Sunday, December 09, 2007

From the vault: Dark Shadows (1991)

• 1991 saw a brief TV remake of the classic vampire soap.

Genre: Horror, vampire, soap, remake
DVD released: Oct. 18, 2005
Cast: Ben Cross, Barbara Steele, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jim Fyfe, Roy Thinnes, Michael T. Weiss, Lysette Anthony
Verdict: &&

With the successful daytime serial Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and movies such as Burnt Offerings, the late Dan Curtis was a reliable purveyor of genteel drawing room horror. He returned to the well in 1991 with 12 primetime episodes of Dark Shadows for NBC, a series of which I was surprisingly unaware until coming across this DVD set (perhaps the Gulf War preemptions at the time kept it off my radar). With some exceptions, it follows the general story arc of the original series, which produced more than 1,200 (!) episodes, and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows. In each series and the movie, vampire Barnabas Collins is on the prowl, and Curtis introduced a clever wrinkle into the standard vampire lore with Collins' desire to untether himself from his cursed existence. In the '91 version, this happens with the aid of Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele), who learns of Collins' nature and proposes a cure — Curtis surely gave us one of the earliest examples here of the reluctant vampire, an idea that continues to repeat in stories such as CBS' current Moonlight series. Coinciding with Collins' experiment, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going) has become governess at Collinwood Manor, where Collins passes himself off as a relative from England. As in the original series, an old nemesis, Angelique, confronts Collins, and a séance in episode six transports Victoria to 1790 while a stranger from 1790 appears in her place. For modern audiences, the show may jump the shark here, as the same actors we have watched through the first five episodes now play different roles during both time periods (it should be noted, however, that the original series' actors often played numerous roles, although Steele's French accent in the 1790s role is ridiculously over the top, even if she turns in one of the stronger performances overall). The midpoint sag in storytelling and believability is somewhat redeemed in the final episodes, which find the fiery Reverend Trask (Roy Thinnes, hamming it up beautifully) on a crusade to convict Victoria of witchcraft. Some lapses in production judgment are painfully evident throughout — numerous night sequences are clearly shot during the daytime hours, making it impossible to hold on to the thread of believability (the original series did this as well, though I haven't seen enough to know if the results were better). The cast is actually pretty good; Cross is a more charismatic villain than the rather weaselly Jonathan Frid of the original series, and, somewhat amusingly, 3rd Rock from the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes one of his earliest TV appearances as a mischievous youngster, one of Victoria Winter's pupils. The series stands as a curiosity of early '90s television and is markedly of its time in choices of obscene sweaters and big, frizzy hairstyles — ironically, the show picked up an Emmy for hairstyling but, unsurprisingly, nothing else, although it did earn some genre awards.

// DVD NOTES // The transfer is fine, but the complete lack of extras is disappointing. Can't we have a nibble, at least comments from a few participants?

// RELATED // House of Dark Shadows (1970 movie)

// MORE DARK SHADOWS? // A new feature-film Dark Shadows adaptation is in development by Johnny Depp's production company. Much of the original series is available on DVD, and a pilot for a 2004 WB series was shot but not picked up for series.

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