Sense of Wonder: Depp to cast Dark Shadows on the big screen

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999).DARK SHADOWS fans – at least the ones I know – are rejoicing at the news (announced in Daily Variety and at a recent ShadowCon) that Johnny Depp has signed a deal to co-produce a feature film version of the 1960s Gothic soap opera.

Warner Bros. is teaming with Depp’s Infinitum-Nihil and Graham King’s GK Films to develop a feature based on the ’60s daytime supernatural sudser…
Depp has said in interviews that he has always been obsessed with “Dark Shadows” and had, as a child, wanted to be Barnabas Collins, the vampire patriarch of the series. The role was originated by Jonathan Frid.

I find my own enthusiasm considerably more muted, although I am willing to be pleasantly surprised. I suspect that, as a property, DARK SHADOWS truly is a relic of its era, and I’m not sure it can be updated without losing its appeal. Not for nothing have forty years of vampire cinema passed since the original show was an afternoon hit, and history provides a couple of reasons to suspect that turning DARK SHADOWS into a feature film and/or updating its story are far from surefire hit ideas.
Jonathan Frid as the original Barnabas CollinsJonathan Frid’s portrayal of Barnabas Collins truly is the missing link between the traditional Gothic vampire as embodied by Count Dracula and the more modern variant established by Anne Rice and other authors beginning in the 1970s. Barnabas has all the characteristics associated with an old-school conception of vampires: he sleeps in a coffin, turns into a bat, and most importantly he shuns the cross; in other words, he is an old-fashioned creature of the damned, whose supernatural status severs him from God’s grace. But he is also a human being with a soul, who regrets being a vampire and who can make moral decisions, often acting as the hero in the TV episodes; in other words, he did more than the usual vampire routine of biting a few victims before being staked, and the show was often very much about his attempts to come to terms with (or find a cure from) his vampiric condition.
This was pretty cool stuff back when I was running home from grade school every afternoon to watch it, but in a way it has dated more than Dracula himself. The Count is elastic enough so that he can adapt to any era. He was an atavisitic, foreign invader in Bram Stoker’s novel; a supernatural Shylock in the 1922 NOSFERATU; a corrupt Continental when Bela Lugosi played him in 1931; an undead ravisher as portrayed by Christopher Lee in the ’50s and ’60s; an outright romantic figure in the hands of Frank Langella in 1979; and a…well…Harlequin Romance figure when Gary Oldman took over in 1992. Baranabas Collins, on the other hand, is not a Jospeh Campbell archetype with a thousand faces who can don a new guise for each and every generation; he is, in the end, just Barnabas, a guy who got turned into a vampire against his will and wishes he could turn back.

The 1990 attempt to revive the franchise as a nighttime series reveals some of the problems inherent in updating the concept. Over two decades after the afternoon soap, Barnabas was old news, and the handful of new pisodes betrayed a frenzied rush to fill in, during a few weeks, the familiar back story that had been developed over the course of months or years in the original. Viewers had to wonder: if the story was interesting enough to remake, why plow through it like a speed reader on amphetimines trying to finish Moby Dick in time for a book report? One began to suspect that even the show’s producers were bored with the material, in a hurry to move on to something new.
The 1971 feature film version, although well regarded by adoring fans, had its own set of flaws. Reduced to 97 minutes, the story lost the nuance that gave the long-running show its distinction; what emerged was essentially a remake of the old Dracula story: vampire arrives, claims first female victim; victim turns into a vampire, gets staked; original vampire sets eyes on second female victim, but wise old professor realizes what is happening and sets about routing the vampire menace. The only things the film could supply that the show could not were PG-rated gore and atmospheric cinematography on films instead of videotape.
That will hardly be enough to justify a 21st century remake of DARK SHADOWS. My one ray of hope is that Johnny Depp can make almost anything work, and he seems perfectly suited to playing a character rooted in a 19th century sensibility. He’s one of those actors, like late horror stars Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, who seems born to wear those frilly cuffs. (The first time I saw him in the trailer for SLEEPY HOLLOW, it struck me that he looked as though he had been born in his period costume.)
Unfortunately, the Variety article does not state that Depp will actually play the role of Barnabas, only that “as a child, [he] wanted to be Barnabas.” Let’s hope that childhood desire translates into a cinematic performance; otherwise, there is little if anything exciting about the news of a DARK SHADOWS remake.

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