From Jonathan Frid to Johnny Depp: Comparing Barnabas Collins, 1967-2012

I didn’t hate Tim Burton’s feature film reboot of Dark Shadows.

Before you fans of the original 1966-1971 ABC-TV series start firing up your torches and heading toward my castle, hear me out. I didn’t say I liked it. I said I didn’t hate it. And there’s one big reason why: Johnny Depp’s portrayal of vampire Barnabas Collins is an homage to original series star Jonathan Frid.

While the Warner Bros. film suffered from a terrible, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink script by Seth Grahame Smith, I can’t hate a movie that pays tribute to an actor who gave me and millions of other fans so much joy over the last 45 years.

Depp himself admitted his debt to Frid, after the 87 year-old actor’s passing in April.

“Jonathan Frid was the reason I used to run home from school to watch Dark Shadows,” Depp said. “When I had the honor to finally meet him, as he so elegantly passed the torch of Barnabas to me, he was as elegant and magical as I had always imagined.”

Some fans have dismissed Depp’s Barnabas as an outsized parody of Frid’s, as if he were ridiculing our Barnabas. I disagree. His makeup and costumes may have been more broadly drawn, but his vocal inflections, physicality and carriage clearly were meant to honor, not ridicule, Frid’s.

Another complaint has been the inconsistent tone of the film, and of Depp’s portrayal.

Remember this: Barnabas was introduced on the original television series as a villain. Even when he morphed into the anti-heroic, teen-magazine cover boy star of the show, he was still a murderer. And even when he stopped (for the most part) chomping necks, he was still beating up his trusted assistant Willie Loomis (John Karlen) and generally being a dick to Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), the doctor who tried to cure his vampirism and ended up in love with him. These are hardly consistent heroic qualities.

In fact, over the two centuries of his fictional “life,” and the half century or so of his narrative existence, the character of Barnabas Collins has been many things to many creative people. The following is a summary of the different iterations of the character, followed by a scale wherein I measure his heroism/villainy.

Dark Shadows - The Original Series (1967-1971)

When Barnabas Collins is introduced in episode 211 on April 18, 1967, he is an unapologetic, cold-blooded killer. He’s socially awkward and visibly nervous, as you might be if you had been sort-of-dead for 170 years and returned to masquerade as your own ancestor.

In his early episodes, the character bites creepy handyman Willie (on the wrist and offscreen, because no guy-guy stuff in 1967), kidnaps and psychologically torments waitress Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), plots to kill a 1o-year-old child, bites his own cousin on the neck and forces Dr. Hoffman to murder her friend and colleague Dr. Woodard (Peter Turgeon). Add to that numerous other human deaths, animal slaughters and unexplained shenanigans and you have a pretty auspicious first six months for a character who would become a hero to America’s children in the late 1960s.

As has been reported many time, series creator Dan Curtis originally envisioned the character as a short-duration villain who would be destroyed in a final, heroic act by Dr. Hoffman. When the ratings (and fan mail) started increasing, this plan was adjusted and the series was sent back to 1795, allowing the villainous vampire to be re-imagined as a romantic hero. Frid excels in this sequence and, although the actor is the same age, the Barnabas of 1795 appears visibly more boyish. It’s at this point in the story that the series introduces the villain who will replace Barnabas as the show’s unrequited baddie – Angelique (Lara Parker), the witch with whom Barnabas has an ill-advised dalliance.

The arrival of Angelique not only begins the transformation of Barnabas from villain to hero, it also allows the viewer to forgive him for everything his has done to date – because it’s not his fault. George Lucas attempting a similar devillainifying of Darth Vader in the STAR WARS prequels, by suggesting that young Annakin Skywalker was the unwitting victim of the evil Emperor. But poor Hayden Christiansen, bless his heart, doesn’t have the acting chops of Jonathan Frid, and the whole enterprise feels phony (at least to any audience member over 30).

When the series returns from 1795, Barnabas pecks at the plate of villainy only as much as the storyline requires. Soon he is fighting all manner of supernatural creatures as the mostly heroic leading man, albiet one who occasionally has to nibble some necks to stay alive/living dead-y.

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: 70/30

Dark Shadows – The Marilyn Ross novel series from Paperback Library (1968-1972)

The 32-title series of Dark Shadows novels by prolific author Dan Ross, writing under the pseudonym Marilyn (the name of his wife), is not considered canon by fans, though they provide the first “alternate look” at Barnabas. The series started in December of 1966 with Dark Shadows and focused on the character of governess Victoria Winters for the first five installments. The focus switched to the adventures of the vampire with Barnabas Collins, released in November, 1968.

For the next 26 books, Barnabas (and later Quentin Collins) battled all manner of supernaturals in a series that, at its height, was delivering a new novel every month. Unlike on TV, the Barnabas of the Ross books was mostly heroic from the get-go, never killing his victims, but also lacking in the complicated depth that Frid provided. The pulp Barnabas was a time traveller who had never been locked in that coffin. Instead he spent 200 years engaging in adventures that provided “Marilyn” Ross with plenty of material.

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: 90/10

Dan Curtis’ HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970)

Dan Curtis finally got his wish to make Barnabas Collins an unapologetic villain in the MGM feature film version of the TV series HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. Released in September of 1970 (after the TV show had already peaked in terms of viewership), this adaptation by series scriber Sam Hall re-told the Barnabas Collins origin story, with certain key differences. Unlike in Tim Burton’s recent film, which added the villainous Angelique to the present day story to allow Barnabas to be the film’s unequivocal hero (with the minor character flaw of being a murderer), in HOUSE, Barnabas is allowed to take center stage in all his anti-heroic glory.

Unshackled from the voluminous memorization assignment that was a daily soap opera, Frid gives what is (in my opinion) the best and most Shakespearan performance of his TV/film career (at least that which still exists on recorded media). No longer clammy and nervous in front of the hot lights of daytime TV, Frid is a smirking, sarcastic killer, apt to explode at any second and commit shocking acts of violence upon anyone who crosses his path.

Yes, he has his sappy walk through the woods with Maggie, and his dinner at the Old House and the Collinsport Inn, but he is never not evil in this movie.

If you haven’t guessed it already, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is my favorite telling of the Dark Shadows myth. It’s a creepy, gory vampire film that is at least as good as anything produced by the famous Hammer Films horror movie mill. And the best news is, it’s finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray just in time for Halloween.

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: 5/95

NBC’s Dark Shadows primetime television re-boot (1990-1991)

Poor Ben Cross. He’s a good actor, but so terrible in the much-heralded, but ultimately unsuccessful early 1990s remake of DS. Where Frid was scary in the TV series, in part, because he himself actually looked scared, Cross just comes off as a dick. He’s mean, snooty and remote, and has zero chemistry with Joanna Going (Victoria Winters) and Jim Fyfe (Willie). He has some nice moments with Barbara Steele (Dr. Julia Hoffman) but their byplay lacks the dysfunctional marriage dynamic that Frid and Hall had in the original.

Cross also suffers from the show’s larger budget, particularly in terms of special effects. There is something delightfully analog about the original series cutting away to terrified victims while Frid puts in his vampire dentures. But Cross’ red eyes and demonic countenance during his attacks remove him from the character in a way that Frid never was.

Like Frid, Cross is given the opportunity to recast himself as the hero when the series flashes back to the past but, the it’s too late. By episode six, I no longer cared about Barnabas and actually rooted against him. You can’t have audience members rooting against the hero and expect the show to have a long life. Not surprisingly, this one did not.

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: 50/50

The WB’s Dark Shadows primetime television re-boot (2004)

The series was never picked up, and the pilot never aired, so it doesn’t count. I did see it at the Dark Shadows Festival in 2006 and remember thinking that Alec Newman was far too handsome to play Barnabas, and too solemn in his portrayal. (Although Kelly Hu as Dr. Hoffman was super hot.)

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: n/a

 

Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS (2012)

For all the reasons that have been discussed, this may actually be the most consistently heroic portrayal of Barnabas yet. Yes, he kills people. And yes, some of them don’t deserve it. But Depp’s Barnabas lacks the craggy faced evil of Frid in HOUSE. He’s a good guy, who occasionally kills. But we all have our bad days.

BARNABAS HERO/VILLAIN INDEX: 80/20

There are other iterations of the Barnabas character, like the current Big Finish audio dramas, the 1969-1976 Gold Key comic book series, the Innovation comics from 1992-93 and the current Dynamite Comics series, as well as various other novels, fan fiction etc. I’m not very familiar with these other adaptations, so I can’t really comment. But I’m sure each one takes the character on its own unique path.

And that’s my point, really. As much as you might like to think so, there is not just one Barnabas Collins. There is, however, a best Barnabas. And his name is Jonathan Frid.

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer and classic film and TV obsessive. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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19 Responses to From Jonathan Frid to Johnny Depp: Comparing Barnabas Collins, 1967-2012

  1. Jim says:

    There is no comparison between Frid and Depp. Frid brought a legitimacy to a difficult role played seriously that brought millions of fans to the show; Depp made a mockery of it with his clown makeup and bad jokes and hammy performance. Had he and Burton not fired John August and done a more serious take on it, they would have had a hit instead of a bomb. Dan Curtis knew to play it for camp or ‘wink at the camera’ would kill the whole premise. And he was certainly proved right in 2012.

    • Jim says:

      If I hear the word “homage” and ‘tribute’ uttered with respect to Depp’s mockery… The publicists loved using those words, told the filmmakers to use it a lot to defuse their mockery, and now to hear people parrot it back like it’s actuality… Grf. Both words have lost their meaning. Makes me throw up a little in my mouth every time I hear/read it. Did then, still does now. Except a little more so!

      Otherwise, excellent article!

      • Judy Perry says:

        Exactly. I was laughing out loud literally reading this but agree the the whole homage bit is disingenuous at best. Would Frid’s Barnabas have done a blow job scene? A fly-about sexual encounter? No, because his Barnabas was *dignified*. And Depp’s wasn’t.

      • willmckinley says:

        Jim, I am no apologist for the movie. It genuinely made me sad when I saw it, practically alone in the theater, at the Thursday night midnight show the day before the official opening.

        It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again. Without the attention generated by a big budget, major studio release, we wouldn’t have: the complete series box set that’s now in its second printing; the “best of” DVD compilations with Kathryn Leigh Scott and Lara Parker: the new “Return to Collinwood” book by KLS; the handsome reprints of Lara Parker’s “Dark Shadows” novels; the encyclopedic update of “Barnabas & Company” by Craig Hamrick & R.J. Jamison; the collections of Gold Key comics; the reissue of the rare DS graphic novel by Hermes Press; or, perhaps most importantly, the Blu-ray releases of the two feature films based on the series. Nor would we have an entirely new generation of fans discovering the show on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon and writing about it on Twitter, Tumblr and all sort of social media services that allow the message to be spread to others.

        There was a “Dark Shadows” table filled with new books – based on the original series – at Barnes and Noble in the weeks leading up to the movie’s release! That would never, ever have happened without this film.

        And I strongly believe that the coverage of Jonathan Frid’s passing, which happened to occur while the pre-release buzz for the movie was at its highest, would not have been nearly as extensive and elegiac if not for the film. That, along with his appearance in it, is reason enough to be happy the film exists.

        How can any true fan of “Dark Shadows” be opposed to a film that, however flawed, gave us one last chance to see Jonathan Frid on the big screen?

        Tim Burton’s DARK SHADOWS will be forgotten, like his PLANET OF THE APES was forgotten. In both cases the original will long outlive the remake. In the meantime, we fans will continue to reap the benefits.

  2. Heidi Helmick says:

    Well said Willy!!!

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  5. Judy Perry says:

    Oh, and I disagree with the Ben Cross rating. My Dad who laughed at my Mom and I for watching the OS got hooked by the Ben Cross revival and then watched all 1,200+ OS episodes. And I think he and Joanna Going had wonderful chemistry.

    • Edward Drake says:

      I absolutely agree with you, Judy. Ben Cross was wonderful as Barnabas, and he and Joanna did have great chemistry.

  6. kadja1 says:

    Well if you didn’t make it past episode six with the Dark Shadows Revival, you wasted your diatribe on Ben Cross and should have never mentioned him because that was irresponsible on your part as a writer. Ben did exactly as Dan Curtis, who KNEW what he was doing, told him to do…He also refused to cast Johnny Depp in the role because he felt that Depp was not right for the part years ago, and he was right. Mr. Curtis knew what he wanted. He was the creator and his vision should have been respected when this film was made. It wasn’t. Seth Grahame Smith should be banned from anything to do with DS for that script.

    Now that Mr. Frid is gone, as far as I am concerned, Ben Cross owns that role and raised the bloody bar too high for others to follow suit (including Depp) and you will find plenty of fans who agree with that statement. I did grow up watching the original and while Frid made him so human like to me, and made him a character I could have sympathy for, it was Ben Cross that made him real, menacing and in a constant battle trying to temper the beast that dwelled within. Sorry but he did not come across as a “dick” as you say.

    BTW, it was the Gulf War that killed the ratings for the show (common knowledge there)–not Cross’s portrayal. I suggest you do your homework (e.g.–reading the book by Kathryn Leigh Scott called “Return to Collinwood”) before making any statement to the contrary. They wanted to bring it back in 1998 in the form of a series of movies, but Curtis said no…Had that show been left in a decent time slot, it would have made it. Even critics now agree on that one. Once the war began, all eyes were on the news–not the TV shows.

    • willmckinley says:

      Kadja – Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I did make it past episode 6 of the 1990s “Dark Shadows,” as difficult as that may have been. I remember 20 years ago like it was yesterday, and just as many fans who dislike Depp’s portrayal today disliked Ben Cross’s, if not more. To say he “owns” the role is like suggesting that Cedric the Entertainer owns the role of Ralph Kramden because he appeared in the 2005 feature film remake of “The Honeymooners.”

      Lots of excuses were made for why the ratings for the 1990s “Dark Shadows” were poor: the Gulf War, the time slot, the narrative structure of the show. If you have Bush administration intelligence that suggests the real reason we invaded Iraq was to kill a nighttime soap opera about vampires, I’d love to see it. Shows get cancelled for one reason: because they have low ratings. ‘Dark Shadows” had low ratings. And if Curtis could have made money by bringing it back again in 1998, he would have.

      Thanks again.

      • jimcricket64 says:

        Low ratings came from the fact that there were constant pre-emptions for new reports, and it was bounced all over the schedule, so you could never find it on at a consistent time. Can’t find it, can’t watch it means low ratings. I remember it well myself.

        And the cast had scattered by 1998, thus could not be brought back together, and Curtis decided not to go with the movie format for what should be a series anyway.

        Journalism 101, do your research.

      • willmckinley says:

        Thank God the cast was scattered by 1998. Because the cast was pretty horrendous.

  7. kadja1 says:

    Actually, your writing qualifies for that definition. The Revival Series has a huge following of loyal fans. Why? It stuck to the storyline that Dan Curtis envisioned. It is that simple. If you did your homework, you would be aware of that. It is also gaining new fans as a result of hulu.com…The cast of the 2012 movie was pretty horrendous in my book with the exceptions of Gulliver McGrath and Michelle Pfeiffer. The whole premise of the storyline was botched by changing up Angelique’s characterization. By having her in charge of Collinsport, what the hell would she need Barnabas for? She never loved “him”–she wanted to elevate her status…By writing it this way, it made for a completely different story. It should have been called “Occupy Collinwood”…It certainly was not “Dark Shadows” .

  8. Erica says:

    “How can any true fan of “Dark Shadows” be opposed to a film that, however flawed, gave us one last chance to see Jonathan Frid on the big screen?”

    Well, since you asked… There is no fan truer than I; I’ve seen every episode multiple times, own every book that’s been written about it, have been to festivals, seen both DS movies, blah blah blah. I’ve had a crush on David Selby since I was 12. And I HATED the movie. Passionately. So passionately, I actually burst into tears when I left the theater.

    You are an excellent writier, Mr. McKinley, and this is a well-done article. But sorry, I didn’t see Depp’s performance as homage in the least. He made the character of Barnabas look like a fop and an ass, stripping all of his dignity, his poignancy, his various nuances. And it makes me sad and angry that the brilliant Jonathan Frid’s final appearance was three seconds in this pile of dreck.

    When Mr. Frid passed away one month before the film’s release, I wept along with all the other fans who’d adored him for years. But I also thought it was his final “@#$% you” — “Ugh. I may have shlepped all the way to London to be in this thing, but I’ll be damned if I live long enough to watch it.”

    • Joe Comer says:

      I hadn’t heard about Jonathan’s comments!! Probably one of the reasons the film failed at the box office. As far as being an homage to the original, Mr. McKinley is incorrect. No filmmaker, including the great Mel Brooks with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN ever lives up to or pays proper tribute to an original work by doing a spoof of that work no matter how hard they try. But at least each work is original. That’s why I love it when a director and screenwriter sees things slightly differently, gives us a different prospective and takes a completely different approach in presenting it. This is what happened with Mel Brooks’ film and this is what happened with the Burton/Depp film. While the Brooks film is a classic, the Burton film is not. It’s approach is not always successful. But who knows? Perhaps twenty years from now, thanks to the internet and the various recorded sources that are available, all of us original “Dark Shadows” fans will be able to look back on this film and at least have a chuckle or two. After all, what other film allows us to see a vampire brush his teeth/fangs??? That IS funny. And immensely original! My advice to you is sit back, take a nice deep breath and let originality and creativity live. And realize that Mr. Burton is not Mr. Curtis, and vice versa. And the same goes for comparing Johnny Depp and Jonathan Frid. I think even the fabulous Mr. Frid, if he were still with us would see a lot to agree with in that

  9. Sunshine Lee says:

    Hear, hear, Erica!

  10. paul sousa says:

    The original Dark Shadows was a great show! I remember watching this as a 12 year old growing up in the 1960’s! The stories were fascinating and the actors were great! The 1991 Revival Series was very good! Ben Cross did an excellent job of portraying Barnabas Collins! I was so disappointed with the Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp version of Dark Shadows! The best part of the movie was the first 15 minutes, and then it went downhill from there!

  11. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s remark to Dan Quayle comparing Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas to Johnny Depp’s, “Johnny, I did conventions with Jonathan Frid. I knew Jonathan Frid. Jonathan Frid was a friend of mine. Johnny, you’re no Jonathan Frid.” Mr. Depp is a great actor in other roles, and he deserves the accolades he’s earned, but this portrayal here was such a dismal failure, “ugh” is about the kindest expression I can use. As for Jonathan “passing the torch,” I think it was more of a wet match.

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