If I Was Writing the Dark Shadows Script…

I am an anomaly.  For those of you that know me, this will come as no surprise.  I found a great deal of humor during my cancer treatment, my favorite musician is Elton John (no, I’m not gay), and I write gut-churning scenes of horror while listening to Christmas songs.  And, if that was not enough, I’m a huge fan of a television show that most people my age have never even heard of.

Dark Shadows ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, a Gothic soap opera centering around the eccentric Collins family in the small shipping town of Collinsport, Maine.  The characters were typical fair for soap operas—all with secrets and somewhat broken moral compasses.  The series went along for nearly 200 episodes with mostly blah storylines ripped largely from classical literature, but then the producers decided to take a risk and created the character of Barnabas Collins, a 175-year old vampire, who is released from his coffin and introduces himself as a cousin from England.

Barnabas, portrayed with wonderful intensity and and often humorous tendency to forget lines by Jonathan Frid, turned the show into a sensation.  Children and adults alike would hurry home in the afternoons to watch Barnabas attempt to work through his many, many issues—his search for his long-lost love Josette, his witch ex-girlfriend Angelique (played by the brilliant Lara Parker), his guilt and anger over becoming a vampire and the lives he has taken, his desire to help those who, like himself, have crossed the wrong people.  Originally designed for a storyline lasting only a dozen or so episodes, Barnabas Collins became the core of most of the shows 1225 episodes.  Throw in a dashing werewolf or two, some menacing ghosts, a European nobleman with a penchant for black magic, and more time travel than a Harry Potter book, and you have one of the premier shows in television history.  Even considering the missed lines, the cheesy special effects, and the crew’s numerous appearances on the show, Dark Shadows was, and still is, prime watching.

Recently, Tim Burton signed on to make a new movie based on Dark Shadows, with long-time fan Johnny Depp agreeing to play the role of Barnabas Collins.  More recently, the duties of preparing a script for the movie went from Burton’s frequent collaborator, John August, to Seth Grahame-Smith, author of the mashup novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the book I’m currently reading, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

I hope Grahame-Smith does an excellent job paring down the 600+ hours of television, 12 or so hours of miserable revival series, and two moderately successful spin-off films from the original into an entertaining script that appeals to fans old and new.  That said, if asked to offer advice on the movie, I would say the following:

–Scrap Victoria Winters.  In the original series, she became the governess for David, but when the actress (Alexandra Moltke) became pregnant and wanted to move on to other things, the character vanished into 1795 and never returned.  The show didn’t need her then, and the movie doesn’t need her now.

–Keep the original theme music.  Sure, update it if need be, but the theme for the original show is an iconic audio experience for the spooky and supernatural.  It sets the tone perfectly and I’d love to hear people whistling the tune as they exit the theater.

—Focus on the Barnabas/Josette/Angelique storyline.  Everyone loves a good love triangle (e.g. Twilight), and Angelique is too good of a character to leave out.  When William Congreave wrote, more or less, that “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, he obviously never had sex with a witch, then wanted to marry her employer.  Angelique called upon Hell to deal with her fury and that made for some interesting dilemmas for Barnabas.

–Don’t treat Barnabas as some incarnation of evil.  On the other hand, don’t treat him as some angelic, Cullen-like vampire either.  The closest comparison to Barnabas I can make is to someone with a drug or alcohol problem.  He feels intense guilt over what he is and what he has to do to survive, but he can’t stop himself without outside help.  Barnabas is a blood junkie, constantly fighting against the need for a fix.

–Let Dr. Julia Hoffman sit this one out.  If the film does well enough, bring her in for a sequel.  For now, there is just too much going on introducing the other characters to throw dear Julia in.  The unrequited love she had for Barnabas and their complex friendship makes for a great story, but that will have to wait for another film.

–Go for the special effects.  Audiences have grown used to high-dollar blockbusters that spend a fortune on special effects.  I think to capture the attention of a younger crowd, there needs to be action scenes that were never in the original series, particularly on the lines of the later Harry Potter movies where the effects add to the dark atmosphere of the stories without overpowering them.

–Keep enough references to the original series to keep the time-tested fans interested.  Fans who grew up watching the series will tolerate a fair amount of change as long as there are anchors here and there to tie them to what they know and love.  Keep some of the more memorable elements (e.g. Barnabas recounting the tale of Josette’s death by candlelight in the study, etc.) and throw in other references that only die-hard fans will catch (e.g. perhaps have a painting of Quentin Collins in plain sight, have the original music box in the story, maybe even throw in a few of the funnier flubbed lines).  It’s a hard thing blending new fans into old ones, so don’t make it harder than it has to be.  Give us all something to love about it.

–Finally, stay true to the characters.  Barnabas is afflicted, not an affliction.  He kills because he has to kill and he hates Angelique for it, even as he loves her as the only person who truly understands him.  The two of them are linked as strongly as any two characters in the original series (this is evidenced in the show when, at the end of their storyline, Barnabas realizes that he has loved Angelique) and they should provide the main conflict of the story.

So, Mr. Grahame-Smith, if you read this, I hope you will take my words to heart.  I’ll watch it regardless, but whether I enjoy it is now largely up to you.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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