May 24

Dark Shadows — this month on Geek Speak!

This article is cross-posted at Geek Speak Magazine. I didn’t get much of a chance to contribute this month on anything because of work, but I hope you like this piece!

The concept was simple: a mysterious girl on a train, acting mysteriously. A scene that had been etched on the brain of writer Dan Curtis, and stayed there to haunt him. Somehow, this pitch spawned funding, which resulted in a show. The first scene? A girl acting mysteriously on a train. So all that funding and all that pitching? Over in the first scene.

So what to do after that? Why, spawn the zaniest, most secretly influential soap opera ever, of course!

Dark Shadows started in 1966 and for 5 years entertained people with plots that ranged from typical soap to what could be best described as a spoof on vampire films. Starring Alexandra Moltke as the mysterious girl who ends up as Victoria Winters, we meet her and the mysterious family she works for: the Collinses. Over the years, we finally uncover the family secrets, including that patriarch Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is a vampire. This show was a big hit, with ratings that soap operas will never see again. At its height, it hit an 8.4 rating. By comparison, today’s most popular soap opera, The Young and the Restless, gets about a 4.0. These ratings were mainly due to the influence of teenagers coming home from school, and loving the show. Indeed, the afternoon favorite of the 60s was the mysteries of one Collinsport, Maine.

This secretive family with all its intricacies and mystical plot lines may sound familiar: it was a common trope of another, later soap opera, Passions. Following the stories of four families in the misnamed town of Harmony, there were witches and demons as well as time travel and even musicals in Passions. The shows also were similar in attracting the attention of teenagers. As opposed to the 60s, teens are now considered much more valuable as consumers, and so despite the much lower ratings of Passions, its ability to hit the 18-24 demographic sweet spot guaranteed it a spot for nine years.

Passions was certainly not the only attempted remake of Dark Shadows: a Canadian soap opera named Strange Paradise followed on CBC Television for a short time in 1969 and 1970. Additionally, the 6-year run of Port Charles was a cross between General Hospital (which was the original intent, as it was a GH spinoff) and Dark Shadows (what with the vampires).

But Dark Shadows does not just have its initial five-year run, a short resurgence in 1991 as a primetime remake (Dark Shadows: The Return), and a few copycats. Its biggest victory is its influence on more “mainstream” soap operas like Days of Our Lives, which has more of a traditional soap opera audience. In this case, it may well be that Port Charles was the gateway drug: by showing that supernatural plots could work on platforms such as the Port Charles General Hospital, it showed that soap opera audiences were receptive to ever-fantastical storylines.

While Marlena Evans (Deirdre Hall) on Days being possessed by Satan is the most obvious DS-like plot point, there are many others. How about secret islands, aliens, and people mysteriously coming back from the dead? While tropes like Soap Opera Rapidly Aging Syndrome (where a child disappears at age 8, and returns a few months later at 16) have always existed, these other kinds of plots did not exist on the staple soaps until after they realized that, in order to shore up flagging ratings, they had to capture new audiences. Suddenly, supercouples weren’t cutting it anymore. While most soaps try to add some pseudo-scientific information to their plotlines so they don’t seem so magical (stolen ovaries creating new characters?), the line is very thin. And as we know in genre fandom, while there is a separation between stories of vampires and zombies and aliens, it’s all coming from the same source.

Now Dark Shadows has one more piece to add to its franchise: a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp (who was a huge fan of the original show) as the iconic Barnabas Collins, Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman. Even better, the screenplay was written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who by this time has become an expert on mashups and call-backs (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter being among his claims to fame). While a few of his early books are works in progress, the man knows how keep the flavor of an original intact. To those people new to Dark Shadows, this movie gives a dose of the franchise without 1225 episodes of soap to wade through. It’s also much more straight-forward than the original soap, telling the story in one timeline with few reveals, unlike the original where people traveled back and forth in time, creating paradoxes on top of paradoxes.

In this version of the story, Depp’s Collins is cursed with vampirism by Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a witch. Once cursed, she chained him and buried him for two hundred years. Finally freed in 1972 (a year after the show itself ended), Barnabas decides to set the family back to its rightful place in the community, and falls in love with the beautiful “Victoria Winters” (Bella Heathcote) who is really the reincarnation of his beloved fiancée, Josette.

One thing I loved about this movie is that it spent an inordinate amount of time on the “mysterious girl riding a train” scene. It was a nice homage to DS creator Dan Curtis, and a way to get more money’s worth from that dream he turned into a successful and influential 5-year show. Of course, we have little to do with Vickie after her introductory scenes, but really Johnny Depp is busy stealing the show by then anyway, with his ability to realistically portray how someone would react to finding themselves 200 years in the future.

I think the other thing that this movie does, besides giving the audience an excellent primer on Dark Shadows, is to set up the possibility of a sequel with Julia Hoffman’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) return. I hope there is enough interest! It would be great to see the tropes that we missed in this iteration: mainly the incredibly obvious multiple characters played by the same actor and the time travels and portals that seemed to be everywhere in the series. And while this movie had Heathcote, of Australian soap Neighbours fame, playing the dual role of Victoria and Josette, I felt it would be quite delightful to have someone of Depp’s or Pfeiffer’s caliber play those parts. Other plot points, such as daughter of the house Carolyn’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) lycanthropy, were also used as something of a punch line here. Fleshed out, it could be a great story, as well.

When watching film adaptations, most people focus on things that the movie changed or left out. Maybe it’s advancing age that’s caused this writer to loosen up, but the movie was as faithful to the original as it could have been. A tight plot was needed, and although in the show Victoria is not the Josette reincarnation (although there is a Barnabas/Victoria plotline), and Julia Hoffman is a historian who doesn’t die in the show, the movie did what it could to deliver a faithful story in two hours.

We at Geek Speak hope that this last movie will not be a coda, but will cause more of a Dark Shadows renaissance in coming years. It could even spawn a new movie movement: films based on soap operas! If that becomes the case, I look forward to Passions: The Movie and maybe General Hospital: This Time with More Mobsters.

If so, I can’t wait!

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