ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Temporal Stretching, Missed Cues and Dark Shadows

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Tracie Morris

(From May 17, 2012) Last weekend was the official opening of the filming of Dark Shadows. Inspired by the formidable talents of actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton (as well as actor Helena Bonham Carter), I was excited about the potential for the film when I heard about it last year, coincidentally when I began watching the original 1960s series (from Barnabas' debut onward).

Depp is a wonderful actor and Burton a great director and their vision is clear from the poster and the trailer. In fact, it was seeing that trailer that convinced me that I wouldn't be seeing the film --not for a while at any rate.

I didn't want the movie to distract me from my relationship to the character Barnabas Collins or the actor Jonathan Frid who portrayed him, the first full-time, daytime vampire.

It felt to me as if Burton and Depp missed a step. I would've been happy to see this film after a more serious remake had been done of the series, along the lines of the 1991 serial TV effort that was, ironically, cancelled due to coverage of the first Gulf War. (We've got real blood suckers to see, folks!)

I have a particular, heartfelt relationship to the character that I think I share with many people who saw the original series. I caught a bit of it as a child and vividly remember sitting down to watch it with my grandmother, mom and extended family. The show ran in syndication for years. I moved on to more soaps with Grandma but I do remember the focus on Barnabas -- including many female family members thinking he was cute!

I'm tied up with the nostalgia of the show. Watching it again brings back wistful kid memories but also another feeling that sustained itself after my more recent viewing (I'm about halfway through the 1,200 or so episodes). It was Barnabas' gallantry, yes, but also his tremendous sadness. His trapped (un)charmed life.

Jonathan Frid was a talented Canadian actor who attended two of the best drama schools in the English-speaking world: the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and the Yale Drama program in New Haven, CT. He got the role of Barnabas soon after finishing school and brought his European Classical regal training to the part (as well as that elegant English tailoring). The combination of refinement, charm, menace and melancholy was part of the long-standing presentation of English vampires made most famous by Christopher Lee in the Hammer Films.

Lee himself (right) was a step beyond of the very sexy Eastern European actor Bela Lugosi who defined the genre (even for spoofs like Sesame Street's Count and General Mills' cartoon character Count Chocula that demystified, infantilized, and nurtured through these creatures). Lee brought English wealth and nobility (and actually is of royal descent himself from his mother's Italian side). He was a bridge between the Eastern European silent Nosferatu then Lugosi's Dracula canon and the Western European English Dracula epitomized by Lee, Frid and later American actors William Marshall (as Blacula), Vincent Price and Frank Langella. (Despite racial and geographic origins, I associate Marshall and Langella with the Western European Dracula presentation school). In the more comedic realm, Grandpa Munster in The Munsters as well as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family are closer to the Eastern European/Lugosi model (despite Gomez's Spanish heritage). The non-vampire members of the families presented quintessential East and West coastal Americanness).

Frid's elegance and (constructed British) accent made an interesting interjection into these popular presentations of vampires. While they all have charm and charisma in common (as does Depp) what Frid brought to the pop culture canon, in my opinion, was a tremendous sadness that even overshadowed his character's extraordinary ruthlessness.

Frid presented, by most accounts, the first truly sympathetic vampire to popular culture, not only because he was attractive but because his pathos was so transparent. This has a lot to do with the time the daily soap gave him--and the story writers and producer Dan Curtis--to develop Barnabas. A one-dimensional bad guy who's a threat to all the lovely ladies in town gets old, but an immortal who's a crime victim and has a couple centuries to plot out his future while trapped in his coffin, is another thing.

We had time, years in fact, to care about Barnabas despite the failings of his character and his targeted, terrifying behavior. Frid did a wonderful, subtle job of presenting the character's menace, empathy, ruthlessness, vulnerability and deep love. These sentiments overshadow the campiness of the show.

A word on that: the show lends itself to camp because it is rife with typical melodrama and extraordinary, regular production mistakes including missed cues, missed lines, scenery props visible and sometimes even falling, visibly seen crew members, etc. because most of the shows were done five days a week with only one take for each episode. Clearly cue-cards and/or those bulky teleprompters were being used. You can see several of the characters' eye movements as they're reciting/reading their lines. Frid himself makes many pauses during speeches as he looks for the prompters that are usually in one (very easy to figure out) position on the set, as does American actor Grayson Hall, as Dr. Julia Hoffman (and other characters).

Irrespective of the gaffes generated under the tremendous time pressure, sustained viewing makes Frid's character compelling and overwhelmingly heart-breaking. After viewing a few hundred episodes and letting go of my intellectual sardonicism, I stopped noting the flaws and became immersed in the characters. In fact, I had to take a break from viewing because of the heavy-heartedness I felt with the impending doom of Barnabas by the mean-girl Louisiana witch Angelique (played magnificently by the actress Lara Parker who also played a delicious and excruciatingly cruel witch in "The Trevi Collection" episode of the influential supernatural TV series Kolchak). As I continued to watch, the series successfully sucked me into really caring about the characters, one of the signatures of the soap opera genre.

Lara Parker's Angelique (above) was the person who got away with things solely based upon her looks. It seems unfair! Despite the poor, desperate upbringing that sharpened her wits, she's just another beautiful blonde mean girl who manages to fool all the guys. The woman you love to hate. The lack of empathy constructed for her character (unlike Barnabas') speaks to the classist element of Dark Shadows that portrayed the lowest economic rungs of society (including Willie Loomis) as users and used, the middle-class/artistic class/working class as salt of the earth folks, and emphasized rich peoples problems. (In that way, however, this particular soap opera is also not unique to the genre.)

Angelique took things to have them, and took hardscrabble to a dysfunctional level. (Barnabas did use her and throw her to the side, but her punishment greatly outweighed his crime). Trapped by love, time and naiveté Barnabas was not only disoriented by the centuries passing in general but particularly between the earlier part of the 20th century and the revolutionary times of the mid-1960s.

Barnabas' timelessness and sadness included his attempt to control the (albeit muted) counterculture around him. One way was by putting people, like Maggie, back into time with him. Another reference to this temporal stretching was Carolyn Collins Stoddard, Barnabas' (great, great+) niece, who regularly negotiated the family's brush with counterculture in her behavior toward her mother and Barnabas. (Her most extreme countercultural action epitomized by dating Wild One-ish boyfriend Buzz Hackett.) Carolyn, as a mirror of Marilyn Munster, pushed against the boundaries of traditional propriety to out the truth, as a muted, female trickster character in her 1960s incarnation.

Barnabas reached back even as Carolyn reached toward a freer future. He eschewed electric light for candlelight, wore timeless suits and a temporally-ambiguous hairstyle. Despite his formidable powers, Barnabas, as a human and as the undead, always seemed a bit out of sync with the cultural, and spiritual, dynamics around him. Trying so hard to right his world.

That's what everyone was trying to do then. It's what we are always trying to do, to right ourselves in currents that may lift us up or carry us under. The poster for the 2012 remake shows a different Barnabas than the original or the 1991 remake. It seems to stop Barnabas in time. He seems to carry the coffin around with him. He's defeated already because he looks dead and deadpan in a silly way. Frid never seemed silly, missed cues or no. His grace as an actor, and the textures of the character Barnabas, rose above temporary flaws.

I like Burton and Depp's collaborations on Edward Scissorhands (above, right) and Sleepy Hollow (left) so much because they conveyed, in still shots and the film, the poignancy and sadness of the lead characters by way of their extremity. I also know Burton and Depp both love and respect the Gothic horror/vampire genre and incorporated greats like Lee (and horror genre legend Vincent Price) into those previous movies. When accepting his BAFTA fellowship in 2011, Lee called Burton one of the great directors of our age. There was great, palpable affection and love between them in that moment. During his acceptance speech you could see, in Lee's frail carriage yet resonate, trained actor's voice, the human that supersedes the corporeal.

Jonathan Frid's Barnabas (whom I understand, is also featured in this remake), always seemed human. Sometimes ruthless, sometimes, loving, often trapped but never a joke, never really an unnatural monster. The poster and trailer for the film, with garish white makeup and claws for the character, is an image of the dead, not Barnabas.

Now that Jonathan Frid has passed away, he's even more vibrant to me. He went from black and white to Technicolor that's as real as my memories of crowding around a television with my grandmother, amazed that she also liked the scary irresistible monsters that peppered my childlike consumption, the extraordinary experiences that help us learn things.

Tracie Morris is an interdisciplinary poet who has worked extensively as a sound artist, writer and multimedia performer. Her installations have been presented at the Whitney Biennial and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning. Tracie is the recipient of numerous awards for poetry and performance and has contributed to, and been written about in, several anthologies of literary criticism. She holds an MFA in poetry from Hunter College and a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. Dr. Morris is currently Visiting Professor of English at Temple University and the CPCW Fellow in Poetics and Poetic Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Dark Shadow stills c. ABC Television 2012

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