Given the kind of vampire that’s dominated pop culture in recent years – hunky, as down in Bon Temps, or sparkly, like the eternal teens of Twilight — it’s no surprise that some folks may long for the bloodsucker of olde. Well, count Johnny Depp among the ranks of the traditionalists. His latest collaboration with director Tim Burton, an adaptation of the 1970s supernatural soap Dark Shadows, sees Depp in ghostly make-up and fangs as undead hero Barnabas Collins in what he describes as a counterpoint to movies about “vampires that look like underwear models.”
And underwear models are the last things Depp brings to mind as Collins: Freed after centuries of imprisonment, the 18th century New England vampire returns to his ancestral home only to find himself — pasty white (via theatrical make-up), with long pointy vampire fingers, chompers, and a wardrobe like a Goth Liberace’s – a fish out of water in the groovy '70s.
So why the reactionary vampirism? Depp and Burton were both fans of the original Dark Shadows series as kids, as they told press last week in Los Angeles. (Co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Collins family descendant and matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, was the only other cast member who was also a previous fan of the show — so much so that she called her Batman Returns director Burton to lobby for a part.) But the idea to make a film adaptation from the cult series didn’t strike until the two were on the set of another film.
“I think it was during Sweeney Todd where I just blurted out in mid conversation, ‘God, we should do a vampire movie together,’” Depp recalled, “’where you actually have a vampire that looks like a vampire.’"
Depp says he’s always been fascinated by monsters, and the erotic nature of bloodsuckers adds “a darkness, this mystery, this intrigue.” But of course, Dark Shadows is a family-friendly comedy-actioner to boot. “It was a real challenge, more for Tim than me, to make that guy, that vampire, fit back into this odd society and this dysfunctional family,” he said. “I think he did it seamlessly.”
In addition to wearing finger-extending vampire nails that required delicate treatment between scenes, Depp donned other vampire accoutrements. “When I had the fangs, you had to be careful that you didn't actually pierce the jugular,” he explained. “Kind of like my experience shaving Alan Rickman — which, by the way, neither of us wants to do again.”
As for Barnabas Collins’s stilted, out-of-the-past mannerisms, Depp and Burton agreed: They had to include some measure of original series actor Jonathan Frid in the performance. “It just had to be this sort of classic monster, like Fangoria Magazine or that kind of thing,” Depp said. “In terms of that Jonathan did have a rigidity to him, this elegance. It was always there.”
“Tim and I talked early on,” he continued. “I did believe that a vampire should look like a vampire.” He paused. “It was a kind of rebellion against vampires that look like underwear models.”