Friday, April 20, 2012

Dark Shadows Off The Wall

Dark Shadows has reentered the public consciousness for a couple of reasons.  Johnny Depp and Tim Burton are attempting a reboot of the camp classic with their upcoming film, re-imagining the Gothic horror tale as a comic fish-out-of-water (with fangs) story. 
I must admit to being a DS geek, but I am not one who reveres the series without reservation;  as such, I look forward to seeing how Depp, who confesses to being obsessed with Barnabas Collins as a child, and Burton, who never made a visually dull movie, update the story for a modern audience.

Dark Shadows is in the news for a second, less celebratory reason this week as well:

Jonathan Frid
DS hit paydirt with the romance
of Barnabas and Josette.
With justification, Jonathan Frid is credited with saving the struggling Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows from cancellation, and even for putting the show into the popular culture.  He had studied as an actor at RADA, and earned the MFA in Directing at Yale, so he can legitimately be called classically trained. 
In Arsenic and Old Lace,
Frid played Jonathan Brewster,a role
written for Boris Karloff.
His first love was always the stage, appearing in the early seasons at The Williamstown Theatre Festival, and after his stint on DS, he starred in the Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace.  It's likely he felt much more confident in the theatre, with its substantial rehearsal period, as he never really conquered the fast pace of the daytime soap opera.  But Frid's insecurities notwithstanding, his performance as the vampire Barnabas Collins was seminal.  His was the first portrayal of a vampire as a reluctant predator, as tortured as his victims.  Anne Rice's vampires, television's Angel, and the Twilight twink must all point to Barnabas Collins as their antecedent.

Dark Shadows was struggling from the date of its first broadcast in 1966.
The cast played rep, portraying characters in the present and the past.
Creator Dan Curtis reports that the idea behind the world's first Gothic soap opera came in a dream, in which a lonely young woman takes a train to a remote, mysterious location. 
Moltke left acting when she became
Claus von Bulow's mistress, as he
was being tried for his wife's murder.
From that dream, Curtis concocted the tale of an orphaned woman travelling to a remote village in Maine, in search of her roots.  Neophyte actress Alexandra Moltke played the young heroine of the show, and for the first several months of the series, her voice intoned in an introductory voice-over, "My name is Victoria Winters."

Nobody cared.  With its brooding music, dark lighting, and hulking sets, the show looked nothing like As The World Turns, or any other traditional soap opera of the day. 

Episode #1 introduced noir fatale Joan Bennett
as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard.
Within the first year, Dan Curtis introduced a supernatural plotline concerning a ghost, and another revolving around a woman with powers over fire.  Nothing clicked, and rumors were rampant that the show was on the way out.  Curtis made a bold choice and steered the show solidly into the realm of the supernatural, and created the character which would save the show, the vampire.

Subtlety was not the show's strong point.
Jonathan Frid was on his way to California to begin a teaching career when he learned he had snagged the part of Barnabas Collins, which he expected to be a short-term gig.  Curtis himself expected the role to last only 6-10 weeks, but the audience reaction to the character skyrocketed, and Frid became the most recognizable daytime star of the period.  He became the central character of the series, a position with which he was never comfortable. 

Dark Shadows is now available on DVD, and I've been watching all 1225 episodes, in order.  (It's taking years, as one can only watch one or two episodes at a time, the pace of the show is glacial.) 
Nancy Barrett as music hall
singer Pansy Faye. She was one
the more versatile of the DS cast.
As much as I loved the show as a kid, and enjoy it as a piece of nostalgia now, I cannot overlook the inconsistent quality of the series.  The show was presented "live-to-tape," which meant that, though the episodes were not shot live per se, the logistics of the show required that the full 30 minute episode be taped without stopping.  There is a frantic, under-rehearsed quality to many of the episodes, and Jonathan Frid's performance is a prime offender.  He was clearly not a quick study, and his insecurity with his lines pops up in almost every episode.  He can be forgiven, as, once his popularity soared, he appeared in almost every episode.
Bennett and Frid struggled for lines.
Her role as Judith Collins was her
best of the time-hopping series.
The rest of the Dark Shadows core cast was inconsistent as well.  The supposed star of the series was Joan Bennett, who had a fairly big career in Hollywood during its Golden Age, with her biggest successes in film noir efforts.  I was always fascinated by Bennett, but on subsequent viewings, I can see that I was attracted by her natural elegance and style (and her authentic New England accent).  But Joan did not possess the sparkle of her more famous sister, Constance Bennett, and on DS, she suffered from the same insecurity with her lines as did Jonathan Frid. 
Hall snagged an Oscar nod for Night of the Iguana,
opposite Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner.
Others in the Dark Shadows company ran the gamut from excellent to mediocre to downright lousy.  Character actress Grayson Hall, who had an Oscar nomination on her resume, gave a memorable performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman (a role originally written for a man), at least in her early months on the show, when she was an antagonist to our vampire hero. 
Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman
Her performance weakened in subsequent years, and Hall was not versatile enough to convincingly play a woman in love.  She ultimately became another major player on the soap, but her work often crossed over into melodrama. 
Every Dracula needs his Renfield. John Karlen's Willie Loomis was a standout. His later career included Tyne Daly's husband on Cagney and Lacey.

David Selby's Quentin was a ghost,
a werewolf, a zombie,
and Dorian Grey.
As with other soaps, Dark Shadows proved a training ground for many younger actors.  David Selby spent more than a year on the show, playing the only other character which could be classified as "break out," the brooding Quentin Collins.  Kate Jackson's first professional job out of college was during the final year of Dark Shadows.  
Kate Jackson's first gig played out during the final months of the series.

McKecknie played Quentin's love during the day,
while hoofing on Broadway at night.
As I've been rewatching the series, I love spotting actors whom I knew were conducting concurrent careers, such as a young Donna McKecknie, who spent many months on the show, during the same period that she was dancing in Promises, Promises and Company on Broadway. 
Virginia Vestoff
as Samantha Collins.
A few years later, Virginia Vestoff played Samantha Collins during the day while starring as Abigail Adams in the smash 1776 at night.    Conrad Janis showed up in a few early episodes, before he moved to L.A. to become a sitcom star, and Jerry Lacy's appearances as the hypocritical Rev. Trask were overshadowed by his more famous persona as an impersonator of Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen projects.  
Jerry Lacy appeared as Bogie in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam, on stage and film.
Child actress Denise Nickerson followed up her time as a DS regular with major roles in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Neon Ceiling.
During the five year run of Dark Shadows, the writers plundered all the classic horror stories.  The very first plotline, that of the young governess arriving at the mysterious mansion, is a blatant ripoff of Rebecca and Turn of the Screw, but the DS writers shamelessly stole from everybody. 
The Tower Room at Collinwood held lots of  secrets and several family psychos.
With the arrival of the vampire, the show began to be peopled with all the supernatural types.  Witches, warlocks, ghosts, werewolves, even zombies made an appearance. 
Forget Elsa Lanchester. Marie Wallace's
Eve, as the show's bride
 of Frankenstein, was one hot mess.
Frankenstein provided a major plotline, as did Jekyll & Hyde and the Picture of Dorian Grey, even the Old Testament provided source material for the show's stories.  The show used science fiction too, as there were several instances of time travel and the theory of a parallel universe. 
Thayer David as Count Petofi. He was
probably the best actor on the series.
Severed body parts were occasional catalysts for stories:  a severed hand (an idea pilfered from Edgar Allen Poe) was at the center of one of the most successful of the show's plotlines, which provided one of the consistently fine players on the show, Thayer David, two significant roles:  the cowardly gypsy Sandor, and the asthmatic Count Petofi.  A disembodied head (Ichabod Crane, anyone?) was one of the final horror icons used before the show folded. 

The 1991 failure of the prime time series allowed
Joe to sign onto 3rd Rock.
The show passed into relative obscurity after its cancellation in 1971, but not before spawning not one but two feature films.  Like the undead creatures who inhabited its canvas, Dark Shadows continues to rise from its grave.  The series was rerun on cable channels for a while, and an attempt  in 1991 to reboot the series as a slickly produced prime time soap failed.  In 2004, a pilot for a new series was shot for the WB, but never aired.  And now we have the comic take on the tale with Tim Burton's film.
At the center of all this mayhem, Jonathan Frid must be remembered for his performance as the reluctant vampire who became the inadvertent hero.  He died at the age of 87 on Friday the 13th of this month.

No comments: