Anthony Breznican
September 23, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Four decades ago, an odd little boy in Miramar, Fla., and a peculiar little boy in Burbank both hurried home from school to watch the same TV show — a soap opera. It was no typical daytime melodrama that snared the attention of young Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Dark Shadows, which ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, was a gothic tale of a vampire named Barnabas Collins and his mortal family, who are bedeviled by witches, ghosts, and, on occasion, time travel. (It was also extremely cheesy, done on the cheap.)

When assembling his actors for a big-screen adaptation, Burton says he employed a simple weirdness test, which he hopes comes across in this group photo. ”I asked myself the very abstract question ‘Is this person Dark Shadows?”’ he says. ”In each case, the answer was yes.”

Dark Shadows had two aborted TV resurrections, in 1991 and 2004, but for years Depp has been trying to make the series into a feature film, eventually urging Warner Bros. to pick up the rights and helping produce it himself. ”There have been other collaborations where Tim has gone after Johnny, but here Johnny went to Tim,” says producer Richard D. Zanuck, who worked with them both on Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd. ”They discovered they shared this great love.”

The film is currently shooting in London and is set for release May 11. Depp plays Barnabas in a way he says is reminiscent of original star Jonathan Frid’s aged-little-boy portrayal. The characters’ dated clothing is also an homage: Shadows is set in 1972, right after the original series ended. ”We’ve made Barnabas an anachronism,” says screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which Burton is producing as a film). ”He has been trapped for 200 years, and when he emerges, the world is completely different from the one he left in the 1770s.” This is one vampire who is just as scared of mortals as they are of him — especially their televisions and miniskirts.

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