'Dark Shadows' is lighter with Tim Burton

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows,"

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

A generation (or two) before "True Blood," "Vampire Diaries" and even "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," little children ran home from school to watch a soap opera -- a vampire soap opera, whose theme music still echoes in the minds of those damaged, Gothic-minded tykes. It was an age without TiVo, Hulu or even VHS, so they had to be home by 4, lest they miss the latest weird goings-on in the accursed village of Collinsport.

"Dark Shadows" was a phenomenon -- the first soap to go supernatural, a daytime dose of dread and camp. Star Jonathan Frid -- the Canadian actor who died last month at age 87 -- became a household name as Barnabas Collins, the resident ghoul of the Collinwood mansion. The show lasted from 1966 to 1971, but left a lasting impression -- notably on Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, whose resurrected "Dark Shadows" opens in theaters Friday.

Starring Depp, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller and Jackie Earle Haley, "Dark Shadows" opens, fittingly, in 1972, with the discovery of Barnabas' ironclad coffin in a construction pit outside Collinsport. Freed from his casket and chains, Barnabas promptly kills everyone in sight and makes his way back to Collinwood, where he reunites with the surprised caretaker Willie (Haley). In the original series, he had awakened the slumbering vampire Barnabas while looking for the family jewels beneath the mansion (all this gets revived in the remake).

Yes, I'm from England

As he did in the TV series, Barnabas passes himself off as the family's strange relation from England -- although there are some who know the truth, most critically Angelique Bouchard (Green), Collinsport's leading citizen, seafood mogul, spurned lover and the witch who originally turned Barnabas into a vampire and buried him alive, two centuries earlier (which may contradict the TV show, but so it goes).

For Green, Angelique is just the latest in a career of playing extreme women -- from the erotic provocateur of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" (2003) to the mad schoolteacher of "Cracks" (2011) -- though she was initially afraid Angelique might be too far over-the-top. "I knew Johnny would be going big and what he does is this kind of German Expressionist thing," she said. "As his enemy, I knew I'd have to be his equal so it was a concern -- but also a great op- portunity to be able to show this side of myself, really cuckoo."

She also sees the movie as being in line with Burton's work, which has always been about societal outliers, be they Batman, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood or Willie Wonka. "He's always about the outcast, the misunderstood outsider," Green said of her director. "And Angelique is misunderstand, too. She's not just a cartoon character."

Who is "Dark Shadows" for? The ongoing conceit within the film is its relentless parade of verbal and visual gags about the '70s, from lava lamps to The Carpenters ("Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!" Barnabas commands the television, where Karen Carpenter is crooning "Top of the World").

Haley, who was a '70s child star ("The Bad News Bears") provides a kind of sight gag himself (even though, after 15 years away from Hollywood, he earned an Oscar nomination for "Little Children" in 2006). He said he wasn't an original "Dark Shadows" watcher, but "my wife was one of the kids who ran home from school to watch it. And I have a buddy who was so excited when he heard I was playing Willie, he said, 'Remem- ber my cat Barnabas? Where do you think I got the name?'"

Haley said working on "Dark Shadows" meant "total submersion not just into the '70s, but the Gothic world of Tim Burton."

What seems to be a quaint Maine fishing village is actually four square blocks created over a water tank at London's Pinewood Studios. Haley said the set decoration was so detailed, and so thorough, it was like a trip back in time.

Really excited to be Carolyn

For his co-star Moretz, the time amounted to only a few months. "The funny thing was, I've shot the last two years in London, and I love London, but when I read the script, I said, 'Oh cool, a seaport town in Maine,'" said the actress, whose recent work has included "Let Me In" and "Hugo." "Then I was told, 'Actually, we're shooting in Pinewood,' and I was going back again."

Although Moretz is only 15, her character, the incurably teenage Carolyn Stoddard, also has something ineffably '70s about her. "Yeah," the actress agreed, "she's got this totally Woodstocky kind of '70s vibe, but at the same time, what you think is teenage angst turns out to be ... "

One shouldn't say. But Moretz does, in her fashion, link up the various generations Burton is trying to put the bite on, via his combination of vampires, nostalgia, high comedy and camp: Her mother provided her a model for creating a '70s style, the actress said, and inspired in her a love of the era.

"I've always been a fanatic about the '70s," she said. In fact, her mother and acting coach- brother, Trevor, knew she'd be so excited when she learned she was doing "Dark Shadows" that they waited till the deal was closed, and wound up telling her at the end of a flight. "My brother looked at me while we were taxiing and said, 'I don't want to freak you out, but Tim Burton wants you to be in 'Dark Shadows,' at which point I shrieked. The whole plane looked at me and thought, 'What's wrong with this girl?'"

The young actress was so worked up she did something Barnabas Collins never would have understood: She left her iPad on the airplane.

'Dark Shadows' gave them a lift

Jonathan Frid, who died April 13, was the most obvious beneficiary of the "Dark Shadows" phenomenon: In addition to becoming an unlikely matinee idol, he parlayed Barnabas Collins into a series of one-man shows and continued appearing on the Canadian stage -- and at "Dark Shadows" conventions -- well into his 80s. (Frid also has a cameo in Tim Burton's new movie.) But there were others whose careers came to life during the "Dark Shadows" run, the following being some of the more prominent:

MARSHA MASON -- An uncredited Vampire Girl in 1969, Mason would go on to become one of the more popular actresses of the '70s and '80s, earn four best actress Oscar nominations (for "Cinderella Liberty," "The Goodbye Girl," "Chapter Two" and "Only When I Laugh"), and marry and divorce playwright Neil Simon.

ABE VIGODA -- Still kicking at 91, Vigoda appeared as Ezra Braithwaite of 1969, and Otis Greene of 1840, and promptly went on to achieve immortality as Tessio in "The Godfather."

("Tessio was always smarter," says Michael Corleone.) Of course, Vigoda also played Det. Phil Fish on TV's "Barney Miller" (1974-81), the role for which he's probably most famous.

HARVEY KEITEL -- Seen as a customer of Collinsport's local pub, the Blue Whale, in 1966, Keitel a few years later would join Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the seminal "Mean Streets" (1973), which launched several of the more electrifying careers in American cinema. Keitel's only previous credit had been on "Hogan's Heroes."

KATE JACKSON -- Daphne Harridge of the 1970-71 season, Jackson established herself as a TV star as Jill Danko on "The Rookies" (1972-76), but achieved pop-cultural ecstasy as one of the original "Charlie's Angels," alongside Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith.

DONNA McKECHNIE -- The multi-talented McKechnie played Amanda Harris/Olivia Corey from 1969 to 1970, and in 1976 won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical for having created the role of Cassie in "A Chorus Line."

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