It’s no laughing matter, being immortal and needing blood to drink all the time.
It isn’t simple for an actor to win over an audience while portraying a vampire, either.
There’s proof of that in Johnny Depp’s campy version of Barnabas Collins, the vampire at the heart of the 1966-71 gothic TV soap “Dark Shadows.”
The movie version of the soap opens Friday, and previews reveal an offbeat approach to the role that’s typical for Depp. But Depp and director Tim Burton’s approach has caused some hard-core “Dark Shadows” fans, who are deadly serious about the show, to bare their fangs.
The duo have found humor in their film version of “Dark Shadows,” as they did with the dark musical “Sweeney Todd.”
“Aren’t you amazed anybody took ‘Dark Shadows’ seriously?” asked Carl Beck, artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse. “We used to watch the show because they made such horrible mistakes on the air. And the cheapo sets. You couldn’t wait for the next big, absolutely screeching mistake. It was hilarious.”
But when Beck directed “Dracula” at the Playhouse in 1999, he wasn’t looking for laughs. Instead, he went for a combination of sexual tension and bloody horror, with Dan Prescher in the title role.
“At 6-foot-4, Dan was wonderful,” Beck said. “He came up with his own unique spin. You wanted it to have an eeriness, a shock value. And we shaped the momentum of the scenes so the energy built. That was definitely part of it.”
Prescher, who now lives in Cotacachi, Ecuador, remembered that Beck sought to rein in Dracula’s power.
“A guy who lives forever, who’s super strong and can make beautiful women beg to be bitten, can get played over the top,” Prescher said. “Carl wanted the manipulation to simmer, making the explosions of power more distinctive. One of Carl’s great gifts is dynamics, the rise and fall of tension.”
Beck said George Hamilton’s campy vampire in “Love at First Bite” (1979) was fun “for about six minutes, then you were bored silly.”
Prescher said Depp and Burton’s campy approach is a valid choice, but pretty common. He said the secret to playing vampires is how you fit death, sex and power together.
For Scott Kurz, who adapted Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” into a new script for the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre in 2003, the goal was to be true to Stoker’s vision.
“He’s not so much a monster, even though he can do things mortals can’t,” Kurz said. “But before he became a vampire, he was a warlord. Dracula is an extension of that character. He’s a predator who takes what he wants.”
Kurz said he looked for light moments early in the story. But once characters were dying or being put in jeopardy, he saw no room for levity, let alone camp.
“Both the director (Kurz) and the script dictated I play him as a real man,” said David Mainelli, who played Dracula at the Brigit. The character begins with a humanistic side, he said, because if you start off menacing, there’s nowhere to go with the character.
“Shadows’” Barnabas Collins, of course, is not Dracula.
“And Depp is a great actor,” Mainelli said. “He can make the character both campy and very human. It’s very easy to fall into that campy rut, with the cape and the sinister voice. If you hang onto the subtlety, it plays much better.”
Amy Kunz, who played love interest Lucy to Mainelli’s Dracula, saw “Dark Shadows” at age 8 or 9 and was terrified.
“But I like Johnny Depp, and I like Tim Burton. Just seeing them experiment is going to be fun. They’re so creative with imagery.”
There’s something very seductive about vampires, Kunz said, which Anne Rice captured in her early novels, including “Interview With the Vampire.” And immortality leaves them lonely. She thought a contemporary “Dark Shadows” might go darker than the TV show, rather than campy.
Jonathan Rone, who played Dracula for the Dundee Dinner Theatre in 1997, said he gave no thought to levity in the role.
“At 6-foot-4, I have the sense of a strong presence,” he said. “He’s no one to be fooled around with.”
Rone watched “Dark Shadows” while his grandmother babysat him, and it was his first exposure to vampires, at about age 10. He’s definitely going to the movie.
“It looks like another over-the-top Burton-Depp portrayal,” he said. “I like a more traditional approach. Campy’s not the way to go with an undead guy, who’s such a lonely soul after centuries. But it should be interesting artistically.”
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