Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dark Shadows (1966) vs. Dark Shadows (1991)

I recently sat down and plowed through the first and only season of the 1991 revival of my beloved Dark Shadows, via the almighty Netflix's Watch Instantly function. Now, I don't pretend to know original Dark Shadows through and through; the damn thing had roughly 100 quadrillion episodes, and Netflix doesn't even have the full second collection up yet. What I haven't been able to watch on Netflix I've snatched in bits and pieces from YouTube. As a result of these patchwork spurts of viewing, I haven't even seen a helluva lot of the infamous 1795 time warp dealy-o (the Kathyrn Leigh Scott-esque screams you hear are from the countless DS fans whose delicate sensibilities I've shocked just now). However, what I haven't seen I've researched avidly (Sidney Falco's favorite word, yup), since that's just the way I am and god loves me even if you don't. Plus, I'm addicted to the show, and that's why I'm allowed to write this, by cracky.

What I want to establish right now is that whenever I talk about something like this, I'm very rarely qualified; I plan on adhering strictly to my credo, that I'm an unqualified hack and what you see here and in other posts is my deep-down-in-mah-gut, knee-jerk take. But what I lack in smarts I makes up for in spirit. And as I'm unemployed, I have a lot of free time.

Unlike the original DS, which took its time--exactly one season--before introducing us to the only real reason anyone remembers the show, Barnabas Collins, the Revival knows what we want and WHAM! The pilot gives us Barnabas Collins, sallow and sparkle-free Vampire squire, as portrayed by Benjamin Cross.

"Hi, kids! You might also know me as Ambassador Sarek, father of that troubled youth Spock in the new Star Trek movie. Yes sir, guess I'm just a guy with a way of inserting myself into roles made iconic by great actors before me. Ha, ha! Don't look me in the eye or I'll cane you."

Cross. Hm. Physically imposing? Sure, though not as tall as you'd think, or as you might like Barnabas to be (he himself points that out in one episode). But his performance? Well, his performance to me is indicative of the principal problem behind the Revival. Both the series and Cross forget that what made the original so fun and fantastic for all its stagy awfulness was the all-out, shameless theatrical melodrama of it all. True, the show was crammed full of cheap sets and costumes, hammy actors stumbling painfully through their lines, and noxious color schemes, but by god, at least it had flair. When I watch a show centered around a gothic mansion that includes vampires, werewolves, time travel, parallel dimensions, and The Hand of Count Petrofi, I don't care about, or want, subtlety.

Nor do I want it played straight. The Revival tries valiantly to make the show less campy by upping the production value (everything's bigger!) and directing the actors to play their parts realistically. The actors are uniformly adequate performers, but by cutting down on the histrionics and hand-wringing, you really end up stifling them in this genre. Because when something outlandish does happen--like, oh, I don't know, Barnabas the vampire freaking biting somebody--the tone is thrown off completely. The camp is all the more jarring and obvious, because it just seems to come out of left field. That's what's wrong with Cross: he's very smooth and charming in his quieter, subdued moments, but he's pretty painful to watch when time comes for him to chew (heh) the scenery. Jonathan Frid, on the other hand, the original Barnabas, was a walking, talking slice of macabre. He somehow managed to play both the silky charmer and the Edgar Allan Poe melodramatic anti-hero simultaneously.

"That's right, look at me, bitches. Is it any wonder I can pull this crazy shit off? Oh, only don't look me in the eye or I'll cane you."

It's unfortunate that Cross has to follow in this guy's footsteps. Frid is physically built for this sort of role; he looks like a regal scarecrow with Rasputin's hypnotic glare. If Cross had maybe performed consistently, playing even his more volatile moments on a quieter keel to keep with the show's almost sleepy feel (which I guess they were trying to pass off as mood), he might have been more effective. However, when the hammy moments come, he's unbelievable and bellow-y. Oh, the bellowing and high school drama club president voice! It...well, it didn't completely sell me on him, let's just say that. To be fair, he was fairly compelling otherwise, and it helps that unlike Frid, Cross is conventionally sexy. Very sexy. But that's another nit-pick I have, one you'll always see from ornery fans whose old-fashioned fandoms are updated in the shiny new world: the sex.

Oh boy, is this ever sexed up. Since the days of Bela Lugosi and maybe even before, authors and movie-makers have heavily sexualized vampirism, sometimes more overtly than at other times. Here that edge is very overt. While I harp on the Revival for being too subtle in mood and acting, I really feel they should have taken all that tact and applied it to their free-wheeling, "bloody bosomy women are hawt" mentality. The original show wasn't very sexy, but it was romantic and tense. A lot of that sprang from the camp aspect of the dialogue and mood, which worked well for a daytime soap in the late '60s. However, in 1991 they might have felt above such theatrical shenanigans, but still realizing they had to hook the audience somehow, they decided sex was the very kick the show needed. Why not, sex is always hip! And vampires...piercing ladies' necks with their long, hard teeth...well! Sexy! It's actually very icky, especially if you were a fan of the original. It's like watching a beloved Disney movie from your childhood remade into a porno: Beauty and the Beast becoming Booty and the Beast (man, I should be a producer! That's gold right there). And just as Cross's over-the-top moments wax phony after establishing his Barnabas as dignified and straight-laced, Rebecca Staab moaning and gyrating in Barnabas's arms as she removes his shirt while he bites her seems very, very off.

"My chest hair will protect me from your puny cross! It's undead chest hair, after all! Ya dig? Oh yeah, baby, ya dig, donchya?"

Beyond the sex and the staging, I was primarily interested in the characterizations, believe it or not. The original show lost interest for me once Alexandra Moltke left, taking with her the clueless, vacant, one-dimensional, utterly adorable and endearing protagonist, Victoria Winters. Moltke really deserves props for what she did with Vicki. When I first started watching her, I thought, "Wow. She stinks. Is she able to register any other emotion than grave befuddlement?" But catching snippets of the other two actresses who tried and failed to play Vicki after Moltke got fed up with her character's dippy innocence and quit, the character just wasn't the same for me and I was surprised by how much I missed our Vicki, potato sack dresses and all. Something about the sincere, muted quality of Moltke's expressions and line readings made the character distinctly hers, and Victoria became the ultimate, modern, gothic ingenue. And because the show centered around her in the first season, we really related to her and started looking to her as the show's moral compass and calm in the eye of the storm. She's a very important character.

That connection is missing here.

At least she still stares glassy-eyed into the distance like a champ.

Joanna Going, who plays Victoria in the Revival, is mind-numbingly, jaw-droppingly, unbelievably beautiful. That much is obvious. She also plays Josette, the most shocking departure from the original show's premise, that had Kathryn Leigh Scott's Maggie Evans dutifully filling in as Barnabas's long lost love's double. Going is very charming and cute as Josette, and while I'm no Francophile, I think her French accent gets the job done. Her Josette is kittenish without being cloying, with a sweetness that makes you feel Barnabas's pain when he loses her. But Going stumbles with Victoria. You can tell she doesn't want to fall into the trap Moltke so desperately extricated herself from, of being saddled with a character so perfectly modeled for the damsel in distress type that her catchphrase has become, "I don't understand." So Going, maybe more than any other actor, plays Victoria straight to the hilt, trying so hard to make her come across as intelligent and capable that she succeeds in...well...making her mildly boring. Without her trademark loopy naivete, Victoria is rather lumpish and dull. She's not helped by the writers, who apparently have little to no interest in developing Victoria in any way, shape, or form.  Much of the original's early episodes were taken up with Vicki's admittedly ineffectual ponderings and yearnings concerning her origins, trying to track down where she was from and who her family was. In the Revival, her wistful orphan status is mentioned very briefly, and framed only in the context of how her state as a loner ties her to Barnabas. At first I thought the writers were rather clever when they decided to pair Vicki with Josette, since it did cut down on the clutter involved in splitting the female lead's role equally between Vicki and Maggie. However, by the end, having Vicki as Josette's mirror image only watered Victoria's character down. We never see her as the Revival's core like we did in the original; we only see her through the infatuated eyes of Barnabas. She's not really a character, she's a device. Vicki was a special part of Barnabas's life in the original because he eventually fell in love with her, not just because she reminded him of Josette. That side gets muddled and lost in the Revival. And all of Going's efforts to make Vicki a sound, solid person are undermined by the writers' choices to keep Vicki perpetually in the dark, like she was in the original. There it was understandable, because Vicki's unfathomably trusting nature was an understood thing. Here, it just makes us shake our head at this wooden girl's thickness.

The rest of the Revival's characters were a mixed bag of good and not-so-good portrayals. Jean Simmons was vastly underused as both Liz Stoddard and Naomi Collins; my homie Pauline Kael once called Simmons "one of the most quietly commanding actresses Hollywood ever trashed," and you get a similar impression here. She does have a great moment toward the end, when her husband realizes Naomi's mind is lost. She's very touching in a simple, straight-forward way. However, because of her limited screen time, she never flourishes like Joan Bennett did when that legend played Collinwood's matriarch.

The sniveling Willie Loomis is hands down my favorite character from the original, and for a long, long time I nursed a quiet crush on John Karlen. They pretty much ruin his character in the Revival, taking his backwoods yokel shtick way, way too far. Jim Fyfe is certainly no eye candy either, and they go all out in making him physically repulsive, with greasy teeth and scruffy face. Another sad tendency of the Revival is to make certain parts too damn sentimental, and it's shameful what they do to the Willie and Barnabas relationship. The original show took its time in laying the groundwork for the fragile camaraderie between the two of them, and in turning Barnabas from a flat-out antagonist to a tentative hero. The Revival, in speeding the plot along, has no idea how to reconcile their dynamic, and the evolution of Barnabas's character. One minute he's caning Willie with abandon, as is always Barnabas's wont, and the next Willie's tenderly nursing him back to health after a brush with sunlight, assuring him he'll "take him fishin' out on the lake, just you an' me, buddy!" Whaaaa? But for all that, I found it impossible to actively dislike this version of Willie. Though not a good performance by any stretch of the imagination, maybe Fyfe's outrageously cartoonish portrayal was a breath of fresh air when compared to some other performances, that were held back by the stolid direction.

One portrayal I was actually quite fond of, and that I might even prefer to the original (scandalous!), is Maggie Evans. I'm guessing that turning her into a hardbitten, lackadaisical psychic is mighty unpopular with most die-hard DS fans, but I think it's great. Ely Pouget is wonderful in a slinky, Lauren Bacall, whisky-and-soda sort of way, giving a very frank and stylized performance. Another flaw of the original is that in the wake of losing Vicki, the writers simply morphed Maggie into the role Moltke vacated, and gone was the wisecracking waitress who served as a jolt of working-class reality in snooty Collinwood. By making Maggie so markedly different from Vicki, the Revival's writers restore Maggie's individuality, in a big way. However, I am not at all a fan of the queasy affair she has with Roy Thinnes' Roger Collins. Mostly because Thinnes is too smarmy as Roger; he lacks Louis Edmond's piquant, elegant buffoonery. He fares much better in the role of oily Rev. Trask, though his monotone yelling during the scene where he gets his comeuppance gets old, and you wonder just how the reincarnation thing works in his case. Barbara Steele is in fine form as Julia Hoffman, bringing more sex appeal to the role than the great Grayson Hall did. Hall, I hate to admit, was always the most cringe-worthy actor for me to watch in the original; not because she was a bad actress, but because she was a good actress who simply did not know how to work with learning her lines at a lightning-fast pace, and you could tell she was suffering (you get that occasionally from Bennett, as well. It's hard seeing greats struggle).

Lysette Anthony as Angelique is another actress who's obviously very good but not given enough time to shine. But really, why bother? Maybe even more than Frid with Barnabas, Angelique belonged to Lara Parker. Anthony may drip with sensuality from top to bottom, but all you need is one glance into Parker's cat eyes and you see it all: the insane, malicious power and the hyperbolic charm.
Shizam! 'Nuff said.

Michael T. Weiss was handsome and meaty as Joe Haskell, and that's all I can say about that; I did have a split second where I thought he was a rustic Jon Hamm when I first saw him. He floundered sadly in the role of Peter Bradford, since a meat-and-potatoes guy like him obviously don't belong in the 1700s. I did find him unexpectedly effective in the scene where he loses it watching Victoria head to the gallows, though.

The only other notable member of the cast I can think of is Barbara Blackburn as Carolyn. I wasn't a fan. Carolyn is one of those characters easy to pick on, since she's a flighty rich blonde, and everyone is supposed to hate the flighty rich blonde. What Nancy Barrett did so well in the original is never once playing down Carolyn's spoiled brat traits, but still revealing the vulnerable, good girl hidden away behind the scathing wit. Blackburn doesn't do that. Frankly...she's sleazy. And too consciously husky-voiced. We never warm up to her, partly because nothing is mentioned about Paul Stoddard, so we have none of Carolyn's abandonment issues or Liz's inner torment. And without that emotional baggage, they're both uninteresting enigmas here. Plus, before we can really figure out if this Carolyn has any soft spots at all, Barnabas puts the hypnosis jazz on her and she becomes his femme fatale slave, very evil and conniving. No sympathy.

However, there is something crucial I must note: why is it that no matter in what version, Carolyn always, always has the best hair? Lookit:

 Seriously! Look at them manes! Okay, so maybe the 'dos themselves are dated, but c'mon! 

Oh, and a very young Joseph Gordon Levitt plays David Collins. You hep cats probably recognize him from recent films like Inception and (500) Days of Summer. Me, I associate him with his work from his teen years, when he played Tommy in 3rd Rock From the Sun. Either way, he's in this show, too. Yessir, yes-a-reeno.

I've come across as far more negative about the Revival than I expected. Wow! Whodathunkit? My hackneyed and unprofessional assessment overall? Obviously competently done, and very intriguing in many ways, but still flawed. I actually regret that it wasn't picked up for another season, though. Maybe Going's acting could have come to match Vicki's personality, since the writers make her far more knowing by the season's end. That would have been fun to explore. But unfortunately and ironically, I think the producers shot themselves in the collective foot by trying to make the franchise more palatable for a '90s audience. The result is often too self-conscious, and the elements they try to keep true to the original feel tacked on and a little out of place. Beautiful to look at, but where's the fun?

Burton, you getting all this?


  1. great job on the review... I came across your blog while looking for dark shadows info and think your writing is right on target! I recently watched a single episode of the revival on the Chiller network and thought it was (more or less) fine ... sorta interesting. I wonder where the revival would have gone if it had a chance to run...

  2. I definitely think the Revival is worth watching. Though I still can't get away from the feeling that it just plain doesn't capture the lovingly awkward and fantastic madness of the original. I, too, wonder where the Revival would have gone if they'd continued the show...would future episodes tackle other plotlines from the original, bringing in characters like Quentin and the deliciously smarmy Nicholas Blair? Guess we'll never know. Thanks for the comment, always glad to please a DS fan!

  3. I agree with your comments regarding the performances, in particular, those of Cross and Frid. Having seen both the entire original series from day one (summer, 1966), and the revival, I am of the opinion that Frid was the better of the two at portraying charm and menace in the same breath. Cross was certainly "bellowy", as you say, and came across as colder than a mausoleum at midnight. His "crying" scenes seemed forced and insincere. The "softer, gentler" aspect of Frid's portrayal is what endeared him to his fans and created a lasting impression. He had an affable nature, an approachability, while Cross' Barnabas looked down his rather long nose at anyone (other than Miss Vicky) who might be from a lesser class. And, yes, Frid's Barnabas had an imposing physicality and a regal presence; in certain episodes he was quite attractive, even handsome. Frid commanded the scenes he was in--it was hard to look away from him--even when silent and using just his eyes and stance to indicate a particular thought or emotion. With Cross, it was all blaring megaphone, no subtlety: "I am a VAMPIRE and I do not need to be anything more!" As a viewer, you believed that Frid's Barnabas should have been lord of the manor, had it not been for fate. The Revival's Barnabas and Willie relationship(paraphrasing, here),"Gee, Barnabas, I'm gonna take you white-water rafting, when you get well..." was jaw-droppingly absurd when viewed in the context of the original relationship. It was a truly cringe-worthy moment to behold. I preferred the 1795 original series costumes for men best, particularly Barnabas' pre-Regency look, as compared to the foppish, silken breeches, yards of lace, white hose, and Pilgrim shoes for Cross' Barnabas. His "queue", or ponytail, was so obviously tacked on at the back that it made Cross' head appear flattened. They may have been going for a more expensive look than the original, but it was the wrong era: 1750's vs. 1790's. Also, the reference to Barn's near shirt removal, actually an unbuttoning, was done by the Carolyn character. In the photo above, that is a shirtless Mr. Weiss and the character of Daphne. Other than that, I enjoyed the article immensely and regard it as one of the best I've read on a comparison of the two series.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Sorry for the double post; not sure how that happened.

  6. Excellent points. The lack of subtlety in Cross's performance was really the crutch for me. He apparently couldn't transition smoothly from soft brooder to blood-mad killer without, as you say, making it too obvious and melodramatic. He leaped from one extreme to the other rather clumsily. He's a fine actor, but just not as good a fit for the role as Frid was.

    I was beginning to wonder if anyone would ever point out I used a picture of shirtless Weiss instead of Cross. I maybe should have gone with Cross to better reference my discussion of his own foray into barechestedness earlier, but shirtless Joe shielding a vamped out Daphne was too hilariously Fabio/Romance Novel Cover/Hammy I couldn't resist putting that up there instead. Good eye, though!

    Thank you so much for the kind comment! That means a lot coming from a fellow die-hard DS fan. Don't worry about the double post, I bet I can take care of it.

  7. Oh, I see... Well, that was a rather good use of a very unsubtle photograph, then. It gives credence to your observations and, on second thought, better represents the whole "sex might just sell this thing" mentality prevalent at the time of production. I must say, however, that had "The First Barnabas Collins" been shown a little less buttoned up, I might have sat up in attention.

    As for the histrionics and melodramatics, Frid knew exactly when to convey them, and when to tone them down. Frid's pre-vampire, 1795 Barnabas was reserved to such an excruciating degree that it makes one believe it was Angelique, and not he, who was the seducer during "all those nights in Martinique." The manner in which he held back while she literally threw herself at him upon what became a thwarted rendezvous, made me respect Frid's subtle restraint all the more. In those faltering, hesitant, hand-wringing gestures and dazed expressions that went from apologetic to absolute fear of the crazed ex-lover as she spun on her heel, Frid's pity-evoking Barnabas was established. He was not cruel with her, but very discreet and composed--almost hushed--the manner in which one would expect a true gentleman to respond. When Cross played a similar scene, his Barnabas gave in too easily to his lover's ministrations, then was curt and dismissive of her as she came onto him again. I felt him to be more of the triumphant cad, whereas Frid's Barnabas appeared genuinely remorseful, wracked with regret. Angelique's less than angelic hissing of "You will see..." was the statement that left Frid's Barnabas absolutely stupefied. The look on Frid's face said it all. You don't get an effect like that from "bellowing in a high school drama club president voice."

    Favorite observation from you: "Jonathan Frid, on the other hand, the original Barnabas, was a walking, talking slice of macabre. He somehow managed to play both the silky charmer and the Edgar Allan Poe melodramatic anti-hero simultaneously." Absolutely the BEST description of him I have ever read!!!

  8. Thank you so much! Though most of the accolades should still go to Frid, since his Barnabas was so iconic that he makes it both awesome and easy to write about him.

    And I agree with you, that it was a combination of Frid's restraint and Parker's flair that made it pretty obvious who was really in control of their disastrous relationship, from their fling in Martinique to their brief marriage and beyond. Parker could be very sexy and very frightening, often at the same time. Unlike how I nitpick Cross, I don't have any particular qualms with Lysette Anthony's performance as Angelique, and actually think she was quite good and effective. The only problem is that she's not Lara Parker. That's a big'un for me. And I acknowledge that's an unfair judgment, since I'm reviewing the Revival, and therefore should, to a certain extent, take each performance simply for what it is. But Parker was so scintillating and commanding that you've got to be quite the performer to live up to the expectations she set. I hear Eva Green's going to play Angelique in the Burton film. I haven't seen a lot with Green, but I hear she's usually a fantastic actress, so we'll see how that goes.

  9. I remmber my younger sister and her friends watching Dark Shadows after school when we were around 12 and 13, but I never paid any attention to it. Just today, I watched out of curiosity as TCM replayed the "movie" made by most of the original cast in 1970 -- 'House of Dark Shadows' -- so that's really all I know of most of the people you are describing from the 1960s soap version. However, I am quite familiar with the 1990s remake, which I watched during its original run and again a year or so ago. The thing that attracted me to it in the first place was Joanna Going for reasons you can obviously guess. The series itself was pretty much as you describe, nothing to get too excited about. However, I have to strongly disagree on one point. I thought Jim Fyfe is the greatest "Ygor" character I've ever seen. It took me a couple of episodes to warm to his brilliance, but (other than ogling Ms. Going) his antics became the main reason I continued watching: "Gee Barnabus, that's really swell." In the two-hour 1970's movie, everything is madly rushed, and I didn't get the John Karlen character at all. None of what you described came through in this capsuled version, but to me his Willie starts out as a malevolent malcontent and ends as a tormented slave. Fyfe's Willie was never either of those things. Before Barnabus he was the harmless village idiot, but after he is a man in love -- with his vampire master. Fyfe's Willie doesn't serve Barnabus because he is under a spell; he does it willlingly, enthusiastically. For the first time in his life he is happy, responsible, and productive. When he rationalizes away a vicious beating from Barnabus, he MEANS it. He really believes Barnabus is good in essence if flawed by evil impulses the unwilling vampire doesn't deserve. When he fears Barnabus might hurt his also beloved Victoria, Fyfe's Willie really suffers from a serious conflict, not a conflict of interest or even self-interest but a conflict of the heart. I'm writing this because, so far as I remember, I never saw Fyfe before or after this forgotten teleplay, but I've always remembered and laughed many times at his inspired performance of a pathetic character. This is my chance to commend him for it. Fyfe, my hat's off to you, wherever you are.

  10. Well, I certainly admire your reasoning and arguments, though I still ultimately disagree with you. Maybe I'm too much a slave to the original, and prefer the constantly tormented Willie to the gentle, worshiping oaf that was Fyfe. Plus, I just don't see much in Fyfe's performance. Karlen certainly had his ludicrously hammy moments--and really, the less said about House of Dark Shadows the better in my book--but I feel he got away with it because, once again, that was a tone fitting the show's original atmosphere. For the Revival, where the actors were significantly (for the most part) less hammy and more realistic, Fyfe's exaggerated hillbilly persona just robbed me the wrong way.

    Still, at least he did have energy, something sorely lacking in many of the other performances. And that's why though I'm not what you'd call a fan of his performance, I don't loathe is as much as I could have. So I'll give him that. And hey, one blogger's poison is another commentator's passion, so I'm glad you enjoyed his performance so much! Thank you for your thoughtful, well-put comment.

  11. Great review! I haven't seen the revival since it was first-run, but I finally started watching the 60's show again (starting with Barnabas, I don't have the earlier ones).

    Lysette Anthony was also great as Lucy in "DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT" where she got the best scene in the film, opposite Steven Webber's Jonathan. She offers him an eternity of unbridled lust, and his replies, "But-- I'm British!" She grabs her breasts and says, "SO ARE THESE!" Even better (?) was when she played Peter Davison's future-wife-to-be in 2 episodes of "CAMPION".

    It's interesting to compare the '91 version to "HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS", as Dan Curtis directed a few early episodes and re-used some of the EXACT same camera-set-ups, when the newly-freed Barny is stalking a girl thru the woods.

    Also, please note the '91 version had them on their 3rd house filling in for "Collinwood". The crazy thing is, while the original was in Rhode Island, and the feature film house in New York, the '91 version is in southern California-- and, is the EXACT same mansion used in Aaron Spelling's shameless DS-wannabe pilot, "DARK MANSIONS"!!!

    1. Wow! I did not know that about Aaron Spelling! Totally going to check out Dark Mansions now, for the laughs.

      I agree there are plenty of parallels between '91 DS and House of DS; both are pretty much condensed versions of the original, after all. I notice Curtis also applied a lot of the DS plot to his version of Dracula with Jack Palance (which I hope to review sometime soon).

      Thank you for your feedback! You gave me a lot of information I'd never heard before.