'Dark Shadows' haunts its creator


Los Angeles

As Dan Curtis explains it, "Dark Shadows" is returning to television after an absence of almost 20 years because it has a stubborn longevity similar to its main character.

"I never intended to do it again," Curtis says of the series he created, and is now re-creating, about a reluctant vampire. "But it wouldn't die."

"Dark Shadows" ran for five years as a daytime soap opera on ABC in the late '60s and early '70s. It developed into a cult hit with a legion of fans who remain loyal to this day.

It returns to NBC as a prime-time hour show, first running Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on Channel 2 (WMAR) as a four-hour miniseries that sets up the weekly series that will begin Jan. 18 at 9 p.m. Ben Cross takes over the central role of Barnabas Collins that was originated by Jonathon Frid in the daytime version.

Curtis says he never really intended to do this sort of show in the first place. He originally created "Dark Shadows" as a Gothic suspense soap.

"There were a lot of conversations about locked rooms and howling in the towers, but you never saw anything supernatural," Curtis says of the start of "Dark Shadows." "The show was rapidly going down the tubes.

"My kids, who were 9 or 10 years old then, said to me, 'Daddy, if it's going to go off the air anyway, why don't you at least make it scary?' I said, 'all right, why not?'"

"We had a 26 week order and this was right near the end of the 26 weeks and I said to the writers, 'Let's scare the hell out of these people.' I immediately changed the story and had some kind of jerky ghost appear on the stairs.

"Immediately, the ratings started to go up. I mean immediately. So we made it a little crazier. I wanted to see how far we could go, what the audience would accept."

Curtis says that as a kid he always found vampires especially scary, so he put one on the show with the intention of killing him off.

"But we couldn't kill him off. He became an instant matinee idol. This guy was out there ripping throats out, doing everything awful and they were crazy about him. The women went insane. The kids went crazy.

"Now I had to deal with the biggest problem, how do I perpetuate a vampire? So we made him a reluctant vampire."

The new series essentially starts up with the introduction of the ,, vampire.

"The basic parameters of the story are the same, but the incidents within them have all been replotted," Curtis said. "So we have some new ways of getting to some of the same places that we got to before."

For instance, the first character you meet Sunday night, the governess Victoria Winters who is on her way to join this strange household, is now the reincarnation of Josette, the woman Barnabas loved 200 years ago. Curtis said he would have done that in the original series but when he created Victoria he didn't know he was going to have a vampire come around later.

Curtis is best-known these days for the decade he spent bringing the epic miniseries diptych of "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" to television. The call from then-NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff about rejuvenating "Dark Shadows" -- an idea that originally arose at the network during the 1988 writers' strike when the search was on for old material that could be used again -- came in the waning days of production of "War and Remembrance."

"I never intended to do it," Curtis says, claiming he was totally bereft of ideas after the four years he spent at the helm of the daytime version. "When I got out of there, I felt like I was let out of jail. I ran to the nearest exit, not walked."

Curtis said he turned down "Dark Shadows" revival offers over the years, but Tartikoff was the most persistent.

"And it's fun. It's a welcome change of pace. I'm really having a good time, we're having a lot of laughs. It's great not to have to be very serious because we're not saying that this is anything other than fantasy and fun."

Under the competent hand of Curtis' direction, the first four hours make for above-average television, effectively creating the Gothic horror atmosphere while telling the story as it could only be told, in a straightforward manner.

Whatever laughter there is arises out of absurdity, not campiness. And the drama, while not deep or heavy, does develop a compelling melodramatic pull that should suffice to satisfy fans of the old series and newcomers unfamiliar with the show's heritage. There is a large amount of blood on the screen as, according to Curtis' make-up-the-rules-as-you-go-along approach, apparently it is the amount of blood spilled that determines which victims of the vampire die instead of becoming converts.

The cast is top-notch with Jim Fyfe as Willie, who frees Barnabas from his tomb and them becomes his Igor-like assistant. Jean Simmons is the well-meaning head of the current-day Collins clan, which lives in a fictional town in Maine. Barbara Steele, a veteran of the horror classic "The Pit and the Pendulum" who went on to be a producer on "The Winds of War' and "War and Remembrance," is especially effective as the doctor who hopes to cure Barnabas' vampirism.

But the centerpiece is definitely the chilling, tortured performance of Cross who is most famous for his portrayal of Harold Abraham in 'Chariots of Fire.'"

"If this was going to be a show that would have a guest star every week who would somehow or other get fanged by the end of the hour, well I was really not interested in any way, shape or form in that kind of series about a vampire," Cross said.

"But this is more of a psychological study, an exploration of the whole mythology of vampirism. It's an extraordinary story and an extraordinary character and I can promise you I'm not exaggerating when I say it's really one of the most challenging roles I've ever played because I have to come up with something new every week."

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