'Dark Shadows': neck-deep in romantic ambience

January 11, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles --"Dark Shadows" is being called all kinds of things.

Its creator, Dan Curtis, calls it a "fantasy." Its star, Ben Cross, calls it a "vampire tale." Still others have tagged it a horror story or a campy sendup of the popular original, which ran on ABC as an afternoon serial from 1966 to '71.

Part of the trouble with "Dark Shadows" is that it contains elements of each of those formulas -- to the point of confusing some viewers. One minute, you're shown a corpse with a bloody, mangled neck. The next minute, the vampire responsible is cracking wry jokes: "My job is an all-consuming one."

But that's the bad news about NBC's "Dark Shadows," which airs at 9 Sunday and Monday on WMAR (Channel 2), before slipping into a regular weekly slot at 9 p.m. Fridays.

The good news -- which could get the show extended beyond the nine weekly episodes NBC has promised to air -- is the its romantic core. And it is a mother lode of classic romanticism, stretching straight back to the likes of "Wuthering Heights," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and, in fact, some of the best work of the 19th century romantic poets. When it works, "Dark Shadows" is "Beauty and the Beast" with a bit of resonance.

Still, there is not a lot of story here. The show is set in a mansion called Collinswood on a remote stretch of Maine's coast. We arrive with a young governess, Victoria Winters (Joanna Going). She has come to take care of a mean-spirited and perhaps emotionally troubled little boy, David Collins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Three generations of Collinses live at the estate, with Jean Simmons playing the matriarch head of the household. But the Collins at the center of "Dark Shadows" is Barnabas (Cross), a cousin who appears on the scene about the same time as Ms. Winters. What only one other character knows is that Barnabas is actually a 175-year-old vampire, who is back in action thanks to the stupidity of a handyman, Willie Loomis (Jim Fyfe).

Willie is important to the tale, because he becomes Barnabas' manservant of sorts when Cross takes to restoring the family's ancestral home next door to Collinswood. This pair become a very weird couple indeed -- another part of the show that's inconsistent and confusing.

But as short as "Dark Shadows" is on story and consistency, it is just as long on atmosphere and romanticism.

The early scenes are richly textured -- all fog, mist, old family portraits, bats, candelabras, coffins, claps of thunder and wind-blown curtains.

It is a perfect setting for the gem-like performance by Cross. His character is the classic romantic hero -- a handsome, tortured man shackled to beastly desires but aspiring to the spiritual.

"Oh, how I loathe being trapped within this monstrous shell," he moans, "compelled to commit acts that sadden and repulse me."

"Then please let me help you," a woman doctor implores with passion for more than medicine.

And that is clearly the idea. "Dark Shadows" is pitched toward women, according to NBC. The network believes women will understand Barnabas, find him attractive and want to help him -- or at least root for him -- to overcome these hot, surging passions that make him go straight from the lips to the neck in mid-kiss and turn from poet to beast just when things are starting to feel right.

Yes, Barnabas is a steamy vampire. You don't have to be Masters and Johnson to understand that the bite-on-the-neck scenes are being played as orgasm in "Dark Shadows." But that's at the heart of classic romanticism, too: the notion of sex as an act of death and rebirth.

The person Barnabas wants to make death-and-rebirth with more than anyone else is the lovely and ethereal Victoria Winters. Can her goodness, his love for her and the doctor's scientific knowledge save Barnabas? That's the question NBC hopes will keep viewers returning to Collinswood each week.

Cross makes for one great romantic hero. If the show can figure out its tone, sharpen its focus and home in on Barnabas as the tortured sinner-saint, Collinswood could become a Southfork of the 1990s.

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