Prime Time for Dark Shadows
“You must be patient, Barnabas. Everything that you want is going to come true.” Dr. Julia Hoffman, Dark Shadows (1991).

In our last episode, we discussed the terrific theatrical version of Dark Shadows called House of Dark Shadows. It was successful enough at the box office to spawn a second movie, Night of Dark Shadows. Released only 10 months after the first movie, Night of Dark Shadows was a box office bomb. Neither a sequel nor tied directly to familiar continuity, it focused on a version of Quentin Collins (David Selby) and Angelique (Lara Parker). Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was nowhere to be seen.

The plot of Night of Dark Shadows is nearly incomprehensible. Supposedly, it was butchered by the studio in the editing room. However, rumors persist of a director’s cut being readied for home video. (To date, neither movie has been released on DVD.) I don’t want to talk any more about it except to say that it was released four months after the daytime drama ended; so, after its failure, it looked like Dark Shadows was dead forever.

Act I
My second-favorite Dark Shadows items to collect are the comic books. From 1968 to 1976, Gold Key published a comic book loosely based on the daytime drama. Running almost twice as long as the TV series, the comics had little to do with the source material, but are nevertheless entertaining stories of what is perhaps some parallel universe. I’ve never much cared for the art of these comics; its characters only vaguely resembling the actors who portrayed them. However, the early issues featured photo covers and poster inserts that are quite collectable.

Two weeks before Dark Shadows was cancelled on TV, a syndicated comic strip began running daily in newspapers, with color editions on Sundays. It lasted a year, in essence extending the series. Different from the Gold Key comic book series, the character in the comic strip closely resembled their TV counterparts.

Act II
Twenty years after Dark Shadows first appeared on TV, PBS stations around the country began airing repeats. These became so popular that they were highly publicized for fundraising drives. Through the mid-to-late 80s, PBS kept the original Dark Shadows alive. Then, the Sci-Fi Channel did the same for it throughout most of the 90s. Concurrently, MPI Home Video began releasing the series on VHS, then eventually DVD.

In 1991, Dark Shadows was resurrected as a prime time series on NBC. Premiering just as the Gulf War was beginning, ratings were never very good and it was cancelled after one season of 12 episodes. Though short-lived, it created a new wave of interest. Innovation released a comic book series that, like the original Gold Key comics, outlived its source material. Slick and glossy, the series took place within the continuity of the primetime drama and included the best likenesses yet of all the characters.

During this time, fan interest was at its peak. Dark Shadows festivals were held annually, alternating between New York and Los Angeles. Never as large as Star Trek conventions, these festivals nevertheless drew loyal crowds. In 1991, I attended the festival in L.A. which for the first time featured stars from both the original series and the revival. Unfortunately, the cancellation of the primetime series had just been announced and collective sighs of disappointment escaped attendees mouths as they listened to exciting plans for a second season they would never see.

Re-watching the 1991 Dark Shadows today, it seems more dated than even the original series from 25 years earlier. I think it’s because of the big hair; the hairspray budget must have been astronomical. And I must admit that the pleasure I get from watching it comes from seeing familiar story lines reinterpreted in a “modern” age rather than from any particularly unique style or substance.

Quality-wise, Dark Shadows (1991) falls somewhere between the seat-of-your-pants attitude of the original series and the expertly-crafted atmosphere of House of Dark Shadows. While the sets are sturdier than the daytime drama, they are not as authentic as the movie. I realize Barnabas Collins is restoring the Old House, but I don’t believe the basement that houses his coffin would be so clean and cobweb-free. And the stairway leading to it would simply not have existed in the 1700s; I doubt that Barnabas and his vampire slave, Willie Loomis, could have constructed it themselves in 1991. There’s too much open space; it’s not the least bit creepy.

Within its first six episodes, Dark Shadows (1991) covers the same ground as 155 episodes of the original series. However, there are interesting tweaks to the characters and stories that I assume were made to extend the series for future seasons. In one brief arc, the primetime series even incorporates a storyline from pre-Barnabas stories on the daytime drama. The second six episodes re-tell the flashback story of the “original” Barnabas Collins that was unveiled in about 100 episodes of the original series. Dark Shadows (1991) ends with a minor, yet thought-provoking cliffhanger. It’s enough to wish for a season that never happened, yet not enough to keep the series from ending on a somewhat resolved note.

I’m conflicted about the acting in Dark Shadows (1991), particularly that of Ben Cross as this version of Barnabas Collins. More regal than Jonathan Frid’s version, he’s also more intense. He comes across more as a villain from the beginning and is therefore less sympathetic. But it’s a thrill to see horror queen Barbara Steele (Dr. Julia Hoffman) on a weekly TV series. And perhaps the biggest star to rise from the primetime drama is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose cherubic childhood face portrays mischievous young David Collins.

Just like the original Dark Shadows is ultimately a soap opera, so is the revival. On that level, it’s neither as good nor as bad as many other primetime soaps. It’s a little unusual to me in that it focuses on large segments of one particular story arc at a time instead of jumping around to several at the same time. And this version of Dark Shadows really plays up the sexuality. Never before has Barnabas made out as extensively with his victims before biting them, French kissing and stroking them. Eye candy for the men, Maggie Evans (Ely Pouget) is braless in a sweat-drenched t-shirt on an apparently cold day and Joe Haskell (Michael T. Weiss) runs around shirtless, exposing rippling muscles and hairy chest.

For a lifelong fan of Dark Shadows, its various incarnations in the 80s and 90s, while sporadic, have been mostly pleasing. And while the fear it instilled in a child’s heart is no longer present in this adult, it still has the potential to scare me, even if it’s due to the form it threatens to take in the 10s…

Please join me for our next episode, coming soon: “The Dark Shadow Rises”.