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.
“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.