darkBefore we had the tormented Carpathians, and the Black Dagger Brotherhood, not to mention Edward of the Twilight series, many people grew up watching Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. No doubt the show paved the way for the acceptance of romantic vampires today. Yet many of today’s tormented vampires can’t hold a candle to Barnabas. In fact, Barnabas was all about the candles. Candles,  eerie music, cobwebs, fierce storms, crypts and graveyards. And unlike many vampires today, he was a true anti-hero.

Unlike many people from my generation, I didn’t grow up watching Dark Shadows all the time. I never seemed to get home at the right time, so I watched Captain Chesapeake instead. Still, although I was a scaredy-cat, I managed to sneak in a few episodes now and then.

When I heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were working together on a Dark Shadows movie, my first reaction was “Perfect!” I couldn’t wait to see it. Then I realized that many fans were upset with the trailer because the movie comes across as a send-up. They are not amused. Or as my sister-in-law pointed out to be, fans took the show very seriously.

So I decided to make up for lost time. First I watched the 1970s movie, House of Dark Shadows. Think Dark Shadows with blood and color and the deaths of major characters, along with a “hard PG” rating — and a thoroughly villainous Barnabas. My reaction? Wow. Then thanks to Netflix, I started to watch the original Barnabas Collins episodes, in a row. (I wasn’t ready to buy the Dark Shadows: Complete Original Series Boxed Set.) Now I see why those fans are upset about the trailers. While the original was over-the-top, it took itself seriously. Sure, the boom mikes kept showing up uninvited in scenes, the doors shook if closed too hard, and the actors often flubbed their lines. (One of my favorites: “Several of my incestors – incestors?! – my ancestors are buried here.” )

Still, the stories were serious. The atmosphere took no prisoners. Barnabas Collins eventually became a more heroic character, but he sure as hell didn’t start out that way. He attacked local women, enslaved and beat Willie Loomis, kidnapped Maggie Evans and tried to brainwash her, killed several people who got in his way, and came thisclose to killing more people. All that in stories taking place in three centuries and more than one timeline. Take that, modern vampires who angst over the slightest thing. Just when you would give up on him, he would wax poetic about some tragedy from his past. Then, when you were on his side again, he would beat up Willie Loomis. Again. Or try to kill Maggie. All while being one of the best-dressed vampires ever.

Maybe that was what made the show work. So many paranormals have the vampire equivalent of “fake rakes” —  vampires who act as if they’re bad dudes, but who only kill evil people. Never innocents who just get in their way. Yeah. I’m so scared of you. Barnabas would kick their sparkly butts. He was tormented, but he was scary first. I’ve watched plenty of dark and gruesome horror movies,  but many of them pale next to the atmosphere of the best parts of Dark Shadows. Somehow the people behind the show, actors and crew alike, made it work, despite a tight schedule and limited budget. (Yes, even if the crew members wandered into shots now and then.)

The new movie has a big budget, but they don’t list Maggie Evans in the cast. What?! She was only one of the most important characters in the show. No Quentin Collins, either. What’s Collinswood without those sideburns? Also, no Burke, no Joe Haskell, and no smooth-talking con artist Jason McGuire. In the new movie, it seems as if Willie Loomis isn’t a crook — just a heavy drinker. Where’s the fun in that? In the TV show, Willie became my favorite “Renfield” character. He started out as a greedy, violent con artist who tried to steal jewels from a coffin, but from there, he went on to become a terrified vampire slave to actual sympathetic character. Part of the fun of the original was that so many of the characters were flawed and complicated. Take Dr. Julia Hoffman (played by Grayson Hall in the original, and Helena Bonham Carter in the new movie). In the TV show, she hypnotizes Maggie Evans to keep her from remembering that Barnabas kidnapped her. A really cool character, but if I found out she was my doctor, I would run the other way. Ethics violations much? With people like that around, a tormented vampire doesn’t seem so bad. In the movie, while the character had a dark side, she came across as more of a loser — another heavy drinker.

So what made viewers keep tuning in, day after day, for years? What still keeps people interested? The atmosphere helped, of course, but for me, it was the characters. Sure, I started the show to see Barnabas, but I kept watching to see what happened to people I came to care about. How would Maggie Evans get away? Whose ghost was that? Would Vickie avoid the clutches of Barnabas? How would the family matriarch deal with the charming but slimy blackmailer? And just what would Dr. Hoffman do next? Above it all, the show managed to be spooky, without lots of blood or fancy special effects.

Unlike a movie, because there are so many episodes, the writers got to explore more. It was like some of today’s big sprawling paranormal series and then some. The writers were free to explore more tangents and really get into the characters. Even jump into the past or delve into alternate timelines. OK, you got more repetition, too. (I could live without hearing the name “Josette” uttered one more time.)

My only complaint was that some of the pairings the show foisted on me. That’s always been my problem with soaps — and with some romance novels. “Wait, you want me to believe they’re in love? But he’s so boring… ” Also, because it was a soap opera, Dark Shadows didn’t dare let characters become too happy. So love interests were always dying off or disappearing or even going insane.

This weekend, I saw the movie. Guess what? I still like the TV show better. The movie had Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, great sets and Danny Elfman music. But it also made too many changes that took away from the original rather than adding to it. Why remove (or take out) important characters? Why change Elizabeth Stoddard or Roger Collins so much? Why weaken Dr. Hoffmann’s character? Why why why?

So one of my plans for the rest of the weekend is to catch up on episodes. The Dr. Julia Hoffmann episodes were getting really good. Or maybe I can listen to those Dark Shadows audiobooks starring some of the original cast members. I might just happen to have one or two with John Karlen, the original Willie Loomis (Harvey Lacey from Cagney and Lacey).

Just to prove that I don’t take everything about the show seriously, here is a link to the first of three blooper reels available on YouTube.

– Anne Marble