Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DARK SHADOWS: Yesterday's Monsters

Someone recently told me that he’d attended a screening of Tim Burton’s new film Dark Shadows, which revives the popular supernatural daytime soap opera from the late 1960s. When he told me it was a parody, that Burton has played the whole thing for laughs, my heart sank. I had been looking forward to this movie with great anticipation. The TV series helped introduce me to the horror genre as a little boy and I was kind of fanatical about it back then. It used to scare the piss out of me. Over forty years later, I still vividly remember specific scenes from the show and how I used to cover my eyes in terror. Surely Tim Burton wouldn’t turn the terror of my childhood into a joke ... would he?

Then I saw the trailer and knew it was true. But after giving it a little thought, I began to realize that my disappointment wasn’t very logical and that Burton’s decision to make a comedy was not only sensible but the only viable option. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the arc of the old soap opera mirrors the arc of the horror genre in which I’ve worked for the better part of three decades.

Created and produced by Dan Curtis, the show aired weekday afternoons from 1966 to 1971. That’s not a terribly long run, but still, it racked up an impressive 1,225 episodes, more than any other English language genre series in history, including the long-running Dr. Who. Dark Shadows is one of the very few classic soaps that managed to keep all of its episodes intact except one. It went into syndication in 1975 and reruns were airing on the SyFy Channel as late as 2003. It got off to a slow start as a gothic soap, with no supernatural elements at all. Critics dubbed it a plodding bore. But that changed as things in Collinwood began to get weird, and when the vampire Barnabas Collins, played by Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, was introduced a year into the series, its popularity skyrocketed.

When I think of Dark Shadows, I remember those bright childhood afternoons when merely hearing Robert Cobert’s creepy opening theme music would make me tense up with a happy kind of dread. It came on immediately after General Hospital, which my mother watched faithfully in those days. She did not like the fact that I watched Dark Shadows because it involved ghosts, witches, warlocks, werewolves, zombies, and, most famously, Barnabas the vampire, and Mom knew that Jesus approved of none of those things. But she let me watch it out of guilt, I think, because she knew Jesus wouldn’t approve of General Hospital, either, what with so many doctors fucking so many nurses (off screen, of course), so she allowed me to have my guilty pleasure because she had hers. It was a kind of mutual sin agreement, I guess. I felt no guilt about watching Dark Shadows, though. I felt excitement and thrills and suspense, and thanks to Angelique the witch, played by the wickedly beautiful Lara Parker, I also felt some things in my shorts that I did not yet understand.

When I think of Dark Shadows, I think of the spooky seances, the curses, the time travel, the creepy music — the soundtrack album still ranks as one of the biggest selling TV soundtrack albums of all time, and the song “Quentin’s Theme,” which was first heard in Dan Curtis’s 1968 TV movie The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Top 100 chart, number three on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart, and earned Cobert a Grammy nomination.

I had the complete collection of Dark Shadows bubblegum cards (which I valued almost as much as my collection of Batman bubblegum cards). I kept them in a graham cracker box and pored over them frequently. They always carried the pink smell of those rectangles of bubblegum with which they’d been packaged and were always slightly gritty with the corn starch that came off that gum. My mother expressed to our pastor her fear that both Dark Shadows and Batman were endangering my eternal soul, so he came over to the house one day, had a long talk with me about the importance of going to heaven, and scared me into burning all of them, along with an assortment of comic books.

It’s difficult to overstate how popular Dark Shadows was back then, especially with kids and teenagers. Well, let's be honest — primarily with kids and teenagers. Mention it in any group of people of a particular age, and they will immediately tell you how fast they rushed home from school to watch the show every afternoon. Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker were rock stars and sex symbols. When Frid made a guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in 1969, Griffin said in his introduction, “It has caught on so incredibly that there are the ‘Frid girls’ — I know the whole front of our theater is lined with girls who couldn’t get in tonight and they’re out there screaming and yelling.” Merchandising was rampant there was even a Barnabas Collins board game, for crying out loud! Dark Shadows remains the only daytime soap opera to spawn two major motion pictures, 1970's House of Dark Shadows (“Come and see how the vampires do it!”) and 1971's Night of Dark Shadows (“Just another night of terror!”). I wasn’t allowed to go to movie theaters (Jesus didn’t approve of those, either), but the TV trailers alone were enough to give me nightmares.

When I think of Dark Shadows, I remember how it used to set my imagination on fire. I would write Dark Shadows stories for my own amusement (long before I knew what fan fiction was) and carefully, meticulously draw picture after picture of the characters with colored pencils. I remember being genuinely terrified in the middle of the afternoon, in broad daylight.

One episode frightened me so much that I hid behind the rocking chair in our living room, and for a while, my mother stopped letting me watch the show. When my grandmother learned about this, she saw a chance to create conflict in our family, which was a hobby she cherished. She lived in a small trailer in our yard and informed me that I was welcome to come to her place to watch Dark Shadows with her every afternoon if my mother wasn’t going to let me watch it. My maternal grandmother was far scarier than Barnabas Collins ever came close to being and more evil than Angelique on her worst day, but because it meant I could watch the show, I got past that. When Mom learned that I was going to Grandma’s to watch Dark Shadows, much animosity ensued. She informed me that I would be watching Satan’s favorite soap opera in our living room from then on, not at Grandma’s.

But when I think of Dark Shadows, I remember the show I watched as a child. I remember how deeply immersed I would become in that world for thirty minutes every weekday afternoon, how emotionally involved I was in the lives of the Collins family. I remember Barnabas baring his fangs and the haunting tune played by Josette’s music box and the severed hand of the mysterious Count Petofi, which was supposed to cure Quentin of his lycanthropy, and so many other things. And I remember how delightfully, deliciously terrifying it all was. I seldom think of Dark Shadows as the adult I was when I watched reruns of the show decades later.

That’s a different memory. Very different.

Sets that wobbled or collapsed, props that broke or wouldn’t work, botched lines, flies buzzing around the actors’ faces, cameras and boom mics coming into view, stagehands creeping around in the background — those are the things I remember seeing in the reruns as an adult. Watching Dark Shadows now, my reaction is quite different than it was back in the late 1960s. Now I cringe and wonder how I ever could have been frightened by it.

None of those screw-ups happened because of incompetence. It was a daily show shot live-to-tape, meaning there were no retakes. The schedule was extremely tight and they had no time to do it over or polish it up. Everything was done once and then the production moved on to the next scene.

Now, it’s not scary ... it’s hilarious. But that did not matter to the show’s young audience at the time. They were hooked. It had the youngest audience of any daytime soap opera, and sadly, that helped kill the show. With the economy plunging, networks began to cut costs. The viewers of Dark Shadows were not appealing enough to advertisers at the time — they were too young to make household purchasing decisions. That, combined with dropping ratings, led ABC to pull the plug on the show and replace it with a new version of Password. Letters poured into the network and some viewers were so angry, they threatened to disrupt the taping of the game show that replaced their favorite soap opera, although that threat was never carried out.

In 1991, Dan Curtis tried to catch lightning in a bottle again with a much more polished version of Dark Shadows that aired in prime time on NBC. This time, the budget was big and the production was glossy. It attracted a large audience initially, but then the network repeatedly preempted the show to cover the Gulf War and ratings declined rapidly. It was cancelled after one season. Another attempt was made to revive the series in 2004 when a pilot was shot for the WB network, but it was never picked up.

And now it’s back. Tim Burton has directed what appears to be a lavish film starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas, but the tone has changed. Now, Barnabas has been revived in 1972 and is a comical fish out of water. It’s funny, but this time, it’s intentionally funny.

I think chances are good that had Burton decided to do Dark Shadows with a straight face, it still would have been funny, because let’s face it, folks, it’s really hard to take vampires seriously these days. Or witches, or werewolves, or just about any of those old traditional horror icons.

When Boris Karloff appeared on movie screens in Jack Pierce’s groundbreaking makeup in the 1931 classic Frankenstein, people screamed. And they meant it! They were horrified. 35 years later, that same makeup was used on Fred Gwynne in the sitcom The Munsters. In that same sitcom, Al Lewis, who played Grandpa, was a vampire who was dressed much like Bela Lugosi in 1931's Dracula, a movie that had women fainting in theaters.

In the years since then, a lot has happened to the vampire. Anne Rice romanticized him starting in 1976, and even more in the years that followed as her Vampire Chronicles became more and more popular. And then in 2005, Stephenie Meyer infantilized and Mormonized the vampire — and, for that matter, the werewolf — in Twilight and the books and movies that followed.

How could we possibly be expected to take Barnabas Collins seriously at this point?

The vampire no longer works in the horror genre because he has been co-opted by the romance genre — along with the werewolf and the zombie and an assortment of other once frightening creatures. There was a time when the vampire was undead. Now, as far as the horror genre is concerned, he’s just dead. But he’s not alone.

A used bookstore I patronize recently removed its entire horror section. Remember, this is a used bookstore. This decision was made because no one was buying the books in the horror section. They were just sitting there collecting dust. The store’s owner decided to make room for books that would sell. You can still find books about vampires and werewolves in that store, but you’ll have to look in the romance section.

I don’t think there is a better example of the state of horror fiction than that.

But if you take a peek inside the small and insular community of horror writers and fans, you’ll see something different. Zombies are still looking for a snack, vampires are still baring their fangs and attempts are still being made to breathe life into the werewolf. While you’re there, cock an ear and listen. You’ll hear people wondering why horror doesn’t sell, why publishers aren’t interested in the genre and why nobody but those inside that small, insular community cares anymore. There are very good answers to those questions, but you won’t hear them in the horror community, where people are still taking seriously creatures and ideas that people have been laughing at for years now.

More than anything else, it was probably the success of Stephen King that launched the horror boom of the 1980s. King wrote about vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot and ghosts in The Shining, and he dealt with other traditional horror creatures and ideas, too. But contrary to what a lot of horror fans and even horror writers believe, they were not what made King’s work so popular. What made his novels work so well was everything else in them — the characters and their lives, their problems, their real-world fears. These were people dealing with real problems like domestic abuse and poverty and mental illness. And then, as if those problems and fears weren’t enough, he threw vampires and ghosts and other supernatural threats into their lives. Those supernatural threats worked because the people they threatened were recognizable people living familiar lives with problems that were real and timely. King’s books touched people and spoke to them because he reflected their lives, but with the added excitement of supernatural horror.

At some point, horror fiction stopped touching and speaking to people. It is not reflecting the world in which we live. In 2012, it’s hard to be threatened by vampires and zombies when you’re losing your job, or your home, or you have cancer but have no medical coverage, or when you turn on the news and hear some guy who wants to be president — and may very well succeed — say that things like contraception and abortion and certain sexual acts should be illegal or that people should be jailed for their sexuality alone. Right now, a glance at the skyrocketing price of groceries and gas is scarier than any werewolf. Zombies seem pretty lame when you’re wondering if your son or daughter will be shipped off to yet another war in the Middle East ... and whether or not that son or daughter will be coming home again.

So it’s not too surprising that Tim Burton decided to go for laughs with Dark Shadows, because he probably would have gotten them, anyway. A centuries-old vampire who’s revived in 1972? That’s not even a little creepy anymore. And setting it in 1972 was a good idea, too, because a centuries-old vampire who’s revived in 2012 probably would end up with his own reality TV show.

We live in a time when serial killers have become heroes, for Christ’s sake! Don’t get me wrong, I think Dexter is a fine series, but has anyone stopped to think that we have a hit show with a protagonist who’s a serial killer? NBC just greenlit a weekly primetime series about Hannibal Lecter! Hell, he was scary only 20 years ago, now we’re going to follow his exploits in a primetime series? What's next? Pedophile Crossing Guard on Fox? The Real Rapists of Beverly Hills on Bravo? Vampires don’t stand a chance of being menacing anymore!

My initial reaction to a Dark Shadows parody was wrong. Comedy was the only way it could go. Because it’s not horror anymore. Very few of the things we once considered horror hold any threat these days. The world has changed. The horror genre has a lot of catching up to do. But don't hold your breath.