Thursday, January 14, 2021

Dark Shadows: The Revival Begins


When a boozing handyman decodes the secret location of a wealthy family’s long-lost treasures, he uncovers the deadliest legacy of all. Can the new tutor for the family’s troubled heir unravel the mystery before becoming a bride of the living dead? Loomis: Jim Fyfe. (Repeat. 1 hr.) 

All-around scamp Willie Loomis unleashes Barnabas Collins, a vampire trapped in his own coffin for two centuries. Masquerading as his own descendant, Collins reclaims his dilapidated ancestral home and is compelled to woo his family’s newest employee, a soulful governess who resembles the bride he lost centuries before, 

When Ben Cross died, I remember writing that the 1991 Dark Shadows "revival" was the first expression of the franchise that felt like mine. It was the first Dark Shadows production of any kind  to roll out in my lifetime. More or less. I was born just a few days after the program went off the air, and, let's put the cards on the table, I'm not really sure Night of Dark Shadows counts except as a metaphor for the Fine Art of Settling for What We Got that was the albatross of being a fan back then. Few gigantic pop culture phenomena required as much of its fans as Dark Shadows at that time. This was a program you were lucky to even catch on TV. In 1990, many of the fans had never seen the entire series and had no real hope of doing so. I worked for public television at the time, and the rumor around the station was that Worldvision was asking so much for the final package that absolutely no station would carry it. True? False? I don't know. But I don't see Gerard Stiles around here, do you? 

Following the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea of a prime time, big-budget, hour-long television series on the most powerful network on television was like a reward for loyalty. And it immediately created a strange sense of conflict with the original series. To this day, I feel inexplicably disloyal saying nice things about a TV series that could have hired almost all of the original stars, the oldest of which, among a certain age bracket, wasn't even 50.  Still, putting that aside, this was an incredible proof-of-concept. This was an affirmation that Dark Shadows was not just a TV series.  A recognition like this is like finding yourself on the pop culture equivalent of the periodic table. Attention was at last being paid. And honestly? The fact that the original actors were not featured was, strangely, a compliment to them. It was an acknowledgement that they created something so indelible that it became larger than their individual personalities. If anything, it was a tribute to their immortality…  just a few inconvenient decades early.  

In my lifetime, there was no better time to be a Dark Shadows fan. Twin Peaks had cleared a path for a nighttime supernatural mystery soap opera.  Anne Rice was going great guns and had yet to go through that weird, post-9/11 Jesus phase. The Lost Boys wasn't that long ago, and if the Bernard Hughes character isn't the prototype for what they did with Dave Woodard, then… well... I don't need to bother coming up with something to finish the sentence. He clearly was the model. 

And you've got to love that. However, therein lies the ultimate reason for the show's failure. Bernard Hughes. Mastermind of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait? You tell me. The future staff of Dark Shadows goes to see The Lost Boys and the hot property they come back with is a character kind of like Bernard Hughes. Yeah, that's the takeaway, apparently. Keep in mind, I exist in a world where Bernard Hughes defines male sex appeal. But there are times when I wonder if I am actually the entertainment industry's key demographic. Not that a 1991 Dark Shadows has to be the Lost Boys, but it was state-of-the-art. And the 1991 Dark Shadows… was not.

I don't lay the failure of the show on the Gulf War. I had a reason to watch the show because I was a Dark Shadows fan. So, I did what a person did at the time; I read the newspaper and I read TV Guide and I followed the show around like Waldo wherever it might pop up on the schedule in between Iraq’s regularly scheduled missile attacks on Israel.  I never missed an episode. So, if motivated, it was scientifically possible for a viewer to keep up with the crazy schedule of the show. But the rest of the nation was not properly motivated. Logic dictates that the program, despite its quality, did not significantly motivate viewers en masse. And that's what happened.

Dan Curtis was 39 when the original Dark Shadows went on the air. To put this into perspective, not only was he a relatively young man, but his greatest inspiration, Tod Browning's Dracula, was only 35 years old when the original TV show premiered. Yeah, it was only five years older than the Dark Shadows remake is now. It was all pretty fresh, cosmically speaking. In fact, the original novel was less than 70 years old at that point. But by 1990, Dan Curtis was 63. Horror had reinvented itself at least twice since he was a prime mover in the field. And while no one would call him tired, he produced a Dark Shadows remake that had the kind of dated swagger that comes from someone who helps invent a genre. Because of that, maybe he doesn't see a lot of need to check in with what has become of that before jumping in again. I kind of get the feeling that everyone around the office considered Dark Shadows 1991 relevant because Dan Curtis said it was relevant .  Unfortunately, the Zeitgeist didn't get the memo.

In the long run, I think this serves the 1991 Dark Shadows series better now than it did at the time. It has a stately confidence that grows as the series moves on. But I don't know many people who hang out at the water cooler gushing about how excited they are to see more stately confidence that night on TV. Perhaps, in 1990, God help me, it needed a blond Barnabas with spiky hair and a leather jacket. That was the fashion back then, and at least it would be a tribute to paying attention. And that's great. They didn’t do that. After all, conservative clothes never go out of style. It has an admirable stodginess that a 63 year old guy who had  just spent a decade waging World War II would look at and say, "Yeah, that's about right." 

Yes, let's admit it, we answered the question, "What if somebody gave a Dark Shadows and nobody came?”  Because it was not Twin Peaks. It was a response to the Zeitgeist of 1967 that got made 23 years too late. Me? My idea of a great band back then was and still is the Ink Spots. So, I like the fact that the show is not some winkingly postmodern flavor of the month, diagnosing the audience's sperm motility the old-fashioned way with a high style that can't make up its mind if it's parody or sincere. Like Twin Peaks. Instead, that show just bullies you by condescendingly Lynchsplaining that whatever tonal interpretation you have of it is wrong. But my real beef with that show is that it was successful and reportedly good and a lot of people liked it and instead of priming the audience for Dark Shadows, it created a situation where Dark Shadows was criticized by many for not being it. 

And because the man works his ass off to run this particular Bartertown, I have to acknowledge the head of the Historical Society here. It would be ooky not to.  You get the daybook, I believe, because Wallace has big executive stuff to do. The guy is a fantastic writer. Go back and read Monster Serial if you want proof. Look at the first line of his Alien review. It is rhetorically sublime. The man knows what he's talking about. One day, if I'm lucky, I will be able to hook a reader with a simple first sentence like the one he uses there. Wallace loves Twin Peaks, and he's smarter than I am to an extent that makes me a gym coach who's gotten stuck trying to muddle through an organic chemistry textbook because the actual teacher has jury duty. He loves Twin Peaks, so go watch it. I'm just cranky because what kind of a world is it where a guy dressed up like Barnabas Collins (Dale Cooper in his natty black suits) gets all of the cultural cachet while the new Barnabas Collins struts around in vaguely dated turtlenecks that make him look like Ron Burgundy's mortician?  Barnabas Collins was not a man with much need for business casual circa 1979.  I swear to God,  I think Willie just raided Roger’s latest donation to AMVETS and convinced Barnabas that it would impress Victoria. I'm sure he talked Barnabas  into slathering himself with Paco Rabanne, wearing a gold chain under the offensive turtleneck,  and probably sansabelt slacks just to complete the ensemble.  Ben Cross brings a uniquely regal sensibility to Barnabas, and it works best in the context of the 1791 flashback. That's really where the character comes into his own, and since everyone knows what the mystery of Barnabas Collins actually is, I wish they had simply started the series there. It would have given a fresh sense of sympathy and relevance to his quest for Josette, allowing them to enter the modern era with Barnabas as an understandably reluctant vampire. That was a magical choice that the original series had to discover through trial and error. There's no need to repeat the learning process. Let the story itself do the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, Cross is forced to play an almost cartoonishly suave and confident vampire who is largely interesting because he's named Barnabas Collins. I wish they had allowed him to explore the nervous, fearful, and  paranoid, dethroned aristocrat that I always think of when considering the essence of Barnabas Collins in those early episodes.  Cross was reportedly a man with a tremendous and ebullient sense of mischief, and I think he would have risen to that challenge with a lot of gratitude.

Having had fun at the expense of a show I actually like, let me list what really works in this pilot. The cast is incredibly strong.  Joanna Going is positively luminous as Victoria Winters.  Alexandra Moltke strikes me as playing a loving caregiver for a disturbed boy who also does what she can as an educator. Joanna Going gets to play a highly credible educator who also happens to have a skill at reaching this disturbed young man. It's an important distinction, and it makes it easy to root for her as a character capable of solving Collinwood's mysteries rather than someone I'm just kind of concerned about. The rest of the performers spend most of their time doing what casts do in a pilot; they recite exposition. But they execute it with a sense of investment and stakes. Roy Thinnes’ natural presence and dark integrity help to create a different type of Roger Collins, but one I am just as interested in seeing revealed. This is a man who has been married to a fire demon and has lived to tell the tale. And it's wonderful to see Jean Simmons out of makeup, despite having rock and rolled all day and partied every night.

In a cast of standout performances, there are several unexpected ones that work exceptionally well and are worthy of special praise. Dan Curtis and the team make lightning strike twice with the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as David Collins. Like David Henesy before him, he has a blend of maturity, menace, confidence, and vulnerability that does the impossible by making a child character just as interesting and unpredictable as any of the adults. Equally terrific is Barbara Blackburn. She combines Caroline’s necessary youth with a mature intelligence, sense of wit, and honest, smokey-voiced eroticism grounded more in those inner qualities than simply relying on her bone deep physical beauty. As with the women of the original Dark Shadows cast, Hollywood really missed the boat by not casting her in everything possible for the next 30 years. 

My favorite of all of them is Saint Jim Fyfe. His audition was reportedly an explosive exercise in risk-taking that commanded his casting… despite being nothing like John Karlen.  Because the character is so distinctive, he gets to have far more fun than anyone else in the cast. Fyfe and the writers know that this character is destined to be a sympathetic everyman, loyal to Barnabas more and more out of an instinctive sense of his master’s nascent humanity than fear.  It’s only now that I can see a series where Willie is the audience surrogate more than Victoria.  Making Willie the troubled inheritor of the Ben (Stokes) Loomis mantle grounds his sense of loyalty in something larger than himself, and it is the thread that so beautifully ties together the two eras occupied by the show. No, he’s not John Karlen. But he does what I think Karlen would champion; he makes the character his own rather than an imitation. It’s a trait shared by his castmates, but he gets to explore the furthest dimensions of it. There are few episodes of the series where he doesn’t make me laugh and tear up just a tad. Fyfe embodies the single most important adage in selecting performers: choose the most interesting actor, not just the most naturalistic. 

If Dark Shadows 1991 failed to be a show with numbers demanding a second season, and if it falls short of being the late-Eighties music video nightmare that might have gotten all the gang talking at the sock hop, it doesn’t matter. It sustains its half-season with a unique, compelling, and headstrong voice that doesn’t need to ask for anyone’s approval. Dan Curtis’ braggadocio may have created a strangely anachronistic show, but given the nature of its lead character, that may have been the most loyal choice possible. 

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