Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France


Okay, now is the time to ask, just how excited should I be? No, not about health care reform. You might think that’s a big f***in’ deal, Joe Biden, but I’m talking here about a really big flippin’ deal.

Alice in Wonderland has been released and promoted. That means that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are now free to move on to their next project. And that, of course, is the long rumored, much hoped-for, breathlessly anticipated new motion picture version of Dark Shadows.

You no longer have to troll obscure internet discussion boards to get snippets of potential information about this planned production. Information is actually turning up in legitimate mainstream media. In an interview published on last month, veteran producer Richard Zanuck mentioned that he would next be working with Burton and Depp (once he’s filmed yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie) on the Dark Shadows movie toward the end of the year, adding that “we’re shooting over here (London) even though the movie is set in Portland, Maine. We’ve got the stages at Pinewood lined up.”

Burton and Depp themselves were seen and heard around the same time talking about the movie on British television. During a joint interview on the BBC’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, which dealt largely with past collaborations and Alice in Wonderland, they mentioned the upcoming Dark Shadows project. It’s not clear to me how much awareness of Dark Shadows has penetrated the UK. As far as I can tell, its first broadcast in the British Isles began in the 1990s when episodes were aired on the European version of the Sci-Fi Channel. Anyway, Burton did his best to explain the series to the audience, describing it as “like a supernatural soap opera… and it was the weirdest vibe of any show I’ve ever seen.” And getting caught up in the seat-of-the-pants, five-days-a-week production limitations of the series, he added, “There were some of the worst camera moves you’ve ever seen in your life. And strangely a lot of flies landing on actors’ faces, and them still trying to act through it — it was amazing. We’re gonna fill the room with flies… and make the actors pretend that they’re not there!”

It is true that there were some famous cases of flies attempting to distract the actors in certain episodes, and fans have compiled clips for viewing on YouTube so that they can relive those moments over and over. There were also many other “bloopers,” also immortalized on YouTube, involving muffed lines, falling props and one or two notable cases of actors wandering around, collecting their gear on the set, as the final credits rolled. It was standard practice in soap operas of the time, because of time and budget restrictions, to “film live” and not stop the cameras or re-shoot except in the case of the most egregious foul-up. But for viewers who have not sat through hundreds of episodes of Dark Shadows, Burton’s description of it surely painted a bizarre picture of what it must have been like.

And for devoted fans of the series, it surely provoked strange impressions of what the upcoming movie version might be like. I think it’s safe to say that collectively we would be looking forward to the same gothic magic that Burton displayed in movies like Edward Scissorhands or even Batman or Corpse Bride. But in that interview with Ross, he raised the specter of the movie having more in common with Ed Wood. Will the movie take itself deadly serious as the series did? Or will it be a camp send-up. Or even, God forbid, a post-modern take which is about a cast and crew making a television series, kind of like the 2005 Nora Ephron misfire movie version of Bewitched? Steady, all. Let’s just wait and see.

But let’s get back to the question I started with. How excited should I be? As much as I have loved Dark Shadows for years, is a new movie version a good idea? After all, I loved Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but my life would have been imperceptibly richer or poorer if I had never seen the Garth Jennings film version which, coincidentally, came out the same year as the Bewitched movie. For the record, there have already been two Dark Shadows motion pictures. They were both directed by series creator Dan Curtis and were released while the series was still in its original TV run. The first, House of Dark Shadows, was adapted from the seminal storyline from the series and featured the same actors as the series. The second, Night of Dark Shadows, was technically a sequel, again featuring actors familiar to TV fans, and using themes from the series if not one of its concretely identifiable storylines. Both films can be considered spinoffs from the TV series, as opposed to big screen remakes, which the Burton film will be. (More anal-retentive fans proposed that the Dan Curtis movies be seen as taking place in yet one more parallel universe, a familiar Dark Shadows conceit.)

Frankly, I don’t know how excited I can get over seeing the Barnabas Collins story dramatized one more time. We saw it in the original series, beginning in March 1967. We saw it in the 1970 movie. We saw it in the 1991 primetime television series revival, also produced by Curtis. We even caught a very brief glimpse of it on the internet, in bits from a pilot for a failed 2004 WB network version. And now there will be the Tim Burton version. A key question is whether Burton will follow Curtis’s example in making the film version a conventional vampire story in which most of the cast is killed off by the end or whether he will stay closer to the spirit of the series and turn Barnabas into a hero.

Anyway, there is something satisfying about the fact that the production will be in England. The series was set on some spooky point on the Maine coast, but Barnabas’s cover story, when he arrived to meet the 20th century Collins family, was that he was his own descendent, that is the last in a line of a branch of the family in England.

I do hope that Burton does not pursue the camp angle. I have lately been revisiting a lot of the Barnabas episodes, late at night, and I am amazed at how well they hold up. For all the joking fans and detractors alike do about the gaffes and mistakes, the illusion was always fairly consistent. The sets looked great, the actors were amazingly convincing and the writers always took the material seriously—no matter how outlandish plot developments became.

Tim Burton is a very talented artist but, in hindsight, so were Dan Curtis and his collaborators. Burton will be making a mistake if he approaches the material with any other attitude in his head.

-S.L., 24 March 2010

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