David Wingrove, being a big fan of the TV Dark Shadows, and a fan of Tim Burton (he even liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND, gah!), went to see Burton’s DARK SHADOWS with an open mind — and found it inspired a number of intriguing observations, which he has assembled into the following piece (writing as David Melville) —
Afternoons in my childhood were a strange and dangerous world. School over, my parents still at work and my grandmother busy in the kitchen boiling dinner, I would sneak into the living room and pull the curtains shut against the light. Creeping on tiptoe towards the TV – remotes (in our house, at least) were not yet invented – I would turn the switch softly to ON. Thrill to the wail of a theremin; a black-and-white seascape of waves crashing onto rocks. Then the magic words would fill the screen: DARK SHADOWS.
For the next half-hour or so, I was transported. Away from school and suburbia, and into a hidden world of dreams. Girls in filmy white night-gowns wandered alone through graveyards, bathed in moonlight and swathed in mists of dry ice. Tall and dark and lethally handsome men would rise, abruptly, out of coffins. Loom over the girls, resplendent in their dark capes, and sink their teeth – lovingly and ever so gently – into their soft, pale throats. Portraits of long-dead ladies would shiver and come to life. Drift about in unlit corridors, transparent ghosts of crinoline and bone. Wolves would wail and howl. Lurking always, conveniently, just off camera. It was, in a word, paradise.
I took care, on those far-off haunted afternoons, to keep the sound turned low – almost silent. My middle-class Canadian family was vigilant against anything ‘unsuitable’ or, worse, ‘unwholesome’ and Dark Shadows was the one show I was flatly forbidden to watch. My mother was convinced – with good reason, I suppose – that it would scare me and give me nightmares. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, frightened of many things. School, with its uniform of grey shorts, ugly red blazer and matching cap. Science and arithmetic, both totally beyond me, as was – horror of horrors! – sport. Teachers with gunmetal eyes and barking voices. Bicycles, on which I could never balance and always fell off. Assembly, where we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and my throat seized up with fear so I could barely speak.
Yes, life at six years of age was full of terrors. But Dark Shadows with its setting, Collinwood Manor, was the least frightening and most beautiful place I had ever seen. The one world, perhaps, where I truly felt I belonged. Clearly, a whole generation of misfit kids felt the same way. The original soap opera, created by Dan Curtis, ran every weekday from 1966 to 1971 and spawned two big-screen movies – House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – neither of which I have ever seen. Unsuccessfully revived as a TV series in the 90s, it has now become a mega-budget screen epic directed by Goth maestro Tim Burton.
By any regular cinematic standard, this is fantastically good news. Like any other Tim Burton extravaganza (leaving aside the perplexing Big Fish) the 2012 Dark Shadows is slick, smooth and uniquely compulsive entertainment. Johnny Depp, alluring in black eyeliner as vampire Barnabas Collins, adds one more to his list of camp Gothic grotesques. Michelle Pfeiffer, in full-on diva mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, wears her eye-poppingly hideous 70s outfits with commendable aplomb. Eva Green is more expressive, and Helena Bonham Carter less annoying, than past experience gives us any right to hope. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (whose other recent film is Alexander Sokurov’s Faust) has images inspired by – indeed, worthy of – such Romantic painters as Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. The visuals, as always in a Burton movie, are several quantum leaps ahead of the script.
Had I not made the mistake – forty-odd years ago, I admit, at an age when I was far too young to know better – of watching and loving the original Dark Shadows with such passion, I might well be wholly thrilled with the Burton remake. Yet somehow, there was something not quite right. So wrong, in fact, that I went on Amazon and ordered the newly reissued Dark Shadows box set. (Don’t worry, not the whole series – just three discs and twenty episodes, which introduce the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins.) This was something I felt obscurely afraid to do. Revisiting the past could only expose my childhood dream as the cheap, shoddy mirage that it undoubtedly was. Like a fairground Haunted House with the lights on. Black paint peeling, and sawdust and chewing gum piled up in the corners.
It took me one episode – well, perhaps two – to see where and how Tim Burton had slipped up. The original Barnabas Collins (played by the craggy-faced Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose one film of note is Oliver Stone’s 1974 debut Seizure) is a ruthless bisexual seducer who preys, both physically and psychologically, on other main characters. Rising out of his coffin, he latches onto the resident beefcake Willie Loomis (John Karlen, later the hero in Harry Kümel’s 1970 Daughters of Darkness) and revives by draining his bodily fluids. Willie is the protégé of a camp older gentleman named Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick, whose name is the author of Auntie Mame, only backwards). Jason is blackmailing Elizabeth (played by film noir legend Joan Bennett) for the murder of her husband – who may also have been (we can’t help but wonder) his lover. He and Barnabas swiftly form a gay triangle around Willie. Everything hinges on who gets to suck what from whom.
After resuscitating himself with the blood of a man, Barnabas turns his attentions to a nubile young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott, as local waitress Maggie Evans) but keeps Willie on as his factotum and blood bank. (This is the same pattern – Dark Shadows was nothing if not derivative – as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original novel, feasting initially on the hero, Jonathan Harker and only later on Mina, his wife.) Willie seems, at once, protective and obscurely jealous of his female rival. His relationship with Barnabas grows ever more twisted. Towards the end of the episodes I saw, Barnabas gives him a sadomasochistic thrashing with a huge carved metal walking stick – an heirloom the vampire proudly shows off to Maggie, and which she greatly admires.
The implicit queerness of the original Dark Shadows was, of course, never spelled out in the script. But it is expunged, ruthlessly and systematically, from the 2012 remake. The cutesy Barnabas Collins played by Johnny Depp seems to feed exclusively on extras. At no point does he pose a threat to the Collins family, or to any of the other major characters. (His killing of Dr Julia Hoffmann, the psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter, is done purely in self-defence.) The film’s Willie is no sexy young stud, but a shambling grotesque out of The Addams Family. His older male protector is, of course, nowhere in sight. A menage so relentlessly heterosexual, it is more Little House on the Prairie than Collinwood Manor.
In de-gaying and de-fanging Dark Shadows, Burton has made his vampire only slightly less innocuous than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. Barnabas, as played by Johnny Depp, embodies not good old-fashioned Eros and Thanatos – the way a vampire should – but squeaky-clean 21st century Family Values. “The greatest wealth of all is family,” Depp intones as he revives the Collins fortune and saves his mortal relatives from the brink of ruin. Legions of Born Again Republicans across America would doubtless agree. Tim Burton, who was hailed two decades ago as the Great Dark Hope of Hollywood, is now looking more and more like a Gothic Steven Spielberg. Yes, he’s still a unique film artist but – as the TV Barnabas so memorably quipped – “Uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing.”