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14 Dark Shadows Facts With Bite

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Nearly 50 years after its debut, there’s still never been a television series quite like Dark Shadows. The ABC daytime soap opera, which aired from 1966 to 1971, was a charmingly under-budgeted Gothic melodrama about a spooky seaside town in Maine that blended the supernatural (werewolves, witchcraft, and zombies) with parallel universes and time travel; angst-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) emerged as the show’s breakout star. General Hospital it wasn’t.

Usually airing in late afternoons, Dark Shadows acquired a large teenage fanbase, with some of its frilly-collared actors appearing in the pages of Tiger Beat, and an even larger cult following. If this all sounds peculiar, you don’t know the half of it. Take a look at the show’s humble special effects attempts, Frid’s forced dates, and how Joseph Gordon-Levitt figures into all of this.  

1. BARNABAS COLLINS WAS AN AFTERTHOUGHT.

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Creator Dan Curtis—who would later conceive of The X-Files predecessor Kolchak: The Night Stalker and the classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror—originally had in mind a dramatic series about the strange residents of Collinsport, Maine, as viewed from the perspective of newly-arrived governess Victoria Winters. Though mystical elements—like ghosts—were present, they were subtle and slow to materialize. When the show premiered June 27, 1966, viewers found its characters as impenetrable as Winters did; Variety called it a “yawn.”

Hoping to improve ratings with a classic horror movie trope—a vampire—Curtis introduced Collins, a brooding bloodsucker tortured by his condition. Originally intended to be a fleeting character who would be staked in the heart after a three-week run, he became so popular with viewers (ratings saw a 62 percent increase) that the show was saved from the guillotine.

2. THE SPECIAL EFFECTS CONSISTED OF SARAN WRAP AND VASELINE.

With a roughly $70,000 budget to shoot its five weekly episodes, Dark Shadows had to approach its special effects conservatively. Camera operator Stuart Goodman found that covering his lens with plastic wrap and then dabbing Vaseline at the edges to create a hazy, dreamlike visual was surprisingly effective. To emulate actors being trapped in a blaze, Goodman would simply put a bucket in front of himself and light it on fire.

3. THERE WAS NO TIME TO GO BACK AND FIX MISTAKES.

Despite its lofty ambitions, sprawling stories and camera tricks, Dark Shadows had to maintain a standard soap schedule that allowed episodes to air daily. Because of the compressed production, actor flubs, focus mistakes, and other gaffes that would normally be re-shot had to remain in the show. Viewers would occasionally see performers read the wrong lines or see a crew member wander into shots. Actress Kate Jackson was wearing a dress that caught fire by accident: She finished her scene before being put out. Most notably, Frid was caught picking his nose when he thought he was off-camera.

4. VIEWERS COULD WIN A DATE WITH JONATHAN FRID.

Despite his questionable manners, Frid quickly became the Robert Pattinson of his day. (In his early 40s and uncomfortable in front of cameras, Frid never expected to find himself the subject of viewer crushes. Too bad a tragic vampire is irresistible.) He was bombarded with requests for personal appearances. He was once invited to a Halloween party at the White House (in character) and judged a Miss American Vampire beauty contest, with the winner earning a small role in the show. Poor Frid was also subject to promotional stunts like magazines promising a date with him. “Yes, ladies,” read TV Radio Talk copy, “finally, your fondest nightmares can come true … you will indulge in a long, eerie candlelit dinner at one of the city’s finer haunts, escorted by none other than … that delicious vampire.”   

5. FRID KNEW THE WHOLE THING WAS A LITTLE DUBIOUS.

No one on Dark Shadows had any illusions that the show’s camp nature, on-the-nose dialogue, and suspect production values were elevating television. Frid was especially candid about its shortcomings. “It’s the worst acting I’ve ever done,” he told The Montreal Gazette in 1969. “I blink too much, I’m not sharp or fast enough, I don’t have enough time to learn my lines … I can’t get angry with people who find the whole thing ridiculous because the scripts are ridiculous, the dialogue is absurd.”

6. BARNABAS DIDN’T TALK MUCH WHILE FANGED.

Dampened vocally by the fangs he had to wear, Frid also told the Gazette of some production trickery: Collins was rarely filmed talking in them. “My words come out slushy when I wear them, so they have to cut away from me when I talk,” he said. Frid would spit out the fangs, deliver the dialogue, then stuff them back in when the camera returned to him.

7. IT WAS ABC’S FIRST COLOR SOAP.

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Though soaps had experimented with color before, Dark Shadows became the first daytime serial on ABC to switch to the format in 1967. (It had spent its first year in black and white.)

8. THERE’S A MISSING EPISODE.

With an unforgiving daily schedule, Dark Shadows produced 1225 episodes during its five-year run. Incredibly, 1224 of them survived. Episode 1219 was discovered to be “missing” when a home video release was being put together. To reconstruct it, an audio recording from a fan was used along with production stills.   

9. IT WAS REPLACED BY PASSWORD.

The daily percussion of intricate stories involving monsters and alternate universes eventually wore on both audiences and creators: Curtis wished to move on from the show and was unwilling to cede control to another producer, and ABC was less than satisfied with declining ratings. Dark Shadows ended on April 2, 1971, and was replaced with a new version of the game show Password.

10. IT’S THE ONLY SOAP TO SPAWN THREE FEATURE FILMS.

It’s a testament to Dark Shadows' rabid following that the series birthed two feature films with the original cast—virtually unheard of for a soap opera of any era. Curtis directed 1970’s House of Dark Shadows, which covered much of the same ground as the series but morphed Collins into more of an antagonist. While a feature budget meant actors actually had the privilege of doing more than one take, reviews were mixed.

After the series ended in 1971, Curtis wanted to continue the story with another film. Night of Dark Shadows was released that same year, but Frid declined to participate. Curtis opted for more of a haunted house theme instead, with the show’s cast popping up in different roles. It’s been alleged MGM cut 30 minutes from the finished film, obliterating some plot and character details. In its released form, reviewers found it “dull,” “monotonous,” and “a bore.” (Tim Burton's 2012 feature, starring Johnny Depp as Collins, didn't fare much better.)

11. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT APPEARED IN THE REVIVAL.

Having been largely dormant since going off the air, Dark Shadows was reintroduced to a contemporary audience in 1991. NBC ordered 13 episodes of the series that revived Barnabas (now portrayed by Ben Cross) and rebooted the spooky history of Collinwood Mansion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, all of 10 years old, played David Collins. Ratings were modest, and the intensifying Gulf War only worsened viewership. The WB tried again in 2004, but the pilot never made it to air. It’s sometimes screened at fan conventions.

12. THERE WAS A COMIC STRIP.

Unlike most daytime soaps, the genre elements of Dark Shadows lent themselves to a variety of merchandising opportunities. Model kits, novels, and toys were in abundance. The series was also adapted into another serialized format: a comic strip ran from 1971 to 1972. Though it effectively picked up the property after the show had ended, it bore little relation. Of the characters, only Frid’s Barnabas was recognizable.   

13. BARNABAS MET KOLCHAK.

In a nod to Curtis’s two most popular fantasy series, Moonstone Publishing issued a Dark Shadows/Kolchak crossover comic book in 2009. Kolchak—a newspaper reporter with an affinity for supernatural cases—receives a letter from Barnabas inviting him to the opulent Collinwood Mansion. After Kolchak tries to murder him, the two have a friendly chat. Fans hoping for more of a confrontation were slightly disappointed.

14. FANS CAN OWN ALL 1225 EPISODES—ON VHS.

VCR enthusiasts of the 1980s will recall that Time-Life, Columbia House, and other videotape distributors would offer television series in their entirety, provided collectors had the money and shelf space to accommodate them. While this was a tricky enterprise even with a short-lived series like 1966’s Star Trek, it was almost unfathomable for Dark Shadows. Airing every weekday for five seasons, the series amassed 1225 half-hour episodes, which meant the entire library from video rights holder MPI needed a staggering 254 cassettes. In 2012, the company released it on DVD in a coffin-shaped collector’s case. It was a paltry 131 discs.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

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Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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