Will The Real ‘Dark Shadows’ Please Stand Up?

By Mysterious Q

I will not say that I was ever a rabid fan of the vampire soap opera, but I did watch 'Dark Shadows' on an almost daily basis and enjoyed what I saw. Living just a block away from my school, I made it home in time each day to watch Barnabas Collins (a.k.a. the late Jonathan Frid) trouble the residents of the Collinwood mansion and torture poor Willie Loomis (a.k.a. John Karlen) with endless verbal taunts and often diabolical errands. With that in mind, I am not thrilled with the new film of the same title.

It's important to understand that 'Dark Shadows' was never a conventional soap that fit the mold of others at the time, and moved further away from that model as the plot progressed. The original story involving a family with dark secrets presented in a kind of modern Gothic horror format did not have vampires, ghosts or any supernatural creatures in it when the show premiered on ABC in June of 1966. It took a year for Barnabas Collins to appear and begin causing all kinds of mischief in and around Collinsport, Maine.

Barnabas Collins was played by Canadian born actor Jonathan Frid who passed away on April 13, 2012 (Friday the 13th) at the age of eighty-seven in Ontario, Canada. The classically trained Frid could never be accused of being a consummate professional in that role because he often stumbled while trying to deliver his lines or blew them altogether. Frid may not have been a great actor, but he was great in the role of Barnabas. His look, mannerisms and even the verbal blunders he delivered made his character come to life (or death) in a way that delighted fans and gave us all the 'creeps'.

The cast of the soap was a wonderful collection of very talented people including Joan Bennett, a well-known and respected veteran stage and screen actress, who played Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. Swedish born Alexandra Moltke played the often troubled Victoria Winters, an orphan who traveled to Collinsport, Maine, to discover the dark secrets about her past. Although a newcomer to soaps, she successfully brought a key character of the show to life. All the performers that appeared on 'Dark Shadows' were wonderful character actors that made the story seem very real to fans.

While I am sure that viewers who watched the supernatural soap all have their personal favorite characters, I cannot imagine anyone arguing with the fact that the Reverend Trask brought a tremendous amount of drama and angst to the story. Trask was a rabid witch hunter and religious zealot in the mold of the Salem witch trial prosecutors. The Reverend was played to perfection by Jerry Lacy. He is a talented actor who appeared in a number of other soaps, played various parts on American prime time TV and took on the ethereal character of Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen's film, 'Play It Again, Sam.'

Lacy's character brought the show's story line back and forth in time and allowed for some amazing moments between the Reverend, Barnabas and the other characters. Although the Trask character was used in a thinly veiled way to point out the absurdity of bigotry against any race, religion or sexual preference, that message never overshadowed the plot. My favorite Trask episode was the one in which the Reverend had Barnabas Collins bricked up in a wall. The Reverend taunted Collins with demonic glee as Barnabas rightly called the zealot a hypocrite.

The late Dan Curtis created 'Dark Shadows' after he had a strange dream about a mysterious young woman on a train sometime in 1965. After giving the dream further thought and telling his wife about it, he developed it into an idea for a soap which he pitched to ABC. Once the network accepted the project, Curtis hired veteran radio and television writer Art Wallace to create the soap's story bible. The show had a working title of 'Shadows on the Wall' which was changed to 'Dark Shadows' later in the development process.

Curtis had a knack for knowing what people might enjoy watching and that often meant films and TV shows with supernatural themes. Along with the 'Dark Shadows' soap and two theatrical films based on it, Dan took his fascination with vampires a step further to create 'The Night Stalker' which ended up as a TV movie on ABC and a feature film elsewhere in the world.

Dan fought hard to bring his vision of to life amid industry skepticism about the project. An evil vampire hunting the streets of Las Vegas for victims while being pursued by a troubled reporter named Carl Kolchak wasn't exactly a typical idea for the average movie of the week. After the film aired in 1972, those involved with the production told Curtis they wished that it had been released as a feature film in the USA. That's because the extremely well-produced TV movie turned out to be the most watched ever up to that point.

'The Night Strangler' came next from Curtis in 1973 and made the Kolchak character played by Darren McGavin even more popular. The story about a madman who drained his victims of blood to create an elixir of life took place in Seattle and did extremely well in the ratings. Like its predecessor, the film aired as a TV movie in the USA and was released as a feature film overseas. All this led to the ABC TV series entitled 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' which ran for one season. The series should have faired better, but suffered from a bad time slot, less than stellar scripts and cheesy monsters. I liked it despite those issues, but that's me.

Dan Curtis tried to bring 'Dark Shadows' back several times. In 1991 he produced a revival of the show for NBC. Barnabas was played by Ben Cross and the cast was rounded out by an impressive bunch of character actors. Although many viewers found his portrayal of the lead character to be sexy and provocative, I didn't care for Cross as Barnabas and diehard fans of the original soap agreed. Although the show premiered to wonderful ratings, those fell off quickly as the series was constantly interrupted by Gulf War news and suffered from what appeared to be too many plot twists and changes.

Curtis tried again in 2004 selling another remake of the soap to the WB Network. A one hour pilot was produced which included a few new characters added to the plot that were not seen in the original soap or the 1991 revival, but the WB passed on the series and the pilot never aired. It was shown at various 'Dark Shadows' fan festivals and met with some positive feedback. Dan Curtis passed away in 2006.

Although I cannot speak for other original 'Dark Shadows' viewers, I believe that it would be nearly impossible to try and re-create the soap as a new series or film. That's because each time it has been tried, the story and characters have been tinkered with to the point that the magic of the original was lost. The latest film starring Johnny Depp looks like it will be a typical Tim Burton creation with elements of comedy, drama and fantasy all mixed together. What it will not be is true to the original vision of Dan Curtis.

I have not seen Burton's version of 'Dark Shadows' and have little interest in it. After watching the trailers I believe it will be nothing more than a gross caricature of the original soap and it's cast. It's that's what you are looking for, go and see it. However, if you want anything close to the real thing you will have to wait until someone gives 'Dark Shadows' the same treatment received by the new 'Star Trek' film.

Being a fan of 'Star Trek' I wondered how the producers of the new film would handle the re-creation of such iconic characters. I was surprised and delighted to see that they had the intelligence to stick to the original molds and make only enough changes to allow for a new and welcome plot twist. I can only hope that someone will offer 'Dark Shadows' the same treatment for a TV or film series sometime in the near future.

The original 'Dark Shadows' ran for five years as a soap on ABC from June 27, 1966 to April 2, 1971. During that time 1,225 episodes were produced and the show regularly won its time slot. Originally shown in black and white, color episodes began airing in August of 1967. All but one of the original episodes have been preserved and an audio recording of the lost episode exists. The soap experienced new life in the mid-1970s when it was made available for worldwide syndication. It returned again from the dead in the 1990s when the series aired in its entirety on the Syfy cable network.

The one-of-a-kind soap opera managed to attract viewers of all ages and inspire fan clubs, magazines, a comic strip, books, board games and copycat productions. 'Strange Paradise' was an easily recognizable Canadian attempt to copy 'Dark Shadows' and other American soaps like 'Port Charles' and 'Passions' eventually played the 'Dark Shadows' supernatural card by adding plots that featured vampires, witches, and werewolves.

When it is all said and done there was and can only ever be one 'Dark Shadows' and the kind of creative forces that were Dan Curtis, Jonathan Frid and the show's other amazing cast members who made and drove the success of that most unusual show. What started out as a dream for Curtis, ended up as a daily and welcomed five year nightmare on daytime television.

Although most attention spans these days allow for little more than the time it takes to watch a music video or YouTube pick gone viral, I would be the first to sign up for a cable channel devoted to the soap and am sure at least some young people today would become as addicted to the show as young people were when it originally aired. Would I miss any episodes? That's what digital recorders are for...

Click for DARK SHADOWS books, videos, collectables and more available from Amazon.com

Watch a sample of the original series (recap from the DVD set):

Meet the Reverend Trask:

Jonathan Frid:

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