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‘Dark Shadows’ A Gothic Comedy Modernly Revived..

It was very sad when the Canadian actor Jonathan Frid died in April of this year, particularly as it prevented him from seeing his most famous character brought back from the grave in a lavish Hollywood production. For Frid was immortalised for a whole generation of American kids as the vampire Barnabas Collins, undead antihero of the cult Sixties TV series Dark Shadows. Among those fervent young fans were Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and the recent Dark Shadows film was born of the duo’s youthful passion for the show, a Gothic soap opera relating the story of the ill-fated Collins family. Indeed, you might even blame the darkness that spices Burton’s film direction and Depp’s acting on countless happy afternoons the pair had both spent as kids, watching Barnabas baring his fangs on the small screen.

Critics were divided on the recent big screen Dark Shadows. While some praised the atmospheric sets and strong performances, others condemned the uneven tone in a film located deep within Depp and Burton’s Gothic comfort zone. Particularly critical were dedicated fans of the original show, who felt the heavy doses of 70s retro nostalgia and zany comedy were an insult to its inspiration, where the plots were always played out in deadly earnest, however outlandish they might be. Such adverse reactions were largely confined to American viewers. For, unlike Star Trek – a cult show that debuted in the same era – Dark Shadows wasn’t syndicated much beyond American shores. So, while ‘Trekkies’ are an international phenomenon, dedicated Dark Shadows fandom has remained largely confined to the US.

However, the recent release of a Dark Shadows DVD compilation in the UK has finally allowed curious Brit fang fans an opportunity to sample the soap for themselves. Subtitled ‘The Barnabas Collins Episodes’, the 3-DVD set offers the curious a taster via the first twenty episodes that features Frid’s popular vampire character, plus a host of background extras to help bring newbies up-to-speed on the world of the Collins family. At some ten hours, it seems odd to describe such a meaty package as a mere ‘taster’, but the original series ran to well over 1200 episodes. Indeed, Stateside, excitement has reached fever pitch among devotees with the recent release of the entire run in a coffin-shaped box. Running to 131 DVDs, plus plentiful extras, and retailing at around 500 bucks, this is clearly a serious release for serious fans. What will us foreign newcomers make of the less daunting prospect of the 3-DVD UK set?

Dark Shadows was an afternoon soap, and suffers from all of the limitations that implies – low budgets and little opportunity for such luxuries as second takes or proper rehearsal – leading to occasional fluffed lines, wobbling sets and such. You can also expect the same structure as a standard soap – complete with camp melodramatics, regular cliffhangers, and slowly revealed secrets, drawn out over several episodes. Of course, what makes Dark Shadows different is the Gothic atmosphere and supernatural elements. It’s a wildcard that adds a welcome tone of batty unpredictability to proceedings, as writers added not only the paranormal and monsters, but random time-travel and crazy dream sequences when they felt matters needed livening up. It is oddly addictive, even if it isn’t as polished or adult as modern Gothic serials like True Blood. But it’s probably fair to say that, without Dark Shadows and its reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins, maybe we wouldn’t have had such big-budget, prime-time supernatural soaps.

It might also be true that it was Dark Shadows and Barnabas Collins that ignited a passion for acting and melodrama in the young Johnny Depp, who has described the vampire as ‘a huge obsession’: ‘I wanted to be Barnabas Collins so much that I found a ring, it was probably one of my mother’s rings, and I wore it on this finger, and I tried to comb my hair like Barnabas Collins, and I was trying to figure out how I could get fangs. It really had a heavy impact on me, a heavy influence on me.’ Anyone wishing to take sartorial tips from Barnabas today will find less need for improvisation, not least courtesy of Alchemy. While we don’t do a wolf’s-head cane, anybody looking for a walking stick similar to Barnabas’s has plenty to choose from. Might we suggest the Beasts Claw walking cane (WS3) – Barnabas would adore the occult motif and find plenty of uses, within the grasp of the crystal ball.

Potential nightstalkers are even more spoiled for choice in the ring department. We think Barnabas might look most distinguished in the Mori Noir (R179 – a perfect blend of ostentation and funereal dignity…

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