Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara has an undying (and undead) affection for “Dark Shadows,” that grand old gothic soap opera, and she carried her torch to a scary place this weekend — the Los Angeles Marriott at Burbank Airport.
There were, mercifully, no vampires in attendance at this weekend’s “Dark Shadows in the Sun” convention.
Sure, there were a few Victorian cape coats, at least two wolf-head canes and several “Barnabas Collins for president” T-shirts (though with Johnny Depp’s face rather than that of role creator Jonathan Frid). But nowhere to be seen were the bouncing, writhing goth-tramp girls and boys who show up for “Twilight” premieres or appearances by the “True Blood” cast. This may have been due to the convention’s location — the Burbank Airport Marriott does not scream “fetch me my plum-colored waistcoat” — or the fact that it was 110 degrees outside. It could be that all the convention-goers were saving their costumes for the competition Saturday night or even Comic-Con International. But I think it had more to do with the demographic, which was way more “Lady Madonna” than Lady Gaga.
“Dark Shadows” was, after all, a gothic daytime drama that aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971. So if you’re under 40, you may not know what you missed.
Created by Dan Curtis and centered on the denizens of Collinwood Manor, “Dark Shadows” was a highly theatrical, often time-traveling tale of ghosts, werewolves, witches and, of course, vampires, mainly Frid’s Barnabas Collins. A character with an instantly high cult quotient — not to mention an excellent collection of waistcoats — Barnabas quickly took over the show; one of his old fans, Depp, is set to play him in a feature-film version (hence the T-shirts).
All eyeliner, clenched shoulders and inner-turmoil-concealing woodenness, Frid’s Barnabas walked the high wire between high drama and camp even at the time. Seen through a modern lens, “Dark Shadows” is often simply hilarious. It was shot live and on the cheap, so actors flub their lines in almost every scene, and off-stage noise — a member of the crew coughing, something heavy falling — tests their grim professionalism on a regular basis. And since this is a daytime drama, there is a lot of talking — A Lot of Talking — and not much biting and certainly none of the extreme sex and violence we’ve come to expect from our monster shows.
But at the time, it was mesmerizing, unlike anything else on television, romantic, deep and, at times, truly frightening. Who can forget Josette’s eerie music box or the dollhouse bursting into flames? Even now the sight of young Sarah falling to the ground as the witch Angelique sticks hairpins into the child’s doll cannot fail to move. And Barnabas, oh Barnabas, with his stilted speech, reckless, cold fury and obvious desire to be loved. Back then, vampires didn’t need body glitter or a Southern shtick, they had faces.
Still, for better or worse, “Dark Shadows” is pretty much ground zero for the romantic tormented vampire: Barnabas is a man cursed by love and over the course of the show comes to grips with his humanity through his growing feelings for Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall), who does her best to save him from himself. Sound familiar? “Dark Shadows,” which at the time crowed more over its ability to draw a new generation to daytime drama than its radical shift in defining vampires, predates “Twilight,” “True Blood,” Stephen King (Collinswood is set in Collinsport, Maine, which cannot be far from Bangor) and even the queen of the humanized monster herself, Anne Rice.
Barnabas Collins is, in fact, the first pop-culture vampire with a heart, so attention must be paid.
And it was. This is not the first gathering of the faithful — Frid has been putting in appearances since the early ’80s. For a cultish show with an aging cast and fan base, “Dark Shadows” still draws a good crowd — more than 500 fans tested the strength of the Marriott’s air conditioning by cramming into a ballroom to see Frid host a series of “best scenes” chosen by fans via his website.
And if anyone was disturbed by the frail appearance of the 86-year-old Frid or the fact that he was miked so the audience could hear (and wait for) every exhalation, they did not show it — he received standing ovations upon his entrance and exit and scattered cheers for any comment, even those clearly read from a prepared text.
Although “Dark Shadows” helped launch the careers of other actors who would become better known for future roles — Kate Jackson, Marsha Mason, John Karlen, Thayer David and David Selby — Frid, despite other films and a successful Broadway run in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” will always be Barnabas Collins. “Good thing I got the role,” he said, above the din of applause as he took the stage.
He was followed by the younger (69) and loquacious Selby, who played Quentin Collins and has a novel and memoir to tout. Swinging between self-promotion and political analysis— “the ’60s did not fail,” he said repeatedly as if someone were arguing with him, which they certainly were not — he offered a cultural context for “Dark Shadows.” Though often kind of crazy — he dragged in Eldrige Cleaver and Angela Davis and several times seemed to be comparing the show with the works of Bob Dylan — it was equally astute. “Dark Shadows,” he said, recognized the issues of the time — feminism, civil rights, gay rights, even a rising consciousness about addiction — and dealt with them through fantasy.
All of which is true, if also taking full benefit of hindsight, and has been said repeatedly of the current fascination with monster culture. More interesting perhaps was Selby’s praise of Curtis, whose mantra, through all the flubbed lines and falling scenery, through all the weird, cheesy time-travel scenes, the endless monologues and the crazy soft-porn-spooky music, was: “Keep going.” His belief was the flubbed lines didn’t matter, that sets would fall and story lines make no sense, but the fans were there; they loved the show because they loved the characters, so all the cast had to do was keep the faith and keep filming.
Thereby, “Dark Shadows” is a template not only for our current crop of vampire tales or even “Lost,” but also for all of television. Not bad for a vampire soap.
– Mary McNamara
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