Can Barnabas suck the blood out of Buffy or can this tough vamp of a fighter slay the hell out of this unchained vampire? While that alone might be enough of a question to guide a Smackdown, this one gets complicated by history.
Dark Shadows, as people over fifty know, began as TV then became a film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as people under thirty know, began as a film and became a TV series. The former, in theaters now, is a derivation of its former glory, while the latter is an inspired evolution of its big-screen debut.
Considering them for this Smackdown, you realize how far Joss Whedon has come. He wrote a script two decades ago and had to turn it over to a director who did what he would with it, but now he’s not only the writer of The Avengers but its white-hot director.
After seeing all of this in short order recently, my mind started drifting to what Whedon could have done with Dark Shadows, but that pretzeled my logic to such a degree that I’ve come back to the safe confines of Smack to sort out the flesh-and-blood winners in the ring today.
Let’s review. Dark Shadows, as a TV series, was originally about a newly hired governess who comes to live in Collinsport, Maine and is soon caught up in fresh mystery when a “cousin from England” named Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) comes to live with them and turns out to be a vampire. This afternoon soap opera was quite a sensation during its run from 1966 to 1971.
Movies get right to it, and so, after a short preface in this new version, construction workers find Barnabas, now played by Johnny Depp, wrapped in chains inside a sealed coffin after being buried for almost 200 years. As in, emerging into the light of 1972, a time of transition that is post-hippie ’60s and pre-disco ’70s. Can anyone say fish-out-of-water or vampire-out-of-coffin?
Well, the Collinswood Estate is pretty shabby, the family fortunes have gone south, and Depp’s Barnabas approaches the problem as any proud 1700s merchant of menace would. He moves in and tries to rally everyone to the family cause. Everyone includes Elizabeth Collins (Michelle Pfeiffer), who manages the family’s dwindling fortunes; her attitudinal teen, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz); a drunk hanger-on (Jackie Earle Haley); and a live-in shrink, Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). And there’s a kid and a brother who don’t do much.
Depp’s skin looks the color of skim milk, his fingernails are talons, and his manner is courteous. It’s quite a character for him to sink his teeth into.
Forget all you know about Buffy from the TV series. It had years and years to add the details and to find out what works and what doesn’t and to hone its fantasy and delivery system. Go back to the source: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the original, unfiltered, baseline film.
In that telling, we meet high school cheerleader Buffy Summers (Kristy Swanson) who’s dating the captain of the basketball team, and shopping with airhead friends. This creepy old guy Merrick (Donald Sutherland channeling his best Van Helsing) shows up with bad news. She’s the Slayer, one of the Chosen Ones from every generation, picked to defend the world from vampires. Eventually, even SoCal ValGal Buffy can’t fight the truth of the matter and embraces her new reality, loses most of her old friends, makes a few new ones and does mortal combat with another old guy who’s not Donald Sutherland, the ancient and powerful Lothos (Rutger Hauer).
Buffy is, like, a total warrior princess butt-kicking vampire-hunting hottie. It looks good on her.
Dark Shadows has the fish-out-of-water fun while Buffy the Vampire Slayer has the clash-of-culture fun. Both the characters of Barnabas Collins and Buffy Summers have some adjusting to do in their respective films: Barnabas to the New World Order and Buffy to her One True Calling.
Both films offer some fang-sharp humor. The audience where we saw Dark Shadows laughed a lot, but these were screenwriters at the WGA Theater who were getting a free screening and are in a very festive mood. I remember lots of laughs in the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer from audiences who were surprised and amused at its fusing of the teen sex-comedy and horror genres.
Let’s talk about what they (the film versions) don’t have. Dark Shadows doesn’t have much plot. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t have much of the scary atmospherics that the TV series was known for.
Direction is another issue. Obviously, Shadows‘ Tim Burton does things his way and some people don’t like it. I thought this was easily one of his most accessible films. Then there’s Buffy‘s Fran Rubel Kuzui who paced up Whedon’s jokes and action and kept the dark contained and the light maintained. Honestly, as someone who is not a Burton fan, I still think he probably wins this one.
The lead characters are as great as the actors behind them. This is the eighth time Burton has directed Depp, who commits completely to his characters, including Barnabas. He’s experienced, in the hands of a friend, and confident enough to let it rip. He’s awesome, although his character is one-note, even though it’s a great one. And, let’s face it, almost nobody in any prime demographic has seen Jonathan Frid (who died recently) to compare the performances. This is so not true in the Buffys. Sarah Michelle Gellar owns the role in 99 percent of the viewers’ minds, and even though Kristy Swanson is actually quite good, she suffers in comparison. Plus, one has to consider that it was probably easier for her to find a Valley Girl performance than it was for Depp to go revived vampire.
After considering this, I’ve realized that both of these projects were more involving to their audiences in their TV series versions than in their film iterations because viewers got to live with the characters longer and the writer/producers got to fine-tune their product. Still…
In the world of TV, Buffy slays Barnabas. I’ve actually seen some of the original Dark Shadows and I’m convinced that the people who remember loving it haven’t seen it recently and they are loving memories of youth more than anything.
In the world of film, which is how this Smackdown is tilted, it’s another result — Barnabas sucks the blood out of Buffy. It’s Depp, baby. The plot’s paper-thin, the other characters don’t quite fit in the same world as he does, there’s tons of nonsense. But he’s got a lock on Barnabas that can’t be picked.
And the sex scene in Dark Shadows has got it going on. That’s all I’m saying.