REMEMBERING BARNABAS COLLINS
The Silver Age of the 1960s brought an explosion of creativity in the superhero genre that has not been equaled in it since; now, a half-century later the Marvel characters created during that decade are now conquering movie screens. But the Marvel revolution was only one aspect of the change in American comics in the 1960s, which also launched the underground comix movement which evolved into today’s alternative comics and graphic novels. And what happened in comics is only one aspect of the major revolution across popular and political and sexual culture that took place during the 1960s. I don’t think there has been as seismic a generational shift since. Just look at all the middle-aged people using computers and smartphones and social networking; the Boomers have proved to be adept at adopting new cultural developments.
The rise of a new wave of superheroes in the 1960s paralleled a similar creative explosion in science fiction, fantasy, and adventure series on television during that decade. Think of all the memorable series that debuted in the 1960s and that live on in reruns, remakes and home video. When I think back on 1960s television series that dealt in the fantastic, I think of iconic character portrayals by various actors: among them, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and (my favorite of the three) DeForest Kelley on Star Trek, Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers (the UK spy series, not the Marvel superhero comic), Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner. And then there was Jonathan Frid, who passed away on April 13, 2012, as the vampire Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows.
Probably all of you reading this are aware of the new Dark Shadows movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas, that opens in May. Younger readers may not be entirely aware that the Burton film is based on the original Dark Shadows, a daytime serial—a soap opera, in other words—that was created by the late producer Dan Curtis, ran on the ABC network from 1966 into 1971, dealt in reworkings of classic horror stories and tropes, and was an astonishingly huge success with the Baby Boomer generation. Dark Shadows is also “the show that would not die,” that spawned two successful movie spinoffs, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), and continued in reruns for decades, on PBS stations and later on the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy). The entire original series is available on DVD. There was a short-lived revival, with an entirely new cast, in 1991 on NBC, and you can still see this entire 12-episode series, legally and free, on YouTube. Hence, Dark Shadows is not just known by aging Boomers; it gains new fans with each generation.
And yes, this has something to do with comics. There was a Dark Shadows newspaper comic strip, in which artist Ken Bald superbly captured Jonathan Frid’s likeness as Barnabas Collins. There have also been various Dark Shadows comic books, from Gold Key’s version in 1969 to the Dynamite Entertainment version that debuted in 2011.
Arguably, more than anyone else, even Curtis himself, the late Jonathan Frid is responsible for Dark Shadows‘ success. On meeting Mr. Frid on the set of the new Dark Shadows movie, Johnny Depp reportedly said that none of them would be there without him, in other words, without Frid’s original portrayal of the character. If not for Jonathan Frid’s Barnabas, Curtis’s show would have been canceled, probably after only a year on the air.
Why did this performance have such impact? It was because Jonathan Frid and Barnabas Collins revolutionized the concept of the vampire. Frid’s Barnabas was the first vampire with a soul in popular culture, the first one with a multidimensional personality, and the first to become a truly heroic figure. Perhaps there had been sympathetic vampires in past, little-known stories of which I am unaware; Barnabas was the first to reach an audience of millions.
Hence, every subsequent major example of fiction about heroic or antiheroic vampires owes a debt to Dark Shadows, Barnabas, and Frid. That includes Anne Rice’s books such as Interview with the Vampire, Joss Whedon’s Angel, Forever Knight, the Twilight series, and HBO’s True Blood, among others. Ms. Rice has acknowledged knowing Dark Shadows. But even if some subsequent vampire fiction creators did not watch the show, that does not matter, Curtis, Frid, Barnabas and Dark Shadows laid the groundwork that made contemporary vampire fiction possible.
Keep in mind what the popular image of the vampire was before Dark Shadows. Look at F. W. Murnau’s classic silent film Nosferatu, his unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s landmark novel Dracula. Its vampire, played by Max Schreck, is a grotesque creature, and it is difficult to believe that anyone in the film could think he was human. Of course the dominant popular image of the vampire became that of Bela Lugosi in the title role of Tod Browning’s film Dracula, based on a stage adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Stoker, Browning and Lugosi presented Dracula as a being who not only looked outwardly human, but appeared to be a sophisticated European nobleman with refined manners, who travels from his homeland into English society; this, however, was merely a facade disguising a vicious predator on other humans.
Subsequently, most vampires in popular culture were based on the Stoker/Lugosi/Dracula template. So too is Barnabas Collins, another man with aristocratic manners and bearing, who arrives from abroad, and conceals his darker nature. But the difference is that Barnabas proved to be a vampire with a sense of guilt, an aura of tragedy, and a human heart.
In large part, the revolution was Frid’s creation. Producer Dan Curtis created Dark Shadows, which debuted on the ABC Network in 1966, as a modern daytime serial version of a classic Gothic romance. In the first episode heroine Victoria Winters follows in the footsteps of Jane Eyre by taking a job as governess in a gloomy and mysterious mansion. This was Collinwood, the ancestral home of the Collins family, headed by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard—played by Joan Bennett, a star of Hollywood’s Golden Age—on the rocky coast of Maine.
In its initial months Dark Shadows struggled to find an audience. The specter of cancellation gave Curtis the incentive to experiment with introducing supernatural elements into the series, including a ghost of an 18th century woman named Josette.
Then, nine months into the series, in April 1967, Curtis went “for broke” as he put it, and introduced a vampire into the show. A disreputable drifter named Willie Loomis, played by John Karlen, hunting for a legendary lost Collins treasure, discovered a secret room in the family’s 18th century mausoleum. Inside Loomis found a chained coffin; removing the chains, he opened the lid, and was horrified when a hand reached out and seized him by the throat.
Soon afterwards, a man with courtly, gentlemanly manners arrived at Collinwood, where he introduced himself as Barnabas Collins, a “cousin from England.” The family members were amazed by his resemblance to their 18th century ancestor, the original Barnabas, whose portrait hung in their foyer. The newcomer claimed to be the descendant of that Barnabas, who, according to family history, had left for England in the late 1790s. Pleased with their new relation, the Collins allowed him to live in another mansion on the property, the abandoned Old House. Of course the “descendant” was the original Barnabas, who had become a vampire and survived for nearly two centuries trapped in his coffin.
In the first months that Barnabas was on the show, Curtis and his writers dealt subtly with the fact that he was a vampire. Perhaps he or the network was worried about going too far; after all, there had never been a vampire on a daytime soap. The word “vampire” was never used in this early period. There were references to strange attacks and deaths in the village, which were attributed to bites by animals. For many months Barnabas was never shown with fangs or biting anyone. Instead, he seemed to have a sinister, Svengali-like hypnotic hold over his victims: first Willie Loomis, who became his submissive servant, and then local waitress Maggie Evans, played by Kathryn Leigh Scott. Dominating her will, Barnabas compelled her to dress as Josette, the woman he had loved in the 18th century, and made her his prisoner in the Old House.
Curtis’s original intention was that Barnabas was a villain who would menace other characters for thirteen weeks and then be destroyed. But Barnabas proved to be unexpectedly popular with the audience. It is an oversimplification to think that the early Barnabas was entirely a villain. In Barnabas’s early episodes, the writers did provide the character with some material that allowed the audience to feel some sympathy for him. Notably, for example, when Barnabas first arrives at the Old House, he is given a speech expressing his joy at returning to his original home after so long an exile. Jonathan Frid’s triumph was that he seized the opportunities that a speech like this gave him to make Barnabas much more than a one-dimensional villain.
A Canadian actor who had played major Shakespearean roles, Jonathan Frid thought that Barnabas was only a brief, 13-week assignment. He had no interest in playing Barnabas simply as a conventional horror movie monster. Instead, from his first appearance on the show, Frid was intent on playing Barnabas not as a as a credible, three-dimensional character. He played Barnabas’s charm and gentlemanly manners not as a deceptive facade, but as genuine; they also seem to have been part of Frid’s actual personality. Barnabas did not come across as an invader of Collinwood, but as someone who belonged there, who loved the Old House and cared about the family history. Frid always said that the key to his performance was in seeing Barnabas as a man with a secret. Barnabas may have been a menace, but Frid conveyed the character’s insecurity beneath his outer confidence, his gnawing worries that his dark secret, being a vampire, would be exposed. Frid said in interviews that his own insecurity about performing on television, and worries about remembering his lines, came across on television as Barnabas’s insecurity. Perhaps this is so, but Frid took advantage of it, and surely used his own nervousness to shape his performance. The audience responded to this vulnerability of Barnabas’s; they did not want him to be exposed, either. This early Barnabas was obsessed with his lost love Josette, so much so that he tried to mold Maggie Evans, her lookalike –both roles were plated by Ms. Scott—into a recreation of her. Even so, the audience could sense a genuine romantic longing when Barnabas spoke of his “ancestor’s” love for Josette. Through much of 1967 Barnabas was written and played as a villain, menacing poor Maggie, but there was something intriguing about Barnabas’s villainy as Frid played it. Frid had a charismatic presence that worked well on television. Frid’s Barnabas was just what this modern day Gothic romance needed: a dark, brooding, sinister antihero in the Gothic novel tradition. Audiences responded positively and grew in number. The ratings went up, and the plans to destroy Barnabas after thirteen weeks were set aside. Frid’s Barnabas had saved Dark Shadows from cancellation, and soon became the dominant character on the show.
The next major step in Barnabas’s evolution came when Curtis took another big chance. During a séance Victoria Winters vanished from 1967 Collinwood and reappeared in the 1790s. For the next several months Dark Shadows was set in the 18th century, with most of the already established regular cast playing characters of that period, as the show told Barnabas’s origin story. Jonathan Frid now got to play Barnabas as a human being, who was engaged to marry Josette DuPres (played by Kathryn Leigh Scott). But he had to fend off her servant, Angelique (played by Lara Parker), with whom he had had an affair and who was still passionately in love with him. Unknown to him, Angelique was a witch, who used her sorcery to cause Josette to fall in love with Barnabas’s uncle Jeremiah, whom he then shot in a duel over her. Angelique again secretly used sorcery to manipulate Barnabas into marrying her, but he then discovered she was a witch and turned against her. In retaliation, Angelique sent a demonic bat that killed him. Barnabas’s family entombed him in the secret room in the mausoleum, but he then rose as a vampire.
Through this first part of his origin story, the audience could sympathize entirely with Barnabas. He was was capable of killing in anger, but who was also devoted to Josette and to his sister and mother, and willing to befriend and defend the time-traveling Vicki, whom Angelique had framed for witchcraft. He was not portrayed as an evil man, but as a good but flawed man who unjustly fell victim to a curse.
Here began the truly revolutionary change in depicting vampires. Dark Shadows now presented Barnabas’s vampiric list for blood as an addiction and compulsion that he despised but that he could not ultimately resist. As he descended into killing victims for their blood, Barnabas was wracked by guilt. Here Jonathan Frid found the emotional core of his role; he was superb at dramatizing Barnabas’s remorse over his attacks, and his anguish as he lost his loved ones: his sister Sarah, his mother Naomi, and his true love, Josette. At first he stayed away from Josette, not wishing her to learn what had happened to him. But ultimately he was unable to stay away from her, and began putting her under his power, believing that they could only be together if she became a vampire as well. Frightened by a vision Angelique sent of the fate that awaited her, Josette leapt to her death from Widow’s Hill, a cliff overlooking the sea.
The Barnabas-Josette-Angelique triangle became the heart of the show’s narrative; in subsequent storylines Barnabas would fall in love with other women, who took over Josette’s place in his heart (and who, in one case, turned out to be Josette reincarnated), as Angelique and fate continued to thwart his hopes for happiness.
Angelique’s curse not only gave Barnabas vampiric lusts that, in these early days, he could not control, but also unleashed the dark, violent side of his personality. He became ruthless and even sadistic with his adversaries, memorably walling up the witch hunter Reverend Trask in the basement of the Old House.
Yet Ben Stokes, Barnabas’s servant in the 1790s, seemed to be a point-of-view character for the audience. Appalled though he was by his master’s violent excesses, Ben remained loyal to him, recognizing that his master was not only the victim of a curse but was still basically the good man he had always been. For example, Barnabas still tried to rescue Trask’s victim, Victoria Winters, from being hanged as a witch. After his father Joshua discovered what had happened to his son, Barnabas decided to have his father destroy him by a stake through his heart. Unable to bring himself to do it, Joshua chained Barnabas’s coffin shut, the way that Willie Loomis would find him two centuries later.
By the time this 1790s origin sequence had ended, Frid and the series’ writers had radically transformed Barnabas from charismatic villain into the show’s genuinely tragic antihero. Again, this was appropriate to Curtis’s original intent of creating a modern Gothic romance: Frid’s Barnabas was a a romantic figure of grand passions, a good man struggling against the dark side of his own nature, a man suffering under a curse that he could not control, a victim of the fates. Significantly, Angelique’s curse was that anyone whom Barnabas loved would die.
In fact, when Vicki returned to the present (now 1968), the show was briefly in something of a quandary, since the ominously threatening Barnabas that the show had been depicting in the present no longer matched the tragic antihero who had emerged in the 1790s sequence. The problem was quickly solved when the show began its own version of the Frankenstein story. Barnabas’s confidant, Dr. Julia Hoffman, who had discovered his secret and had been trying to cure his vampirism, completed a colleague’s experiment to bring an artificially created man, Adam, to life. In transferring part of Barnabas’s life force into Adam, she somehow caused Barnabas to revert to a normal human. Over the subsequent months the writers scaled back Barnabas’s capacity for ruthlessness. Instead, they focused on his contention against the enraged monster he had helped to create, as well as Angelique, who had appeared in the present and was determined to restore her curse. Barnabas was now earning the audience’s sympathy in his struggle to prevent reverting to vampirism and to protect himself, Vicki, and the Collinses from the menace of Adam. By the summer of 1968, Barnabas and Julia, though middle-aged and unglamorous, had clearly become the unlikely heroes of this daytime serial that was attracting a large audience of the young.
Through much of the Adam sequence, Barnabas was motivated by self-interest: protecting himself. But the character’s heroic altruism began to emerge through the summer and fall. He risked his life to save Julia from a vampire, Tom Jennings, who had made her his victim. In the climax of the Adam storyline, the warlock Nicholas Blair had forced Barnabas and Julia to create Eve, a mate for Adam, using Maggie Evans to provide the life force. Realizing that the experiment would kill Maggie—the woman he himself had once victimized—Barnabas defied Blair by sabotaging the life energy transfer, destroying the body of Eve. When Adam retaliated by capturing Vicki to throw her off Widow’s Hill (thereby recreating the death of Josette), Barnabas shot Adam, despite learning that if Adam died, he would revert to vampirism. In other words, Barnabas had now grown so heroic that he was willing to sacrifice his life—or worse, take on his hated curse once more—in order to save the lives of two innocent women.
In the next story arc, Barnabas and Julia discovered that Tom Jennings’ brother, Chris, was a werewolf, This made Chris another victim of a curse that he could not resist, and that transformed him into a murdering monster. Barnabas befriended and sought to help Chris, who was grateful but puzzled by Barnabas’s benevolence. But the audience realized that Barnabas saw himself in Chris, a fellow victim of a curse. The series was moving Barnabas into a new role, that of a guardian figure.
To my mind the greatest story arc in the original Dark Shadows was the sequence set in 1897, which continued for nine exciting months, through most of 1969. The set-up was the haunting of Collinwood by the ghost of Quentin Collins, in a story arc inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. In early 1969 Quentin’s ghost had driven the Collins family from their mansion, Collinwood, and taken full possession of the mind of the youngest Collins, the boy David; then Chris seemed permanently transformed into werewolf form. To try to communicate with Quentin’s ghost, Barnabas, continuing his new role as family guardian, went into a mystical trance. Instead, the trance sent his spirit back intro his body lying in the coffin in the mausoleum’s secret room back in 1897, the year of Quentin’s death. Escaping from the coffin, Barnabas was again a vampire, but though he still needed to find victims, he was also determined to find out all that he could in order to try to change history for the better, thus saving David in the present. Thus, during the 1897 sequence Barnabas was using his powers as a vampire, not as a menace but as the defender of the Collins family against a series of memorable adversaries, including the “phoenix” Laura Collins (years before X-Men’s Phoenix), Reverend Trask’s equally fanatical descendant, and Count Petofi, whose supernatural powers exceeded even Angelique’s. Several months into the sequence, Barnabas’s mission was complicated by his exposure as a vampire, the very thing he had long dreaded in the present. As a result he became a hunted outlaw, an outcast from the Collins family, even as he continued to risk his undead life to protect them from the menaces surrounding them.
As riveting as Jonathan Frid had been as the series’ villain, he made an even stronger impression as this champion of his family, a true hero rather than an antihero. He vividly projected Barnabas’s determination to oppose evil, his persistence despite continual obstacles, his sense of vulnerability when trapped by foes, and his compassion for innocents. It was a pleasure to watch Frid’s Barnabas when he triumphed over his adversaries; the character still had an edge. But perhaps to the surprise of longtime viewers, Frid’s Barnabas now conveyed a powerful sense of saintliness: he was the man who would risk everything for his family and friends, past and present. (Moreover, Petofi, and later in the series the Leviathans, ultimately posed a threat to the world, as did Nicholas Blair’s plans for Adam and Eve, which Barnabas had earlier thwarted.) Barnabas had even seemed to gain a greater measure of control over his vampiric urges, had fewer victims, and sought not to kill them. His main victim in the 1897 sequence was the second Reverend Trask’s daughter Charity, yet Barnabas desperately sought to prevent her from dying from blood loss. Intriguingly, the show even presented the repressed Charity’s liaison with Barnabas as a sexual liberation that brought her happiness.
Why was Barnabas so popular with millions of viewers during the show’s original run? Looking back, it seems to me that even though Dark Shadows sought to evoke the Gothic romance tradition, and did variations of numerous classic horror stories and romances, it and Barnabas were also very much creations of the 1960s. The Sixties were famously the time of a cultural shift away from the conformist culture of America in the 1950s, which, at its worst, was exemplified by the witch hunting of the McCarthy period. It should be no wonder, then, that the various incarnations of Reverend Trask, a literal witch-hunter, were among the most memorable villains on Dark Shadows. 1960s popular culture has many examples of secret nonconformists hiding behind a conformist facade from the disapproval of society. Of course there are the Marvel super heroes who arose in that decade, with their secret identities, like Spider-Man, as well as the immense 1960s television success of another double-identity superhero, Batman. But there are also various popular television comedies of that decade which follow the theme of an outwardly normal person who secretly leads a private life with nonconformist elements, often represented by the metaphor of the supernatural or science fictional: Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, even Mister Ed. Using the imagery of horror films, the comedies The Munsters and The Addams Family presented families who disdained the outer trappings of normality and were proudly, freely nonconformist.
In interviews Jonathan Frid repeatedly stated that from the start his key to playing Barnabas was not as a monster but as a man with a secret. The core members of the Collins family lived in the Great House of Collinwood, usually unaware of the supernatural events that were taking place (although this situation changed over the course of the series, as when Quentin’s ghost drove the family from the house). The townspeople of Collinsport were similarly unaware of the supernatural, blaming vampire attacks on animals, for example. In his own home, the Old House, Barnabas became the center of a small alternate community of allies, notably his confidant Dr. Julia Hoffman, his servant Willie Loomis, and later Quentin (both in 1897, and, after history was altered, in the present), who were aware of the supernatural and contended against it, thereby protecting the others.
Originally Barnabas guarded his secret, being a vampire, to prevent his exposure and destruction. Unlike current vampire fictions like Twilight and True Blood, Dark Shadows did not present vampirism as an acceptable alternative lifestyle; it was a destructive curse. But when Barnabas evolved into a hero, the show depicted his vampirism not as an expression if his inner evil but as a literal affliction, one that Dr. Hoffman sought to cure (and at times, temporarily succeeded in doing so). Vampirism was the source of Barnabas’s power, and in effect gave him super-powers (hypnosis, disappearing, near-invulnerability, etc.), anticipating Joss Whedon’s treatment of vampires as superhumans. But vampirism was also his weakness for which, when exposed in 1897, Barnabas was unjustly persecuted by people who could not recognize that he was on the side of the angels.
Barnabas was the hero as outsider and even sometimes as outcast, fighting for the safety of a society that would turn against him if they knew he was not a conventional human being like themselves.
The more I think about it, the more I see parallels to the Marvel super heroes of the 1960s. There is Doctor Strange, in his own mysterious house, from which he combats supernatural menaces of which the public is unaware. There are the mutant X-Men, another small community in their own mansion, who in the 1960s posed as ordinary human beings when out of costume, and fought to protect a public who famously feared and hated mutants. Other classic Marvel heroes, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, are outsiders and outcasts. Bruce Banner suffers from his own werewolf-like curse, transforming into a destructive monster (originally, like a werewolf, at night), yet he is shown to be less of a menace than the villains he combats.
Jonathan Frid made such a strong impression as a vampire hero that the viewers resisted the show’s subsequent attempts to change Barnabas. Following the 1897 sequence, Dark Shadows tried turning Barnabas back into a villain in the present (late 1969), when he fell under the influence of the cult of the Leviathans, an ancient race of monsters that were clearly inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Viewers rebelled, ratings fell, and the show hurriedly had Barnabas rebel against his new masters and return to the side of good. Moreover, in late 1969 Barnabas had once again been freed of his curse; presumably to bring back departing viewers, the show had the Leviathans turn Barnabas back into a vampire in early 1970. Once more Barnabas had his vampiric super-powers, and once more he was in the grip of his addiction to blood, which had heightened, enabling Frid once again to play Barnabas’s guilt, his self-hatred, his attempts to resist his urges and ultimate succumbing, all of which he portrayed so powerfully and well. Indeed, regular viewers of the show would become accustomed to one of its favorite tropes, in which Barnabas encounters a woman (usually a prostitute) on the Collinsport docks, attempts to resist his vampiric urges even as she flirts with him, as we witness his distress, and then we see him reach the point of no return, as his attitude shifts, turning grimmer, and he finally attacks.
Perhaps that is another aspect of Barnabas’s appeal to viewers. After his early months on the show, he was no longer a sinner without conscience, but he was a person, who like us all, but on an operatic scale, struggles with his weaknesses, temptations, and character flaws, and regrets them when he gives in to them. But at the same time he is the noble hero on his journey, struggling to survive, trying to safeguard his family and few friends, seeking redemption. That, indeed, is a familiar pattern on Dark Shadows: Quentin, too, started on the show as a menace, but, as played by David Selby in the 1897 sequence, evolved into a multifaceted character with whom the audience could sympathize, and turned from villain to antihero to the show’s second hero. Even Angelique became more sympathetic over the years, sometimes becoming Barnabas’s ally, and finding redemption in the show’s late 1970 episodes.
After the misstep with the Leviathans, Barnabas remained a hero for the rest of the series, and stayed a vampire for most of the rest of it. The show had been so astonishingly successful at its height that producer Dan Curtis made the 1970 MGM film House of Dark Shadows with the television series’ cast and writers. Directed by Curtis, the film was a big commercial success, but perhaps it showed that not even Curtis quite understood Barnabas’s appeal. In the film Curtis did what he had initially intended to do with Barnabas on the show: present him as a villain who is justly hunted down and destroyed. Hence, House of Dark Shadows is a reboot, once again starting with Willie releasing Barnabas from his coffin, but taking the familiar characters from the show, including Barnabas, in a very different direction. Fans of the TV show get glimpses of Barnabas’s sympathetic side, but ultimately he becomes a monster who murders various characters from the show. The television show was notoriously done “live on tape” and retakes were a rarity, since video editing back then was far more expensive. Able to do multiple takes thanks to the movie’s bigger budget, Frid consistently demonstrates in House just how powerful his portrayal of Barnabas was at its best. But even when I first saw the film, I realized that it captured only one side of the character. This was Barnabas as villain in House, with brief flashes of the antihero; the guilt-ridden, long-suffering but indomitable hero of the television series was missing.
Like the 1960s Batman show, Dark Shadows‘ popularity, though once immense, faded quickly. That may not be surprising: though always good, the later storylines could never match the greatness of the 1897 arc. Moreover, Dark Shadows had become much more fast-paced than normal daytime soap operas; if you missed a day, you missed important developments, and perhaps much of the young audience tired of making that five day a week commitment. But there was another movie, 1971’s Night of Dark Shadows, with Selby as the lead rather than Frid, who declined to do it.
And not only did Dark Shadows live on, in reruns, home video, and revivals, but so did its influence, even in comic books. Roy Thomas mentioned Barnabas in Daredevil, and in 1970 did a story in Daredevil #65 and 66 about a supernatural daytime serial named Strange Secrets with its villain Brother Brimstone, clearly inspired by Dark Shadows and the early Barnabas. Surely Barnabas Collins influenced Thomas’s co-creation of Marvel’s own guilt-ridden vampire, Michael Morbius. Later in the 1970s Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan created Hannibal King, a vampire detective, in Tomb of Dracula, following the new path of heroic vampires that Barnabas and Frid had begun. When Wolfman and Colan subsequently created Night Force at DC Comics, its lead character, Baron Winters, bore a strong visual resemblance to Frid’s Barnabas, including his distinctive hair style (and coincidentally or not shared a last name with Dark Shadows heroine Victoria Winters). And of course there were the many heroic and antiheroic vampires in novels, film and TV that followed Dark Shadows, many of which I mentioned earlier.
Surely it is the success of contemporary vampire fiction that laid the groundwork for the latest resurrection of Barnabas Collins, in the new Dark Shadows movie, directed by Tim Burton, which opens in May, starring Johnny Depp in the role of Barnabas. The trailer and commercials have proved to be controversial with admirers of the original Dark Shadows.
The marketers at Warner Bros. Are promoting the film as if it is a comedy, even a farce, as if it were like Burton’s classic Beetlejuice (1988). Some who have seen the film contend that it actually is a blend of serious Gothic horror and romance with comedy, closer in tone to Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). Certainly Danny Elfman’s musical score for the film, which you can hear free and legally online here sounds not like a comedy but like the grand operatic version of Gothic horror that longtime Dark Shadows fans surely hope for.
We will learn in just a few weeks, when the film opens, whether Burton and Depp’s Dark Shadows realizes the potential of the original material. In this column I have attempted to show how complex and powerful a role Barnabas Collins became in the hands of Jonathan Frid and the original TV series writers. Burton and Depp claim to have been fans of the original Dark Shadows from their childhoods on. I hope that they do not trivialize the iconic character of Barnabas, but instead rise to the challenges it presents. I plan to write a column about the film after I see it, so we will return to this subject then.
Barnabas Collins was Jonathan Frid’s most famous role by far, but I was fortunate to see him in many other stage appearances over the decades. When Dark Shadows was still in its original run on television, I saw him perform St. Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, staged in an actual church. He was excellent in the role, and I was pleasantly surprised to spot other Dark Shadows cast members in the audience. Years later he was in a production of the classic black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway, playing the role originated by Boris Karloff. A few times, as a New York theatergoer, I even sighted him in the audience at a play or opera. I met him briefly at one of the first Dark Shadows Festivals in the New York City area; for many years the Festivals’ daytime programming concluded on Sundays with one of Mr. Frid’s one-man shows of “reader’s theater” shows in which he performed dramatic readings in his sonorous voice, captivating his loyal audience. Then he disappeared from the Festivals, remaining in semi-retirement in Canada. But in recent years he returned to the Festivals, looking much older and more frail, hosting programs of video clips of memorable scenes from Dark Shadows, on which he incisively commented. I saw him in his last Festival appearance, only last summer in Brooklyn.
And I also own a copy of his final performance as Barnabas Collins, which I highly recommend. Over the last decade the British company Big Finish Productions has produced numerous Dark Shadows audio dramas featuring members of the original series cast, and even some actors from the 1991 NBC-TV reboot/revival. Big Finish had to recast Barnabas for his appearances in the audio dramas. But finally Mr. Frid consented to do one of them, and recorded his role in Canada for the 2010 audio drama Dark Shadows-The Night Whispers. You can hear his advanced age in his changed voice, but you will also hear the authority he still projected in his performance, the acting skills undiluted by time.
Then last year Mr. Frid journeyed to England along with three of his former castmates, Mr. Selby, Ms. Parker and Ms. Scott, to make came appearances in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie. At the time that I write this, it remains to be seen whether Tim Burton and Johnny Depp will be able to capture what Mr. Frid brought to the role of Barnabas. But Mr. Frid himself will lend a haunting presence to the film, reminding us of what Barnabas Collins can be.
“Comics in Context” #242
Copyright 2012 Peter Sanderson
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