“She wants to destroy the Collins family for all time!”
On October 23rd, 1970, Richard Nixon gave a speech to the United Nations about his desire for world peace. “In Southeast Asia, let us agree to a cease-fire and negotiate a peace,” he said. “In the Middle East, let us hold to the cease-fire and build a peace. Through arms control agreements, let us invest our resources in the development that nourishes peace.” And then they kept on fighting the Vietnam War for another five years.
But ABC decided that Nixon’s close-order hypocrisy display was important enough to pre-empt their daytime schedule, so as we always do on these pre-emption days, instead of watching the 1960s Dark Shadows that we know and love, we’re going to watch the 1991 Dark Shadows that we’re aware of and barely tolerate.
Now, possibly the strangest thing about Dark Shadows fans is that after two television reboots and two feature film reboots, none of which really accomplished anything in particular, we still think it would be a good idea to go out and find a dark-haired Byronic guy with an English accent and have him act out the make-believe story of Barnabas Collins as seen on ABC-TV’s Dark Shadows, starting with Willie Loomis releasing him from the crypt and then moving through the major plot points of the next four years, including the murder of Dave Woodard, Victoria Winters’ time travel flashback, the arrival of Cassandra and Nicholas Blair, the creation of Adam, a run-in with neighborhood werewolf Chris Jennings, the haunting of Collinwood by the ghost of Quentin Collins, another time travel flashback involving gypsies, portraits, the Hand of Count Petofi and more werewolves, an optional adventure with a gang of mobster Elder Things, a quick visit to a parallel dimension, a glimpse of the tragic destiny of the Collins family as seen from twenty-five years later than whenever the show is being made, a return to the present for an ill-fated attempt to correct a series of tragic mistakes, and the eventual showdown with warlock Judah Zachery, who cursed the Collins family two hundred and seventy-eight years before whenever the show is being made, and who it turns out is the root of the whole entire problem.
Or, at least, most of us think that. I am apparently an outlier.
And that’s a peculiar desire for Dark Shadows fans to have, because on the whole, most people would like to see their continuing serialized drama actually continue in a forward direction, rather than loop around and repeat four years of story that we’ve already seen, especially if it’s currently available to view in its entirety for the price of an Amazon Prime subscription.
Yes, we live in an age of reboots and remakes, prequels and sequels and multiple adaptations. According to my figures, Lois Lane has met and disliked Clark Kent at least 16 times in at least 7 different media, with 11 different actors playing Superman, and someone out there is probably working on starting it all over again, in a high-def streaming 3D hologram motion-capture immersive theme park attraction. This is a thing that our culture does.
But usually, television reboots take an episodic narrative structure and just reuse the premise, like Charlie’s Angels or MacGyver, or they’re a continuation of an original show’s story, like Dallas or Melrose Place or Doctor Who or Twin Peaks, or they’re basically a different show with the same name, like Battlestar Galactica. Nobody tries to launch a new show with the intention of paraphrasing twelve hundred half-hours of afternoon television.
The reason why the story of Dark Shadows has been retold so often is that executive producer Dan Curtis just didn’t have that many different ideas, and there are only so many times that you can remake The Turn of the Screw. The first time he told the story of Barnabas Collins, he actually stopped in the middle in order to retell it as a feature film, using the same writers and actors and music cues. Compared to that, coming back twenty years later and doing the same story over again is relatively sane.
So Dark Shadows fans have come to accept this as a normal thing to do, and wish that someone would try it again for the fifth time. But this is absolutely not a normal thing to do, and that’s why nobody else would even try, except for Dan.
I mean, sure, they remade Dynasty. But who cares about Dynasty?
So the question is: why bother to tell a story that somebody’s already told, in the same medium and the same style as the original? It’s kind of like somebody writing a new novel that retells the story of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the style of J.K. Rowling. Either you’re going to do it worse than Rowling, which is pointless, or you’re planning to be better at being Rowling than Rowling is, which is unlikely.
Now, it’s true that in 1991, access to Dark Shadows wasn’t as easy as it is now. At that time, the reruns on public television had tapered off, and they wouldn’t start up again until the Sci-Fi Channel launched in fall 1992. MPI was working its way through releasing the series on videotape, but the tapes were expensive, and mostly available by special order. So when there was an opportunity to bring this ridiculous five-year shaggy-dog story to a new audience, then remaking it was probably easier than trying to invent a new content delivery system.
And obviously I’m also glossing over the fact that a daytime half-hour show from the 1960s is not really the same medium as a prime-time hour-long weekly show from 1991. The new Dark Shadows only used twelve hours to tell a story that took ten times that long in the original, thanks to an accelerated narrative style that made the show more appealing for mass audiences in 1991, and just because the mass audiences didn’t really take to it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad idea.
The problem of showing people the original 1960s Dark Shadows is that you and I know how exciting and passionate and inventive and fascinating the show is, because we have consciously made the mental tradeoffs that you have to make in order to enjoy it. For example, you have to be okay with the fact that sometimes the show is terrible, and some of the ideas don’t make sense. It’s slow, and it’s made on videotape, and sometimes the actors forget their lines, and narratively it’s a mishmash of haphazard lunatic plot contrivances.
So if you want to watch and enjoy the show, then you have to make the conscious decision to take all of that into account, and enjoy it anyway. You make mental adjustments to your expectations of what television shows are like, in a way that you don’t have to for Breaking Bad or CSI or Black-ish, or whatever television looks like in whatever era you’re currently living in.
It’s hard to get audiences to be excited about television made in the late 1960s, because it’s visibly worse than modern TV. Every single show on television today looks better than Dark Shadows does, just because of the lighting and the high-def digital cameras. Every show does a better job of keeping the boom mic shadows out of the actors’ faces. And every show, now matter how boring or badly-written it is, moves faster than 60s Dark Shadows; you get more information per minute, and you don’t have to watch actors struggling with the teleprompter. If you tried to broadcast the best episode of 1960s Dark Shadows on television as if it were a new show, then it would automatically be declared the worst show ever made.
But Dark Shadows fans know how great this story is, we happy few who can see past the show’s ugly-duckling exterior, and we’re correct. Dark Shadows, in context and using the appropriate mental adjustments, is one of the world’s best uses of television.
The show was made by a group of ambitious and slap-happy producers, working at top speed to capture the afternoon television audience in whatever way they could, regardless of sanity or taste. They pivoted quickly in response to the daytime audience’s needs and desires, and the story evolved through a process of narrative natural selection, following the ideas that worked and downplaying ideas that the audience didn’t like. The show was perfectly in tune with the times, as any successful show should be.
But those times are long gone, and fifty years later, it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade people to make the necessary mental adjustments. Dark Shadows was made for a world that would embrace Jonathan Frid as a matinee idol, and where the romantic male leads could wear suits and ties at all times, even during the love scenes. You can see the 1991 Dark Shadows trying to address that culture gap by serving up periodic portions of hunky male chests, and these days, the standard for visible male muscle tone is even higher.
Dark Shadows was made for a world where a marionette bat on a string is a clever use of special effects, where actors could stand in a line and emote at the audience as if they were on stage, where the idea of plot development on a Wednesday was considered optional. This world is not that world anymore.
So that’s why we want someone to remake this marvelous thing, because we want everyone else to share the pleasurable experience that we have when we watch Dark Shadows, even if they’re not interested in making the mental adjustments. Fans are naturally evangelists, and we want a version of Dark Shadows that our friends would find appealing.
And what we want is to share this specific story that we love, using all the parts that we recognize as good, and erasing all the parts that we would have to apologize for. This invariably means that we want Angelique to turn up at Collinwood immediately after the 1795 time travel story, but refrain from casting the Dream Curse spell. That’s where everybody starts, when you consider how to remake Dark Shadows — the first thing you do is cut the Dream Curse, and you move on from there.
We know that the Dream Curse will repel modern audiences, because it’s repetitive and achingly slow, and it keeps the main characters of the story at arm’s length for weeks, when what we really want to see is Angelique and Barnabas talking about their relationship. And in the end, it doesn’t have any impact on the plot, so it makes for an easy edit.
And if we make judicious cuts like that, and just focus on the story elements that actually worked the first time, then we could have a good, modern version of the show, and then our friends would understand why we like it. That’s a perfectly natural thing to want. It’s what Doctor Who fans experienced in 2005, when their show was revived in a format and style that was more closely tuned to modern audience expectations. The difference is that the new Doctor Who is telling new stories, rather than rehashing an old story and taking out the Dream Curse.
But really, if we’re thinking about a revival series that could be made today, the core question is: what is the pleasure for the artist?
I mean, we want somebody to actually go and make this new version of the story, which means live human producers and directors and writers and set designers need to get together and do their jobs. The set designers will probably get a pass as long as the foyer at Collinwood is big enough, but it’s the writers that we really need to worry about.
Because this kind of cut-and-paste storytelling that we’re suggesting isn’t really a sweet gig for an ambitious writer trying to make their mark in Hollywood. The story arcs are already developed, and the big climactic scenes are spoken for. Willie opening the crypt, Josette teetering on the cliff, Victoria facing the hangman’s noose — these are all covered. You know that Julia needs to come to the house as a historian, that Dave Woodard’s death is a pivot point for Barnabas and Julia’s relationship, that Sarah dies from being out in the rain too long. You even know that your best storyline isn’t going to start until season three. The only real work that you’d have to do is figure out what plot points to cut — starting with the Dream Curse, of course — and even those choices would be scrutinized and questioned by longtime fans, who would all be writing and editing their own reboot of the reboot in their heads the whole time.
You can’t just look at what the audience wants in this scenario; you also have to account for what the writers and directors want, and I’m pretty sure the good ones wouldn’t want to go anywhere near this project. Good writers want to do something creative and new, to bring a fresh perspective to the story. They don’t want to remake a thing just for the sake of remaking it.
And that is the story of the 1991 revival series. For the new show, Dan got together with the following people:
Steve Feke, who wrote Mac and Me,
Bill Taub, who wrote episodes of Supertrain, Magnum P.I. and Freebie and the Bean,
Jon Boorstin, who produced All the President’s Men in 1976 and then not much else,
Hall Powell, whose TV career had up until that point been one episode of B.J. Stryker,
Sam Hall, who was only there because he was being polite, and
Sam’s son Matthew, who had never written for television before.
That’s the team that wrote the first seven episodes of the Dark Shadows revival. That’s the kind of talent that you can attract when the plan is to follow a story as written for daytime television twenty years ago. Dan hired people who couldn’t write dialogue.
And it turns out the dialogue is actually the one area where the original Dark Shadows is competitive with the revival. The lighting and direction and acting and special effects were all several steps below 1991 broadcast standard, but the 1969 dialogue was objectively better than the 1991 dialogue, by a wide margin. It could be stagey, and sometimes it was simply functional, but characters would walk into a room and say things that would be worth an audience’s time to hear. That was not true of the revival show, and that’s the number one reason why people stopped watching nighttime Dark Shadows, and switched the dial to Dallas or Perfect Strangers.
Dark Shadows at its best was a writer’s show. The actors were compelling and the special effects were groundbreaking, but when you identify a period of the show that sparkles — Julia facing off against the vampire, Angelique tricking Barnabas into marriage, Quentin and Magda and Pansy Faye — it’s because the dialogue was like an Off-Broadway play that ran for a half-hour five times a week, forever.
If you want something like the 1897 story, you need the brilliant energy of Sam Hall and Gordon Russell and Violet Welles in full flow — and you can only get that because you have three writers working together against impossible odds, and challenging each other to be even more clever and witty and character-based. Sam and Gordon and Violet were so intensely in love with the show they were creating, and that love comes across to the audience. It’s beautiful and it’s breathtaking, and you can only get that energy when you allow the creative people that you employ to actually create something that they care about.
That’s why the Leviathan story doesn’t work, because Sam was pulled away to work on the House of Dark Shadows script. The team lost that spark that emerged from having these three writers in the same room, and you can tell that pretty quickly they just stopped caring. In 1969, it was crucially important to them to create a scene with Magda and Quentin diving deep into their feelings about Jenny’s murder, and do the hard work of explaining why Magda’s going to forgive him. They cared about those characters, and those plot points. And just a few months later, they completely bailed on Jeb and Carolyn ever having the climactic confrontation that they needed to have, because the writers didn’t care about the Leviathans.
So if you want a modern version of Dark Shadows that’s made by the equivalent of Noah Hawley or Bryan Fuller or Ryan Murphy — or even the equivalent of Sam, Gordon and Violet, if there is one — then you cannot give them the story of Dark Shadows and tell them that it’s okay if they cut the Dream Curse. It will never be good. So maybe what you really want is the version that you’ve been making in your head all these years, which is pretty good and has David Selby in it.
Monday: Time and Tantrums.
— Danny Horn