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Saturday, May 12, 2012


When I was but a wee Bunche, the weekday afternoon soap opera DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) was the first teevee series I was aware of that had a considerable and very visible cult following. The show was a real odd duck of a program, initially designed as a cathode ray analog to the then-popular gothic romance potboiler novel genre and yet quickly failing in the ratings after less than a year on the air. Legend has it that since the show was on its way out anyway, the showrunners felt they had nothing to lose and said "Fuck it, why not?" as they shifted the focus from mundane moody soap proceedings to introduce Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire who was an ancestor to the Collins family, the show's original focus. Barnabas' presence turned the soap concept on its ear, allowing a dashing and tortured undead suckface the spotlight, a gamble that took off and led to massive ratings, overnight stardom for the actor who breathed un-life into Barnabas — Canadian thesp Jonathan Frid — an avalanche of merch, and two spinoff theatrical films before the whole thing wound down without an actual conclusion in 1971. (There have also been a couple of attempts at revivals that both died a swift death.) What was a loony piece of innovation born from desperation looks creaky and campy some four-plus decades after the boom, as the shows betray cheap sets (admittedly atmospheric though they were), storylines that were often stretched past the breaking point thanks to the daily serialized format, and the simple fact that the series was a soap and thus heir to the myriad flaws that the genre has built into its basic storytelling DNA. But nostalgia and cult fandom are powerful forces and DARK SHADOWS retains its first-generation loyalists as more join the cult with each passing year, thanks to them discovering it via daily reruns on the SciFi Channel some twenty years back, the Internet, and availability on DVD. (The entire series was recently reissued in a coffin boxed set that retails for a few pennies shy of five-hundred bucks, which is actually a great deal when you do the math and consider that there are just over 1200 episodes to be had.)

With its cult and name-recognition firmly in place, it was only a matter of time until DARK SHADOWS got the big-budget Hollywood remake/re-imagining treatment, and that task ended up in the hands of acclaimed/overrated director Tim Burton, the man who gave us the 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES, which is widely and justly hailed as one of the worst major motion pictures in recent memory. Remembering some of his earliest films, I was not too bothered by the choice of Burton for the DARK SHADOWS remake/re-imagining because he has proven he can bring a solid eerie flavor to such material. What resulted is a good and fun effort that's nonetheless something of a rather mixed bag, so as of this point this review gets pretty specific, so HERE THERE BE SPOILERS (including a really major one).

Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, an 18th century vampire set free in the Maine of 1972.

In 1775, wealthy Maine fishing empire scion Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) rejects the fleshly charms of lover and servant girl Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) for the beautiful Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcoate) and discovers the spurned charwoman is in actuality a skilled and vindictive practitioner of the black arts. Moved by her obsessive desire to possess Barnabas body and soul or else, Angelique embarks on a spree of supernatural murder, using her evil witchcraft to crush the Collins elders beneath a large piece of statuary and compel Josette to through herself from a nearby and very steep oceanside cliff. For his part in all of it, Barnabas ends up cursed to suffer for eternity as a full-fledged vampire and Angelique rallies the locals to capture him, chain him up and bury him alive/undead inside a coffin, where he remains for just shy of two-hundred years. Disinterred in 1972 during a construction dig, Barnabas feasts upon the unfortunate workers who unearthed him and immediately sets off to his family's once-grand estate of Collinwood. There he finds his 2oth century relatives and moves in with them, passing himself off as an eccentric uncle, with only family matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) knowing his secret, which she agrees to keep when he reveals a long-hidden treasure trove that he intends to use to restore the family to its lost state of wealth and success. This he must do while dealing with the considerable dysfunction of his family and attempting to cope with being a fish-out-of-water anachronism, along with weathering the grave and very aggressive threat of Angelique, who has survived, un-aging, for the past two centuries, re-inventing herself every couple of generations while maintaining a fish cannery empire that has reduced the once-mighty Collins cannery to a shadow of its former self. Further complicating matters is the presence of newly-arrived Collins family nanny Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcoate again), who's a dead ringer for Barnabas' lost love, Josette, and who is also gifted with the ability to see ghosts. Will the Collins family survive Angelique's increasingly vicious efforts, and will Barnabas once again find happiness with Victoria, who may be the reincarnation of Josette? And will Victoria be able to handle the fact that he's an undead suckface?

I have long expressed my severe dislike of much of Burton's filmography while simultaneously acknowledging his gifts as a visualist, and it's his repeated falling back on his now-tired signature stylistic tropes at the expense of story that drives me nuts in regard to the majority of his films. I adore PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, and ED WOOD, and depending on my mood I will also champion EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, but in my estimation all of his other films run the gamut from visually beautiful yet hollow exercises in pretentiousness to the just plain awful, so it was a refreshing change of pace to sit through a Burton film that concentrated first and foremost on its characters and their narrative. DARK SHADOWS is the least Tim Burton-like Tim Burton film in terms of its overall feel, despite its dark and eerie trappings, and that's what I enjoyed most about it. At its heart the film strives to be a 1930's/1940's Universal-style horror film, attempting to replicate that classic dreamlike atmosphere-drenched style, with touches of humor thrown in for flavor. Its leisurely pacing cements the dreamy tone and effortlessly sucks the viewer into its world. However, with all of that said, the marketing casts the film as a straight-up comedy/parody, when in actuality the film's straight horror content outweighs its humor by a good 85%. Its humor is more of the subdued Edward Gorey variety than the laugh-out-loud gruesome/weird stylings of a Charles Addams or Gahan Wilson, and moviegoers expecting a flat-out comedy full of yucks are very likely to be disappointed.

The film's performances vary greatly in quality, but the ones that really matter to the story come off quite well. Serial Burton-collaborator Johnny Depp is great fun as the tragic Barnabas, and his spin on the character often feels like an elegant vampire from an old black & white film was transplanted into this era of pussified suckfaces like those found in the works of Anne Rice or the plague that is the TWILIGHT media juggernaut. And while Barnabas has a manner that's simultaneously 18th century gentlemanly and morose/emo, he's still a vampire and needs to feed, which he does after sharing a great scene full of introspection with a campfire gathering of stoned hippies whom he came to like but must nonetheless kill in order to survive. He's quite sympathetic and likable because he in no way deserved the over-the-top sadistic treatment and curse he received from Angelique and when all is said and done, we care about Barnabas because Depp succeeds in making the classic character his own.

Every guy's very worst nightmare: Eva Green as the witch Angelique.

Eva Green is terrifically unhinged and irredeemably evil as the witch Angelique. At first we can understand her ire at being the sexually-used hired help who gets kicked to the curb when a bit of higher-class tail comes along, but when we see how she's spent two centuries in a state of tightly-focused rage directed as ruining the the Collins family for generations thanks to Barnabas' admittedly shabby treatment of her, it's quite apparent that Angelique is out of her fucking mind. Obsessed, immortal, wielding powerful forces of black magic and totally insane is a bad combination indeed, and she's still bent on Barnabas loving her (which he wants no part of) at any cost, so she's twenty-seven flavors of bad news and a fun character as a result of it.

Chloe Moretz as gloomy/bitchy Alice Cooper-lovin' rock 'n' roll freak Carolyn Stoddard — Barnabas' many-generations-removed niece — is the personification of every dour, spoiled fifteen-year-old girl you've ever encountered, and as such she's a hoot. My only complaint about the character is that during the final, apocalyptic battle with Angelique, Carolyn gets this weird look on her face and retreats from the fray to her room. When Angelique ends up thrown into the girl's quarters, she's seen perched in the rafters, covered with fur and with pronounced teeth and claws as she growls "Get out of my room!!" at Angelique. When she drops into the fight between Barnabas and Angelique (things are going badly for the vampire), Carolyn attacks the witch with full-bore lycanthropic fury and at one point turns to her mother, Elizabeth, and flatly states, "Yeah, I'm a werewolf. Deal with it."

(brief pause for that to sink in)

WHAT THE FUCK?!!? Up until that point in the story there was absolutely nothing in the narrative that in any way points to Carolyn being a werewolf. During the fight, Carolyn's hitherto-unhinted-at lunar changes is given a tossed-off explanation by Angelique, who states it's the result of the infant Carolyn being bitten by an Angelique-dispatched werewolf while the baby was in her crib. Once that explanation is out, it's never questioned and is immediately forgotten. What about what must have been at least a few years of Carolyn wolfing-out every month (and I don't mean in the expected sanguinary manner common to females)? Surely someone would have noted numerous signs that there was a werewolf in the household, but that potentially interesting plot thread was simply not dealt with at all. The werewolf reveal literally comes from out of fucking nowhere and the entire audience in the theater responded with very vocal cries of "What the fuck???" and "Get the fuck outta here!!!" I laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of it, but it was a really sloppy plot gimmick that brought nothing to the table, especially not that late in the story.

The film has a number of fun set pieces and gags, including:
  • Burton regular (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman, teaching Barnabas the particulars of doctor/patient confidentiality. (She's also upstaged throughout the film by her ridiculous day-glo red wig that would have been right at home on a children's party clown.)
  • An ill-advised and destructive tryst between Barnabas and Angelique that carries them all over the confines of her company's office, with gravity not being a concern.
  • Barnabas as a fish out of water in 1972 could have gotten old very quickly, but that seemingly worn-out plot device works quite well here and is quite amusing and far more subtly handled than one might expect.
One of Barnabas' many head-on collisions with the weirdness of the 20th century, in this case a Troll doll.
  • The floating spectre of a drowned woman whose eerie beauty is occasionally offset by crabs that crawl over her body and out of her mouth when she speaks.
  • Christopher Lee turning up in an amusing cameo as a fishing boat captain whom Barnabas hypnotizes in order to further his own agenda.
  • An appearance by good ol' Alice Cooper, whom Barnabas describes as the ugliest woman he's ever seen, and who was indeed already so visually heinous that he could easily portray himself as he was four decades ago and display little sign of having aged.
Alice Cooper as himself, rockin' Collinwood with "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

The movie also features a soundtrack loaded with period-appropriate pop hits that do a good job of evoking the story's bygone era. Though not all of the tunes date accurately to 1972, they work very well in concert with the film's images, particularly the Moody Blues' mournfully romantic "Nights in White Satin" (of 1967 vintage) as used over the opening credits' footage of Victoria Winters' train making its way to Maine.

So, for me the bottom line on DARK SHADOWS is this: It's an uneven, lugubriously-paced throwback to an older flavor/style of horror film that has some fun performances and is visually pretty to look at, all while Tim Burton thankfully reigns in most of his usual annoying tropes. It's an okay way to pass two hours but it is not worth paying the full ticket price, so I recommend waiting for cable or DVD rental.

The film's theatrical poster.


Acroyear said...

I may now see this movies thanks to your review. Tibb's drive-in here I come!

Anonymous said...

There was some very minor foreshadowing about the werewolf bit, with Carolyn sitting underneath a painting of a full moon and David saying she made animal noises at night ("Like a kitten.") That's about it, though.