Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Revival Series: 20 Years On

This week marks 20 years since the Dark Shadows revival series aired on NBC. Across 12 episodes, a new cast recreated the original stories with lavish production values and a brooding nighttime sensibility. Scheduling headaches and Gulf War pre-emptions saw the show cancelled after one brief season, but now seems like a good time to look back at Dark Shadows' first stab at reincarnation.

The feature-length pilot opens with a sweeping helicopter shot of Victoria's train moving along the coast and a beautiful new version of the original theme music. It has a genuine sense of wonder. So far, so good. In truth, while the focus of the stories is placed on Barnabas, Joanna Going as Victoria Winters is really the show's star. 20 years hindsight saw the character given little revision, but the performance alone makes Victoria seem contemporary and intelligent. As Barnabas, Ben Cross maintains the character's aristocratic air, but gives him a more sour demeanor than Jonathan Frid ever displayed. In his vampire form, Barnabas is now prone to randomly hissing like an alarmed cat. During these sequences, Ben Cross stares through his day-glo contact lenses pleadingly, as if hoping for a reprieve.

At the time of production, series creator Dan Curtis spoke of his desire to remake
Dark Shadows as he'd always intended it, and it's this mandate of worthiness that sets the tone for the early episodes. Unfortunately, though well-intentioned, the results are often cold and forbidding. Much of the pilot features characters earnestly delivering lines at distance across the (admittedly lavish) scenery. What should be intimate conversations are instead conducted from distances of up to 20 feet. It's great for showing off the sets, but little else. As a result, the Collins brood remain faraway, both emotionally and geographically.

An early scene of Elizabeth, Carolyn and Daphne exchanging casual chit-chat sounds like it's been fed through the Google language translator. "Well, at least there's one practical Collins," smiles Elizabeth thinly, in what's presumably meant to be a witty aside. You wouldn't want to stuck next to her at a party. What's missing is any sense of humour. Compare the first scene of Elizabeth and Roger bickering with its 1960s counterpart and the modern version seems spare and lacking. Whereas Louis Edmonds and Joan Bennett had instant rivalry and fruity put-downs to chew over, Roy Thinnes and Jean Simmons are left with a series of terse asides. Despite the actors' best efforts, they just sound bored with one another.

Things pick up considerably with the arrival of eminent blood specialist Dr. Julia Hoffman, played with tremendous gusto by Barbara Steele. With her arch, idiosyncratic manner and wonderful expressive face, she's a fine successor to Grayson Hall, juggling the melodrama and cool conviction of the character perfectly. Stylistically she feels like a reassuring lost link to the original Dark Shadows cast and as such, is simply brilliant. Of the rest of the actors, Jim Fyfe's version of Willie makes an impact, with the character re-imagined as light relief, shuffling through the episodes like a greasy court jester. He's an amusing presence, but with his comedy rotten teeth, Willie feels like he belongs to a different show.

Though this was a 1990s production, visually the 80s rule supreme, with high-teased hairdos and funky knitwear at every turn. For Victoria to succeed in gaining the viewer's sympathy while hiding beneath tousled ringlets and an oversized fisherman's sweater is nothing short of an acting triumph. Transformed into a vampire, Daphne Collins gains a terrifying posthumous perm. Even Barnabas isn't spared, uneasily decked out in a variety of vile turtleneck sweaters tucked in at the waist.

The gothic tone isn't helped by the production filming Maine on the west coast. The art department rise to the challenge with set dressing and buckets of dry ice, but in the blazing Californian sunshine, the effect looks more like a steaming mangrove swamp than any misty New England backwater. The decision to use the Greystone mansion for both Collinwood and the Old House becomes visually confusing, and an all-too-obvious miniature model is pressed into service for establishing shots.

So the styling might not always convince, but one area where the show does excel is with Bob Cobert's music score. Returning to his original compositions, he builds on the established
Dark Shadows sound with lush orchestration, adding an operatic, romantic quality absent on the original show. Contributing everything from soaring strings to unsettling synthesised soundscapes, he is this show's unsung hero. It's criminal that it didn't win him an Emmy.

Midway through the run, Victoria is flung back in time to the year 1790, and it's here that the revival really hits its stride. Up until now, the writers mostly recycled chunks of House of Dark Shadows (in some cases recreated shot-for-shot, line-for-line), but with no shorthand template for the flashback, the plots are forced to become more freeform and organic. Most crucially, the show finally finds the confidence to be funny, and for doing so, suddenly the characters feel so much more real. The actors, too, seem invigorated by this new direction, playing their 18th century counterparts with genuine grandeur.

Among the stand-out contributors here is Joanna Going, who succeeds in making Josette duPres and Victoria Winters such naturally distinct characters that the viewer soon stops noticing the dual role when they share scenes. Adding to the fun is Lysette Anthony's arrival as the witch Angelique. Forever on the cusp of being upstaged by her own heaving bosom, this incarnation is an altogether lustier character, projecting blatant desire and thick French vowels. She might lack the cool ambiguity of Lara Parker's interpretation but, in fairness, the restructured story never requires her to be truly sympathetic.

Sprinting through its retelling of Barnabas' origins at a rate of knots, our anti-hero is quickly dispatched to rise as a vampire. Now impeccably powdered and coiffed, Barnabas' undead form is possibly more New Romantic than romantic lead. Surrounded by soft-focus candles and mist, he stages what looks like a re-enactment of the video for Total Eclipse of the Heart in an attempt to woo Josette for eternity. It doesn't end well.

By the final episode, the plotlines are racing across two time periods like a period version of
24 and the cast are clearly having a whale of a time. Best of all, Ben Cross truly excels as Barnabas. His character is now almost written as a supernatural James Bond, saving the day with a ready quip – and astonishingly it really works. Vainly trying to spare his poisonous aunt Abigail from his bloodlust, Barnabas only succeeds in terrifying her. "Why do you never listen?" he bellows in exasperation, as he sinks his fangs into her throat. It's a brilliant scene – funny and scary all at once.

Meanwhile, awaiting the gallows, Victoria realises that Angelique has lured her back in time as part of an epic plan to write the entire Collins family out of history, and that the Barnabas of 1790 is the same man she knows in the present. What follows is a genuine thrill ride, as a doomed cast of characters race around to save the day. By the time we reach the closing cliffhanger, this show finally feels authentically like
Dark Shadows.

The lesson learned is that any future producer makes
Dark Shadows tasteful at their peril – its heart and soul are rooted in melodrama and theatre, not filmic understatement. The 1991 revival had a slow start, but within a dozen episodes it definitely found its feet. It's great that it concluded on its best episode, and a pity that a second season never materialized. It could have been something very special indeed.

The complete Revival Series can be purchased on DVD by clicking


Dave VT said...

Definitely agree about the L.A. shooting. You never got the feel that you were in a cold, foggy New England location. Even the simple set design of the original show was able to make you feel that you were on the coast of Maine. Greystone is a great location for a movie, but not Dark Shadows. Other than that, though, a worthy attempt at resurrection.

wes said...

Hey Stuart, that was a great article. You captured much of what worked and did not. My wish was a "Next Generation" approach with Mr. and Mrs. David Collins returning to Collinwood... I spoke with Matt Hall and this was never going to get by Mr. Curtis, who was always going to do it this way or not (with or w/out the writers strike). I liked your pointing out the wonderful work Joanna did, and believe the key miscast member was Ben Cross - nothing against him, but this was THE role they HAD to get correct, considering the story focus.. and I think the show could have achieved the ratings with a different Barnabas and broadcast night (in spite of the Gulf War). I would only add how great Weiss was to your observations. -- Wes

Ray Lukard said...

I have to agree that the last few episodes is where this version finally found it's legs. Back in the first run, I was drawn in with a sense of desperation as the race to save Victoria from the gallows was on. You wanted her to be saved, and the family to be happy, but everything fell apart as the curse took hold. I was upset that this revival was canceled.

Chad Moore said...

What a wonderful article! I loved the Revival Series, and it's a great shame we were deprived of a second season. One of my favorite aspects of the new version of DS was that the connection between Victoria and Josette (hinted at during the first year of the original series) was explored so beautifully.

Debjorgo said...

My biggest problem with the revival was Cross as Barnabus. He would had made a great Dracula, he looked like he was born to bite. He looked like Christopher Lee, one of the most remembered Draculas.

Frid was so great because he was mis-cast. He was perfect as the eighteenth century gentleman. When he met his terrible fate, it was tragic.

I recently rewatched the revival on the Chill Channel. Damn that Sadaam Husein. The show would have been big if it had the chance.

Travis said...

I agree; great summary. The show really did pick up towards the end and I really loved having everyone involved with Phyllis Wick's illness/Victoria's disappearance.

I loved Barbara Steele! I also liked that they chose a European actress, Lysette Anthony as Angelique, with a heavy french accent.

squareheart said...

FIne job, and a much-needed evaluation.

While I felt the revival series was over-produced, and you're right, it was in an 80s manner, the real problem for me was that it was much ado about not enough. The problem was in the writing--the flatness of the dialogue and particularly the flatness of the secondary characters.

Think of the original characterization of Barnabas's household, so full of tension and repressed anger--the cruel father, the squashed, alcoholic mother, the resentful indentured convict Ben, the condescending Countess--and the emotional weight it gave to the events: how touching it was when Barnabas's cruel father discovered his love for his son at the last moment and couldn't bring himself to commit the mercy killing Barnabas begged for; the different kind of emotional sense it made for Barnabas, rejected and unloved at home, to turn to Angelique in desperation when he doubted Josette could love him. And the reduction of Angelique to nothing more than a stalker out of the soaps, losing Lara Parker's complex pathos in the role, was typical of how formulaic the story became--all these characters reduced to chess pieces to be moved about, despite the often skilled actors involved. Despite Joanna Going's excellence, and the writers' good work to strengthen Victoria beyond the damsel-in-distress part of the role, few other benefitted from the writing. Lost opportunities everywhere.

I am encouraged to hear that Tim Burton is attracted to the original series; I'm less encouraged by the choice of screenwriter. But we can hope. Would it be too much to hope that they look at historical logic and go for a black Angelique (a white maidservant from colonial Martinique? Please!)?

Anonymous said...

I rather liked the remake also--not nearly as much as the original, but it was still quite wonderful in its own way. My biggest problem with it was the lack of depth to Carolyn and Maggie. These two characters, so integral to the original, were reduced to the background. Carolyn had little to do in the revival except spout sarcasm, and Maggie was an entirely different character! I guess I had identified Maggie with Josette for so long, that the change to Vicki being Josette's double was jarring to me. Although this version of Maggie, the artist sleeping with Roger Collins, would never have worked as Josette. Heck, she apparently wasn't even important enough to the writers to be given a 1790 counterpart!! Just sayin'!

Debjorgo said...

I agree with that, too, Tracy. The actress who played Maggie would have made a better Victoria.

Vicky was the outsider who came into Collinsport to witness all the madness. The spirit of Josette would never be far away.

I think Vicky being Josette's twin would have been a little too wierd for 1790's Collinwood. They may have burned her on the spot.

Anthony said...

There were a couple things of the revival I liked:

Ben Cross as Barnabas, Barbara Steele as Hoffman, Jean Simmons as Elizabeth and Lysette Anthony as Angelique, Jeremiah and Barnabas being brothers. I thought these were great ideas.

I didn't like the whole thing of Vicky being the Josette reincarnation and Maggie just given a bit part. I thought Maggie was very important to the story because she was the first one Barnabas saw as Josette.

Paul said...

A very well written article indeed. I enjoyed it very much. I also enjoy visiting movie filming locations and was wondering if anyone might know of other locations used for filming The Dark Shadows Revival Series other than The Greystone Mansion...like the bar perhaps? I also read somewhere that Collinport was filmed at the Port of Los Angeles.

Jake Mabe said...

Thanks very much for reposting this post! I missed it the first go around.

I have not seen the 1991 revival since its original airing in the United States.

Just ordered it on DVD.

Cheers, Stuart. Well done, sir.

badwolf4799 said...

I loved the 90's version quite a bit, and still do. It was a shame it never really got a chance. The biggest thing I disliked, and it seems to be a Dan Curtis trademark now that I've viewed his works with a more adult eye, was the absolutely abysmal overuse of day for night. I've never been a fan of this cost-cutting move, but it was truly done terribly here. It's as if there was no effort to disguise it at all, with the characters standing around in full daylight with barely a blue filter to hide it. Awful and very distracting.

Also those laughable scenes where Barnabas stands around outside, presumably outside his victims window. snarling to summon them. Ugh.