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Dark Shadows' 'Cousin From England'

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In the new film version of Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp, playing vampire Barnabas Collins, emerges from the coffin in 1972. The Dark Shadows TV series, sort of an afternoon gothic soap designed to appeal to hip kids, ran on American television from 1966-1971. Like the Austin Powers trilogy send-up of James Bond, more than a decade ago (1997-2002), the movie takes a popular culture icon fondly remembered by babyboomers who grew up in the 1960s, but gives it a comedic twist, whereas the originals had been deadly serious.

Both protagonists - Austin Powers and Barnabas Collins - find themselves in a time-warp. Austin attempts to assimilate in the compact disc age after being gone for three decades, while Collins, who had been enslaved in a coffin for nearly two centuries, has to comprehend such early 1970s-era essentials as television, miniskirts and Alice Cooper. The similarities don't end there.

Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, who died last month, originally played Barnabas in the TV series. He received his Shakespearian training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. It is clear from Austin Powers that Mike Myers, a fellow Canadian whose parents were both British, obviously wished he grew up in Swingin' London circa 1967 instead of Ontario.

At the 'BritWeek' Film & TV Summit in Los Angeles this past April 27, sponsored by Variety magazine, film producer Graham King explained that he was talked into the Dark Shadows project by Johnny Depp on the set of The Rum Diary, which was based on Hunter Thompson's first novel. King recruited Depp for that film. "In return, he brought me Dark Shadows. I didn't know about the series; we didn't have it in the UK," said King, who was impressed by Depp's passion for the subject matter. Depp gave the producer a book and the DVD of the original TV series. (The entire ABC-TV series was just released by MPI Home Video in a 31-DVD boxed set packaged as a coffin including all 1,225 episodes and priced at US$599.)

Depp brought to the project gothmeister Tim Burton to direct, "and off we went," said King, who said he never before had been in a preview audience in which there was "non-stop laughter for 90 minutes. It's a fun popcorn-eating movie."

The opening weekend audience I watched it with laughed some, but fell short of the hoopla that King apparently witnessed. King explained that the movie they made was not meant to be to be a remake of the original television series, but rather inspired by it.

Dark Shadows is an early example of Anglo-American cooperation, much like the film production itself (e.g., American star and director; British producer). To wit, young Barnabas' father packs up the family and leaves Liverpool to set sail across the Atlantic - apparently a few years before the colonies' revolt - to establish the family's fishing commercial business. Fast forward two centuries, the Collins family 'English cousin' arrives at the doorstep to restore his family's glory and seek revenge on the witch Angelique who turned him into a vampire after he spurred her eternal amorous advances.

Besides the aforementioned Frid, the movie also features Christopher Lee (who played Dracula in a Hammer Film) in a cameo role of a captain who is hypnotized by Anglophile Depp's Collins, who no doubt relished using a British accent throughout the movie.