More than 40 years before True Blood and Twilight made angst-ridden vampires the hot new thing, there was a wicked little afternoon soap called Dark Shadows. At its center was Barnabas Collins, a brooding bloodsucker played with equal parts torment and relish by Jonathan Frid, and if you were an offbeat kid in the late 1960s there's a good chance you raced home from school to watch it. Tim Burton, the acclaimed director, was one of those eager young fans. And now he's put his own spin on things. His movie version of Dark Shadows opens May 11 with a starry cast headed by Johnny Depp — yet another boyhood buff of the soap — as the reluctant, guilt-ridden and immortally sexy Barnabas.
"Dark Shadows is a part of my DNA," says Burton. "I discovered it when I was a pre-teen feeling very awkward and strange about my place in life. I was crazy about its mash-up of vampires, witches and werewolves all swirling in this weird melodrama — there was nothing like it on TV! It formed who I am and the kind of films I would go on to make."
That said, Burton has no interest in being dead loyal to the original. His reboot — costarring Helena Bonham Carter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Jonny Lee Miller and Jackie Earle Haley — is a riff on Rip Van Winkle that finds Barnabas suddenly released from his coffin after 200 years and plopped into psychedelic 1972, complete with mirrored disco balls, caged go-go girls and a guest appearance by Alice Cooper. DS purists are concerned that the trailers for the film, with their heaving, thrusting Barry White score, seem dangerously spoofy. But the boss man swears this is a heartfelt valentine.
"There's a lot of comedy in the movie but we're not here to piss on Dark Shadows," says Burton, who hired white-hot novelist Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) to do the screenplay. "Like the series, there is romance, fantasy, horror. We are very serious about this." It didn't help that Burton's wife, Bonham Carter, raised fan hackles last year by stating that the original — which ran from 1966 to 1971 and had, at its peak, an audience of 20 million — "was actually a hilariously bad soap opera." And she's not taking it back.
"My diet growing up was Little House on the Prairie," Bonham Carter says. "Tim and I come from different worlds and slightly different generations so I don't get the appeal of Dark Shadows at all. It was a challenge getting into that acting style, which to me was borderline bad." But don't get her wrong. Bonham Carter says she's "excited" to be playing boozy psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman, "though, to tell the truth, I really wanted Eva Green's role, the jealous witch Angelique, who is in love with Barnabas. But Tim said, 'Are you kidding? I'm wouldn't ask a witch to play a witch!'"
Burton not only dedicates the film to Dan Curtis, the late lion-king creator of Dark Shadows, he also cast some of the show's top stars in cameo roles, including Frid (who died at 87 just last month), David Selby (Quentin), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Josette) and Lara Parker (Angelique). They have become the film's biggest boosters.
"I have complete confidence in Tim Burton's vision," says Selby. "It's good to put a fresh perspective on what we did so many years ago. The fans who are upset have to remember that when we made the series we screwed with beloved monster movies and classic romance novels and turned them upside down! We were hardly reverent ourselves."
Scott, who shares dish from the movie set in her new book Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood, co-written by Jim Pierson, says she and her fellow vets were treated like gold. "Tim clapped his hands to get the company's attention and said, 'Everyone, the original cast of Dark Shadows' and there was great applause and the shaking of hands and even hugs," says Scott. "It was fantastic." Adds Parker: " We were very moved by Tim and Johnny. They looked into Jonathan Frid's eyes and said, 'We wouldn't be here without you.' It was such a kind and wonderful thing to do."
Burton wasn't sure what to expect. "It's always daunting and scary to meet your childhood heroes — especially in the case of Jonathan Frid — but he was everything I wanted him to be," Burton says. "It was great to have the original cast come over to England to be part of the film. It was important to have that approval and support."
Scott did bristle when a recent L.A. Times piece about the film quoted Burton as saying the original was "actually awful" when it came to its cut-rate production values. Not that she disagrees. "Yes, there were constant bloopers and boom shadows — they were painful then, they're painful now — and our special effects sometimes amounted to no more than a fake bat from a Halloween store dangling from a fishing pole," Scott says. "But I wish people concentrated more on how incredibly innovative our show was. Star Trek and Dark Shadows arrived in the same year. Gene Roddenberry went into the future. We went back in time. But we both told universal stories and morality tales, which is why neither show ever gets old." After filming her scenes, Scott sent Burton a thank-you note "reminding him that we did 1,225 episodes so there is plenty of material for sequels!"
Like Scott, Parker also turned author and is awaiting the release of her third Dark Shadows novel, Wolf Moon Rising. "We still have extremely loyal and vocal followers who are trying desperately to hold on to the old values," Parker notes. "But let's be honest. Our fan base is a drop in the bucket compared to those who follow Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. It's their fans who will decide the success of this movie."