Despite running only five years, Dan Curtis’s gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows,” starring Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins, has marked its territory in pop culture history, becoming a touchstone for the intersection of soapy romance and gothic, supernatural horror. It’s inspired countless television shows and films and creating a franchise that, while often not directly connected to the original source, continues to this day and age. Most notably, the name has been revisited for a short-lived 1991 television revival starring Ben Cross and Barbara Steele, and Tim Burton’s 2012 film featuring Johnny Depp. Storylines from the original soap have even continued via comic book adaptations, comic strips, novels and radio dramas, in addition to a pair of feature films in 1970 and 1971.
One attempt at a revival of the series has, up until very recently, been a question mark for most fans of the franchise. In 2004, Curtis attempted to revive the show for the WB Network, which had had considerable luck revisiting vampires for a youth audience with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” “Angel” was rumored to even have been cancelled due to the impending DARK SHADOWS revival, as it was thought that having multiple vampire-based continuities would be a bit much for the network. The film even shared the shooting location, Greystone Mansion, with the 1991 revival. A pilot was commissioned, featuring Alec Newman as Barnabas and Marley Shelton as Victoria Winters, the dead ringer for Barnabas’s fiancée. The impressive supporting cast included Martin Donovan, Blair Brown, Michael D. Roberts (THE ICE PIRATES), Kelly Hu, and a pre-breakthrough Jessica Chastain.
The shooting, however, was troubled, and initial director Rob Bowman (X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE) was replaced by P.J. Hogan (MURIEL’S WEDDING), suggesting movement from an exercise in genre to one focused more on the romantic themes of the series. The results were never fully aired, as both Curtis and the network were displeased with the results of the pilot, so no additional episodes were shot. Even the pilot is reportedly unfinished, with some special effects sequences never being completed.
For years, the pilot was a footnote among DARK SHADOWS completists, seeing the light of day only by screenings at conventions for the show, cleared by Curtis himself. While a few clips had emerged online, the complete pilot had yet to surface. Last week, however, this changed, when a YouTube user named John Peter uploaded the complete pilot, allowing all curiosity-seekers to finally get their Barnabas on.
And “curiosity” is the best way to approach the show, a pilot that introduces a lot of characters and relationships but isn’t given the opportunity to do anything with them. It’s not a complete debacle by any means – the cast is able, and there are some nice moments and a good sense of a unique look that hopefully would have continued in the series itself. However, Newman doesn’t make for a particularly charismatic Barnabas, and it often feels like a number of disjointed voices trying to mesh together themes and ideas rather than a consistent tone. (Hogan also uses a remarkably colorful palette for a show known for its gothic motifs, an intriguing choice that would have taken some getting used to.) It’s possible that this could have been evened out in the course of a season, but as it stands, the 2004 “Dark Shadows” is no great loss to what could have been.
Still, it’s one of those little corners of psychotronic cultural history that I’m glad to finally have a chance to see. If sating a bit of curiosity is the only itch that something like this randomly appearing online is good for, that’s still a valuable reason to bring a creative oddity like this out of… the shadows.