The cult that developed around the original, 1966-71 Dark Shadows was based on a camp enjoyment of the afternoon soap opera’s cheap production values, poor technical quality, and amateurish writing and acting. So how has the concept fared after all this time in the coffin? Well, the prime-time version is a lot more professionally done, and particularly well acted by Ben Cross.
But much of the pop culture that has come along since Shadows’ first run — Anne Rice’s baroquely elegant horror novels as well as Stephen King’s earthy ones, the grossly violent slasher films, the insidious scariness of Twin Peaks — makes Dark Shadows seem rather quaint and not just a little foolish. Dark Shadows will probably remind you most of another recent gothic soap opera — Beauty and the Beast. Like that damply overwrought series, Shadows is a romance disguised as a horror story. In this case, the beauty is the innocent young governess of Collinwood estate, Victoria Winters, played by Joanna Going. The primly Victorian Victoria arrives at spooky, crumbling Collinwood to tutor little David Collins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); unbeknownst to her, he is a bratty vampire-in-the-making. Victoria’s simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by Cross’ Barnabas is the emotional center of the series.
To his credit, Cross isn’t a vampy vampire. In fact, he’s so coldly reserved that it is sometimes difficult to understand why everyone finds him so charming. Going, too, never overdoes it, but she and Cross are the only actors safe from the rampaging melodrama, created by director and executive producer Dan Curtis. Curtis was similarly responsible for the miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. In those two efforts, he managed to turn World War II into a vulgar bore. Between them, Curtis and Cross represent contradictory sensibilities — one hokey, one subtle — that prevent Dark Shadows from being much of anything at all. C-