Monday, May 14, 2012


Mad Doctor
Mad Doctor's Note: Warning--many spoilers await.  You may want to read this after seeing the movie.  If you already have, read on.

So I'm reminded of the phrase, "It's only a movie."

We used to say that, once upon a time, when we were seated in the theatre watching a movie and they were about to do a reveal on the Big Scary Monster of the piece, or the hero was in dire straits, or something was coming up behind that particular scene's victim and was about to take them out.  In the Technological Age, we don't say that anymore because these days we're All Connected and such, and we blog about Things and read reviews and make decisions and generally Act Like Adults about things that used to thrill and terrify us.  But the Child Inside still remembers how we used to feel, sitting there in dark shadows watching flickering pictures on a screen, and the thrills we got and that wonderful feeling of being a part of something, of personal enjoyment, of being all connected.  The Technological Age, for all of its connectedness and innovations, has failed to properly capture this feeling for us, and because of this we demand much, much more accountability from our entertainment than we used to.

The poster
So with that, I recently went to see the new film Dark Shadows, starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Bella Heathcote and Eva Green, directed by Tim Burton.  And I liked it.  I didn't loooove it, I didn't think it was The Greatest Thing Ever, and I didn't think it was as good or better than the original.  I just liked it, and I'll get it when it comes out on DVD, because I liked it that much.  And here's why.

Barnabas The First (Jonathan Frid)
Dark Shadows is, of course, based on the 1966-71 soap opera which related the adventures of a remorseful vampire named Barnabas Collins and his human family, scions of the small Maine community of Collinwood.  Upon Barnabas's first appearance a year into DS's run, the show immediately garnered a huge fanbase that continues to this day, and fostered two feature films in 1970 and '71 and a short-lived TV revival during the '90's.  Dark Shadows is regarded as an ahead-of-its-time groundbreaker because of its supernatural storylines featuring vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, extradimensional creatures and time travel, and its influence upon many shows that came after it (including Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries) is still wide-reaching.

"Are they kidding?"
When word got out that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (who are both DS fans of long-standing) had plans to do a big-budget feature film of Dark Shadows, the response was expectant and hopeful.  Upon release of the film trailer, many DS fans were immediately outraged over the rather jokey scenes, the 1970's period setting, and Depp's portrayal of Barnabas Collins (whose original portrayer, Jonathan Frid, died in April of this year).  Much of the genre film fan community had disparaging remarks about Burton's DS anyway, due to it seemingly being yet another in a long line of ham-fisted Hollywood remakes designed to drag in viewers and make huge amounts of money while trampling all over fond memories of a beloved fan experience.

For my part, while I love Dark Shadows and always have, I cannot call myself a fan in the same spirit that the film's decriers do.  Dark Shadows achieved legendary status for me due to my not having ever seen it in my youth, but constantly hearing about it from older family members who had seen some of the show's original run.  Ye Reviewer is currently enjoying the series through Netflix, and I can say without reservation that despite it falling victim to the usual disliked soap-opera conventions, it is every bit worth watching and deserving of its legendary status.

At this point, some people will be saying "yeah, well, when your favorite thing gets remade into a big crappy movie, you'll change your tune."  For me, that has already happened.  Saw Scooby-Doo; hated it, but the sequel got it right.  Saw Star Trek; didn't exactly dislike it, but the Star Trek Universe represented there seemed mighty homogenized compared to the original series, and the whole timeline-reboot sequence was obviously shoehorned in because the writers ran out of plot.  Still refuse, to this day, to watch Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho, and if I ever meet the guy I'm probably going to jail.  So I do understand your pain and what you are talking about.

"Okay, people, hear me out..."
But the thing is that Burton's version of Dark Shadows, while hardly perfect for either DS fans or fans of Tim Burton's earlier movies, is not that bad.  For starters, it is neither a remake or a retelling of the original story but more of a revision, and revisions work differently from remakes.  If you have never seen Dark Shadows, you might consider this a Second Draft of Dark Shadows; if you're a huge fan, you're going to dislike some or all of this film.  But it is neither a real remake (in the Hollywood sense) or completely awful, and like the original show, it tends to be its own thing.

Much of the original DS backstory is told in the first few minutes of the movie, which shows the Collins family arriving from England in 1760 and establishing themselves as founders and favorite sons of Collinsport, Maine.  The eldest son, Barnabas (Depp), completes the building of his family's palatial estate of Collinwood and becomes something of a playboy, getting caught in a love triangle between housemaid Angelique Bouchard (Green) and his true love, Josette DuPres (Heathcote).  Unfortunately, Angelique proves to be a witch, and Barnabas's refusal of her love dooms the Collins family and Josette.  Angelique casts a spell that kills Barnabas's parents, curses the Collins family and sends Josette over the cliffs at Widow's Hill, then curses Barnabas as a vampire.  She then turns the townsfolk of Collinsport against Barnabas, who bury him in a chained coffin in the woods.

Creepy, spooky, mysterious, dysfunctional: the Collins family
Two hundred years later, in 1972, both Collinwood and the Collins family, consisting of iron-handed matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer), ne'er-do-well brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), rebellious daughter Carolyn Stoddard (Grace Chloe Moretz), Roger's troubled, ghost-obsessed son David (Gulliver McGrath), live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Bonham-Carter), and drunken houseservant Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) are in disarray, while Angelique has survived through the centuries to become the town's favorite daughter and build a profitable canning business that has all but destroyed the Collins fortune.  Into this stew of dysfunction and secrets enter two visitors: lost soul Victoria Winters (Heathcote) who becomes a governess to David and is hiding some secrets of her own, and Barnabas Collins, whose reappearance is foretold in a ghostly visit by Josette to Winters.  When Barnabas's coffin is rediscovered and opened by luckless construction workers, he quickly treks to the ruined Collinwood, revealing his secret to Elizabeth and showing her the lost treasures of Collinwood.  Barnabas ingratiates himself into the family, helping to rebuild its fortune and fishing business, attempting to cure his vampirism with Dr. Hoffman, and kindling a relationship with Winters, who appears to be the reincarnation of Josette.  Angelique re-enters his new life as well, seducing Barnabas and demanding that he return her love.  Barnabas refuses, and the film soon escalates into a war for control of Collinsport as Barnabas fights to save his family from Angelique's curse.

"No Happy Meal toys, eh?  That's regrettable..."
So that's the plot, and here's the skinny:  By virtue of being a feature film, the story told here will be vastly different from the original show.  Soap operas, due to appearing daily, are episodic and told over quite long periods of time, while a feature film has two hours or less to set up, tell and resolve its story.  Also, Burton is a dedicated DS fan (as opposed to some other director who would have been merely attached to the movie), and his love for the series is evident and obvious throughout the film.  Johnny Depp's performance as Barnabas, while containing the now-standard Quirky Detachment that is expected from him, maintains the melodramatic sincerity and histrionic menace that were part of Frid's characterization while fully exploiting the fish-out-of-water status that a vampire from another era would have in 1972.  And the film does feature enough scariness to illustrate that demographics were part of the studio's targeting in creating the trailer.  While there are plenty of jokes and humor, those scenes from the trailer are not all you see, and the resurrection of Barnabas (which features the most backhanded product placement I've ever seen in a film) and his return to Collinwood is both funny and a little sad at the same time.

"I am Collins... hear me roar."
"Hey, can you blame me?  Vampires are cool."
The supporting cast, while of course subject to comparisons to the original characters, illustrate that they are as much lost souls as Barnabas in this film.  Michelle Pfeiffer's Elizabeth is dignified and strong-willed, just as Joan Bennett's performance was in the original.  Miller's Roger Collins fares badly, as the original Roger was a stuffed shirt who was nevertheless loyal to Elizabeth, but here Roger is a sleaze who selfishly chooses a life away from Collinwood over his family and son when Barnabas threatens to reveal his attempts to find the Collinwood treasures.  McGrath's David, while not as precocious as the original, is key to the survival of the family during Angelique's endgame.  Cast members who suffer the worst from comparisons to the originals are Bonham-Carter's Hoffman, Moretz's Carolyn and Haley's Willie Loomis.  Loomis and Hoffman were important supporting players in the original series, but here neither are given quite enough to do.  Loomis is relegated to loopy Renfield-esque slapstick as Barnabas's dogsbody, and the relationship dynamic between Barnabas and Hoffman (a key series element) is given short shrift in the film.  However, it does continue the theme of lost souls with Julia's treatment and subsequent betrayal (she gives Barnabas blood transfusions in an attempt to cure his vampirism, but steals his original blood to turn herself into a vampire and be eternally young).  Moretz's Carolyn appears to be the standard surly teenager, but toward the end we discover that the Collins curse has touched her as well: she is really a werewolf.  It would have been better if a few more clues to this had been provided through the film, rather than springing it at the end.  If Burton's Dark Shadows is really guilty of anything, it is that it tries to please original DS fans by doing too much in one film.

Queen Wasp: Angelique
Honey Bee: Victoria/Maggie/Josette (?)
Finally, we come to the two opposing corners of Barnabas's love triangle, Eva Green's Angelique and Bella Heathcote's Victoria Winters.  Green's performance detracts from the original to show the psychosis behind Angelique's lust for Barnabas, and while her endgame sequence has been compared (somewhat unjustly) to Death Becomes Her, she ends up being the perfect femme-fatale foil for Barnabas's wounded and struggling morality, especially in the seduction scene where she and Barnabas literally (and passionately) destroy her office.  Heathcote's Winters (who also serves as Josette DuPres) is serviceable, but yet another example of the film trying to do too much: her character cobbles together the roles of Victoria and Maggie Evans from the original, revealing that Winters' real name is Maggie Evans, who as a child was haunted by Josette's ghost and shipped by her parents to a mental asylum.  Escaping to Collinwood, Winters is caught up in the drama of the Collins family and the return of Barnabas, and becomes the eventual prize in the war for Collinsport.  Although her character is understated and perhaps even a bit underwritten for the soap-opera Grand Guignol Burton is attempting to recapture, she does well in her role and plays quietly against Barnabas in her scenes, reining in a bit of Depp's eccentricities.

The mood of the original is well-captured in staging and sets, demonstrating Burton's quirky-Goth sensibilities while not burying the source material beneath them.  Like the original, Dark Shadows the movie is its own world, and the settings of Collinsport and Collinwood, despite the 70's period pastiches, give every appearance of being well off the beaten path.  Longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman's score adds the usual deliciously dark flavor to the film, even using a bit of original DS score (sharp-eared fans will catch Robert Cobert's "The Secret Room" cue at the beginning and in other places through the film).

"Yes, I'm completely serious."
Now here are the really good things about this movie: First of all, if you are tired of ethereally pretty supernatural creatures a la Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood, or humorless raging savages with Serious Motives a la the Underworld series, this is the movie for you, as it handles vampires, witches, ghosts and werewolves in a more classical-based yet subversive manner.  Second, it has attracted interest in the original series, and as all episodes of DS still exist it hopefully will help to keep the series in perpetuity via electronic media and so forth.  (Though no one was shouting for special edition DVD sets of McHale's Navy when its movie version came out, I feel that Dark Shadows will fare differently.)

And despite what anyone wants to say, it's hardly a parody of the original.  We have had vampires and other supernatural creatures in the pop-culture consciousness for at least a millennium now, and while Burton's Dark Shadows digs no new ground in the vampire legend (and neither did the original), this film does nothing to make fun of the show or its fanbase.  If it spoofs anything, it spoofs the deadly, unhealthy seriousness and quest for realism we have attached to supernatural and horrific entertainment by setting classical Gothic melodrama in the 1970's, a time when pop-culture completely lacked the ability to be serious about anything.  In this age when we are demanding more from our sources of entertainment than our presidential candidates, we could use a little of those high spirits today, and Burton's Dark Shadows may hold the key to that.  Go see it with an open mind, and then indulge heavily in the original.  You might find yourself joining Team Barnabas after all.  And besides, it's only a movie.

There you go.

"With animosity toward none."


Lynne Cantwell said...

Nice review! (You may want to caution folks about spoilers at the beginning, tho.)

I saw the movie over the weekend, too, and I had much the same reaction you did -- I didn't love it, but I liked it a lot, and I'll definitely Netflix it for a second look (I don't buy many movies), if only to get a better look at the party scene where the original stars make their brief appearance. See, I'm one of those folks who remembers the original series (although I'd be hard-pressed to pick between Team Barnabas and Team Quentin).

I disagree with you about Bonham-Carter -- I never really liked the original Dr. Hoffman and much preferred the new one.

Otherwise -- well done!

charla said...

Now THAT is what I call a review. I've never seen the original, and wondered if Depp could pull it off. I enjoy watching his movies, but the really weird stuff creeps me out a little. Hated his Willie Wonka. My favorite role of his is still as Gilbert Grape. However, I also thought they had hired a really talented 'special' actor to play his brother, so I guess that shows you what I know.

Barnalust said...

An excellent way to approach the new film! I've always thought that we die-hard fans of olde have a tendency to bite the neck that feeds us. While it is not exactly in the vein of the original series, it does much to bring focus to our precious moldy afternoon relic.

One of the best things that has come of all this attention is the release--in coffin form, no less--of a reasonably-priced DVD set of every single episode save one (vanished into thin air, yet lovingly recreated). I say "reasonably priced" because I am the fool who still houses every single VHS tape of the series, and who sprang for the thirty or so, 40 episodes each, boxed sets released prior to the giant coffin. Yes, it was all very costly and, oh, if only I'd waited... The second best thing, you say? Why, the upcoming DVD release of the TWO previous "Dark Shadows" movies, scheduled to coincide with the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Burton's much maligned version.

As for the new movie, you have hit the proverbial coffin nail on the head. See it as advised, for the stand-alone feature that it is and neither will you hear all those dogs howling, nor the children of the night-- snarling because they believe that Burton- Depp, et al., have committed a foul, deceitful treachery upon our beloved vampire saga. The resurrected interest in the series is more than enough to be grateful for. And, fear not! Another "Dark Shadows" film will rise again from the mists, some storm-tossed cannot help itself.