Armchair Casting Director: Dark Shadows

Published on September 29th, 2010 in: Halloween, Horror, Movies, Over the Gadfly's Nest, TV |

By Lisa Anderson

As a pre-teen vampire fan in 1991, I was very excited when NBC launched Dark Shadows, starring Ben Cross as vampire Barnabas Collins. The show got good ratings, but was pre-empted so often by Gulf War coverage that it was canceled in March after premiering in January. I realized at the time that it was a revival of an earlier show, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I got to watch some of the original Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971, and in which Barnabas was played by Jonathan Frid.

frid and cross
Jonathan Frid (left) and Ben Cross (right)

Now, there is a Dark Shadows film in the pipeline at Warner Brothers, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. That feels like kind of an “as night follows the day” casting decision, but in fairness, apparently Depp is a fan of the original series with a longtime dream of playing Barnabas. Not to invite ants to his picnic, but I have a hard time visualizing him in this role.

Part of the problem is that he lacks the menacing gravitas and vaguely unsettling quality found in Frid and Cross. Although, as anyone who has seen Charlie & The Chocolate Factory can attest, Depp can do unsettling, and as anyone who’s watched Secret Window knows, Depp can be menacing. His just isn’t a vampiric gravitas or menace. Also, even in his forties, he’s more fresh-faced than I imagine Barnabas to be, although there are ways to fix that.

My main concern is that he’s overexposed at the moment. He’s worked fairly consistently over the past ten years, and it’s mainly been in the action/fantasy/horror genre, with things like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or Alice in Wonderland. While I’m actually a huge fan of genre pieces, I don’t think that the writing in Depp’s films is always on his side. He makes the most of gimmicky parts like Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka, but they don’t really showcase his talent. That’s because such roles often lack emotional range, and don’t require as much suspension of disbelief from the audience as a well-rounded, believable character.

I was actually relieved to learn that he had several reality-grounded projects in post-production or development, such as The Tourist, about a lovelorn American in Europe, or The Rum Diary (which is not, fortunately, about why all the rum is gone). What I don’t understand is why Depp projects like last year’s Public Enemies seem to get less attention from the public than a Burton joint like The Corpse Bride. He exhibited a fearsome, versatile talent in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Donnie Brasco. If he needs to avoid pancake makeup and green screens for a while to keep from losing touch with that talent, I hope he’ll do so.

The question then follows, I’m sure: If not Johnny Depp, who would I like to see play Barnabas Collins? Here are some suggestions.

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5 Responses to “Armchair Casting Director: Dark Shadows

  1. Jemiah:
    October 1st, 2010 at 12:24 am

    I LOVE THIS. I agree with you re: Johnny Depp, but for the reason of his fresh-faced-ness; he is almost too smiley to be a convincing Barnabas, who needs a literally Byronic brooding quality – but even more Byron than Byron and his pretty mouth. 😉 I’m thinking someone rawboned and intense-eyed – no one with any softness in his face whatsoever. I’m drawing a blank with regards to the current crop of well-known lead actors in their 30s, who tend to be cast because of the bright openness of their eyes and the lushness of their lips (yeah, even you, Cillian Murphy, the most unsettling-looking actor of our generation). Even James Frain looks too much like a working-class rock star to make it work; Owen is too lush, and Eccleston looks too unhinged all the time. I dunno – who could it be? Maybe Johnny will go on the Master Cleanse for six weeks, smoke three packs a day, and spend some time in the slums of Calcutta to pick up some world-weary gravitas.

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  3. Leticia:
    December 4th, 2010 at 2:28 am

    Henry Ian Cusick (Lost’s “Desmond”) might fit the bill. Of the above mentioned, Clive Owen seems the best choice. I also like Blake Ritson (“Mansfield Park”)–dead ringer for 1795 Barnabas. Robert Cavanah is a good choice, as is Matthew McFadyen–both from “Wuthering Heights”. Peter Wingfield, Methos from “Highlander” has a similar facial structure to Frid. Barnabas needs to be someone tall, dark, imposing, immaculately groomed, well-spoken, well-dressed, and suave. Depp lacks in stature, is slightly built, and seems almost too giddy; plus he’s acquired something of an affected speaking voice. He’s older now than Frid was when he began the role, and I fear that Depp will be fast approaching fifty before this film wraps. Frid had brooding down pat and Depp should study the quiet, haunted aspect that Frid brought to the role and not focus on teeth-gnashing anger that was Ben Cross’ interpretation.

  4. Leticia:
    December 4th, 2010 at 2:56 am

    Cliff Simon who played Ba’al on Stargate shares Frid’s intense look and would make a fine Barnabas. In fact, I like him better than my earlier pick of Peter Wingfield.

    Sorry, but I’m just having a difficult time envisioning Depp as a serious-minded Barnabas. I know that he has done darker roles; “From Hell” and “The Libertine” come to mind, so I will be willing to accept Depp if he doesn’t play Barnabas as a silly sap.

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