MGM // 1991 // 592 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 26th, 2005
You can't keep a good vampire down.
Some people can never seem to let go of their biggest hit: George Lucas tinkers endlessly with Star Wars like a madman convinced a worldwide phenomenon is a rough draft, Spielberg felt he had to update E.T. to be more politically correct for its big re-release, and Ridley Scott seems to crank out a new director's version of one of his visual classics about every three years by adding casual shots here and there. So should it surprise anyone that Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis has done two movies, attempted to revive his series on prime time television twice, produced an off-Broadway play adaptation, and is even has, in the works, a Broadway musical version of his daytime soap that has made him a household name? I fear the man will never give up trying to resurrect Barnabas Collins, his beloved vampire and the most famous resident of Collinsport.
And of course DVD makers have found Dark Shadows fans will pay a hefty price for anything related to the show. The faithful seem as eager to return to the Maine mansion of Collinwood as its creator. It was only a matter of time before Dark Shadows The Revival: The Complete Series appeared, though surprisingly it surfaces on an MGM label instead of the traditional MPI distribution. How will the shadows fare in a revival with a different company?
Victoria Winters (Joanna Going, Inventing the Abbots) arrives by train at a spooky, grand old mansion in Maine to tutor a small boy who likes to scare people (David Collins, played by a pre-Third Rock From the Sun Joseph Gordon Levitt). She is to live at Collinwood with the famous Collins family, headed by the widow matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Jean Simmons, Hamlet). Almost as soon as the new governess arrives, so does an estranged relative claiming to be Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross, Chariots of Fire), a cousin from England. Creepy that he looks just like that painting in the hall of his supposed ancestor, also named Barnabas...Before long, bodies begin showing up mysteriously drained of blood, and Barnabas convinces Victoria she is the reincarnation of a long-dead woman named Josette Collins. Could he be a vampire? Dr. Julia Hoffman (Barbara Steele) arrives on the scene to find out. But why is it she seems less interested in the victims than in finding a cure for vampirism? Is she that in love with the dark stranger?
Before you can say "Let's all have a seance!," the residents at Collinwood do. But the fun ends when Victoria Winters disappears from the present time and ends up two hundred years in the past. All the faces look oddly the same, but with different names. Now Miss Winters must watch as a human Barnabas Collins becomes entangled in a bizarre love triangle, which will pit his love for Josette against the jealous rage of a witch named Angelique (Lysette Anthony, Dracula: Dead and Loving It). Can anyone stop the wheels of destiny, and either prevent colonial Barnabas from getting vamped or cure present-day Barnabas from his affliction? And even more important, who will win his heart? The innocent governess with timeless beauty, or the icy scientist with salvation in her black bag?
The early '90s was a propitious time to revive the show. In the late '60s when the original debuted, it seemed to be aimed at a generation that was discovering free love and sexual liberation. A vampire had to show up to make sex dangerous again. In the early '90s, AIDS created a bookend to the movement where sex and death seemed linked. It was time for the vampire again. And so we have Dark Shadows The Revival, a strong mix of sex mingling with death brought through bloodlust. But it was also the result of Dan Curtis telling a network he could resurrect a hit.
In 1991 NBC had a huge hole to fill on Friday nights. They wanted to capture the audience who had been displaced from ABC by the sudden cancellation of Twin Peaks, a show that had run its course. From January to March, the network let Dan Curtis try his hand at reinventing Dark Shadows as a weekly hour-long nighttime soap opera. The midseason replacement certainly seemed like a good idea, but the Gulf War pre-empted parts of the series during its premiere, which was spread out over several nights like a miniseries. It was hard for the audience to find the show, and it generated little interest despite a massive marketing campaign. After only twelve episodes, the revamped Dark Shadows was proclaimed a ratings sucker and duly canceled. Fan protest was strong -- NBC received over 50,000 letters asking for the series to continue. But the studio executives were unmoved, and the show vanished into the mist.
Watching it again on DVD, the series seems a good idea that never quite opened its bloom wide enough, but still remains beautiful in some ways. The biggest difference you will see is how much harder they make most of the characters, and how much flesh and blood gets exposed in comparison to the first. The cast was sexy, the story familiar with some new twists, and the sets were gorgeous. Trouble was Dan Curtis and Sam Hall, who helped write the original series, stuck close to their previous work and style for the first half of the series. The campy excesses and melodramatic lines were charming after school in the late '60s, but at night in the '90s Dark Shadows was long in the tooth. Day-for-night shoots, vampires in sexy lingerie, yellow contacts, and acrylic teeth seemed hopelessly dated for viewers raised on Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and Stephen King's Salem's Lot. Hell, Joel Schumacher's Lost Boys was more restrained than this hoary affair flaunting camp sensibilities. Dark Shadows' problem was that it was being eclipsed by its own legacy. The show may have introduced the "sympathetic vampire" to the masses, but a progression of books and films ran with the theme afterwards. Twenty years after it was canceled, the resurrected Dark Shadows seemed quaintly stuck in time when compared to other works running with the torch the first show lit.
Ben Cross's take on Barnabas Collins was quite different than Jonathan Frid. He played the vampire more overtly sexual, and capable of being far more feral than the reserved creep of the daytime model. It was a brave performance, but twenty years later Frid's stamp on the role is impossible to compete with. Cross was appropriately tall and thin, but far too tan to have been chained in a coffin for two hundred years. (Perhaps it was a tanning bed coffin?) He was trying too hard to make the role his own. Frid had simply relaxed into the role twenty years before. We were seeing poor Ben sweat, and it didn't quite cut it. It didn't help that the immaculate actor was fed hammy lines from Dan Curtis, to be delivered verbatim in a far-too-somber, earnest tone. Frid had the good sense to improvise when he had to, and also had a good enough sense of humor to know when not to take a phrase seriously. Cross is a great actor, and he does indeed have some very powerful moments. It's just that good method and cheesy effects don't always mix, and he couldn't escape being endlessly compared to his predecessor.
Barbara Steele fared better as Dr. Julia Hoffman. Grayson Hall's original version was a lot of fun, but Steele had an icy resolve that was all business. Her doctor was appropriately obsessed with Barnabas, but the only clue to that was the way her pursed lips would quiver when he was near. She had gathered acting experience on Roger Corman sets like Piranha, as well as in Italian horror, and knew how to handle the "B movie" vibe like a pro. She was a portrait of iron resolve, and more of a monster than her vampire paramour by a far stretch. Barbara even seems to handle a ridiculous wig and a thick French accent (during the 1790s sequence) with aplomb. She's a trooper, that Barbara Steele; and somehow she can make the silliest lines razor sharp.
Joanna Going deserves recognition for making Victoria Winters so damn likable. She was a sexy Barbie doll at first glance, but her eyes sparkled with an intense intelligence that caught me off guard. Victoria was intense and surreally beautiful -- who wouldn't want her to be their vampire bride? Going was perfect, and I am surprised she didn't rise through the ranks of Hollywood starlets to something big. She handles a double role, as Victoria Winters and the doomed Josette, skillfully. She makes both women believable, yet quite different in a lot of ways.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an appropriately scary and vulnerable David Collins. Something about him makes you want to hug him, but only at arm's length. It's a shock to see him this young, and hard to believe he's the same person who would grow up to star on Third Rock From the Sun. How did he lose the creepy quality he channels effortlessly here?
Both Michael T. Weiss (of The Pretender fame) and classic golden era actress Jean Simmons make appearances, but both are relegated to brief roles (as Joe Haskell and Elizabeth Stoddard, respectively). Weiss gets to show his body a lot, running around shirtless, but is just vampire bait for the first half and a fop in finery for the second. He never quite grasps how to handle the material, and when he is seen in the 1790s storyline he seems hopelessly modern. He does get the distinction of being the only one to die twice on the show in its short run. Simmons is truly regal, and brings the Hollywood royalty aura with her, but she gets precious few moments on the screen as the legendary matriarch of the Collins clan. Many of the storylines from the original show centered on Elizabeth, but all eyes are on the vampire this time around. She even is relegated to a supporting role once the historical shift happens.
The rest of the cast is fine, if not noteworthy. Maggie (Ely Pouget, Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace) is reduced to a waitress at the Blue Whale who has psychic powers and plenty of call to use them with witches and vampires around. The character of Carolyn Stoddard (Barbara Blackburn, Ryan's Hope) blips by instead of making an impact. Honestly, she's hard to remember fifteen minutes after watching an episode. She does get a memorable stretch as a vampire pawn, but then recedes back into the scenery. Willie (Jim Fyfe, The Frighteners) seems too eager to play Igor "big" and "bad" for him to seem like a real person. They just aren't given the screen time to develop like they could day after day in a traditional soap opera. The night soap format really forces the ensemble to do quick work establishing the characters, and some were lost in the rapid storytelling.
Two actors who do make the most of their limited screen time in the 1790s story line include Lysette Anthony as Angelique and Roy Thinnes (Falcon Crest) as Reverend Trask. While Lysette is certainly no Lara Parker, she does enough to differentiate her Angelique from the original. As with Cross's approach to the vampire, she makes the witch feral and sinister without any hint of softness, and, oddly, it works. She battles with her French accent, but is so slinky and alluring you'll never notice. Thinnes plays Roger Collins in the present day story, but his turn as a Satan-obsessed reverend is what you'll walk away remembering. I'm not sure if the wig and the black robes made him feel more free, but he seems to have far more life as the sinister reverend than as the put-upon male head of the household. Both characters really pop, and make the 1790s portion way more fun than it has any right to be.
The show has the same cornball over-the-top melodramatics that were a trademark of the original series. Even though the special effects are better, the lines are still often groanworthy. It reminded me a lot of Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho, which relied on using the original script with disastrous results. This revival treats its source as if it were Biblical. Dan Curtis took the soap stories, blended them with House of Dark Shadows, and updated little, other than the time period. It's clumsy rather than charming. Fans of the original must have been bored to tears to see the same scenes rehashed in the first few episodes. By about the halfway point things change, but it may have been too late.
Truth is Dark Shadows The Revival really starts to pick up in episode six, when Victoria finds herself caught in a time warp. Finally Curtis and Hall allow the series to deviate from the boilerplate of the daytime show, and things get far more interesting. Highlander: The Series fans may want to check the set out to catch Adrian Paul in sexy colonial garb as Jeremiah Collins. Things heat up, and the love triangles begin to resemble Dynasty -- if it were set in early America. What took the good part of a year on the original show somehow books by in six forty-minute episodes. It has a whiz bang approach that helps the pace, and the twists on the old lore are fun as hell if you're a Dark Shadows fan.
Still, Dan Curtis couldn't help but ham it up, even in the '90s. Exteriors were problematic, because the show was shot in and around Los Angeles to save money. Models of the outside of the house are used, and are obviously silly. It never looks like a mansion, but rather like a poorly-made train set model. I kept waiting for a Lionel miniature to cruise by, happily tooting its whistle for the residents of Collinwood. Curtis seemed fond of shooting "day for night," and the masking of this is as weak as when he employed the effect in the '70s for his big screen adaptations. Hard to believe Barnabas wouldn't burst into flames with the sun obviously at noon with only a blue filter on it. The vampires were given cheesy teeth that looked like dime store models, and had matching Michael Jackson Thriller contacts. The women were always in lingerie when vamped, as if the curse of the vampire came with a charge account at Frederick's of Hollywood. And there is mist everywhere. The production relied on constant fog in great abundance. Rumor has it the cast even became sick from the foul-smelling soup that surrounded them without fail.
Yet for all the disappointment I felt that Dark Shadows was silly and hoary as ever, Dark Shadows The Revival: The Complete Series reminded me how watchable the show was. I don't know if it's the actors, a tried and true story, or the oddity of it all being played out in a modern setting, but the twelve shows here fly by in no time. The production itself is handsome, and the design of the interior of Collinwood is sumptuous. Every sequence is shot through a gauzy Vaseline lens on mist-filled sets that look dreamy and render the show hypnotic. Dan Curtis directed the first few clunky episodes himself, but quickly surrendered his chair to people who had strong grasps on visual storytelling. The show looks better as it goes along, and it starts to rise nearly to the level of Twin Peaks -- which it had hoped to replace as the hot new show to watch.
The transfers are wonky at best. The show is misframed, using a widescreen format when it was originally televised as traditional full screen. I wonder if they went to the original negative, or just lopped off some information to make it widescreen. I would believe the later, because images occasionally seem misframed or a little off center. I can't believe they took a television show and matted it for widescreen. Opening credits are shown at the correct aspect ratio, and then suddenly the picture broadens out to resemble a widescreen television broadcast. It's an odd move. The source tapes reveal flaws the DVD authoring did not remove. Grain washes over every shot, and some of the colors seem faded, ironically as if the show came from the '70s. Putting it up next to MPI's transfers of the original series, this one seems in worse shape than the older version. Looking at a climactic sequence between Barnabas and Josette in one of the late episodes really drives this home. They look like they are swimming in a sea of foggy grain.
Extras are limited to some additional footage in the series' premiere episode, and a couple of short scenes added to the finale. This is no great discovery, since MPI's original VHS releases of the show contained the same sequences. It's not even noted on the cover of the release. No commentaries, no interviews, no promo spots, nothing. The opportunity for a cool featurette comparing scenes from the original to this newer version could have been unique, but that's not here either. All you get are the twelve episodes on three discs. But at least these aren't flipper discs.
Dark Shadows The Revival: The Complete Series is proof the afternoon broadcasts of the original cast longer and more satisfying inky stains on the walls, but it's still fun to see the show morphed into a primetime soap. It's something fans wondered for years -- What if the show had a budget? What if it were on late enough to be really scary? Dark Shadows The Revival is a mixed bag at best, but there are enough good moments to recommend it to fans. And who am I kidding? Diehard Dark Shadows collectors pre-ordered the set months ago when it was announced. The merely curious or uninitiated will find the show's faster pace easier to grab on to than the original series, but it's still better to start with the original. Of course Dark Shadows The Revival has an easily digestible twelve episodes, while the first version has over twelve hundred...
When Angel was canceled by the WB, they planned to fill its open slot with yet another Dark Shadows revival, with Alec Newman (Dune) as Barnabas and Blair Brown (Altered States) as Elizabeth. After filming a pilot, which was directed by PJ Hogan (Muriel's Wedding) and written by Smallville's Mark Verheiden, executives at the WB deemed the show "too psychedelic," and did not order any further episodes. Rumors still swirl that the Sci Fi Channel may reopen the vampire's crypt with this creative team, in much the same way they mounted the Battlestar Galactica remake. But as of this writing, it looks like Dark Shadows The Revival is as close as we'll get to seeing the series resurrected. Then again, there's always the chance of that musical hitting Broadway. Don't laugh too hard, because many of the scenes in this 1991 version reminded me of Joel Schumacher's big screen Phantom of the Opera. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Barnabas or the Collins clan.
Deader is better when it comes to beloved television shows, but it was fun to try. Dark Shadows The Revival is guilty of being not near as good as the original, but at least it's fun to watch. It's silly, sexy fun, and a curious oddity in the Dark Shadows canon -- one that many fans will want to make their collections complete. It's proof that more money doesn't always mean a better production, and timing is everything. Oddly enough, both Dark Shadows and Dark Shadows The Revival feel like they are trapped in that elusive time when the '60s melted in to the '70s.
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 592 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Pilot and Finale
* Info on New 2004 Pilot
* Dark Shadows Online