NBC's ''Dark Shadows'' -- Behind the scenes of the new vampire drama

Things look grim in the bowling alley beneath the abandoned 55-room Doheny mansion in Beverly Hills. The tomb-like room is painted black, hung with cobwebs, lit with flickering tapers, and filled with smoke. A woman with bloody hands is standing between an open coffin and a man sprawled face down with a knife in his back when in toddles a fellow carrying a lollipop. The woman snatches the knife from its inert sheath and stalks toward the baffled intruder, demonically muttering in French, ”Imbécile! Crétin!”

”Cut!” barks director Dan Curtis. ”Give me more smoke.”

Dark Shadows, the supernatural soap of the ’60s that brought vampires into the light of day, is back. Beginning with the four-hour, two-part miniseries that aired earlier this month, the gothic goings-on of the folks from Collinsport, Maine, have been resurrected from TV’s programming great beyond to become a new weekly series. And NBC, which has bet an estimated $20 million that the program can thrive on Friday nights, is banking on the remarkably enduring appeal of a show that once had up to 20 million viewers every weekday afternoon, many of them teenagers. Although Dark Shadows has been off the air for 20 years (”We just ran out of stuff to do,” says Curtis, who created and produced the original and is also executive producer of the new series), its devotees still circulate a newsletter and hold annual festivals. The show’s 25th anniversary will be observed at a three-day gala this June in Los Angeles, with most of the original cast members — including Jonathan Frid, the cult favorites who played Barnabas Collins — in attendance. More significantly, vintage Dark Shadows videos sell — and rent — well. For people who prefer the printed version, Pomegranate Press recently published The Dark Shadows Companion, which includes plot summaries of all 1,225 episodes.

One notable absence from the new Dark Shadows is Frid. Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire) has taken his place as the central vampire. Also in the cast: Joanna Going (Another World) as governess Victoria Winters; horror-movie queen Barbara Steele (The Pit and the Pendulum) as Dr. Julia Hoffman, who is trying to cure Barnabas of vampirism; Jean Simmons (The Thorn Birds) as Barnabas’ cousin Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, and Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) as Elizabeth’s brother, Roger Collins. ”People like my wife, who was totally addicted to the old show, can’t wait to see the updated version,” says Perry Simon, NBC’s executive vice president of prime-time programming. ”And the spooky genre will appeal to teens.”

Vampires have drawn big audiences (as well as blood) ever since Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel, Dracula; the count from Transylvania seems to have outlasted even such horror stalwarts as Frankenstein’s monster. Films like Nosferatu, Love at First Bite, The Lost Boys, Dracula, Vampire’s Kiss, and The Hunger have all come up with new ways of portraying stories of romantic bloodlust. And Hollywood’s fascination with fangs shows no signs of fading: Sequels to First Bite and The Lost Boys are being planned; Paramount is reportedly developing a modern vampire movie called Nightland; Warner Bros. is considering one called Red Sleep, set in Las Vegas; and the Fox network is working on its own vampire series, called Blood Ties.

The book world is hardly immune to the vampire’s bite, either. Anne Rice’s novels — Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and The Queen of the Damned — are about misunderstood misfits whose powers are as threatening to themselves as to others. The books have sold millions of copies since 1976, and Geffen Films is working on a movie version of Interview. NBC executives sound confident that the updated Dark Shadows will capitalize on this continuing appeal.

Fans of the original should have no trouble following the cryptic plot twists of the new show; many stories are drawn from earlier episodes. ”The basic story parameters are the same,” Curtis says. ”But a lot of the incidents are new. So much of the stuff we did on the old show is laughable now.” Cameos by scuttling prop men, shadows from sound equipment, swaying scenery, and flubbed lines, for example. ”It’s apples and oranges,” he says. ”You’re talking about a show that cost a buck and a half to make on a dinky soundstage back in the ’60s versus a great, lavish production.”

On a recent afternoon, Ben Cross’ Barnabas, shivering in knickers and an open shirt, was being soaked by rainmakers and crying to unseen children, ”Sara! David! Don’t run from me!” amid eucalyptus trees on a slope behind the Doheny mansion. ”They’ve just seen me fanging our aunt,” Cross explains matter-of-factly, a cigarette dangling from his blood-stained mouth. His Barnabas is a reluctant vampire cursed into his condition by a vengeful witch named Angelique. ”Let’s just say Barnabas had an affair with the wrong person in 1790,” says Cross, 43, who also wore fangs in 1989’s made-for-cable comedy movie Nightlife. The English actor, who lives in Vienna most of the year, wanted ”to get back on the American map” and saw Barnabas as just the vehicle to get him there. ”I wanted to do American episodic TV, and I didn’t want to play a cop or a lawyer or a gangster,” he says.

Cross’ pointy-banged predecessor, Jonathan Frid, was the Ringo Starr of vampiredom: He was considerably less dashing than his counterparts, but his homeliness curiously enhanced his appeal. Cross, by contrast, is a strapping hunk of hemo-goblin and not nearly as repressed as Frid was. ”I’m playing this for as much eroticism and sensuality as I possibly can,” he says.

In a cast of eerie eccentrics, the show’s oddest character may be newcomer Jim Fyfe’s Willie, the caretaker of the Collinwood estate. A simpleton with greasy hair and mottled brown teeth, Willie is ”like Larry, Darryl, and Darryl gone very, very wrong,” Fyfe says. So far, Willie is not a biter, but his night might yet come. ”It would be good if being a vampire could help Willie get some babes,” Fyfe says.

Despite the camp factor inherent in the series, the Dark Shadows cast is playing it straight. ”It’s got a gothic romance to it,” Cross says. ”I’m making a supernatural drama, not a soap. Dan says, ‘Fine, fine, carry on with your Hamlet.”’ But even with Cross’ Shakespearean style, there seems little danger that Shadows will go pretentious. ”I don’t know what the hell you’d call it,” Curtis says. ”Once you enter the Dark Shadows door, you’re in a whole new universe. It takes itself seriously, but you can laugh at the darkest moments.”

And the cast members do. ”Mind you,” says the veteran Jean Simmons, ”we do get the giggles.” That seems easy for her to say: She’s not wearing fangs — yet.

Dark Shadows
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes