The Dark Shadows Revival series aired in 1991, but ran for only 13 episodes. I never saw it at the time, but have heard something about it since and was interested because of the cast. It’s too easy to say “I can’t imagine anybody but So-and-so playing that role”–I tend to be more curious about recasting, and more forgiving, if it’s an actor I already know and like. Jean Simmons as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, for example, or horror-film icon Barbara Steele as Dr. Julia Hoffman. Ben Cross from Chariots of Fire as Barnabas? I definitely had to have a look.
Last week, to celebrate the publication of my new book about blogging Dark Shadows from beginning to end, I bought the revival series DVD set. I’m not going to review each episode individually, but the pilot is an hour and a half, the same length as a standard feature film; I’m going to consider that by itself before I go on with the rest in batches, and try to stay with my first impressions.
The episode opens with a train winding along a coast at sunset. When I first saw this, I said, “Vicky’s taking Amtrak.” Then I noticed that the sunset was on the wrong side. This show was filmed in California, not on the east coast where you’d never see the sun setting on the Atlantic Ocean.
As she did at the beginning of the original series, Vicky introduces herself in voiceover:
“My name is Victoria Winters. My journey is beginning, a journey I hope will open the doors of life to me and link my past with my future. It is a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place… to a house called Collinwood. To a world I’ve never known, with people I’ve never met, people who tonight are still only shadows in my mind and who will soon fill the days and nights of my tomorrows.”
I haven’t compared them word for word, but this sounds very much like her speech in the first episode of the old show. We do not, however, go from Vicky (Joanna Going) on the train to Roger and Elizabeth waiting for her and arguing about whether or not she should have come to Collinwood.
Instead, Elizabeth is getting Vicky’s room ready for her with the help of the housekeeper Mrs. Johnson (Juliana McCarthy, who was Enabran Tain’s housekeeper Mila on Deep Space Nine, although I didn’t recognize her without the Cardassian makeup). Elizabeth’s daughter Carolyn and her niece Daphne are also present. I wondered if Daphne was meant to be Roger’s daughter and David’s elder sister, but later on she’ll be referred to as Roger’s niece as well, so there must have been another Collins sibling who was her parent.
Roger (Roy Thinnes) and Elizabeth do have a conversation about why David needs a governess and can’t go back to the local public school “after what happened,” but their focus is on the boy’s behavior and not on Vicky herself.
Vicky, meanwhile, has arrived at the Collinsport train station. It’s after dark. No Burke Devlin gets off the train with her, but I wasn’t expecting him to be there. She walks over to the Blue Whale, run by Sam Evans and his daughter Maggie, and phones Collinwood to ask that someone come and pick her up. Daphne is at the Blue Whale too by this time with her hunky boyfriend Joe Haskell. I experienced a moment of confusion regarding the two similar-looking blonde Collins girls, since I thought that Carolyn would be with Joe. This time around, Daphne’s the one he’s dating. Not that we should get too attached to Daphne.
I quickly caught on that, apart from the addition of Victoria Winters, this pilot episode is a remake of the film House of Dark Shadows and follows that more closely than the original show both are based upon. I rewatched that film again after watching this, and noted that a lot of the dialog is reused exactly or with only small revisions.
Willie Loomis (Jim Fyfe) is now Mrs. Johnson’s nephew, which goes some way toward explaining why the Collinses keep him on. He’s a miserable and repulsive specimen, displaying all the signs of poor personal hygiene including teeth like Joseph Curwen. Willie spends his free time up in his room above the stables, chugging whisky from the bottle and studying old Collins family journals. He’s searching for a cache of jewels, hidden according to legend by “them old guys in the pictures” during the Revolutionary War for safekeeping. His plan is to steal an easily portable fortune without the Collinses even knowing about it, and split.
He believes he’s just worked out an important clue about the old family crypt, when he’s interrupted by Roger, who berates him for neglecting to meet Vicky at the train.
Willie does go to the Blue Whale sullenly, tries to get another drink out of Sam at the bar, and is spoiling for a fight with either Sam or Joe when the latter tries to intervene. In spite of this, Vicky agrees to let Willie drive her up to Collinwood instead of accepting Joe’s offer of a lift. This is meant to show how sweet she is and nice to Willie while everyone else scorns him–not silly enough to get into a car with someone who looks already well on his way to a DUI.
Anyway, the two do get up to the house safely without swerving off the road or hitting anything. While Vicky is made welcome by the Collins family, Willie heads over to the crypt to work out the riddle in the old journal and triggers the door to the secret room. He doesn’t find the lost jewels as he’d hoped to, but he does discover a chained-up coffin and opens it… and meets his fate.
When Daphne leaves the Blue Whale some time later, she is stalked through the empty streets of Collinsport and attacked just as she reaches her car.
The following evening, a gentleman with a British accent shows up at Collinwood and introduces himself to Elizabeth as a distant cousin from England, a descendant of that fellow whose full-length portrait hangs above the staircase and whom he looks just like. He even has the same opal ring and silver wolfs-head cane.
In an interview on one of the Dark Shadows DVDs, Dan Curtis spoke of this revival series and said that they went through their story too fast, that he should’ve saved Barnabas’s appearance for a later episode. I think that, to a certain extent, that would have been better. Maybe not a later episode, since for most people Dark Shadows does mean Barnabas Collins and viewers would get impatient if they had to wait too long for him to show up, but I do think that his arrival should have been put back just a little. Willie opens the coffin 15 minutes into the show and Barnabas knocks on the front door of Collinwood about 10 minutes later. Once he’s there, he takes center stage. We should have had more time to meet the other Collinses, and Vicky, first.
From Vicky’s introductory voiceover, it looks as if Dan Curtis meant to use the mystery of her past and parentage, and perhaps resolve it now that he had the chance. But once she arrives at Collinwood, it’s never mentioned. A few episodes later, she tells Barnabas that she was brought up in an orphanage and knows nothing about her own family–but that’s it. More information concerning her unknown past, and a few hints that Elizabeth and Roger know something about it, would have set them all up nicely. Ten or 15 minutes would do it, and then Barnabas could make his entrance at the midpoint of the episode.
Well, here he is, chatting with the Collinses about how he’s “been looking forward to this moment for so long.” He tells them that he’s come over from London to Boston on business and couldn’t resist calling on his American relatives since he was so close. He’s a bit curt when Roger, who’s just returned from a trip to London himself, asks him about it, and slips up when he says that Collinwood is “just as I remembered,” but quickly explains by claiming that he’s heard so much about the house that he feels as if he’s been there before. He also tells them a lovely story about the house’s history, how it originally stood in the vicinity of Lyme Regis in Dorset but was taken down stone by stone, shipped to Boston and brought up the coast by ox-cart. This Collinwood is much older than the Gothic Revival building of the original series. The front hall looks like the nave of a cathedral.
Barnabas claims that he walked over “that afternoon” to look at the family’s first home in American, the abandoned old house where his ancestor was born. It’s been empty for a long time, but he’d like Elizabeth’s permission to restore it. Elizabeth and Roger have no objection, especially when they hear that money is of no consequence to their cousin. (Willie was absolutely right about the jewels being in the secret room; Barnabas went straight to a big box full of gemstones and gold coins once he was out of his coffin.)
But young David doesn’t like it. The old house is where he likes to play, and it’s also the home of his friend, Sarah. He shows them a miniature portrait of a little girl that happens to be on a nearby table in the drawing-room, and says that this is Sarah. The family thinks he’s got an imaginary playmate, but Barnabas is interested in David’s story.
This is also the first time Barnabas sees Vicky. He takes an immediate interest in her as well, for reasons that won’t be explained just yet.
Of course he was lying about being there in daylight, but after he leaves the Collinses, Barnabas does visit the old house. It isn’t Colonial but is in ruins. He steps into the ruined front hall and declares, “Father, I have come home!”
Daphne wasn’t killed, but she lost a lot of blood and is in the hospital. The doctor is puzzled by the bite-marks on her throat, which look like an animal’s teeth but left traces of human saliva. The Collinsport Sheriff is concerned that there’s no sign of blood at the place where Daphne was attacked. They consult a friend, a professor with knowledge of the occult, who says that there are demented individuals who believe they are vampires and actually drink human blood.
These secondary characters are brought in without a clear introduction of who they are, which leaves viewers like me who have seen the old show to make assumptions, rightly or wrongly, based on who we think they’re supposed to be.
I see a police chief, a gruff-voiced professor, and a doctor, I think George Patterson, Timothy Eliot Stokes, and Dave Woodard.
The first one’s spot on: the Collinsport Sheriff is still George Patterson. Everyone addresses the professor as “Michael,” but that didn’t trouble me since Stokes’s first name has been changed before. When we do hear his last name, however, it’s Woodard. The doctor’s name is Hiram Fisher.
Another character identification by assumption. Carolyn goes out dancing at a local dive–not the Blue Whale–when a guy in a leather jacket hits on her. He’s in the credits as Local Tough, but I immediately call him Buzz. After Carolyn takes a swig from Buzz’s beer bottle without asking, Buzz ditches his girlfriend Gloria to make his move. Carolyn rebuffs him.
Gloria leaves in a huff (amusingly telling her boyfriend to “Buzz off!”), and runs into Barnabas in the parking lot. He’s just getting his teeth into her neck when Buzz hears her scream and comes to the rescue. Barnabas attacks Buzz too and gets a two-for-one.
The young people who were dancing at the dive, including Carolyn, come out and crowd around to look on in horror as Sheriff Patterson and his deputies examine the crime scene. The police observe that these two were attacked in just the same way as Daphne Collins, but they’re both dead.
Willie Loomis comes under suspicion, since no one’s seen him for several days. Patterson questions him when he does show up–neither the Sheriff nor anyone else makes note of the big bandage that Willie has on his neck, just like Daphne’s–but Barnabas vouches for Willie and says that Willie is working for him now.
When Vicky and David visit the old house the next day, Willie is in charge of a crew of workmen busy renovating the place; he tells them that Barnabas has gone to Portland for the day, and gets very upset when David ventures down the stairs to the cellar. What we see, but David doesn’t get far enough to, is that Barnabas’s coffin has been moved from the crypt.
David told Vicky that his friend Sarah said that Barnabas is evil. Sarah may also have told him that he’d find something in the old house cellar, but this is the only time he ever tries to go down there and explore. When he first heard about Barnabas moving into the old house, the bratty kid said he would make Barnabas sorry, but nothing ever comes of that threat either. I suppose it’s something the writers meant to get back to later.
Dr. Fisher examines blood samples from all three of the victims and discovers a strange cell like nothing he’s ever seen before. Professor Woodard suggests that he call in a friend, “an expert in the field…. Her name is Julia Hoffman.”
Dr. Hoffman begins her treatment by giving Daphne some kind of injections. Daphne is soon feeling much better, even though she has no memory of the attack. Elizabeth invites Julia to stay at Collinwood to continue caring for Daphne during her recovery after she leaves the hospital.
After another victim washes up on the beach below Widows Hill, Dr. Hoffman hypnotizes her patient, since Daphne is the only person who survived her assault and might be able to identify her attacker.
Under hypnosis, Daphne describes his “red eyes! His teeth!” She says that she recognizes the man, but doesn’t know where she’s seen him before. Sheriff Patterson puts a deputy in the house to keep watch over her, and Professor Woodard starts to think that they’ve got a real vampire on their hands and not just a blood-drinking lunatic.
Dr. Hoffman’s thoughts seem to be tending that way too, and she soon forms an idea of who the vampire is. When Barnabas calls at Collinwood one evening, Daphne senses his presence and comes out of her bedroom, only to collapse on the gallery above the stairs. Dr. Hoffman takes note of how Daphne stares at Barnabas, and how Barnabas looks at Daphne before he makes his excuses and exits.
Barnabas has another young woman on his mind. While all this is going on, he’s been courting Vicky. When she next visits the old house, he shows her a room that was boarded up and preserved just as it was 200 years ago. Josette’s room. The portrait over the mantelpiece looks exactly like Vicky.
Barnabas tells her Josette’s story, how his “ancestor” met her and fell in love with her in Martinique, how she came to Collinwood to be married, and how she died suddenly in an accident, falling off the cliff at Widows Hill. “It broke my… my ancestor’s heart.”
In a nice little touch, while he’s talking, we hear the faint tinkle of the familiar melody from Josette’s music-box even before it’s seen. Barnabas shows the music-box to Vicky on a later dinner date at the old house, and even suggests that it would be “exquisitely romantic” if he and she were the reincarnation of that earlier Barnabas and Josette.
Vicky, who already feels somehow connected to Josette, eats this up. She’s very taken with Barnabas and his charming, old-fashioned ways. That accent and the way he looks in a turtleneck sweater probably help things along too. She’d feel quite differently about him if she knew that Willie’s face got all bruised up not because he “fell,” but because her new vampire boyfriend beat the hell out of him for trying to warn her.
After dinner, he escorts Vicky back to Collinwood. After all, there’s still a murderous maniac running loose and he wants her to be safe. He gets a kiss at the front door–a quick, shy peck that almost misses his mouth. No necking, but that’s obviously what’s on his mind; after Vicky goes in, Barnabas hangs around outside below her bedroom window to watch her and makes bitey motions with his mouth.
I like Ben Cross as Barnabas. I’ve accepted him in the role and think that, for the most part, he’s done a good job being charming and attractive when he needs to be, and becoming frighteningly bestial when he’s attacking someone. But I wish he wouldn’t do that thing with his mouth when he’s being vampiric. It looks silly–like he’s trying to blow a kiss but he’s afraid his fangs will fall out.
His perving on Vicky is interrupted by a child’s voice calling out his name and telling him he must stop. Barnabas turns to see a little ghost-girl dressed in colonial-era clothes, standing in the mists behind him. Actually, Sarah’s been watching him since he and Vicky walked over from the old house.
Barnabas goes toward her, but she runs off into the woods. He continues to chase after her until she disappears. He shouts: “Sweet little sister, come back! Don’t hate me. I can’t help it!”
I’m surprised that nobody at Collinwood heard him.
The episode ends with a caption, “To Be Continued…” and I’m ready to see more of how this revised, revisited version of the story unfolds.