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Dark Shadows (1991); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

Originally aired 13 Jan 1991 – 22 Mar 1991 (NBC)
Created by Dan Curtis

Starring Ben Cross, Jean Simmons, Joanna Going, Barbara Steele, Lysette Anthony, Roy Thinnes, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

My rating:  ★★ stars

A vampire love story/gothic romance that never engages our emotions.

I was a fan of the 1991 Dark Shadows revival when I was—let’s just say younger and leave it at that. It’s cancellation after a 12-episode season was a big disappointment for me. I liked vampire stories, particularly those with brooding, romantic vampires. Teenage girls have always been a sucker for those. (Darn, I just revealed my age when I watched Dark Shadows.) These figures represent transgressive eroticism, and for young women coming against a socially instilled boundary that codes female sexuality as taboo, all eroticism is transgressive. And so we get Twilight and hordes of teenage girls reading Anne Rice—at least, there were hordes when I was a teenager.

Dark Shadows, a remake of a daytime soap opera that ran from 1966-1971, focuses on the return of the vampire Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) to the bosom of his family, the Collinses, a wealthy New England family who live in a mansion near the sea, two hundred years after he was entombed in the family crypt. Once installed among the Collinses, Barnabas meets the young governess, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going), the spitting image of his long-lost love, Josette DuPres (also played by Going).

In case the icons of the governess and the mansion near the sea didn’t tip you off, we’re in the realm of the gothic here. In fact, the Dark Shadows revival epitomizes the gothic, to the point where you wonder if creator Dan Curtis wasn’t working from a gothic instruction manual. The series has all the trappings: dark and stormy nights, rattling chains, howling wolves, lonely cliffs, a haunted mansion, and damsels in diaphanous nightgowns running through the mist.

The gothic as a narrative genre dates from the late 18th century, not coincidentally Barnabas’s origin. The gothic mode provided a counterpoint to the rise of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of that time that emphasized reason. As the name suggests, the Enlightenment metaphorically represented bringing light into the world. Fred Botting in Gothic: The New Critical Idiom locates the gothic in darkness. He says, ”Darkness—an absence of the light associated with sense, security and knowledge—characterises the looks, moods, atmospheres and connotations of the genre. Gothic texts are, overtly but ambiguously, not rational, depicting disturbances of sanity and security, from superstitious belief in ghosts and demons, displays of uncontrolled passion, violent emotion or flights of fancy to portrayals of perversion and obsession.” If the Enlightenment was reason and knowledge, the gothic is passion and emotion. Botting concludes, “Not tied to a natural order of things as defined by realism, gothic flights of imagination suggest possibility, mystery, magic, wonder and monstrosity.”

Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins

The monster in question here is the vampire, unique among monsters for its erotic pull. No one is looking to get busy with Frankenstein’s monster, and with the exception of The Shape of Water, no one wants to be intimate with the creature from the black lagoon. But vampires are something else entirely. In The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, Cynthia A. Freeman writes, “Sexuality is rife in the vampire genre, which is unusual in horror for its eroticism and beauty. Often vampires are wealthy, beautiful, and aristocratic.” I wouldn’t describe Barnabas, as played by Cross, as beautiful. His long countenance evokes otherness with its abundant cheekbones, hollow cheeks, and pronounced widow’s peak. He reflects the alterity of the gothic figure. He is both monster and gentleman. In his ambivalence, he becomes the romantic hero and villain at the same time.

The love-danger romance-tragedy between a brooding, Byronic hero-villain and vulnerable, younger heroine in an unfamiliar and threatening environment is the narrative that epitomizes the gothic. Botting identifies “the two central figures of the narratives: a young female heroine and an older male villain. The latter, beyond law, reason or social restraint gives free reign to cruel, selfish desires and ambitions and violent moods and intentions. His object, the body or wealth of the heroine, registers danger in a series of frights and flights. Prey to imagined as well as actual dangers…heroines enjoy an unusual, if daunting degree of independence, often drawn by misunderstanding and curiosity into situations that lead to a sense of powerlessness and persecution.”

Dark Shadows makes much of the fact that Victoria is an orphan. She arrives in Collinsport, the small town where the Collinses reside, alone and seemingly without friends or connection to any place. She is totally independent, but it’s a threatening independence of moorlessness and lack of protection. She seeks out Barnabas, fascinated with him, heedless of the danger he represents. He, too, lives outside the social world, displaced by time, and, although he may be among other Collinses, they are strangers to him. Despite their differences—female/male, vulnerability/strength, youth/age, poverty/wealth—Barnabas and Victoria have much in common. Botting expands on the opportunities presented by their mutual aloneness: “Their distance from social and familial bonds is simultaneously the locus of adventurous, romantic independence and physical danger: she may be active but is alone, with nowhere to turn, without protection and security; he, outside social scrutiny, is able to act out of all manner of unacceptable wishes unchecked. Both heroines and villains…are placed in situations where the suspension of normal rules leads to tension and ambivalence: to be independent of social and domestic regulation…can be pleasurable, dangerous, exciting and frightening.”

Their relationship didn’t have a chance to progress far in the series due to its cancellation after one season. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that Barnabas becoming human and ending up with Victoria was the endgame. One of the big problems of the series is the lack of chemistry between Cross and Going. We don’t see them as meant to be. Even if that wasn’t going to be the endgame, the two share a lot of screen time, which would have been more intriguing with a stronger dynamic between the two. The problem is largely Going’s. She has the look of a gothic heroine with raven hair, pale skin, and large eyes, but her performance is not compelling. Either as Victoria or Josette, we can’t understand why Barnabas would be obsessed with her.

In the early episodes, Barnabas is particularly violent in his moods. At one point he viciously beats his servant Willie Loomis (Jim Fyfe) for trying to warn Victoria off. As the series progresses, he becomes calmer, more civilized, but also more obsessed with possessing Victoria. The presentation of Barnabas tries to straddle that line of danger/violence and romance/tragedy, but the ambivalence seems to be the result of inconsistency rather than a deliberate embrace. In trying to cover every trope in the vampire narrative universe, the series sacrifices character consistency. Cross is left adrift in how approach the role and veers too often into camp to let the audience connect with the character. This is not the overt camp of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in the unfortunate Tim Burton revisiting of the material in 2012. Yet, it’s enough camp to prevent us from emotional engagement. Successful gothic has to play the material straight. It’s not in on the joke. This 1991 version wants to recreate the playful camp of the original series but plays much of the material seriously. The contrast in tones leads the two to undermine each other. It’s not true camp, but, while it presents the material of the gothic, it is not successful at creating the emotional involvement the audience should experience with the gothic mode seriously presented and uncomplicated by reflexive understanding.

And yet, Freeman identifies this understanding as a key element of the pleasure of the vampire subgenre. She writes, “Genre familiarity means that we bring cognitive and emotional capacities to bear on the interpretation and assessment of films’ narrative structures and resolutions. We are all familiar with the many rules that govern vampires, so we may greet the familiar scenes with relish: the absence of reflections, the opening coffin, the bite on the neck, the howl of wolves, the opening of an antique authoritative leather-bound book….The genre plays up and rewards this sort of audience expectation and knowledge.” The question, then, is whether any vampire story can present its story earnestly. The answer is yes and Twilight, which, for a lot of viewers/readers, holds the emotional impact of the gothic, but its earnest presentation is the reason that that narrative is mocked by those who feel reflexive irony is the mark of quality.

But Dark Shadows is no Twilight. That the original series is camp is the reason for its enduring appeal 50 years later. It’s had successful home video releases, and it is the only past daytime soap opera available for streaming (Amazon Prime, if you’re interested). Dan Curtis, who created both the original series and the 1991 prime-time revival, seems to understand that the campy cult appeal of the original wouldn’t fly on prime time but can’t seem to avoid that mode entirely.

One particular camp aspect of the series is the inclusion of what I call the “Dracula’s brides” narrative arc. The character of Barnabas Collins pulls much from Dracula, and his entrancement of young Daphne Collins (Rebecca Staab) upon his arrival lifts directly from the part of Dracula involving Lucy Westerna. Barnabas bites her upon his arrival in modern-day Collinsport, and she becomes his blood slave/make-out companion. Daphne’s look and manner in her entranced state is pure camp, as is that of Carolyn Stoddard (Barbara Blackburn) when she comes under Barnabas’s spell later in the series. (The 1991 Dark Shadows predates Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a year and a half, but the similarities are striking).

Carolyn Stoddard is a major character in the series. However, the show’s hyper-focus on Barnabas and Victoria means that no other characters or stories are truly developed. From what I can glean from Blackburn’s over-the-top performance, Carolyn is the flirtatious and rebellious daughter of family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Jean Simmons). That’s it. She isn’t given any history or anything to do, really, until she becomes Barnabas’s tool.

The inhabitants of modern-day Collinsport.

Elizabeth, too, lacks development and story. The character, as played by Joan Bennett in the original series, had a history and a role in the story. In the revival, Elizabeth serves no purpose beyond welcoming Barnabas to the family and providing an audience for his stories of family history. Simmons gets little chance to contribute as Elizabeth, but her participation adds a patina of respectability to the series. I remember using her presence to justify my watching the series to my parents, who scoff at anything fantasy-related. “Jean Simmons is in it,” I would say, as if that made it seem like a more worthwhile project.

Most of the other inhabitants of modern-day Collinsport merit little mention. There’s Elizabeth’s brother, Roger (Roy Thinnes); Roger’s son, David (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); Roger’s mistress and the local medium, Maggie Evans (Ely Pouget); the housekeeper, Mrs. Johnson (Julianna McCarthy); Daphne’s fiancé, Joe Haskell (Michael T. Weiss); a sheriff (Michael Cavanaugh); and a professor (Stefan Gierasch). There was an abandoned storyline involving Roger’s off-screen ex-wife, a witch, which was given ten minutes of screen time in one episode. And Joe has a few things to do in mourning Daphne after her death early in the series. But, as for the rest of them, they’re window dressing to the Barnabas narrative. So little attention is given to the supporting characters that we’re not even told how Daphne Collins is related to the rest of the family. She’s not Elizabeth’s daughter, and she doesn’t seem to be Roger’s. Is she a cousin? We’ll never know.

Another prime-time soap from that era, Twin Peaks, which debuted the previous year and was winding up its initial run when Dark Shadows premiered, suffered from a similar problem. The main narrative of Laura Palmer’s murder took up so much time and interest that the other stories (like the struggle for control of the mill) had no time to develop. Instead of learning from this example, Dark Shadows focused almost entirely on one storyline to the effect of virtually obliterating the rest.

The two supporting characters from modern-day Collinsport with the most development are Willie Loomis, a clear rip-off the Renfield character from Dracula, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele), a scientist who dedicates herself to curing Barnabas of his vampirism. As this series came out in the early 1990s, there’s an undercurrent of vampirism as a metaphor for HIV, but, wisely, the show doesn’t push this idea too hard. Next to Barnabas, Dr. Hoffman is the most strongly realized character on the show and, easily, the most well performed. Steele developed a strong cult following as the star of a number of Italian horror films of the 1960s. I’ve never seen those, but I had expected, given that background, that she would be the most adept at camp. Yet, her performance is deadly earnest, which is why it works. She takes the material seriously, helping us engage with her story.

I keep saying “modern-day Collinsport” because, halfway through the season, Victoria travels back 200 years to 1790 and meets a whole host of new characters, played by the series regulars in different guises. The only characters who carry over from the 1991 storyline besides Victoria are Barnabas, who hasn’t aged because he’s a vampire, and his sister, Sarah (Veronica Lauren), who appears as a ghost in 1991. In the past, the story focuses on Barnabas’s tragic past and how he became a vampire. Going, here, plays both Victoria and Josette. Simmons is Barnabas’s mother, Naomi. Gierasch is his father, Joshua. Adrian Paul of Highlander fame is Barnabas’s brother Jeremiah while Gordon-Levitt plays another brother, Daniel. Blackburn is Millicent Collins, Jeremiah’s fiancée. Fyfe is Ben Loomis, a factotum for the Collins family. Hoffman is Countess Natalie DuPres, a relation of Josette’s. Cavanaugh is Josette’s father. McCarthy is Barnabas’s aunt, Abigail Collins, who quickly suspects Victoria of being a witch, leading to one of the two main narrative threads of the 1790 part of the series.

Victoria’s persecution as a witch brings in crazed witch-hunter Rev. Trask (Thinnes in over-the-top makeup with outlandish eyebrows). Compared to the paucity of story Roger is given in 1991, Thinnes actually has a lot to do here and seems to relish playing a character that is all camp. Local jack-of-all-trades and advocate, Peter Bradford (Weiss) takes on Victoria’s defense and in the process falls for her. Weiss, unlike Thinnes, plays this role absolutely straight. So again we get tonal incongruity.

The one character that successfully straddles the line between camp and serious gothic exists only in the 1790 part of the series—Angelique (Lysette Anthony), Josette’s maid and a powerful witch. We’re told that, at one point, Barnabas and Josette broke up, and he began an affair with Angelique, an affair she wishes to continue even with Josette’s reappearance in Barnabas’s life. The Josette/Angelique contrast exemplifies the role of female sexuality in the gothic, which, Botting says, “retains the potential of monstrosity, of bodily pleasures, desires, energies that exceed prescription and containment, that remain double: ideal and frightening, comforting and horrific.” If Josette is ideal and comforting, then Angelique is frightening and horrific. More than once she’s described as being a monstrous evil. No culpability is taken by Barnabas or given to him by the series for being unable to keep it in his breeches. The blame for the tragedy is all put on the raving, out-of-control Angelique. It is her desire and obsession that leads to his downfall, not his desire for her or obsession with Josette. Anthony plays the character with conviction and abandon. She’s well aware that her material is over-the-top outrageous, yet she brought me into the character enough to feel peculiarly sympathetic to Angelique.

Trips to the past very much fit in with the gothic mode, as Botting explains, “Generations are subject to the crossing of temporal lines….In seeing one time and its values cross into another, both periods are disturbed. The dispatching of unwanted ideas and attitudes into an imagined past does not guarantee they have been overcome. Savage and primitive energies, archaic and immature, link different historical and individual ages, marking out the other side, the unconscious, as it were, of both cultural and personal development.” However, despite the connection of Barnabas’s past leading to his present as a vampire, once we’re into the past, the stories from 1991 are all but forgotten. Victoria still gets to interact with Barnabas in the past, but, as his focus is on Josette and the trouble Angelique is causing, he barely notices her. There’s no carryover, no sense of the past shaping the present regarding anyone but Barnabas. This break from the present is a major failing on the part of the series. I don’t know how the ratings for the individual episodes broke down, but I do know that the premiere garnered a large audience that had trailed off by the end of the season. I would guess that the near complete abandon of the storylines built up in the first half of the season contributed significantly to this audience drop-off.

The other major failing of the series is in its production values. Even given that the show is 28 years old and would not have nearly the level of polish that the products of today’s golden age of television have, the show looks cheap. Atmosphere is crucial to the gothic, almost a character in itself, and the series can’t manage to present this atmosphere effectively.

It was filmed in the house and on the grounds of the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. I don’t think they got to use more than a few rooms in the house, but the famous staircase appears a lot. In fact, I think the staircase appears in the both mansions in the series. There’s the house the modern-day Collinses inhabit. Then, there’s the ruined manor house on the grounds where the scenes in the past take place and which Barnabas renovates when he wakes up in the present.

The two buildings reflect the doubling at the core of the series and the gothic. The old manor house and its ruined state fits the definition of the ruined gothic spaces as defined by Botting. He says they are “not only places of defence, but also of incarceration and power. They are located in isolated spots, areas beyond reason, law and civilised authority, where there is no protection from terror or persecution and where, inside, creaking doors, dark corridors and dank dungeons stimulate irrational fancies and fears. Power, property and paternal lineage combine in the image of the castle. But these sites are often tempered with decay: deserted, haunted and in ruins, like the feudal institutions they incarnate, their hold on and in the present, like their spectral tenants and aristocratic owners, apparently on the wane.” Indeed, the building in its archaic, ruined state mirrors that of Barnabas, its monstrous inhabitant. He is a walking anachronism; at one point he literally starts to decay, his 200+ years catching up to him. He is protected from ruin by his return to otherness, giving up Dr. Hoffman’s treatment and embracing his vampirism. His house, as well, is brought back to life only by its inhabitation by a monster.

The other mansion called Collinwood where the other Collinses reside is, at only 200 years old, newer and well maintained. Yet, it is still not free from gothic patterns. As Botting describes, “With another staple edifice—the isolated house or mansion—there is a similar conjunction of family line, social status and physical property. Conjoining ideas of home and prison, protection and fear, old buildings in gothic fiction are never secure or free from shadows, disorientation or danger.” I would have liked to see storylines play out in the newer house that would capture the spirit of the mansion, with its connection to 200 years of Collins family history, involving the other members of the family tree. Alas, the show let me down. The potential is there, but it remains unrealized.

The final gothic space—the natural world—is a disappointment in the series. Whether from limitations in budget, technology, or both, the show uses day-for-night photography extensively. Bad day-for-night photography. We shouldn’t be watching a vampire chase a damsel and seeing blue sky above or sun dappling the leaves. We need to see the gothic landscape as Botting describes it: “Landscapes stress isolation and wilderness, evoking vulnerability, exposure and insecurity….Nature appears hostile, untamed and threatening: again darkness, obscurity and barely contained malevolent energy reinforce atmospheres of disorientation and fear.” Disorientation and fear can’t arise if we don’t believe we’re in the space we need to be. The exteriors were filmed on the grounds of the Greystone Mansion, which never capture the bleakness of the gothic. Instead, we’re thinking the Greystone Mansion might be a nice place to visit if we ever get to L.A.

The one space that Beverly Hills can’t provide particular outdoor set is the lonely cliffs where many of the show’s key scenes take place. This space has to potential to embody perfectly the emotions of place that Botting describes: “Affects instilled by bleak landscapes include feelings of melancholic gloom, loneliness and loss. These quieter emotions are punctuated by bursts of destructive rage or anger, cruel cries of villainous satisfaction or expostulations of awe and wonder.” However, the set is so artificial and constrained that any melancholy is muted and awe and wonder are totally impossible.

Dark Shadows 1991 is a failure, but it’s an ambitious one. For fans of the gothic, it is worth a look, as it follows the gothic template perfectly even if it fails to achieve the emotional effects of pure gothic. It could have been better. It had the potential. It even had the potential to be a ratings success given the high level of viewership of the early episodes. Creator Dan Curtis had almost total control over the shape of the series. I have to wonder if a stronger guiding hand could have made a success out of the pieces of the show that worked.

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2 comments on “Dark Shadows (1991); Review by Robin Franson Pruter

  1. Impressive article Robin! A very interesting and informative read. I never know there would have been so much to say about Dark Shadow. I’ve never seen it but I initially heard about the original one because of Joan Bennett. Thanks so much for this great contribution to our blogathon!

  2. […] Robin at Pop Culture Reverie presents a complex and very informative anaylsis of the Dark Shadows revival. […]

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