utility here, albeit one lovely to listen to, especially compared to the hoarse (night)whispers of Karlen and Frid.
I couldn’t help but picture in my mind the rapidly-aged Barnabas of House of DS as Frid spoke – which was all the more off putting because his character here doesn’t appear to be late in his mortal life. He speaks of many hopeful things for the future, even tho he sounds for all the world like a man practice-reading his last will and testament.
All in all, it was a thrill to finally hear Jonathan Frid as Barnabas one more time --- tho I’ve never felt the full weight of those 40 years quite so much as I did listening to him last night.
I also got a Big Finish show called Echoes of Insanity, with Karlen as Willie in 1968, just after he was shot outside Maggie’s place by cops who mistakenly thought he was her kidnapper. He’s at Windcliffe being treated by Dr. Hoffman, while Angelique probes his subconscious mind (for information that surely would have been easier for a witch to ascertain elsewhere, but what the hey….)
Karlen is as good as ever, as is Lara Parker. I enjoyed delving so far back into the storyline, to when Barnabas (AND Julia!) was far more sinister and dangerous. My one complaint is the way Willie kept denigrating Julia’s physical appearance – Shadows writer Sam Hall, her husband, would never have tolerated such schoolyard chicanery.
He keeps talking about her beady eyes, bird-like physique, mean thin lips, and how she’s “not the kind of woman most men would ever want.” Yeah, she was hypnotizing and grooming him to take a murder rap, but I was dismayed by all the insults about her physicality ---
Other than that minor beef, an excellent show I can highly recommend!
Dark Shadows ALSO used to be featured in a comic book series, which was recently collected in its entirety as a digital set.
I sat and read all 35 issues in one sitting, and was surprised how much I liked a lot of the stories. They seem to have somehow kept that same artist on most issues, despite the sporadic publishing schedule over many years.
Few of the performers outside the main few cast members look anything like their "real" selves, but many of the drawings of Collinwood and the main characters are quite good, especially the full page splashes that usually opened each chapter.
I've had and read most of the DS comics over the years, but never checked them out in order, the entire run. The very last few issues have some of the best interior artwork, and the painted covers from the middle of the run are usually excellent.
Some utterly inexplicable story hiccups, like the issue where Roger and Liz are referenced several times as a married couple (?!), and Liz once calling Barnabas “Barnaby.” The Old House is mostly MIA (Barnabas keeps his coffin in the Collinwood basement – usually, which relegates Willie to only a couple of unexplainable appearances), and there are a ton of inconsistencies about time travel (sometimes all Barnabas has to do is will himself to another time, other instances occur when all time travel requires is a séance or some other device, or even the “grave” dirt vampires supposedly need to sleep on).
Also in flux is how vampires are “sired” (in one issue, someone must die first, and then a couple of issues later it takes only a mild bite to turn someone), etc. ---
But even the most egregious "mistakes" are all in good fun, surrounded by nifty and well written stories that mirror the TV show's dialogue AND its tendency to "adapt" classic horror scenarios (a Golem, Hellfire that sucks you to Hell if you stare into it, ghost pirates, etc etc).
One issue even has a voodoo chant of “Hama…Ka-lu-ta…,” referencing two Gold Key comic artists, Larry Hama and Mike Kaluta!
And who knew the Blue Whale (sometimes) has a giant whale-shaped sign on the roof!
Or that Barnabas’ coffin (sometimes) has his FULL name engraved in a huge gold plaque on the lid (at least when the story dictates the need for a character to instantly know WHO sleeps in there….)
Even the worst issue was actually fun, if ghastly – Quentin, seeking a cure for werewolfism, goes to the Canadian wilderness to collect a bunch of wolf’s blood, and ends up having a kind of environmental Jack London-ian epiphany, with Barnabas not arriving until near the end, mainly because the dumbass turned into a bat and FLEW to Canada, from Maine!! Don’t ask me how he brought his grave dirt and/or found cover in daylight…
And you gotta love the offbeat ads for surprising junk that should never have been peddled in a kids comic, like “Budweiser Power” patches and “Screw the Pigs” middle finger posters from Roach Studios!!
There was also a shortlived DS comic strip running in daily papers, which has been collected in book form - more on that once I can pick up a copy to check it out.
Now then, didja know famed “juvie fiction” author S.E. Hinton (Rumblefish, etc) wrote a sexed-up Dark Shadows novel?
Hawke’s Harbor was originally written as a DS novel, but the DS estate was taken aback by the “mature readers” approach, and denied permission to publish.
So Hinton renamed all the characters and released it as a horror/romance novel (though at least one instance slipped thru where she names one of the Collins by name…)
I was riveted and spellbound all night reading Hawke's Harbor! So well written, and an amazing take on the tale. It was fun figuring out each character's DS counterpart, especially when the realization hit long after a character was introduced, like when "Willie's" seafaring buddy Kellen Quinn announced he wanted to visit his wealthy, secret wife in "Collinsport."
Wow, taking us all the way back to pre-Barnabas DS!
I can see why the keepers of the DS trademarks were freaked out by the "mature content," but that very real-ness is what made the book so amazing. If the events of DS were to happen in the world we live in rather than the world of '60s television, I can believe events would unfold just like Hinton recounts!
Lots of fans have long noticed and commented on the sexual tension and clear attraction between Willie and Maggie. There's even a video on YouTube about this with scenes from the show set to "We Belong to Each Other."
You know what's odd, tho? As I read, I pictured in my mind all performers from the original series....except Barnabas! Not once did the narrative make me picture Jonathan Frid - only Ben Cross's Barney came to mind!
Frid was so courtly, so refined, even effeminate. Or, as those "Marilyn Ross" DS novels from the '70s always overstated, "melancholy." The steel-eyed "It" with a capital "I" in Hinton's novel seems only characterized by Cross' portrayal. There wasn't a single scene in the book, nor even one line of dialogue, that made me picture Frid in my mind, even while the character's "cure" was restoring (some of) his humanity.
ABOUT that Ben Cross/DS revival TV show from the '90s: Most people who care about such ephemera think the NBC series would have continued to be a huge success had it not been for Gulf War coverage constantly pre-empting airdates.
I obsessively SOUGHT each episode, but STILL missed a few that were pre-empted and then turned up on some unannounced alternate day. The actual rescheduled airdates almost never appeared in TV guide - the only way to catch every episode of NBC's Dark Shadows was to monitor NBC every night of the week, once an hour from 8 to 10 pm, to see if an episode would mysteriously appear -
The fuggen thing was the Brigadoon of TV shows......
Ben Cross' Barnabas appeals to me, and I'm such a huge fan of Frid that this came as a surprise to me. He seemed barely in control of his evil rage and about to a boil over any minute, whereas Frid's vampiric side was reduced to a slow simmer after the first year -
Here's a GREAT fan-made video with scenes from the entire original series set to a song by Muse, "Time is Running Out" --
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