Dan Curtis, the man who owned Dark Shadows, was an intimidating man.
He was, fundamentally, a producer, and a damned good one. He was able, by force of nature, to cause networks and movie companies to invest millions of dollars in his ideas.
He was also a director. And a writer.
And as he sat in a story conference, he would act each part out loud to decipher how each story beat should go. His Barnabas was more ruthless than gentlemanly. His Willy Loomis was particularly unforgettable– a miracle of craven wretchedness, somewhere between Johnny Karlen and Dwight Frye. He loved doing all the parts, but he had a special attachment to Willy– the most powerful man in the room fully inhabiting the least powerful character in the show.
And make no mistake– Dan was powerful. Barrel-chested, sharp featured, handsome in a blunt, taurine way. He was smart, he was funny, he had charm, he was often very kind, but most of all he had a force of personality which made him a natural leader.
He got things done. When we did the pilot for the 1991 Dark Shadows, NBC actually passed on it. They started to tear down the (very expensive) set; I left LA to go visit a friend in Oregon, a vacation before my intended return to New York. Dark Shadows was finished, over, done with, we’d tried our best, we’d gotten so close, but the network had said no.
And then Dan got on the phone. And I have no idea how, but he must have known what would work, because he did it and it worked. The show went on air as a midseason replacement. (My old line: ultimately it went up against the Gulf War and lost, but they had better production values and spent more per episode than we did.)
I’ve always felt that part of the mystery of the cultural gravity and longevity of the old Dark Shadows was this: for the kids who ran home from school every day it was awash in deep spooky sensuality, a brooding 19th century romanticism made palpable. To the high-school students and the college students and the stoned hippies and the adults, it read as pure camp. It had to be camp– didn’t it?
Here’s the thing: Dan didn’t have an ounce– hell, a nanometer– of camp in him. He was aware of camp, he understood the humor in it, but it wasn’t in his core. In everything he did, he was after an authentic, unironic experience. And every heartbeat of the old Dark Shadows reflects that striving for authenticity. The writers didn’t write it as camp. The actors didn’t act it campily. It was played absolutely seriously. That was one of the reasons it worked. And that came from Dan.
If he didn’t do camp, what, then, did he do? Well, Dan was restless, as the multiplicity of plots on Dark Shadows as well as the variegated range of his career will attest, but once he found something that worked, he tended to stay with it. Thus, when I went to LA to work on the writing team of the 1991 show, I found myself not so much rebuilding Dark Shadows as remaking it.
Working with Dan was an education– he was a marvelous storyteller, with absolutely sure instincts of what he wanted and what didn’t work for him. He also existed very much tied to the art of the possible– in order for him to shoot it, he had to see it, and in order for him to see it, he had to understand it inside and out.
Because of this I began to be aware of certain tropes that he relied on. There are certain moves in his work that are inimically his, and no one else’s. All directors have these; so, for that matter, do all writers and, no doubt, all painters and ballerinas. One example will be familiar to anyone who knows DS: he often puts the camera low to the ground at the end of a hallway, and then has a character walk toward it. It provides a dependably ominous feeling, rather like a trapped child being descended upon by an adult.
Another of his visual tropes: in one shot in the 1991 series, an attractive female victim of Barnabas’ is found in the morning, drained of blood, her body sitting up against a tree. During my time in LA, Dan had a new print struck of House of Dark Shadows, the first of the DS movies, and pulled several of us into the MGM screening room to watch it for flaws. I hadn’t seen it in years. And at some point, Carolyn, played by Nancy Barrett, is killed by Barnabas, and is found in the morning, drained of blood, her body sitting up against a tree.
I could not help but be quietly amazed. Same situation, same shot, twenty years apart. Dan knew what he wanted. Dark Shadows was, indisputably and in every grain of film, his.
But the thing is, Dark Shadows turned out ultimately to be bigger than Dan. And believe me, I say that with love for the man in my heart. Dan may have owned Dark Shadows, but the fans gave it meaning.
It took me a few days to realize why I enjoyed Tim Burton’s movie. After all, he does trash Julia into near-unrecognizability. (My mother, short and fat and drinking anything besides black tea first thing in the morning? Sorry, you must have the wrong Dr. Hoffman.)
To be absolutely honest, what I liked about it was this: it wasn’t Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows anymore. The show had transcended its creator. The heart, the love, the passion that he had created, inspired and imbued were all there, but they’d been taken over by people who were obviously doing it because they were deeply committed fans.
Which is what I wanted to do with it in 1990, when I worked on it. And which I got to do a little, in bits and pieces, but not as much as I would have liked, because, well, Dan was Dan.
But Tim Burton got to do it, and Johnny Depp, and Michele Pfeiffer, and Eva Green and the rest of them.
And you know what I saw up there on the screen? A bunch of talented people doing Dark Shadows, and having a damned good time.
And in that way, at least, the new movie felt exactly like the old show. What they ultimately had in common was this:
They sure looked fun to make.