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Dark Shadows: Tim Burton’s Take on a Vintage Gothic Soap

For this moviegoer, the film evokes afternoon bliss — the sweet spot between school and homework


When I was 13, I’d walk a quarter mile home from the bus stop after school, breezing into the house just in time to turn on the TV for the 4 p.m. start of Dark Shadows. Grabbing a snack, I’d pull a chair up as the spooky opening theme music played and, on screen, the show’s title appeared superimposed over stormy seaside waves crashing over rocks.
 
If I hear that theme music now or see the opening credits, I am instantly transported back to my adolescence, when TV mattered the most. 
 
It’s not as if Dark Shadows, which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, was even especially good. A cheaply made, half-hour, daily gothic soap opera, it featured a conflicted, centuries-old vampire (Jonathan Frid) named Barnabas Collins as its hero, plus characters who were witches and werewolves and some regular humans.
 
Among those also watching it back in the day was a then pre-adolescent Tim Burton. The future master of the macabre, who would grow up to direct such films as Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Sleepy Hollow, found the ghoulish fictional world of Collinwood (the mansion where most of Dark Shadows’ action took place) strangely appealing. Now, more than 40 years later, he has brought the show to the big screen.
 
His rebooted movie version, which opened on Friday, is an amusingly affectionate homage. Also called Dark Shadows, it stars Burton’s frequent collaborator Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins and Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Collins, the grand dame of Collinwood (a part played in the original by former movie star Joan Bennett). Both stars ably tread a fine line between camp and acting as if they believe the claptrap machinations and wild character swings of the plot, which is set in 1972 and has fun referencing such period cultural touchstones as lava lamps, the Carpenters and macramé.
 
I’m not sure, though, that anyone who doesn’t possess a fondness, no matter how covert, for the original, will get the movie. Without that frame of reference, you may find Dark Shadows merely puzzling: Is it supposed to be scary? Funny? Both? Or is it primarily intended to kick-start a new film franchise, given that certain plot points remain unresolved at the end, leaving room for a sequel?
 
Whatever. All I know is that, watching the movie, I was instantly and blissfully carried back in time to when TV seemed awesome and I couldn’t wait to get home every afternoon to see who Barnabas would bite next.
 
The reality is that I spent only two short years, 1969 and 1970, watching Dark Shadows, though it looms larger in my memory. That’s because whatever show you watched in the late afternoon as an adolescent, during that golden period before Mom and Dad came home from work and there was family dinner and homework to be done, has continued to resonate more strongly than it deserves. Like a tattoo, whatever you watched daily after school at 13, 14 or 15 — before you got your driver’s license and an active social life — remains imprinted on you forever.
 
For me, it was Dark Shadows. For you, it may have been The Donna Reed Show, Gilligan’s Island, That Girl, The Beverly Hillbillies or some other TV show that was in syndication during that time slot. I’d be willing to bet that you can, to this day, still hum or sing a word-perfect rendition of its theme song.
 
Each generation has its own show. The one after mine grew up on afternoon reruns of The Brady Bunch (1969-74). Today’s thirtysomethings get misty-eyed about Saved by the Bell (1989-93), a show that never even entered my consciousness.
 
It will be different for the current generation of adolescents. There will be no single TV show that they will all have watched in the afternoons. Today, when kids get home, if they’re not playing video games, checking Facebook and video chatting with their buddies, they’re catching up with whatever shows they DVR-ed the night before or downloading shows and movies from the web or Netflix to watch on their laptops, iPads or Kindle Fires. 
 
Then again, I see that Netflix has much of the original Dark Shadows available on DVD and for streaming. Which means that some 13-year-old out there may be spending his or her afterschool afternoons exactly the way I did way back when, except now he or she is watching Barnabas sink his fangs into a delectable neck on the screen of a laptop, tablet or smart phone. As the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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