By Zorianna Kit
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Working with director Tim Burton, Johnny Depp has played many eccentric characters in the movies, from lonely monster Edward Scissorhands to eccentric filmmaker Ed Wood and the Mad Hatter of "Alice in Wonderland."
But there was at least one strange being they hadn't tried - a vampire - and that's about to change.
The odd couple of Hollywood can check that character off their list on Friday with the debut of comedic thriller "Dark Shadows," based on the classic TV soap opera that ran from 1966 - 1971 about vampires, werewolves and witches populating a ghostly manor house in the countryside.
In an era that seems made for sexy bloodsuckers with six-pack abs - TV's "True Blood" and "The Vampire Diaries" as well as the "Twilight" movies - Depp and Burton took an opposite approach. They hark back to the 1970s with a tongue-in-cheek homage to the original TV show that, among its many storylines, told of a vampire in a dark and never-ending search for his long-ago love, Josette.
"Tim and I talked early on: a vampire should look like a vampire," Depp told reporters recently. "It was a rebellion against vampires that looked like underwear models."
Depp plays well-dressed, well-heeled vampire Barnabas Collins who is turned into an otherworldly being in 1750 from a curse by spurned lover Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green), a witch who then buries him alive.
He wakes up in 1972 to learn his family home has fallen into disrepair and the lives of his descendants - played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Lee Miller and Chloe Grace Moretz - are in disarray. He is determined to restore them all to their former glory when he learns his old nemesis, now named Angie, rules the town in which they all live.
Depp said he used to watch the TV show when he was a boy and always dreamed of bringing it to the big screen. It wasn't until he and Burton worked together on the macabre musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" that Depp discovered Burton also was a fan of the show. There was no question that "Dark Shadows" would be yet another collaboration.
Yet rather than creating an updated version set in present day, Depp and Burton set their sights on the 1970s, and let the eccentricities of that era crash with Barnabas' 18th Century comfort zone.
"I wanted Barnabas to come across as ... this very elegant upper echelon, well-schooled gentleman who's cursed in the 18th century and brought back to probably the most surreal era of our time - the 1970s - and how he would react to things," said Depp.
"Not just with technology and automobiles and such, but actual items of enjoyment for people like pet rocks, fake flowers, plastic fruit, troll dolls, lava lamps and the macramé owls."
RETURN FROM THE DEAD
Staying true to the original TV show was important, too. "Dark Shadows" screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith studied DVDs of the series, books written about the characters and the plot lines.
While it only lasted five years on TV, "Dark Shadows," like other TV shows, developed a loyal following while it was on the air and played for years in re-runs. And a 1970 horror flick based on the show performed well in theaters.
At his first meeting with Depp and Burton, Grahame-Smith recalls Depp pantomiming the vampire's movements, while Burton was suggesting that Barnabas' fingers need be one joint longer.
"A lot was born in those early meetings," he said. "What I needed to know about the tone, I relied on them because they were there watching the shows as kids and loving the show. They still have that knowledge of it and that love for it."
So much love in fact, that as Depp began exploring different ideas for playing Barnabas, he decided "it had to be rooted" in original actor Jonathan Frid's stoic portrayal of the vampire.
Depp called Frid's version of Collins a "classic monster," reminiscent of the types found in horror magazine Fangoria coupled with "a kind of rigidity to him - that pull up the back, this elegance that was always there."
If anyone appreciated Depp's take on Collins, it was Frid himself, who died last month at age 87. (He makes a cameo appearance in the film alongside original cast members Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker and David Selby).
"He had written me a letter a couple of years before and signed a photograph to me - that sort of passing the baton to Barnabas - which I thought was very sweet," said Depp, recalling that Frid also brought his original Barnabas cane for the cameo.
Burton described that day of shooting as "like having the Pope come visit ... part of the reason we were there is because those people inspired us."
(Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)