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07 May, 2012

Shadows’ Falling

As a very young Unimonster, I had two passions that consumed me—Scary Movies and Star Trek.  Both had latched onto my soul with an attraction that has yet to fade, and which, hopefully, never will.

About the time I was in the first grade, I was fortunate enough to be able to feed both of my ‘addictions’ on a daily basis, as one of the local TV stations aired an after-school-hours double-feature of Dark Shadows at four, and Star Trek at five.

Dark Shadows was a ground-breaking daily series revolving around an orphaned young woman, Victoria Winters (played by newcomer Alexandra Moltke), who arrives in the small coastal town of Collinsport, Maine, seeking answers about her past, shrouded in mystery.  She soon enters the employ of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (portrayed by veteran actress Joan Bennett), mistress of Collinwood Manor.  If this sounds like the set-up for a soap opera … well, it was.  The first season of the show was a fairly standard soap opera of the 1960s, albeit with a darker tone than most.  And it was not very well-received, either by critics or by audiences.

But beginning with episode #211, the show found both it’s inspiration and the star to embody it.  The episode introduced the character of Barnabas Collins, a mysterious relative visiting from England, played to perfection by a Canadian-born stage actor named Jonathan Frid.  In reality, Barnabas was an ancestor of the present Collins family—one who supposedly died two hundred years before, but who was, in actuality, a vampire.  For the next 1,014 episodes, Collinwood would be visited by ghosts, witches, werewolves, even time travelers.  It would be unique among it’s contemporaries in it’s focus on supernatural plotlines, a fact that would establish it as a niche hit, and would endear it to an audience not known for watching the soaps—young people, both male and female.  Frid’s performance as the iconic vampire Barnabas played a huge part in that success, and in the show’s status as a cult classic.  On Saturday, 14 April of this year[i], this gentle man who had made a career out of one unforgettable character, passed away at a hospital in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, from complications of a fall.  He was 87.

Fans of modern series such as True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even the TWILIGHT films, would recognize in Dark Shadows the well from which those later programs sprang.  Frid’s vampire, for all his classically gothic trappings, had far more in common with Robert Pattinson’s Edward than Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.  Frid himself, in an interview published in the November, 1969 Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine [#59], spoke of his vision for the character.  “… I portray him as a lonely, tormented man who bites girls in the neck, but only when my uncontrollable need for blood drives me to it.  And I always feel remorseful about it later.  He has a nasty problem.  He craves blood.  Afterwards, like an alcoholic or an addict, he’s ashamed but simply can’t control himself.”  Driven by his longing for his lost love Josette, Barnabas spent the next four years of the series run, as well as two feature films, searching for a way to end the loneliness of his existence, whether by transforming someone into a replacement for Josette, or by finding a way back to her through a time-portal in the mansion, or by turning to a doctor who promised a cure for his vampirism.  Happiness, or at least an end to his lonely life-after-death, always eluded him, however.

My connection to Collinwood came at an early age.  A daily dose of vampires, ghosts, and ghouls was tailor-made to fuel my growing love of Horror, especially when I might see only one horror film a week.  Barnabas Collins was far more familiar to me at that age than were the more established movie vampires played by Lugosi or Lee.  The first issue of Famous Monsters that I ever bought was that aforementioned #59, with Basil Gogos’ fantastic portrait of Barnabas on the cover.  For a five-year-old in 1969, 50¢ was a fortune … at least in my neighborhood it was.  It was a measure of my love for the show that I would lay down that much (or convince my mother or father to do so … I can’t quite remember how the magazine was acquired) for one item.

Dark Shadows left the airwaves in 1971, when I was seven.  By that age I was a confirmed Horror addict, and, through the pages of Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters, had gained a greater knowledge of other film vampires.  The adventures of Barnabas and the Collins clan were quickly left behind, replaced in my affections by Hammer horrors, 1950s Sci-Fi, and the classic Universal monsters.  By the time I reached adulthood, Dark Shadows had faded into the deep recesses of my childhood.

Some time back, I had the opportunity to watch several episodes of that beloved old show, and, at least to the Unimonster’s tired old eyes, time had not been kind to Collinwood.  The fact that the program was, after all, a soap opera—something that had escaped my notice as a child—was all too apparent to me in retrospect.  The plots were utterly, unbelievably contrived and convoluted; the dialogue was dated; the acting, for the greater part, only mediocre.  Only two things kept it from being a total disappointment: the fantastic gothic atmosphere of Collinwood, and the consummate television vampire, Mr. Frid.

Recently, Tim Burton’s upcoming big-screen ‘reimagining’ of the Dark Shadows series has captured much of fandom’s attention, and opinions regarding Johnny Depp’s comedic interpretation of Barnabas are a hot topic among fans of the original series.  Frankly, the less said regarding Burton and Depp’s efforts in this direction the better.  However, it is fitting that Jonathan Frid’s final screen appearance was a cameo in this movie.  It’s just unfortunate that he didn’t live to see his creation once more preying on vulnerable necks.

[i] Some sources say Friday, 13 April.  According to his obituary in the New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/20/arts/television/jonathan-frid-ghoulish-dark-shadows-star-dies-at-87.html?_r=1], the date is actually the 14th.

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