Dark Shadows: A Lesson In Understanding Your Target Audience

I confess, I have not yet seen Tim Burton‘s recent movie version of the old 1960s gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows.

The fact that I haven’t seen it is a clue as to why the movie did so poorly at the box office.

You see, I was a huge fan of the original series. I was, I confess, I mere child (the show was on the air from the time I was six years old until I was about 10) but it was my favorite show at the time.

(That and the old Adam West version of Batman. And Lost In Space. O.K., so I wasn’t faithful to one show.)

The show was very popular with kids my age. My mother worked part-time and so did other mothers in the building we lived in, and they used to take turns watching us on the days they didn’t work. Which caused a problem for me, because one mother banned Dark Shadows after her kids had nightmares from it–they said.

Personally, I didn’t think that scene of the headless guy walking out of a grave was that scary.

I loved the show because it was so different from pretty much everything else on television. The show would change time periods, from modern day to the 1700s to the 1800s. As if that wasn’t awesome enough, it would sometimes switch to parallel time.

Wow, that was fun.

The actors would play different characters in different timelines and dimensions. One actor might play a hero in one time period and then be a total jerk in another. The show did riffs on pretty much every horror classic you can think of, from Dracula, to Frankenstein, to The Haunting, as well as gothic classics like Wuthering Heights.

Of course, in the center of this was the show’s star, Jonathan Frid, a Shakespearean actor who played Barnabas Collins, the vampire who more than anything wanted to be human again–and to love again, after being thwarted so cruelly by the witch Angelique, who turned him into a vampire to keep him from his true love Josette.  Barnabas was a tragic and fascinating character. On most soaps, the good guys and the bad guys were very easy to identify. Not so with Dark Shadows, which had several flawed and conflicted gray characters.

Sure, like all soaps of the time, the show had low production values and tacky sets and costumes. Sure, some of the acting was on the hammy side. (Lots of New York theatrical actors did soaps, and some didn’t tone it down even though they weren’t acting for the cheap seats). Sure, because it was taped live with no retakes, there are lots of flubbed lines and gaffes. (I remember one poor actor backing up into the edge of a door and gamely continuing to say his lines, even though he must have been in horrible pain.)

It doesn’t matter. It’s still fantastic. Once you get past the tacky stuff, what you’re left with is some fabulous storytelling–and characters.

I was looking forward to the Burton film, especially after seeing a still of the cast. They looked so spot-on perfect that I began to get excited about it.

Then I saw the trailer.

And I wanted to slap Tim Burton.

What repelled me was not the fact that there was comedy in the movie. There are a lot of natural opportunities to tweak the show for its hammy/tacky origins. There was a prime-time remake of the show during the 1990s that also failed, and in my opinion it failed because it took itself and the material WAY too seriously.

The problem with the new movie was the opposite–they made it a full-on spoof. A full-on spoof of the show AND the 1970s–even though the show was off the air by 1970. (I’m still trying to figure that choice out.)

The minute I realized this I knew I wasn’t going to hand over my money to see it.  Apparently, a lot of people who had been fans of the original show also stayed home.

Who was left to go see the movie? Most people younger than me (I was already a VERY young fan) are completely unfamiliar with the original show. Some might vaguely remember the prime-time series, but that wasn’t the cult favorite.

When you’re going to spoof something, people have to be in on the joke. People also have to be receptive to the joke.

As writers, I think we can learn from this. KNOW YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE.

The target audience for Dark Shadows loves the show to this day. Making fun of them for loving the show–not the best way to go.

I still love the show so much I’ve been streaming episodes from Netflix. I love the soulfulness of Barnabas and feel sorry for Willie Loomis, the crook with nefarious intentions who lives to regret breaking open a tomb to rob it.

I still love every hammy, tacky, gaffe-ridden moment of it. If only Burton had had a bit of fun tweaking those flaws while still taking the soulfulness of the characters and story seriously.

THAT I would have paid to see.

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6 thoughts on “Dark Shadows: A Lesson In Understanding Your Target Audience

      1. But I’ll probably be watching it here soon. Gotta give Tim’s movies a watch. I use to love his stuff, but not too much here lately

      2. Well I watched it and it turns out the comedy wasn’t stretched it was much needed. If it wasn’t for the funny parts here or there I probably couldn’t have finished it I found it so boring. And the teenage girl I could have done without especially what I think was her last line. Along with some other unneeded scenes. There’s a lot of things they could’ve done different that wouldn’t made it better & I think they had too much to put into such a short time frame, but on the scale of a Tim Burton film and other things like acting and the sort it was good.. Actually if they would’ve used the useless scenes for things of more importance to bring all the angles they went for together then it may have worked.

  1. I haven’t seen the show myself, but I did watch the movie. Can’t say I was impressed though; it didn’t feel like it was one of Burton’s best works, and there seemed to be several plot issues. I will admit that I did like the humour though; it was amusing!

    1. I’m sure the movie has its moments–Burton and Depp are a talented duo.

      What makes me sad is that Burton seems to have an affinity for characters like Barnabas–i.e Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington–and I think if he had taken a tad more serious approach to the material, it could have been as funny and touching as those efforts.

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