By Jon Caroulis

Johnny Depp can make any film he wants. So why is he playing a 200-year-old vampire in a movie based on a gothic soap opera that's been off the air for 41 years?

Such is the power of Dark Shadows.

I was 10 and my brother was 7 when we watched on television as a young boy broke into the house where the vampire lived. The sun was beginning to set as the boy opened the door to the basement, where the coffin was hidden. I have no idea what happened next, because my brother and I ran screaming out of our house into the protective sunshine.

Dark Shadows, which aired on ABC, followed the dysfunctional Collins family of Maine. Shot on cheap sets with props that often failed to work, it had few viewers until series creator Dan Curtis added ghosts, which helped a little. Then he went one better: He had a handyman named Willie Loomis find a chained coffin in a hidden room of a family mausoleum. Thinking jewels might have been buried with the dead, Willie pries the lid open — and a hand reaches out to grab his neck!

A few episodes later, Barnabas Collins, "a cousin from England," appeared on the show. He was portrayed by Jonathan Frid, who died last month at the age of 87. (Frid is one of four original cast members who have cameos in the new film.)

This story line was supposed to last 13 weeks, but millions tuned in to watch. Perhaps we were fascinated by the idea of a vampire living among us in a modern setting; remember, this was long before Anne Rice's Lestat or the Twilight series.

Depp has said that as a child, he was obsessed with Dark Shadows and wanted to play Barnabas Collins. His wish comes true in the new film version of Dark Shadows, directed by Tim Burton, which opens nationwide today.

Like me, Depp may have collected Dark Shadows trading cards, bought show merchandise such as board games and rings, or seen House of Dark Shadows, the 1970 feature film that starred the cast of the soap but was much more violent and bloody. (And the hand came out of the coffin again.)

Watching reruns years after the show went off the air, I discovered another potential reason for its popularity: the love story of Barnabas and his long-lost Josette. When Curtis added the vampire to the show, he borrowed liberally from Bram Stoker's Dracula, which suggests a tragic bond between the vampire and the wife of the protagonist. Barnabas believes one of the show's regular characters, Maggie Evans, to be the reincarnation of Josette, the woman he loved and lost in 1795. (Thanks to the time traveling of another character, we also learn how Barnabas, a wonderful guy, became a monster when he was cursed by a witch whom he spurned for Josette.) His never-ending quest to find his Josette made Barnabas a romantic hero.

And the show lived on. There was a remake on NBC in the 1990s. (Once more, the hand came out of the coffin.) And there are annual festivals at which fans of all ages and former cast members gather.

I don't know if audiences that are unfamiliar with the television show will take to the story as we did. Have the Twilight films and the HBO series True Blood "spoiled" them when it comes to vampires and love? Will the premise of a cursed creature searching for his long-lost paramour still resonate? I wonder.

Last year, I was at a business meeting with a man when I noticed that his cane bore a silver wolf's head. Barnabas Collins carried something similar, so I asked him if it were a Dark Shadows cane.

"It's theDark Shadows cane," the man said, explaining that it was a prop from the series that he bought at an auction. Then a woman at the meeting noted that her mother had named her Josette after the Dark Shadows character. For a few minutes, we forgot why we were at the meeting and talked about the show and the coming movie.

For many of the show's fans, the new film is a sort of validation. It's remarkable that one of our fellow fans grew up to be a world famous actor and still wanted to bring Dark Shadows back.

Jon Caroulis lives in Jenkintown. He can be reached at caroulis@lasalle.edu.