I am a little too young to remember Dark Shadows. This gothic, supernatural soap opera ran from the late 1960s through the 1970s for over 1,200 episodes. Sci-Fi Channel (back when it still was Sci-Fi) played reruns when the channel first launched, but as a 13-year-old, it didn't have much resonance with me. I could just flip over to HBO and see all sorts of wonderful horror.
Luckily, that is not the case with Tim Burton's Dark Shadows. Rather than a cheap attempt to cash in on the fond memories of the previous generation, Dark Shadows is a passion project for all involved. While it seems a perfect fit for Tim Burton, it was not his idea to bring the gothic soap to the big screen; it was Johnny Depp who brought the project to his friend and long-time collaborator. "Johnny has wanted to play Barnabas Collins since he was a wee tyke," Burton says of lead character, vampire Barnabas, the unwitting patriarch of the Collins family. "I've had a fascination with monsters and vampires since childhood," Depp admits. Depp mentioned the project to Burton on the set of Sweeny Todd. "We should do a vampire movie together - one where the vampire actually looks like a vampire," Depp says.
The boys aren't the only Dark Shadows fans on the panel. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays the 1972 Collins matriarch, Elizabeth, is a "closet" Dark Shadows fan. The film marks a reunion between Pfeiffer and Burton, who have not worked together since 1992's Batman Returns. "I was working with a mutual friend of ours, and she mentioned that Tim was working on a Dark Shadows movie," admits Pfeiffer. "I called him up and asked for a part." "She never even calls to say hello!" Burton teases. "I didn't even know if there was part for me," she continues. "I don't even think there was a script at that point, I just wanted anything. I didn't think I would ever hear from him." "It reminded me how much I loved working with her," Burton says. Of the entire cast, Burton, Pfeiffer, and Depp were the only three who were fans of Dark Shadows. "I always knew she was weird!" says Burton.
You can't have a Tim Burton film without a score from Danny Elfman. After working with Burton on 14 projects, Elfman has learned that the best way to begin a Burton project is to not have anything in his head when he starts. This time was different. "This was the only time Tim wanted me to listen to a musical reference," says Elfman. Since the musician wasn't familiar with Dark Shadows, he listened to plenty of the show's original score. Even the non-original music in the film, Burton says, he tried to think of as score. "1972 was a weird year for music," Burton reflects. "It went from cheesy pop to cool hardcore - it was a weird year for music. Alice Cooper was a strong influence. He looks the same now as he did then which is the really scary part."
Alice Cooper's cameo - headlining a ball at the family home - was not only meaningful because he is one of the coolest rockers of all time, but because it also included cameos by original Dark Shadows stars David Selby, Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Barnabas himself, the late Jonathan Frid. "It was like having the pope come to visit," quips Burton. "Jonathan had his original Barnabas cane with him. I thought he might attack me with it," comments Depp, who also got a letter from Frid, essentially passing the Barnabas baton.
Depp saw this role as a "rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models." Following in Frid's footsteps, Depp's Barnabas is stiff and rigid. At once vicious and gentlemanly, Depp's Barnabas encompasses everything you think of with a centuries-old, old-world vampire. When asked about his first bite in the film (on the construction workers who accidentally uncover his coffin), Depp responds "I thought I was biting the Village People." In all seriousness, "when I had the fangs in, I had to be careful not to really pierce the jugular." Depp had similar problems with the claw-like finger extensions he wore, claiming to have a troupe of people to help him go to the bathroom. "With every film with Tim, there has been some kind of torture."